You might want to sit down for this.
No, really. Sit down.
Now stand up. And do it again.
Do you know what you just did? You squatted! High five!
Why am I making you perform something like the Oompa Loompa dance? Because just like everything I enjoy talking about with my clients, I believe most people are not taking advantage of an essential fitness move often enough. The squat is no exception.
And I hear it all the time: “Alex, I can’t do squats because I have bad knees.” “Alex, my doctor told me to be careful with squats.” “Alex, my back won’t let me squat.”
Wanna hear something earth shattering?
If you went to the bathroom today, guess what? You squatted.
This means you can’t avoid it. Doctor’s orders, joint pain, bad back…none of that is going to trump your, uh, essential biological functions. You are going to perform a squat today (I hope) whether you like it or not!
But bathroom visits aside, there are inevitably many other ways in which you squat every single day – without even thinking about it. Therefore, you should practice some controlled repetitions of this basic movement pattern for life’s many “sit-down moments.”
And did I happen to mention that the squat is also among the most performance-enhancing, booty-shaping, core-building moves you can do in the gym?
While you’re getting your leg day on, here are two myths that need to be dispelled to let you get the most effective squatting workout possible!
Myth: Your Hips Should NOT Go Below Your Knees
When you perform a squat, your hips should sit back into your glutes, stabilizing through your entire foot. Your rump will lower as far as you are able with good form, and then you will push yourself right back to an upright position.
No big deal, right? But how deep should you go?
The answer: as deep as you are able without pain, with a neutral spine, and without your hips shifting over to your right or left leg. Judge how well you can control the movement without coming onto your toes, bending your back, or rolling your tailbone under you so your spine flexes[i].
You’ve likely run across a number of sources that stress your hips shouldn’t go below your knees. These precautions aren’t bad – just simply incomplete.
The “don’t squat deep” recommendation stems from quite a ways back. In 1961, a study on powerlifting athletes found an increased laxity in their ACL. The researcher concluded that this would lead to knee instability and therefore recommended that squats should not be performed below the knee.[ii] The American Medical Association picked up his recommendation, and it has been passed on to patients who complain of knee pain ever since.[iii]
But powerlifters are not the only population on which to base recommendations for EVERYONE!
Since then, several researchers have taken up the question and found the contrary.[iv][v] With more modern technology, we have been able to get a better idea of what is actually happening in the anatomy of elite athletes and average exercisers alike! In fact, rather than being more lax, the joint capsules of weightlifters and bodybuilders who deep squat are actually TIGHTER than the average knee joint and therefore MORE STABLE.[vi]
A recent “nail in the coffin” study done on cadaver joints (pun intended) further blew away the “deep-squatting-is-bad-for-your-joints” myth by doing a number of compression, load bearing and multi-angular tests. The researchers concluded that – under supervision and progressive loads – “deep squats represent an effective training exercise for PROTECTION against injuries. Contrary to commonly voiced concern, deep squats do not contribute to an increased risk of injury.”[vii]
This is very good news. Why?
The greater range of motion in a deep squat allows you to get more out of each repetition, forcing the adaptation of the hamstring, quads, and glutes. Especially the glutes… Deep squats activate the gluteus maximus 50% more than parallel squats and 100% more than half squats.[viii]
Since your glutes control one of the most important movements your body can perform (“the bend“), deep squats are definitely worth mastering.
Having trouble pushing the depth of your squat with good form? Place behind you a bench or plyo box that is an inch or so lower than you’re comfortable squatting on your own. With a very light load (no more than 20-30% of your max), squat back onto it with control. As soon as you feel yourself begin to rest on it, push through your heels, and rise back into your starting position.
Multiple sets with this crutch will eventually increase your range of motion. As a result, you’ll be able to squat deeper and reap the added benefits!
Myth – Squats Are Bad For Your Back
As with just about ANY exercise…if you do them wrong, you’re going to get hurt. It’s as simple as that. The myth of squats being bad for your back is generally perpetuated by people injuring their backs during an improper or over-heavy squat.
Such myths are also sensationalized by poorly summarized studies like the one that showed stress fractures in the spines of young athletes. The media, for its purposes, concluded that “Squat lifts are likely the cause of such fractures.”[ix]
Unfortunately, the reported finding was not accompanied by the researchers’ measures of spinal extension during the squats performed. In other words, the article should’ve been titled “Improper squats could lead to stress fractures in young athletes: Why parents should hire certified professionals to teach their kids how to squat before heavy loads are applied in training.” (Alas, I was not consulted on the title….)
Directly contrary to this myth, those who learn to perform squats correctly can actually enjoy major benefits for their back health.
First and foremost, hip extension is the primary driving movement in a squat. Squats develop this all-important skill with their requisite activation, strength and flexibility requirements. I have previously discussed what hip extension is and why it’s important for your back. Guess what? You can squat to strengthen your BEND.
We squatters are in luck!
Of all the strength movements one can perform in the gym, the squat elicits the most activation of the deep core muscles – beating out side planks, crunches, leg lifts and even deadlift![xi]
In other words, squat for a stronger core – and a healthier back!
Now that you understand just how low you can go (and why), I charge you “to drop it like it’s hot” (or whatever the kids are saying these days).
Do you have additional questions, or would you prefer one-on-one coaching for your form? Stop by our squat workshop, or find a fitness professional next time you’re on the fitness floor. We’re here to support your health, safety and performance!
If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies,
Download the Core 3 Training Manual.
Thanks for reading. If you learned something new, please share the post on your favorite social media channel.
[ii] Klein K. The deep squat exercise as utilized in weight training for athletes and its effects on the ligaments of the knee. J Assoc Phys Ment Rehabil 15: 6–11, 1961.
[iii] Underwood J. The knee is not for bending. Sports Illustrated 16: 50, 1962.
[iv] Steiner M, Grana W, Chilag K, and Schelberg-Karnes E. The effect of exercise on anterior-posterior knee laxity. Am J Sports Med 14: 24–29, 1986.
[v] Football players. Am J Sports Med 22: 768–773, 1994.
[vi] Chandler T, Wilson G, and Stone M. The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc 21: 299–303, 1989.
[vii] Hartmann H1, Wirth K, Klusemann M. Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports Med. 2013 Oct;43(10):993-1008. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0073-6.
[viii] Caterisano, A, Moss, RF, Pellinger, TK, Woodruff, K, Lewis, VC, Booth, W, and Khadra, T. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res 16: 428–432, 2002.