Squat Safely by Breaking the Rules
Squats are one of the most effective but misunderstood exercises performed in a gym. When done correctly, they strengthen the hips, knees and ankles while also working nearly every muscle in the lower body. It's a vital exercise for anyone who wants to retrieve something from a lower shelf or use the bathroom without assistance.
Performed improperly, squats can put undue amounts of stress on the hips and lower back. I'm going to share two "rules" about squatting that are wrong, and a simple discovery that can dramatically lower your risk of back injury.
The first "rule" you hear is that your knees should never extend past your toes. Simply put, it's not true. In a traditional squat, your torso is supposed to remain stable as you lower your body, bending at the knees. The problem is that as your body moves down, you have to push your hips back and bend your trunk forward to maintain balance. This puts a greater load on the lumbar spine.
In a study done at the University of Memphis in 2003, they found that while "restricting forward movement of the knees may minimize stress on the knees, it is likely that forces are inappropriately transferred to the hips and low-back region." Hip torque was ten times greater if knee movement was restricted. They concluded that "appropriate joint loading during this exercise may require the knees to move slightly past the toes."
So your first lesson is simple. When performing squats, it's entirely appropriate to allow the knees to extend slightly beyond the toes to minimize stresses on the hips and lower back.
The second rule is with how deep you should go when squatting. Conventional wisdom states that the deeper you go, the greater the pressure is on your patella (also known as your kneecap.) To understand just how deep that is, you first have to know what the range is. A quarter squat brings your knee flexion to about 70 degrees. A half-squat means the knee flexion is 90 degrees. A full squat is 110 degrees of flexion, where your femur (thighbone) is parallel to the floor.
In 2001 researchers at the University of Southern California measured the joint reaction forces as subjects squatted at 70, 90 and then 110 degrees of flexion. What they found is no surprise. The deeper the squat, the greater the stress on the knees and joints. The interesting part was that the variation in stresses between the three levels was not statistically different.
They concluded that, "The results of this study do not support the premise that squatting to 110 degrees places greater stress on the patellofemoral joint than squatting to 70 degrees." In other words, you could move down for a full range of movement (squat to a full 110 degrees of flexion) and your knees wouldn't be any worse off than if you just stopped at 70 degrees.
The third rule is that a full squat isn't necessarily going to be any harder on your knees than a half squat.
The simple discovery is about how to load weight before your squat. A traditional squat has you loading up the weight on your shoulders with a barbell. Unfortunately, that causes compression of the spine. The more weight you use, the greater the compression and the more likely it is that you could injure yourself.
Researchers at VU University in Amsterdam decided to see what would happen if they split the load, putting half in each hand. They compared lifting 20-kg loads in front of the body versus two 10-kg loads held beside the body. What they found was startling.
Simply transferring from a single weight and splitting the load, they measured an 8-32% reduction in peak compression forces. It was almost as if they had cut the load mass in half. Distributing the weight evenly between each half of the body could dramatically cut down on the problem of spinal compression.
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