of the Squat
Dont be confused
by the title and think that you are about to discover the mythological
world of weightlifting with tales similar to those of the Greeks or the
Norsemen. Instead, what I will try to present are some myths or untruths
about some exercises that you may use regularly. In this issue I will
look at the squat and the myths that are perpetuated regularly about this
lift. It is amazing that even today, with all the lifting publications
out there these myths are still maintained. My staff and I have become
quite adept at defusing these myths on a regular basis by providing our
athletes with research-based information. It is in this same vein that
I hope to dispel some of the myths about the effects and performance of
the squat that will put your mind at ease next time you prepare to shoulder
some weight for that leg workout.
The squat is probably one of the most maligned exercises. Dating back
to the early sixties it had its critics. Dr. Karl Klein (1961) from Texas,
had come out and stated that the squat caused a loosening of the knee
ligaments and that this condition actually made this exercise a hazard.
Other researchers have speculated over the hazards of the exercise. This
type of research makes up a small percentage of the research on this exercise,
but the negativism about the exercise still exists. Since the sixties
numerous studies have been done on the squat and have shown it not to
be dangerous when performed correctly. The problem with lifting is like
anything else, when its done properly you will be fine. When its
done improperly youre looking for trouble. Lets examine some of
the more common myths.
Myth # 1. Squatting is bad for your knees
Dr. Klein can take the credit for launching this one. Studies carried
out over the past twenty years have rejected Kleins findings. In
a study that looked at the effects that full squats and half squats had
on knee stability showed no change, over eight different tests for stability,
when compared to a control group. To determine the long-term effects,
the same researchers looked at the knees of competitive powerlifters and
weightlifters and found that powerlifters and weightlifters had tighter
knee joints than the controls (Chandler & Stone, 1991). Another study
found that the involvement of the hamstring in full squats plays a role
in helping protect the anterior cruciate ligament (Manariello, Backus
& Parker, 1994). In a less scientific approach, the late John Grimek
(1963) pointed out, in Strength and Health, that if squatting was bad
for your knees, we would have a lot of people walking around with bad
knees since we perform a squat every time we sit down and stand up. When
done properly the exercise actually helps develop the muscles utilized
in stabilizing the knee. So how is a squat done properly, I will make
it a little more clear in Myth #2.
Myth #2. When you perform the squat, just bend your knees and go down
If you bend the knees first, it limits the hips freedom of movement.
All the force is felt in the knees, and you will find yourself in a very
awkward position on the balls of your feet. When performed properly the
squat should start by gliding the hips backwards before the knees break.
This is done while keeping the torso upright and is not simply a lean
forward (Chandler, Wilson & Stone, 1989). It should be similar to
sitting in a chair, especially a low chair. This posterior movement actually
helps you get the weight over the arch of your foot. Having the weight
on the toes or heel of the foot will affect muscle function and balance.
This weight positioning becomes even more crucial when you reach the bottom
of the squat. As the top of the thigh reaches a parallel to the floor
position or below, it is now time to come up. If the weight is forward
on the toes, there is a tendency for the hips to rise up faster than the
shoulders, leaving you in a potentially poor leverage position. This situation
is when the squat becomes a good morning exercise. The opposite result
of having the weight in the heel will leave you stuck at the bottom position
or on your backside due to the balance problem.
Myth # 3. Squatting is bad for your
If you are using your back dynamically, as in the good morning position
mentioned above, you are going to make this myth come true. Letting the
low back get into a flexed position (improper technique) can create injury
(Davies, 1980). The low back muscles, which include the erector spinae,
quadratus lumborum, multifidus, inter-transversarii, interspinales and
rotatores, are all postural muscles. Their primary responsibility is to
keep us vertical during standing, seated and other upright activities.
When we start using the low back muscles to lift up loads dynamically,
we are placing them in a job that they are not designed. Its like
going to the dentist for the flu shot. While I would trust the dentist
with the flu shot, I dont want him doing open-heart surgery on me.
With training they can function dynamically to accommodate heavier loads
but it will usually be the weak link in the chain. The low back muscles
are much more effective when they are used to maintain the upright posture
during squat activity (McLaughlin, Lardner & Dillman, 1978). This
position can be created by raising your rib cage. This position is the
same as standing at attention for a drill sergeant. The low back musculature
should serve to maintain the rigidity of the torso so that the force from
the legs can be applied directly to the weight. The raising of the rib
cage should occur immediately before you descend with the weight.
