Like the deadlift, the barbell squat is one of the most powerful exercises you can do, involving the strength and coordination of over 200 muscles in your body.
But, also like the deadlift, it’s avoided by many due to the fear that it’s bad for your back and knees.
The fact that many sports doctors say these things doesn’t help the squat’s cause. Consider, however, that these doctors specialize in treating people with injuries, many of whom should not be squatting in their current conditions. These people are not representative of the average, healthy gymgoer, however, and the advices that apply to those undergoing rehab don’t apply to everyone. Just because barbell squats can exacerbate a knee injury doesn’t mean it helps cause one in a healthy person.
Another common reason why these squat myths linger is even less scientific: just like how heavy, strenuous deadlifts look like they’re bad for your back (when they’re not, when performed correctly), intense squats look like they’re bad for your back and knees.
Well, to get to the bottom of these myths, let’s look to the anecdotal evidence of decades of weightlifters, and the scientific evidence of published literature.
When it comes to leg training, there are usually two types of people.
The first loads up the Leg Press with every plate in the gym, and goes through an intricate ritual involving tourniquet-tight knee wraps, a weight belt cinched to its tightest notch, and pre-lift announcements and cheers. He then wiggles into the sled and grinds out a few excruciating half-reps, ending with an ear-splitting yell and high-fives with his buddies.
The other type? Well, he was in the corner with the squat rack—you know, the loneliest place in the gym—quietly going about his business with deep, heavy squats. No wraps, no belts, no swagger—just a bar bending across his back, loaded with a “measly” few hundred pounds, and a puddle of sweat on the ground.
Who’s the winner, in the end? Who will consistently get bigger and stronger, and who’s the least likely to get hurt? The latter, of course.
While many people will do anything for legs before putting the barbell on their backs, they’re missing out on what many of the top strength coaches in the world consider the absolute toughest and rewarding exercise we can do.
To nobody’s surprise, squatting strengthens every muscle in your legs, which in turn helps you not only lift more weight in the gym, but run faster, jump higher, and improve flexibility, mobility, and agility. As if those aren’t reasons enough to squat, it’s also an incredibly effective core workout.
That said, the biggest fears that keep people from including squats in their workout routines are worries of back and knee injuries. Are these valid concerns?
The myth that squatting is bad for your knees started with work done in the 1960s. Research concluded that a properly done squat stretched the knee ligaments, increasing the risk of injury. These findings spread like wildfire through the fitness world. Some US military services even cut squatting movements out of their training programs.
It was noted that the studies had serious flaws, including the choice of subjects and researcher bias (for instance, one of the studies was done with parachute jumpers, who often hurt their knees due to legs getting caught in parachute lines and violent impacts when landing), but that wasn’t enough to stop the uprising against the squat.
Well, much research has done since then, however, and a much different picture has emerged.
A rigorous study conducted by Duke University involved the analysis of over two decades of published literature to determine, in great detail, the biomechanics of the squat exercise and the stresses it places on the ankles, knees, hip joint, and spine.
Highlights from the study, and many others reviewed within, set the record straight on how the squat affects our bodies, and teach us a lot about proper squat form:
In closing, researchers concluded that the squat “does not compromise knee stability, and can enhance stability if performed correctly.”
Furthermore, any risks of spinal injury can be avoided by simply minimizing the amount of shearing force placed on the spine.
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According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association:
“Squats, when performed correctly and with appropriate supervision, are not only safe, but may be a significant deterrent to knee injuries.”
So rest easy: as long as you use proper squat form, the squat does not put your back or knees at risk of injury.
Oh and as a final note, don’t bother with the Smith Machine Squat. It forces an unnatural range of motion, which can actually lead to knee and back injuries, and research has shown it’s far less effective than the free weight, barbell squat.