CrossFit is known for its high-intensity exercises, so it might be surprising to see hardcore CrossFitters doing squats with no weight. But these so-called air squats are a way of practicing proper form for squats, building the foundation for doing exercises like weighted squats, thrusters and squat cleans later on. They also crop up in very challenging workouts as a way to keep the body moving between intense exercises.
Feet and Knees
Foot position is key during any sort of squat. To do air squats, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, feet turned slightly out at a natural angle. Then bend your knees and squat down, letting your hips sink down and back behind you as if you were sitting in a low chair. As you squat, your knees should point the same direction as your toes. Look in a mirror or have a friend watch you to confirm that you're getting it right.
You can also look down at your own knees -- they should track straight over your feet. If you can see your toes to either side of your knees or if you see your knees wobble back and forth as you squat, something is off. However, try not to get into the habit of doing this exercise with your head down; keeping your head up and looking straight ahead is an integral part of proper squat form.
Keep Going Down
Most conservative exercise groups recommend stopping a squat with your thighs parallel to the floor -- usually about a 90-degree bend in the knee. But CrossFit focuses on functional movements and so encourages you to dip the crease of your thigh below knee level. The reasoning is that your body is made to move this way and that training for a full range of motion means you'll be stronger and more capable if you ever need to execute that range of motion in real life.
It's common for beginners to develop a swayback as they do squats: Tilting their pelvis too far forward and arching their shoulders too far back. This is a recipe for injury once you move on to weighted squats, so focus on getting your spinal alignment dialed now. Help yourself toward the goal of maintaining the natural S-curve of your spine by keeping your head up and eyes forward throughout the exercise. Keeping your abs tight and your weight back on your heels also helps you maintain proper form.
If you're struggling to control your motion and especially your back position during air squats, it may help to either hold onto a pole or a trainer's hands as you squat down, then up. Some trainers also have you reach for the sky with both hands as you squat down, as a way of encouraging the proper upright form.
Putting It Into Context
In a more general context, you'd typically tackle this sort of exercise for eight to 12 repetitions, then move up to lightly weighted squats once you can do at least 12 reps with good form. But in CrossFit, exercises are done as "prescribed" in the workout of the day, often abbreviated WOD. WODs that prescribe air squats may ask you to do as many air squats as you can in a set period of time, or ask you to do a set number of air squats as quickly as possible -- sometimes as many as 50 or more.
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