Barefoot Running, Squatting Like a Baby, and Pygmy Feet

I just came across a very interesting article on the tree climbing ability of pygmies and the extreme ankle flexibility that allows them to do it. I know, this is something you have always wondered about. I think it sheds some light on a couple of common debates relating to the impact of the modern environment on our movement capacity, such as: the effect of wearing shoes as opposed to bare feet; and the effect of sitting in chairs as opposed to the ground or in a deep squat.

The Twa have tree skills

Check out this member of the Twa tribe climbing a tree. How does he make it look so easy?

Part of the answer is of course practice, practice, practice. The other part is that these guys (and most other people from tree climbing cultures) have a huge range of motion into dorsiflexion. They can get their foot almost forty five degrees to the shin. (The normal range of motion for a westerner is about ten to twenty degrees.) This allows them to get their body weight closer to the tree which makes climbing much easier.

The key to the Twa’s extreme ankle flexibility is apparently not so much in the bony structure of the ankle, but the length of the gastrocnemius muscle. The authors of the paper believe this difference is environmental not genetic, partly because the foot bones of the Twa are not any different from other feet. (He also mentions that it is known that wearing high heels can shorten the gastroc muscle.)

This is an awesome example of how function changes form, which then allows better function. Wolff’s law and Davis' law in action.

Here’s another video of an amazing girl who had to put her feet to a very different use than the average person. Which caused her to have very different feet. Check out how Tisha Unarmed puts on make up:

Awesome! I like her style.

Did you notice that her feet are just a little unusual in where they can bend and how far? That is not your average foot. She has obviously undergone some significant structural changes as a result of the unusual demands she has placed on her feet.

For me, these two videos provide some strong evidence that how we use our bodies during development will have a major impact on our structure as an adult.

And this has direct relevance to two issues that I have heard debated recently on the internets. First, whether barefoot running is preferable to shod running, and second whether we should strive to sit in a deep squat “like a baby.” I’ll address each issue in turn.

The barefoot running debate

There are many aspects to the barefoot debate that I won’t comment on here. But I want to make one point which is often neglected, and which I think makes the others almost moot as a practical matter.

If you compare the feet of someone who spent their childhood in shoes to the feet of someone who spent their childhood barefoot, you will see two very different set of feet structurally. Personally, I didn't grow up making peanut butter sandwiches with my feet, walking up trees, or running around barefoot all day, and I have the feet to prove it.

I have no doubt that humans are adapted by natural selection to run barefoot and that it is preferable to spend one’s youth in bare feet rather than shoes. But once you spend the formative years of your life in shoes, guess what. You are now adapted, not by evolution, but by Wolff’s law, to running in shoes. The bones, the ligaments, the muscles, the fascia have all formed in relation to a shoe. Whether you will benefit from switching to bare feet at this point is a complete toss up that depends on the individual. Some will benefit some won't.

The squat like a baby debate

Nick Tuminello recently wrote a great article on this subject. He pointed out many anatomical differences between adults and babies which makes deep squatting much easier for babies. The one point where I disagreed was in relation to his discussion of the fact that in many Asian cultures, adults commonly sit in the deep squat position with ease. I saw this for myself in Viet Nam, where I observed old men and women sit in the deep squat as easily as an American in a lazy boy. Nick hypothesized that the superior squatting ability of these cultures was related to genetic differences in hip structure.

There may be some truth there, but I doubt genetics is the true limiting factor for Westerners. I think a more likely explanation is that most Westerners simply stop deep squatting by the time they get to elementary school, and then lose the ability to do so after 10-20 years of neglect, partly due to adaptive changes in the structure of the hip and ankle.

Below are some videos of other cultures with different genetic backgrounds, Africans and South Americans, squatting like champs. I love to watch this stuff because it gives insight into how humans move without the negative influence of sedentary chair life.

For example, check out this video of the Hadza squatting around the fire enjoying some delicious monkey. This was filmed by none other than Frank Forencich, and I discussed it in another post here. Pay close attention to the guy on the right of the screen moving sideways while in the squat:

Do these guys squat like a baby? No, they squat better than a baby. They maintained all the mobility they had as babies, but added strength, stability and skill. They never stretch, never do yoga or pilates, never engage in any corrective exercise, yet they all move effortlessly in an out of positions that most Westerners cannot even get into.

Here's a video of some Yanomamo people, where they demonstrate some baby like squatting at 2:40 and 4:20:

And here's a longer video showing a day in the life of the Kung San people. Notice how often they interact with the ground.

Imagine that every time you sat into a chair and looked at a computer, you instead squatted down to the ground to inspect an animal track or dig up some tubers. Big difference, and I have no doubt we are paying the price.

So is it wise to try to squat like a baby?

My answer is very similar to the one I gave in respect to barefoot running. I definitely feel that deep squatting is a very natural move for humans, and that our movement is likely to suffer if we lose it. But the question of whether we should try to recover it once it is lost is different. Prevention is always easier than cure, so movement that has been lost will require more work to recover than to maintain in the first place. The attempt at recovery may be more trouble than it is worth, and may even cause pain and injury. So whether an adult will benefit from trying to recover a deep squat will of course depend on the individual.

For me, I think I get some benefit from directing a good deal of my mobility work towards getting comfortable and coordinated in the deep squat position. Works for me, and I am making some good progress, but that is just me. And let's face it, I will never be one of the boys sitting around the Hadza fire.

What do you think? How comfortable are you in the deep squat? Have you made any major improvements? Let me know in the comments.