Barbell Squat: The G.O.A.T. or the Nope of Fitness – Part 2

Squat Depth & the Knees

Less experienced people will also argue that the bending of the knee under a heavy squat load will force excessive pressure on the joint and the vertebrae of the spine. In a peer-reviewed article from the Journal of Australian Strength & Conditioning, twenty-nine healthy test subjects were gathered.

Men and women of specified ages and body proportions such as torso length were asked to perform barbell squats with technique according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Factors such as foot angle, stance width, and depth were experimented with to determine the activity of the knee in the squat.

This research supports my thesis by using a multitude of line graphs, bar graphs, and angle measurements were collected to conclude that the knees move necessarily to help the athlete complete the squat by getting in their most optimal position. With the results, the authors determine that it is necessary that the knees travel past the toes to ensure the “synchronization of the hip and knee angles”.

This allows the lifter to reach proper depth on the squat, which is crucial to allow the muscles of the legs to lift the weight instead of the knee joints. Shallow squatting (crease of hips above knees) forces the knees to work alone to move the weight, which is the precursor to the knee damage that the squat is rumored to potentially cause. The lumbar spine, or lower back, is anatomically weaker than the stronger and more flexible thoracic spine, or upper back.

The lumbar is composed of “much smaller cervical bones, shorter spinous processes, and rib attachments”, which results in the lumbar being more prone to injury than the thoracic. This makes lifters paranoid of possibly injuring their lower back.

The body has many individual parts, but it works as only one unit with the teamwork of said parts. This means that the consequential effect of injuring the lumbar spine can be easily avoided if the athlete finds the weak links in their body causing it.

Lumbar Flexion

Physical therapist, strength & conditioning coach, speaker and writer, Horschig, Aaron, in his article published by Squat University, “The Pelvis & Low Back Relationship”, discusses lumbar (lower back) pain and injury that could potentially occur in the squat.

Posterior rotation occurs when the lumbar spine arches excessively (tilting the pelvis up) or the pelvis tilting backward (lumbar flexion/rounding). In the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, research has found that the differences in posterior rotation occur due to a multitude of varying anatomies. The term, “butt wink” refers to “posterior rotation/tipping of the pelvis during the descent of the squat.”

Even though research remains unclear as to why this happens, one theory suggests that the pelvis is forced to rotate backward to complete the descent of the squat due to the femurs being unable to rotate. Another theory to lumbar flexion in the squat deals with poor mobility of the ankles, called ankle dorsiflexion.

With stiff ankles, the knees are restricted in their ability to push forward over the toes during the deepest portion of the squat. This then causes the pelvis to be pulled under the body, which destabilizes the lumbar spine’s neutral positioning. Horschig says, “The load from the barbell is transferred from the muscles and bones to the smaller structures in the spine.”

This also occurs in the second theory, anterior pelvic tilt (excessive lumbar extension) in the squat. This causes the pelvis to excessively tip forward, instantly endangering smaller, weaker structures in the spine. Anterior pelvic tilt could eventually lead to a fatal condition called “spondylosis”. While these side effects may sound scary, they should only be feared if the athlete is not training properly. This would not be the squat’s fault, but rather the fault of the athlete for being unaware.

Misuse of the Movement

Those who outright shun the squat from fitness tend to use the very vague statement that it will harm the sensitive joints due to the heavy weight being lifted, such as when a medical doctor named Barbara Bergin strongly encourages individuals to never perform squats.

In her post to Texas Orthopedics, she explains that squats are harmful to the cartilage and caps of the knees. She says a “tremendous” amount of pressure is placed on the knees, which will then lead to arthritis (potentially after a single squat for some people).

This author also says one of the worst comparisons I have ever read: “In general we say, ‘don’t smoke.’ And in general, I like to say, ‘Don’t do squats!’” This is a very biased point the author makes, as cigarette smoking can’t even be placed on the same boat as an exercise. Squats harming the knees would only be applicable if proper depth isn’t achieved. When squatting to parallel depth, the hamstrings, glutes, and quads aid the lifter to move the weight.

Imagine squatting five-hundred pounds a quarter of the way. All the momentum is prematurely reversed by the knees bending and extending before the bigger muscles of the lower body have a chance to do their job. Similar to how most people would prefer to receive an x-ray to check for broken bones, what about a device capable of delivering feedback regarding the kind of force exerted during the squat?

