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Do You Know Squats?

Myths About Squats

The way most people do squats WILL cause injuries.

  • Myth 1: They'll hurt your back. FALSE. Done properly, squats will strengthen your back. And this is important: The squat requires (and develops) core and back strength. Most adults have legs that are stronger than their core. This is especially true if they been using leg machines to develop their legs. One of the reasons people injure themselves on the squat is that they try to lift what legs are capable of, instead of what their body is capable of. Start light and develop your core along with your legs.
  • Myth 2: They'll hurt your knees. FALSE. In fact, Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, says that if you have knee pain walking down stairs, then quadricep weakness is a likely cause and strengthening your quads with squats may very well help (see article). However, partial squats where you only go down half way or so do little to develop knee strength and stability. That is why it is important to go down to at least parallel (or even slightly lower). These work the knee through its full range of motion strengthening the joints. Partial squats also don't do much for the hamstrings and ankles. Eventually these will become weak compared to the quads and this will lead to injury. Check your ego at the door, take some weight off the bar, and do squats correctly. Your knees will thank your for it years down the road.
  • Myth3: Leg press machines, leg extensions, and leg curls are just as good. FALSE. While these exercises will build your muscles, it's difficult to develop them in a balanced manner using isolation exercises. Your legs are designed to work as a unit, not as individual muscle groups. Doing isolation exercises, such as leg press and leg curls, will most likely develop muscle imbalances that will lead to knee stress and eventually to knee pain.
…every bodybuilder has to do squats from the time he starts until he finishes. You can't build your legs without the squat.
-Arnold Schwarzenegger in
Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder

How to Do a Proper Squat?

Forget what you've seen in the gym.  Very few people in gyms do proper squats (For that matter, very few trainers do or teach proper squats). What you see them doing WILL cause injuries.  However, numerous studies have shown that properly done squats strengthen your knees and back and make them healthier and less prone to injury.

First of all, check your ego at the door. Most people do what are known as "partial squats," or what I call "gym rat" squats. This is where they don't go low enough for their thighs to reach parallel to the ground. You should go to parallel or lower if possible. The reason most people do partial squats (and ultimately end up injuring their back and knees) is because partial squats enable them to squat bigger weights and impress their gym buddies. This will eventually lead to injury. Doing a proper squat requires greatly reducing the amount of weight you train with.  If you do squats my way, you'll be squatting about a third of what you could squat "gym rat" style. However, your legs will develop faster and you'll have better muscle balance between your hamstrings, glutes, and quads.  Also, the reduced weight means much less stress on the knees and back and less chance of injury.

Above all else, you must do squats in perfect form.
I use "Very Low Box Squats" (VLBS) with my newer clients. The box I use personally is about 6½ inches (16.5 cm) high, however, most adults don't have enough hamstring and hip flexibility to perform a squat in proper form to this depth (Typically their lower back will start to round as they get near the ground). Therefore, start with a higher box and work your way down as your flexibility improves. Most people will never work down to 6½ inches, but that's okay. The main thing is to work as low as you can while maintaining proper form. Never go so low that it prevents you from doing the exercise in perfect form. Again, most people tend to round their lower back when they go too low for their ability. If your lower back starts to round, then you are squatting too low for you ability. Squat higher for the time being, and work on improving your flexibility.

The reduced weight of VLBSs is especially good for beginners, since most untrained adults have legs that are much stronger than their core. The weight they would use for a VLBS is much less than what they would use for partial squat. This reduces the risk of injury while their core strength is developing. After their core strength becomes adequate, I will start to introduce parallel squats into their workouts.

Here's a good description of how to do a proper box squat.

If you experience lower back pain from squatting, it's usually due to rounding of the lower back.


Advantages of Very Low Box Squats (VLBS)

  • Greatly reduced weight, therefore less stress on the knees and back and less chance of injury.
  • Builds a better muscle balance between the hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
  • Develops strength across the full range of motion of the legs and knees.  Studies show that deep squats develop strength across the full range of motion of the muscle. However, this is not true for partial squats (see Science and Practice of Strength Training page 8).
  • Stopping on the box reduces the stretch reflex. Your tendons and muscles store energy like springs at the bottom of a regular squat. This stored energy helps lift the weight. By stopping on the box and reducing this extra boost, you force your muscles to work harder which in turns further reduces the amount of weight you need to get the same level of muscle exertion. Most people think the box is there to make it easier. In fact, the opposite is true. Using the box actually makes it harder.
  • Stopping at the bottom (when you hit the box) also increases your dynamic power more than standard squats. This means the strength gained will translate better into real world activities such as jumping.
  • Helps teach proper squat form. A proper squat requires that the hips move backward. Many gym squatters omit this portion from their form. Having to move your hips back to land on the box helps ensure that you are using proper form. Squatting should be more like the motion used to sit on a toilet rather than just simply going up and down.

Disadvantages of Very Low Box Squats (VLBS)

  • Others may giggle when they see you squatting very low weights - Unless they try it for their self.  The guy doing 300 pound partial squats will probably not be able to do 100 pounds VLBS; especially if he only does partial squats, since his hamstrings will likely be disproportionately weak.
  • You have to have something that serves as a box. I made my own for about $10. Good quality aerobic steps will also work. Just make sure they are sturdy enough to handle you plus the weight you're lifting. You can also stack up 45 pound weight plates (Warning: Some weights are not stable when stacked together, therefore they are not suitable for this purpose).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against doing parallel or higher squats. They have their place and should be included in well rounded advanced weight routine. But develop your low squat first and don't neglect the muscles that are needed to go deeper than parallel.

One-Legged Squats

One-legged squats are great for developing knee strength and stability. They should definitely be part of your overall squatting routine.

Bar Pads

Don't use the bar pad when squatting!

If you have the bar positioned correctly, it does not cause pain. It is only painful when positioned incorrectly. Use of the pad will only serve to mask bad form. It's better to correct your form and do the exercise properly. When doing back squats, the bar should rest on the upper back, not on the collar bone or neck.


What Shoes Should I Wear?


The best shoes for squatting are flat-soled shoes such as Converse Chuck Taylors. I also like Vans and just about any low cost, flat-soled shoes will work. Running shoes or cross shoes with a lot of cushion will make your ankles more unstable as the cushion gives to and fro. You also need to be able to "feel" the floor to know how you are pushing into it.

Other Information:

5 Reasons Why Squats are Killing Your Lower Back





doctorAs with any nutrition or exercise program, always review them with your doctor to ensure that they don't interact with or are contraindicated by any medications or medical issues you may have. If you haven't trained for a while, start out slow and go easy. If you are pregnant, have diabetes, blood sugar problems, or any heart issues, you shouldn't do this program as it is very strenuous.
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