By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW CC, SSC
If you’ve ever been around the intellectual types that tend to populate the health professions, but not the squat rack you’ve likely been told that squats are responsible for all sorts of things like knee pain, bulky legs, poor sprinting, jumping, or running ability, ACL or other ligament-related issues, and back pain. In this post let’s briefly address all of these points and more so that you do, in fact, know SQUAT!
Myth # 1 Squatting is bad for your knees.
I’ve written about this extensively here. In short, a properly performed squat does not expose the knee to any shear forces (uneven loading of the menisci, knee capsule, or ligaments) and at a correct depth, which is just below parallel, the net force on the knee is zero. What this equates to is that the hamstrings’ posteriorly (towards the back) directed force is equal and opposite to the quadriceps’ anteriorly (towards the front) directed force. The knee is not exposed to medial and lateral movements (turned in=valgus, turned out=varus) either, as the muscles responsible for these movements are in balance throughout the movement. Moreover, the sage wisdom of people who’ve never squatted properly before is to just do “half squats”, not realizing that the loading on the patellar ligament (connecting the patella to the tibia, as the patella is connected to the quadriceps’ tendon) is wildly unbalanced in the anterior direction in this type of squat. Also, since the depth component of the squat is eliminated, the half squat can be loaded much heavier than a full squat. Which do you think presents more opportunity for injury?
Exception: When the weight on the bar becomes more important than the effect of the exercise, such as in a competition or when ego comes into play, form deterioration can be seen. This is not necessarily resultant in an automatic injury, as many squats have been performed incorrectly and people lived to tell the tale. However, if this occurs with great frequency in training, injury risk can increase. It should be noted that most knee injuries in the absence of trauma (like a football or futbol player hitting your knee from one side or the other) are due to a rotation of the knee against a planted foot where the knee is exposed to uneven loading, shear, etc. This does not occur in the squat when coached appropriately.
Myth #2 Squatting builds bulky legs
Maybe if you’re a dude (this photo is of Ivan Stoitsov- weightlifter), this might be true. You must understand that most women do not possess the correct machinery (ahem, testosterone and those grape-like structures that produce them in the nether regions) to build copious amounts of skeletal muscle. Sure, there are genetic outliers that produce a significant amount of the male sex steroid, testosterone, from their adrenal (on top the kidneys in the abdominal cavity) glands, and can build impressive amounts of lean tissue, but these are exceptions to the rule. By and large, this excuse to not squat or avoid weight training altogether is laughable. If it were that easy to build big muscles every young-go hard at the gym who works out for hours on end every day would be HUGE! Seriously, if you’re a woman who build so much muscle easily let me know your secret and we can be billionaires by selling this secret to all the high school boys.
Building muscle requires the correct internal hormonal milieu’, which is woefully inadequate in women, copious calories, and sufficient volume of training to produce the hypertrophied (larger sized) muscle. The idea of doing light to moderate weights for tons of reps and sets to “feel the burn” is copied right out of the bodybuilder’s playbook, who unsurprisingly are experts on growing large muscles. Without large amounts of volume, testosterone, and food, the idea of growing big legs is laughable.
Exception: People often start training from a sedentary state and are surprised when they grow a bit of muscle in response to resistance training. When initiating a training protocol from an untrained state, any sort of muscular activity will increase the muscle fibers’ density, strength, and capacity and induce a bit of muscle growth when the person starts to become more “trained” as they increase their fitness.
Myth #3 Squatting reduces athleticism
That’s Shane Hamman, a 5’9 360 pound former Olympian (2000) and World Champion Powerlifter. His vertical has been tested at just over 36″, he can do a standing back flip, and hits a golf ball 350 yards (thanks Wikipedia). Oh yea, he squatted over 1000lbs in a squat suit in competition and did a double at 800 lbs in shorts and tennis shoes followed by a few backflips for good measure. Obviously Shane has some superior genetics to be this explosive, but you would think that with all his heavy squatting and powerlifting background that his athletic ability would be compromised, right?
You see, power is an expression of force applied quickly. All things being equal, increased force as developed by getting stronger lends itself to increased power output. Application of this newly developed force must be trained specifically for the application to get the most out of it but in general, the more force someone can create, the more power they can express relative to a weaker version of themselves. This is all fairly obvious, right?