A study was designed as a controlled laboratory, and the hypothesis was that barbell squatting heavy weights would significantly alter the lumbar spinal motion of practitioners. Forty-eight athletes (twenty-eight men, and twenty women) were chosen to perform squats at various percentages of their maximum, which were forty, sixty, and eighty percent. The “Zebris 3D motion analysis system” was utilized to measure the motion of the lumbar (lower) spine.

The results found that flexion (rounding) of the lumbar spine was significantly reduced when the test subjects were squatting at only around forty-percent of their maximum, and that flexion increased when lifting at eighty percent. After this discovery, the authors conclude that weight lifting using a barbell causes athletes to “significantly hyperextend their lumbar spines” when squatting heavy.

The term “heavy”, however, is subjective, as not everyone is capable of maintaining optimal technique under larger loads due to inexperience or muscular imbalances. The squat itself is not to blame for these user-error issues.

Experienced and elite athletes show none of these side effects from squatting as they proceed to squat the most weight, most frequently, and for the longest. To test this statement, doctors from the Surgical Neurology Branch and National Institutes of Health, Rob Dickerman, Raymond Pertusi, and others bring in a record-breaking squatting champion.

Living Proof

The authors break down the concept of bone density, which is influenced by various factors such as calcium intake. The question at hand is if “excessive forces” exerted upon the lumbar spine will be detrimental to an athlete over time. To test this theory, the current world record holder in the squat, who happened to have the biggest squat ever lifted in humanity at the time, was brought to the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

This thirty-two-year-old athlete has been competing in powerlifting for twelve years with a squat of over 1,000 pounds. The lifter’s lumbar bone mineral density was anatomically examined using an “x-ray absorptiometry scan”. His results came back with the shocking realization that his bones were actually far stronger than the average person, providing proof that squats have a positive effect on our skeletal structure.

Considering this athlete’s age and over a decade’s worth of experience squatting, I’d say it’s safe to assume that squatting, if anything, will aid an athlete in exponentially increasing the durability of their joints. Not only does the squat strengthen the joints, but it also delivers promise towards their protectors, the musculature.

The Versatile Squat

A published article titled “Squats are Important in Fitness” by Health Fitness Revolution hammers home why squats are the ring leader in fitness. The author, not specifically mentioned, says that squats are “the foundation to overall strength”.

Squats can create an anabolic environment in the body, which promotes muscle growth in all areas of the body instead of just the legs. He also says that correctly performed squats, being a full body movement, are “so intense that they trigger the release of human growth hormone in the body”, which is most likely why the world’s most famous fitness icons all incorporate them into their fitness routine.

The author mentions that squats can make real-life activities easier, as they promote balance and mobility. Squats prevent injuries by strengthening the stabilizer muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues.

He then gives several more reasons why squats are adequate, such as increasing vertical jump height, speed, and agility, which are reasons why athletes like football players implement squats into their training program.

Hammering Home the Squat

In conclusion, I’ve found not only satisfactory, but convincing evidence to support my positioning on the undeniable benefits of squatting. There isn’t a soul who would not reap the perks of squatting safely and efficiently.

The squat will not cause potential injuries if implemented in the right hindsight, but it’s best for recreational and competitive lifters to learn and understand the intricacies of the squat. The squat is like education: it’s easy to keep improving when you know what do to from the start, and it becomes increasingly difficult when you start incorrectly and attempt to recover later.

We learn new aspects through our central nervous system, so years, even months of poor execution of squats will result in muscle-memory of incorrect motor patterns. These faulty patterns require far more work to alter than if the athlete were to know the squat movement from the get-go.

One might argue that someone can only know how to squat if they are taught, but this isn’t true in the slightest. The internet is flooded with hundreds-of-thousands of articles and videos explaining the correct biomechanics of the squat. However, not everyone has access to the internet.

At that point, I’d suggest seeking out a specialist before trying to perform an exercise you have no experience with. You wouldn’t take a pill without a label, would you? All problems associated with the squat tie into the lack of knowledge. Everyone can and will find great success in their health and fitness endeavors if they master the squat.


Founder of Torino Fitness

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