Myth # 4. Squat with your toes pointed
This seems to make sense because we walk with our toes forward, but there
are few similarities between walking and squatting. I have seen a small
number of individuals that can squat with their toes pointed forward (less
than 5 %). Most individuals have to point or flare the toes outward in
a five of one oclock or ten of two oclock position. The flaring
actually helps orient the head of the femur in the pelviss socket
type joint. A simple experiment to determine the need to flare is to hang
from a bar and let your feet dangle. Do the toes point straight or out
slightly? Another way to test this is to squat with the toes straight
ahead. If your hips feel like they are binding as you approach parallel,
simply flare the toes out while in that position and you will suddenly
get the appropriate depth. This foot positioning has no negative effect
on the function of the muscles used in the squat (Boyden,et al, 2000;
Signorile, et al, 1995; Escamilla, et al, 2001).
Myth #5. Squats are for the quads!
If any of you have squatted in earnest, you know that not only do your
quads get sore but also your glutes, adductors and hamstrings. The only
way to isolate the quads in the squat would be to do them on your toes
and even then the glutes will be involved. The hamstrings play the role
of helping to maintain the upright posture as well as keeping the shin
from moving forward during the squat. The hams and glutes also play a
role in extending the thigh while the quads are extending the knees. In
looking specifically at the hamstrings, they tend to be more active in
the ascent phase and it has been suggested that the length of the hamstrings
during the squat changes minimally (Escamiila, et al, 1997; Wilk, et al,
1996). The often forgotten adductors also play a role in stabilizing the
leg and also in the role of thigh extensor.
This myth can get complicated when individuals discuss the width of stance
in the squat, stating that wide (outside of shoulder width) will affect
the muscles differently than a narrow stance (inside shoulder width).
It has been shown that in narrow stance squats the gastrocnemius, one
of the calf muscles, is more active when compared to wide stance squats.
However, no other muscle differences have been found (McCaw & Melrose
1999; Tesch, 1993). The width of your stance should be determined by your
comfort with the stance and your ability to get to parallel. If you cant
reach parallel with a narrow stance then widen your feet. Another simple
rule to follow is if you have long legs and a short torso you will typically
need to squat with a wide stance while the opposite of short legs and
long torso can use a narrower stance. This will decrease the amount of
lean required for the long legged, short torso lifter. The short legged,
long torso squatter can be narrower since he needs less lean to keep the
bar over his foot.
Myth #6 In squats, the bar placement doesnt matter
Bar placement does matter and it can enhance your ability in the lift
if you have the right placement. Bar placement, when in tune with your
stance, can make all the difference in the world with your squat performance.
The two typical placements are high bar, where the bar sits on top of
the traps below your 7th cervical vertebrae and low bar where the bar
is placed across the posterior deltoid or on top of the scapula. In either
case, create a solid foundation for the bar to sit on by lifting the elbows
posteriorly to the ceiling. Some guidelines I suggest if you are that
long legged, short torso person is to squat with the bar in a high bar
position. This will lessen the degree of forward lean you will have to
achieve to keep the bar over your foot during the squat. For the long
torso, short leg person, the low bar position is advantageous because
it will allow you to stand more upright and will reduce the work done
by the low back. In Sweden, a study was conducted using weightlifters
(high bar) and powerlifters (low bar). In this study the high bar squatters
tended to distribute the load more evenly across the knee and hip while
the low bar lifters put more load in the hip joint. The low bar lifters
handled the heaviest weight in the study but showed lower force values
at the knee joint than the high bar squatters. When they looked at the
hams and quads involvement they found that the low bar squatters had more
activity in both sets of muscles than the high bar squatters and that
the low bar squatters had more hamstring activity than the high bar (Wretenberg,
et al, 1996). One note about this study was that there was no selection
of bar position based on limb and torso lengths. If this had been considered
I feel there would have been fewer significant differences between the
Myth #7. Squats will make your butt
This will happen if you have the big butt gene. If your family has large
rumps, then yes, its a good chance that you have one already and
squatting may enhance it. However, if you dont have this physical
characteristic and no one in your family displays it, the likelihood of
you getting a big butt from squatting is slim. In the case of having the
big butt gene, squatting does not have to be eradicated from your program.
Focus more on strength development by keeping the reps lower (5 and under)
regardless of weight used. From my experience higher reps can put on the
size when supported nutritionally. Alternatives like the front squat can
also be used.
Myth #8. Squat slow
Actually, the way to squat is with controlled speed. The control relates
to your ability to maintain correct posture during the entire movement.
McLaughlin (1989) suggests that more experienced squatters lower their
squat at speeds under 2 miles per hour or 2 feet, 10 inches per second.
