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Rob Wagner, the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Strength and Conditioning coach placed third in the International Powerlifting Federation’s World Championships, which were held in Trencin, Slovakia. Wagner, who resides in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, lifted in the 82.5k (181.75lbs) class in the open division. He squatted 337.5k (744lbs), which also earned him the gold medal in that event. Wagner bench pressed 195 k (429lbs) and deadlifted 290k (639lbs) to give him the bronze medal with an 822.5k (1813lbs) total weight lifted. This is Wagner’s 6th trip to the event and his best prior placing was 4th, which he obtained in both 1996 and 2001. He completed 8 of 9 attempts and was a near perfect 9 for 9 with the exception of his final deadlift of 295k (650lbs) which he nearly had completed until he lost his grip on the bar. The first place winner was Dmytro Soloviov from the Ukraine with a 837.5k (1846lbs) total while second went to Jan Wegeira of Poland with the same total. Soloviov took the gold based on his lighter body weight. There were over 150 lifters attending the meet representing 35 countries.

This article was taken from Eclipse's magazine, BodyTalk. Click here if you would like a free copy.

Myths of the Squat

By Rob Wagner

Don’t 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 it’s done properly you will be fine. When it’s done improperly you’re 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 Klein’s 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 hip’s 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 back
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. It’s like going to the dentist for the flu shot. While I would trust the dentist with the flu shot, I don’t 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 straight ahead
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 o’clock or ten of two o’clock position. The flaring actually helps orient the head of the femur in the pelvis’s 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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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 two groups

Myth #7. Squats will make your butt big
This will happen if you have the big butt gene. If your family has large rumps, then yes, it’s a good chance that you have one already and squatting may enhance it. However, if you don’t 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 won’t 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 Pennsylvania’s 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.).

Part II

Boyden, G., Kingman, J., & Dyson, R., A comparison of quadriceps electromyographic 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, 21(3), 1989.
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, 29(5), 1997
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, 1963.
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 - 51.
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), 1996.

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