The Squat is an exercise that trains the entire musculature of the body, primarily the muscles of the legs: the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. The topic of the squat remains crucial to this day due to the questioning of its potential dangers to the various joints of the body.
Rumors such as “Squats are bad for your knees!” leave many recreational and aspiring lifters concerned about being prematurely put into a wheelchair. With any exercise comes potential risk, and the squat is no exception. However, those risks can only be applicable when the exercise is performed under disadvantageous conditions. Personally, the squat has and still plays an important role in who I currently am and who I will become.
The day I first unracked a barbell was the same day I decided that I wanted to be a champion of the squat, which has led me to seek a career in professional competitive Powerlifting and fitness coaching.
Squats have made my joints resilient to prolonged activity by strengthening them, and muscular hypertrophy, the enlargement of muscles, has ensured that my joints and ligaments stay protected due to the increased shielding the muscles provide.
I’m in love with my favorite exercise, and I not only believe, but know that anyone and everyone will find great success with this movement. With the aid of my research, I am prepared to undoubtedly prove that squatting is a healthy addition to our physical fitness routines and not a precursor to the debilitation of our bodies.
The origin of the squat dates to the early 1900s with the original name of the movement being the “deep knee bend”. Many people in Europe began to competitively perform squats around the events of World War I, and the first competition in the squat arose in 1919.
After the war, an infamous German immigrant named Heinrich Steinborn came to the U.S. After being featured in the Strength magazine, Steinborn brings in the renewed version of the deep knee bend, which is now commonly referred to as the “squat”.
Since then, athletes such as Olympic weightlifters, bodybuilders, powerlifters, and football players alike have utilized the squat to help master their respective crafts. Conspiracy theorists believe that the squat, particularly with a barbell, is detrimental to our health, particularly in the vertebrae of the spine and the joints of the knees.
The argument that squats are a bad exercise usually includes many hollow points that are formulated from personal opinions, myths, misinformation, or satirical ramblings rather than from factual sources. Some decent arguments explaining the potential consequences of squatting do come up, as everything has an argument.
An example would be how the squat affects the spine; in that, it can potentially make practitioners shorter over time. I’ve discovered a YouTube video created by a popular fitness icon named Elliot Hulse, who is known for being thoroughly knowledgeable in all-around fitness.
In this video, Hulse describes the axial loading of the spine, which occurs when barbell squatting. The spine has a natural curve that can be exaggerated due to muscular imbalances in the body, such as weak hamstrings or abdominal muscles, or overdeveloped hip flexors. These imbalances force the spine into over-extension, causing the curvature of the spine to increase. This decreases the vertical height of the skeleton.
However, this side effect of squatting is user error, as Hulse said “muscular imbalances”. Lifters must ensure that they’re equally training all the primary muscle groups associated with the squat.
Hulse makes a brilliant point when he mentions that lifters must balance hard and soft training, with hard training being strenuous exercises like the barbell squat, and soft training being relief-type exercises like yoga, Pilates, stretching, and etcetera to decompress the vertebrae of the spine, which will reverse the effects of axial loading.
Therefore, the argument that squats damage the spine can only be attributed to poor training. Is it possible however, to put the body at risk of injury even when squats are trained properly?
Such test to determine this theory have proven somewhat true, such as when a doctor by the name of Karl Klein experimented with Olympic lifters who performed deep squats (independent variable) and lifters who performed parallel squats (control group) in the year, 1960.
Supporting the following results using vivo (in the living organism) and cadaveric (deceased body) studies, Klein concluded that deep squats have an increased incidence of ligament laxity (looseness). This caused the American Medical Association to caution deep squats due to their “potential for severe injury”.
The rest of the article goes into the data collected on compressive forces on the deep squat. The author says, “Both types of compressive forces are highest at maximum knee flexion”. Different forces of the knee joint in the squat such as patellofemoral, tibiofemoral, and femoral are increased with deeper knee angles. This increases the risks of “damage to the cartilage and menisci of the knee”.
The maximum muscular benefit can be obtained if the lifter squats to at least parallel depth, which technically makes deeper squats unnecessary. Members of the Center for Sports Performance located at the California State University in Fullerton breakdown two types of forces that take place in the squat: shear and compressive forces.
After running tests on various subjects, the authors collectively suggest that “squatting below parallel presents no alterations in quadriceps/hamstring activation, increases glute activation and knee joint stability, and decreases shear forces and ACL/PCL strain.” Compressive forces increase as the squat depth increase, but individuals who have consistently trained their joints to become stronger by squatting correctly have a higher “capacity of the joint”.
This was backed up by testing a group of elite male Olympic weightlifters, who regularly squat deep. Their constant deep squatting (compression) strengthened and stabilized their knees, which helped prevent excessive shear forces as well as compression induced injuries.
Deeper squats require the knees to be capable of going past the lifter’s toes, which determines how deep a squat can be. The lack of this ability can make even proper depth squats impossible if not apprehended before an athlete attempts to squat heavier. This is called ankle dorsiflexion.
Dean Graddon, a coach with over 20 years’ experience worth of training athletes from various disciplines like soccer and basketball, published an article to T-Nation titled “Tip: Fix Your Ankle Mobility, Fix Your Squat”. He properly defines ankle dorsiflexion as “when the angle of the shin (tibia) and the foot gets smaller.”
He proposes that athletes perform an “ankle mobility test” (the greatest distance the knee can touch a wall without the heel rising) and use the test results to actively see if their flexibility happens to be the weak area in their squat mechanics. According to these test results, “a score between 4 to 5 inches is considered a normal range of motion.”
Athletes incapable of getting within this range have a “higher chance of acquiring pain in the hamstrings or back.” Dorsiflexion is crucial, as a lack of it can endanger everything above the ankle, primarily the knee. Poor ankle dorsiflexion always results in shallow squats (crease of hip higher than knee), which will either immediately or eventually cause knee pain.
This brings us to another debatable argument against barbell squatting, and that is that the movement negatively affects the knee joint, specifically when the knees travel past the toes of the practitioner.
If you’re still somehow not convinced that the squat is the king of all exercises, then I highly suggest that you check out my second part of this debate. There’s only far more information to uncover as we dissect the squat together to determine its overall versatility.
You might ask: “What’s the point in all this homework on an exercise? Just do it!” It’s important to train your mind just as much if not more than your body, and increased knowledge of your craft will of course lead you to increased results.
What’s your opinion so far on the squat? Do you already incorporate the movement into your fitness regimen or pan to? Did anything discussed surprise you? I’m open for any questions or concerns you may have. Have a blessed day!
Founder of Torino Fitness