He recommends that 1 mph is better and that would be around 1.5 feet per
second. So if you are about 6 feet tall, a full squat could have the bar
traveling around 3 feet in distance. You would want to lower the bar down
to parallel in a range of one to two seconds. I am more of a 1 second
fan, but I feel that speed plays a big role in athletic development. On
the ascent you should move the bar as fast as you can with control. Your
ability to maintain posture will always determine your speed.
Now that the uncertainty has been laid to rest, lets get after squatting
like Milo did with that calf. Keep in mind what we covered. The squat,
when performed correctly, is not hazardous to the knees or back and wont
give you a big butt unless you already have one. When you do squat make
sure you determine the proper foot placement, stance and bar placement
before going under the bar. When the bar is in its proper position, elevate
the elbows, lift the chest up and glide back, putting the weight in the
arch. Take the bar down in 1-2 seconds in a controlled manner maintaining
the posture of the torso. Once you hit parallel or below, explode back
up maintaining your posture and balance until you finish the rep. The
squat is a great exercise for the legs and in the words of my lifting
coach Phil Pelura you are only as strong as your legs. Until
the next issue stay strong!
Rob Wagner serves as the University of Pennsylvanias strength and
conditioning coach. Rob is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning
Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is
an author and nationwide speaker on weight training and is a contributing
writer to Powerlifting USA magazine. Rob also serves as chair of the USA
Powerlifting coaches committee and is currently completing his coursework
in the Kinesiology doctoral program at Temple University.
He is a five-time National Powerlifting Champion in 3 different weight
classes, and a six-time member of the USA National Powerlifting team.
Wagner earned a gold medal in the squat at the 1996 World Championships
and received a silver at the 2001 World Championships, in the same lift.
He also holds or has held American squat records at 165 lbs. (690 lbs.),
181 lbs. (766 lbs.) and 198 lbs. (799 lbs.).
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activity with the position of the foot during the parallel squat. The
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14(4), 2000.
Chandler, T.J., Wilson, G.D., & Stone, M.H., The effect of the squat
exercise on knee stability. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,
Chandler, T.J., & Stone, M.H., The squat exercise in athletic conditioning:
a review of the literature. National Strength and Conditioning Association
Journal, 13(5), 1991.
Davies, J.E., The spine in sport injuries prevention and treatment. British
Journal of Sports Medicine. 14B, 1980.
Escamilla, R.F., Fleisig, G.S., Zheng, N., Barrentine, S.W., Wilk, K.E.,
& Andrews, J.R., The effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics
during the squat and leg press. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,
Escamilla, R.F., Fleisig, G.S., Zheng, N., Lander, J.E., Barrentine, S.W.,
Andrews, J.R., Bergemann, B.W., & Moorman, C.T., Effects of technique
variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press. Medicine
and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(9), 2001.
Grimek, J.C., Is the squat really dangerous? Strength and Health, June,
Klein, K.K., The deep squat exercise as utilized in weight training for
athletes and its effect on the ligaments of the knee. Journal of the association
for Physical and mental rehabilitation. 15(1), 1961.
Manariello, R.A., Backus, S.L., & Parker, J.E., The effect of the
squat exercise on anterior-posterior knee translation in professional
football players. American Journal of Sports medicine, 22(6), 1994.
McCaw, S.T. & Melrose D.R., Stance width and bar load effects on the
leg muscle activity during the parallel squat. Medicine and Science in
Sports and Exercise, 31(3), 1999.
McLaughlin, T.M., Speed kills, Powerlifting USA, 12(9), 1989.
McLaughlin, T.M., Dillman, C.J., & Lardner, T.J., A kinematic model
of performance in the parallel squat by champion powerlifters. Medicine
and Science in Sports, 9(2), 1977.
McLaughlin, T.M., Lardner, T.J., & Dillman, C.J., Kinetics of the
parallel squat. Research Quarterly. 42(4), 1978.
Signorile, J. F., Kwiatkowski, K., Caruso, J.F., & Robertson, B.,
Effect of foot position on the electromyographical activity of the superficial
quadriceps muscles during the parallel squat and knee extension. The Journal
of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(3), 1995.
Tesch, P.A., Muscle Meets Magnet, Stockholm: PA Tesch AB, 1993, pp. 50
Wilk, K.E., Escamilla, R.F., Fleisig, G.S.,Barrentine, S.W., Andrews,
J.R., & Boyd, M.L., A comparison of the tibiofemoral joint forces
and electromyographic activity during open and closed chain kinetic. American
Journal of Sports Medicine. 24, 1996.
Wretenberg, P., Fehng, Y., & Arborelius, U.P., High and low bar squatting
techniques during weight training. Medicine and Science in Sports, 28(2),
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