Squatting in the Third World
Updated: Jul 14
Can you do a 3rd world squat? I’ll be the first to say this is not the most politically correct name for an exercise but so be it. Some people call them 'ass to the grass' squats (ASG) - this moniker is not much better. As youngsters, all of us once had the ability to perform this squat but lost it due to our comfy developed world chairs, sofas, toilets and overall lazy lifestyle. It’s a shame really because this exercise movement is one of the best functional things you can do to improve:
Ankle, hip, knee and back mobility
Firing patterns (sequence of contractions) of your legs and back musculature
Overall muscle activation of the lower limbs specifically your glutes
Walking and running gait
Back pain and discomfort
Bowel movements (more on that later!)
A 3rd world squat (sometimes called a 3rd world chair) is a deep comfortable squat, almost butt to the ground. Millions of people of all ages across the globe, sit in this position to eat, play games, talk, wait in line, or use the ‘facilities’ (of which I mean a hole in the ground). It is not uncommon to see a group of senior citizens shooting the breeze while sitting in this ‘invisible chair’. When was the last time you saw a 90-year-old sit in this position, for any amount of time, and then get back up unassisted? In America, that nonagenarian is Bigfoot riding a unicorn….it just doesn’t exist. People sit like this for a variety of reasons: lack of chairs; it feels good/normal; sitting on the ground is not an option because it is dirty and filled with nasty bugs that will bite you or worse; it can be done anywhere; etc.
When it comes to joint range of motion, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Sitting this way on a daily basis will ensure your joints stay limber and well ‘oiled’. Rather than going through less beneficial static stretches (activating a single joint at a time), I have my clients perform this squat as a functional flexibility pattern. While engaging in this movement your joints will be taken through a full range of motion while naturally stretching your hips, lower back, ankles, and knees.
As we age we move less and sit more. Living this way causes a host of problems that unfortunately yet frequently culminate in early disease and death. In much of the developed world structural bodily damage is caused by disuse, misuse, and laziness. Medical science understands the human body needs regular movement to thrive both physically and mentally. Humans were not built to sit in chairs for 8-10 hours per day. The average American sits for more than 11 hours a day. Our sedentary nature has wreck havoc on our health.
Fitness magazines are fond of saying “don’t squat down below parallel because it is bad for your knees”. That is just plain silly and wrong. The average toilet height in the U.S. is 17 inches, which for most people requires squatting below parallel. Going deeper than this is troubling for lots of individuals due to compensations, injury, tightness and/or pain. Typically when I ask an average chair sitting adult to do a deep squat they will lift their heels, jut their knees forward, excessively flex the spine and wobble a bit while trying to hold the position. The hips and ankles are immobilized and because most of the force is relegated to the quads, the effect of the posterior musculature is minimized with the glutes effectively shut off (Glutes don't really 'shut off').
Can you do a 3rd world squat and hold it for at least 1 minute?
Can you get up without falling over or using something to grab onto?
If not, you will need to practice this squat at least 1x per day for a minimum of 1-2 minutes. At first, you may need to hold onto a desk or chair in front of you. If you can’t go very low (don’t fret), go as far as you can and then bounce a little up a down (just a few inches, not like a kangaroo) to increase your depth. Hold for up to 2 minutes and repeat at least 1x daily. I prefer you to do this without shoes because they block your foot/ankle mobility.
Focus on dropping deeper into the squat each day. Here are some other general rules for the squat:
Position your feet forward and a little wider than shoulder-width – some people may need to turn their toes out a bit.
Stick your butt out (like you are working the street) as you begin the descent – some individuals may need to hold onto something to prevent falling over.
Bend your knees as much as you can while you sink your butt all the way down until it rests on your calves…or close to them.
Let pain be your guide. If you are experiencing shooting pain or more than expected discomfort don't go any deeper, check your form or discontinue.
Too Much Information Section (TMI):
A little less than half of the 7 billion people on this planet go to the bathroom without actually going to the bathroom. According to the U.N., 1.1 billion people defecate in the open and another 2.5 billion people use a hole in the ground sans the western porcelain god (aka the toilet). Savages you say? Without TP, maybe so. However, anatomically speaking the 3rd world squat position makes for much easier evacuations. This position actually changes the spatial relationships of your intestinal organs and musculature, optimizing the forces involved in defecation. Sitting on the ‘throne’ requires you to apply additional force (straining), which has some unwanted biological effects, including constipation, hemorrhoids incontinence etc. The squat actually straightens out your rectum (rectal-anal angle) and makes for a quicker less strenuous time in the bathroom.
Before you go try to squat on a toilet seat and risk falling off and breaking your neck, take a look at some of the consumer products that enable a safe experience. These stools and platforms retrofit onto your throne to assist the squatting position. Below is one of the most popular brands on the market: