Author - Erik "Rik" Jones
I want to start off with a typical dialogue between a client/athlete; and any physical fitness professional:
Professional: Alright let’s try the squat!
Client: Wait should I really be squatting? I heard squatting is bad for you knees. You can hurt your low back, can’t you? Do I really need to be doing something that can be so detrimental to my body?
Now, the answer to this question can go many ways depending on the experience, credentials, and beliefs of the “professional.” While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I am going to give you mine.
What is a Squat?
A squat, by my definition, is the act of lowering your body to the ground by causing motion in the hips, knees, and ankles, while keeping the torso relatively stable and upright. This motion is a foundation of human movement. It has been an essential pattern since we became erect two-legged mammals to simply lower ourselves down, and stand back up, while keeping our balance. Not being able to squat, or some variation of it, limits your ability to perform simple daily tasks. Picking up a small child, lowering a piece of furniture to the ground, hell even going to the bathroom is a squat pattern.
In terms of exercise, it is utilized for many different purposes, but most commonly to develop lower body strength. It can be done with just body weight or loaded in a plethora of different fashions. Anyway, the squat is commonly known as the king of all exercises to many but demonized by others. Why is that? Lets look at some reasons I think there is such a variety in belief.
Individuality within the Squat
The dichotomy mentioned above can be caused by the individual differences within each person performing the movement. While it is a simple movement at its core, using it to gain strength can create some complexity. Things such as anthropometrics (limb lengths), joint restrictions, previous injuries, and training age all play a factor. In addition, there are multiple variations in how you can load the squat pattern. To help sort this out I use the common phonetic line of the 5 W’s
- WHO is performing the squat? What are their movement qualities and are they able to perform the exercise correctly?
- WHAT are you using as the loading parameters? Are you using just your body, a Barbell, Dumbbell, etc.?
- WHEN are you implementing the squat? Is the individual ready to implement the movement regarding their training age?
- WHERE does it fit into the program? Is it worth doing?
- WHY are you performing the squat? What is the end goal for the individual? Is loading the squat conducive with their goals.
By using these questions, it can help identify if that specific person should be using the squat, and where they should start.
Mechanics of Squatting
After identifying if the squat should be part of that person’s training program the next step is to investigate the mechanics of the movement. To allow for a true full range of motion squat, the center of mass of the human must remain over the middle of the foot. As the body begins to lower it will naturally negotiate your weight in a fashion that allows this phenomenon to happen. In turn, this is what one must look at when performing or coaching the movement. Everybody is going to be slightly different dependent upon their own individual attributes. Things like limb length, joint mobility, bony restrictions, muscle stiffness all can affect how a squat can look. Being able to identify this and adjust the movement accordingly can change how the squat will look. Do they need a wide or narrow stance? Can their knees travel forward with a stable base or would they benefit from a more vertical shin?
Variations of the Squat
Another factor that can attribute to how a squat looks and is performed is what type of variation you are using. There are many different variations that you can use. Depending upon where the weight placed upon the body, will dictate how the squat will be done. For example, a body weight squat should look different from a front squat, that will look different from a back squat and a box squat. This goes back to keeping the weight over your center of mass which, in the case of squatting, is your mid-foot. The resistance must stay over the mid-foot to be performed safely and correctly. Different variations can be used to place stress on different musculature, or to accommodate an individual’s restrictions.
So, is squatting bad?
Getting back to the original question, my answer is yes, if done incorrectly or implemented at the wrong time. Anything can be bad for you if done incorrectly and squatting is no different. If I am building a car and I make the alignment slightly off, the car will still run and be able to drive relatively well; but over time issues may arise like tire wear, reduced gas mileage etc. The same concept can be applied to a squat. An individual may be able to squat and become quite strong in the movement despite key flaws in the performance, or implementation. Furthermore, it can cause issues down the road, such as chronic joint pain or acute injury
With that, as stated in the beginning, the squat pattern is a foundational movement for a human, so I do believe that everybody should use the squat or some variation of it in their training programs. The variation, intensity, progression/regression of the squat is what will change depending upon what is needed for that specific individual.