Practical Science on Movement and Pain

Movement of the Week: The Hadza Squat

Have you ever noticed that toddlers are champion squatters? They sit into the deep squat with total ease, hang out there for a while, play with some toys, look around aimlessly, eat some dirt, poop their pants, get up again, walk three steps, and then drop down smooth as silk into the deep squat again. And then over and over again, like twenty times in ten minutes, with no sense of effort or fatigue at all. And each squat is a little different – it’s not all sagittal plane, squared off, perfect form squats like we adults strive for in the gym. There’s many different foot angles, knee angles, head positions, arm reaches, and other variations.

As we westerners get older, most of us completely lose our squatting fluency. Is this a natural consequence of getting older? No, it’s a natural consequence of the use it or lose it principle. We are a chair sitting culture, not a squatting culture. After about twenty years on the chair sitting program, usually starting in kindergarten, we have pretty much lost the ability to squat comfortably. And this should be no surprise – how well would we all speak English if we stopped at age five?

Here’s a video of some guys who have continued to speak the language of squat all their lives, some hunter gatherers from the Hadza tribe in Tanzania. The video shows them sitting around the fire to roast some delicious monkey meat. Watch in particular the guys to the right of the screen, who glide effortlessly left and right while in the squat, perhaps to grab some more barbeque sauce.

I was totally blown way when I saw this for the first time. These guys are displaying some movements that only dancers or martial artists in our culture could make. (If you are not convinced, try to mimic these moves and see how many muscles you pull.) But these movements are not exceptional or unusual, they are simply what the human body naturally does when given the movements it needs to be healthy. My guess is that this video shows nature’s mobility workout. What else do you need?

When you practice your squat, do you move at different angles, different rotations? Do you incorporate reaches and sideways movements like toddlers and hunter gatherers? Do you speak the whole squat language or just repeat the same word over and over again?

By the way, this video was filmed by none other than Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal. Many of you are probably familiar with Frank’s excellent writings and books. One of Frank’s major themes is that the disastrous state of modern movement health is largely a result of removing human animals from their natural setting, and placing them in an industrial zoo. I agree. Frank is a very inspiring writer, and this video is worth a thousand words.

Enjoy the post?
Sign up for blog updates and get a free report on improving mobility.

20 Responses to Movement of the Week: The Hadza Squat

  1. Fred Tully says:

    if you are white you may have an issue with this. Frequently, Asian and African have longer leg tendons. This is why there are few Asians and Africans playing hockey, but who cares.

    • Fred,

      Do you have any evidence for the idea that whites have shorter tendons? I would be extremely surprised if whites raised in a squatting culture couldn’t squat as well as blacks and asians. I understand that tendon length variation between individuals is predictive of running economy, jumping height, etc.

    • Jeff says:

      Fred Tully: “if you are white you may have an issue with this. Frequently, Asian and African have longer leg tendons. This is why there are few Asians and Africans playing hockey, but who cares.”

      ha funny, but speak for yourself Fred. I can do this no problem.

  2. dawnirae says:

    Thank you very much for this piece.
    I am a Trainer and Instructor Eastside Seattle.
    And am also an Exuberant Animal Trainer.
    I am always having fun in classes going between the 90* exercise squat
    and the socializing squat, I call it.
    I have included your Article in my email out to clients this week.
    Thanks again AWESOME
    blessings
    dawni rae shaw

  3. [...] of The Week – The Hadza Squat – Better [...]

  4. Nicolas Sepulveda says:

    Great post to start thinking outside the box….

  5. Gordon Powell says:

    Excellent example of some movements to incorporate into my life. By the way, those dogs are incredibly beautiful.

  6. ChristineC says:

    I learned (from a casual comment in passing by one of my professors) that there are ethnic knee joint variations, e.g.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19242980

    No idea whether this is relevant for other populations or not …..

  7. Seth says:

    Thanks for introducing me to the Exuberant Animal and Frank’s work. And nice video!

  8. Bill Strahan says:

    A lot of that is quite similar to some stuff that Kelly Starrett ran us through in his mobility workshop, and that he goes over on his mobilitywod blog. The squats in particular, followed by shifting all the weight over to one side then the other. I don’t know which mobility wods to suggest, but you can google it and then search through them and find remarkably similar movements.

    And yes, they were not easy at first.

  9. [...] until I found a link to “Better Movement” to read “Movement of the week: the Hadza squat“  I had never heard of Todd or his [...]

  10. [...] and eyes closer to the ground, to inspect something, pick something up, or just rest. This is a very basic human function built on the primal pattern of full body flexion. Toddlers don’t need to be taught how to [...]

  11. Davina says:

    My question is how do I learn to do this again? I’m 47 and in good health except for 15 extra pounds. It’s painful to squat down. How can I retrain myself without injuring my knees?

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Hi Davina,

      The basic method would be to move into squatting positions without pain, and then progressing from there. You might try this by deweighting yourself with your hands. I have two squatting lessons that involve this method that you could try here:

      http://www.bettermovement.org/category/movement-lesson/

      Try them and let me know how they go. But make sure that you never move into pain! Good luck.

Leave a reply