The real question is how does this apply to athletic movements like sprinting, running, jumping, punching, kicking, and throwing? Getting strong in the gym, by say squatting, will increase the legs’ ability to create force, whereas practicing the sport-specific movements during practice of the sport helps take care of the time component in the power equation. For instance, if we take a sprinter who continues to practice their sprinting technique during their scheduled practice times, yet gets stronger in the gym and is therefore able to create more force against the ground, will he be a better or worse sprinter? Moreover, what type of squat, half or full, develops more strength throughout all the muscles of the leg involved in sprinting?
Some sprint coaches advocate for half-squats in favor of full-squats because they believe this type of movement is more specific for the joint angles and forces encountered during sprinting. I believe this is incorrect as sprinters knee and hip angles during a race regularly exceed the angles that are seen in a half squat. Moreover, if the goal is to just get the sprinter to be able to produce more force through the muscles used in sprinting, then we wouldn’t want to exclude certain muscles from the movement, which is unfortunately common in the half squat. The half squat omits much of the hamstring, adductors, external rotators, abductors, and glutes because the range of motion is too short to adequately stretch these muscles and/or require their maximal functioning in an isometric function (the hamstrings, for instance).
There are many other reasons I believe the half squat is a poor choice for athletes, especially sprinters, but the biggest reason in my book is exposure to injurious forces. Remember, the half squat can be loaded much heavier than the full squat because the range of motion is decreased and additionally, the forces about the knee are skewed towards the anterior knee, aka the patellar ligament and quadriceps tendon. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think loading this area of the knee during non-practice or competition related training is a particularly good idea. If power expression and development is the ultimate goal, getting strong and using classic Olympic lifting variants like the power and hang variations of the clean and snatch should be used, in my opinion.
Truth be told, no one is asking my opinion about this matter so it really doesn’t matter. Just something to leave you with though, why do you think sprinters take steroids? Is it because they want to be able to train harder, longer, and get stronger so they can ultimately express this force as power, i.e. explosive force? On the other hand, do you think it’s just so they can look jacked in their running singlets?
Myth #4 Squatting causes back pain
While it is true that the squat loads the spine and requires stability of the muscles around the vertebral column to actively resist motion, this is one of the inherent benefits of squatting- A STRONG BACK! Unfortunately, many people (men are the most common) cannot actively engage their spinal erectors to lock their spine into a normal extension, aka lordosis. Because of this (and the male ego), motion usually occurs about the spine during the descent and ascent in the squat. Adding weight to this along with repeated reps and sets and this spells a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, at all of the powerlifting meets I’ve attended I’ve seen some atrocious form, back rounding, no Valsalva, etc. and people walk off the platform just fine. Back pain can be weird like that.
I truly believe (and my experience tells me this is accurate) that if I can get someone to lock their back into a normal lordosis and prevent any unlocking or otherwise rotation/movement of the spine during the squat then back pain can be avoided. On the other hand, if someone where to eschew the squat because of potential for back pain, then their back wouldn’t be getting the same training stimulus and likely be vulnerable to injury from being under-strong.
Specialty barbells like the Safety-Squat Bar or Yoke Bar can be used to squat for those with chronic back pain, as these require a more upright torso and thus their is less torque (force) trying to act on the lower back. Front squats are also of use here if the lifter can maintain a vertical torso on both the descent and ascent. Unfortunately, I’ve seen so many butchered front squats that it’s hard for me to recommend these to people with recurring back pain, as they are likely not flexible enough to maintain the proper knee, elbow, and back angles.
Ultimately, squats should start out light while picture perfect form is learned, honed, and committed to the lifter’s DNA (not really their DNA, but you get the picture). Then as weight is steadily added to the bar over the course of weeks, months, years, etc, their back strength increases and the risk for an acute back injury is lowered immensely. Additionally, legs get stronger and so do their muscles’ respective tendons and joints’ ligaments. Finally, size gains is not an inherent property of squats or any other barbell exercise in the absence of the correct hormonal situation inside the lifter and calories. Hopefully these brief points about common fallacies about the squat. Look for the upcoming article on key points about squatting form later this week!