Squats, I love squats, the full body work they create, they shape and strength for the lower body, whatever your goals they play a role. Whilst coming back from a back injury there was no lift I craved to get back to more than the squat (maybe deadlift). But it often gets a bad name, even in medical & fitness circles as being bad for you. “There is too much injury risk”, “squatting deep is bad for your knees”, “use the leg press its safer” and other such rubbish. It is a key movement in life, we all must have the ability to do it safely with full range!
Injury prevention is key for anyone training or wanting to stay active & healthy long term, and having several big injuries myself, I know how vital it is to train smart, train safe and minimise the risk of injury. If you are careful using great technique, the deep squat is where you should be, no partials, ass to grass. Now please be careful as there are a few contraindications to squatting deep, but this is an individual thing so just ensure you are screened prior to lifting, and have the adequate mobility and stability to do so.
Often you will hear that deep squatting is bad for the knees, the knees should never track past the toes, be careful not to squat to full depth for your knees, or that squatting is bad for your back, hopefully this will help clear up some of these myths.
Deep Squats Are Good For The Knees:
Despite what is often thrown around in the health & fitness industry and social media, a deep or full squat is not bad for your knees. A deep or full squat is where the hips pass below the horizontal plane of the knees, and is considered a full squat by all lifting federations in competition, just look at how a toddler sits to see a great example.
The knee joint, without contraindications (like arthritic changes or previous injury affecting joint structure) is capable of flexing to ~160 degrees, well and truly enough range to get ass to grass. It has been shown that by squatting deep, the forces on the knee joint actually reduce as you progress beyond parallel.
The knee joint is supported by a number of ligaments playing an important role in its stability, and none more so than the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). The ACL’s role is to prevent forward translation of the tibia relative to the femur. To then stabilise the knee on the other side, the Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) opposes this and prevents backwards movement of the tibia relative to the femur. These are very important ligaments to protect and so when it comes to dynamic stability during movements such as squats, it is the muscles surrounding the joint that really must come to play.
The squat is a quadriceps dominant exercise, acting on the knee, but what is vital for knee integrity is appropriate balanced force coupling from the hamstring group, acting in synergy with the quads, and neutralising the heavy force a quad contraction places on the ACL, thus preventing shearing force. The problem with a partial or half rep squat, anything less than below parallel, is that it potentially limits the posterior pulling force from the hamstring group, which results in more force going through the ACL from the Quad contraction. This ultimately leads to muscle imbalances, ligament strain, and therefore potential knee pain.
Deep squatting not only creates greater strengthening and stability effects for the muscles surrounding the knee joint, but the depth through the hips increases glute activation, creating a more stable and controlled lift, all the while creating greater muscle work. It is important to note though that not everyone has the flexibility, stability and mobility to achieve a full squat safely, so it is important to find the safe range for you under expert guidance while working on whatever is limiting you from achieving full depth, without the need to round your back or collapse your knees medially.
While we are on the topic of knees and squatting, I want to touch on another misconception about squats, and lunges for that matter, that the knees shouldn’t travel past the toes. The range that is achieved in this dorsi flexion angle is really dependent on individual ankle range, and having the knees pass the toes is something that occurs all day, every day for most of us who are active. Check out Novak’s angles below, are you going to tell him off?
Yes you can reduce the torque on the knees by preventing this from happening, but appropriate strength in the musculature will ensure this is not problematic. However if you do limit the torque, it is far more likely that the force will simply move to somewhere else in the body less capable of handling it, like your lower back! Get strong, move well, and don’t worry about this myth.
Squats And Your Back, It’s Ok!
I have heard it myself, I have a bad back, 2 prolapsed discs to be precise, “squats are bad for your back”. Yes, but so is potentially any exercise, movement, or past time performed with incorrect technique, sitting at a desk or a couch is certainly much worse.
When performing a squat, compressive forces do go through the spine, but this is why we have musculature supporting it, to help deal with these forces and protect you.
Squats are not bad for your back, poor movement patterns and instability are bad for your back, they just get exasperated if you load them with a heavy barbell. Instead of writing off the squat, prior to heavy squatting everyone should complete a thorough movement screening to find out what some of your limiting factors might be. Then once you have addressed any inhibitions, strength, flexibility or motor patterning, progress yourself through unloaded squats, light goblet squats, broomstick squats and finally just a barbell unloaded and ensure that you are able to maintain a neutral, rigid and upright spine. Once you can do all of this and you have learnt how to utilise breath control and intra-abdominal pressure, and been taught correct safe technique, then you can gradually build up the load. Remember, always stick with what you can control with your legs and trunk strength, not what your ego can lift.
Summing It All Up:
The squat gets a bad rap when it comes to injury risks, and there are a lot of myths out there about it, hopefully this has cleared up at least a few. The squat is one of the most important lifts and movements everyone should do daily, be it under a barbell with 300kg on it or at home in your lounge room with no weight at all. We should all have the ability to squat ass to grass safely, and practice regularly to maintain it through our lifespan.
Make sure you develop correct technique and address any movement limitations by coming in and seeing the expert Sports Medicine team at Absolute Health & Performance, your body is worth it!
Written by Head Performance Coach David Smith