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Myths of the powerlifting Squat

By Rob Wagner

Don't be confused by the title and think that you are about to discover the mythological world of weightlifting with tales similar to those of the Greeks or the Norsemen. Instead, what I will try to present are some myths or untruths about some exercises that you may use regularly. In this issue I will look at the squat and the myths that are perpetuated regularly about this lift. It is amazing that even today, with all the lifting publications out there these myths are still maintained. My staff and I have become quite adept at defusing these myths on a regular basis by providing our athletes with research-based information. It is in this same vein that I hope to dispel some of the myths about the effects and performance of the squat that will put your mind at ease next time you prepare to shoulder some weight for that leg workout.
The squat is probably one of the most maligned exercises. Dating back to the early sixties it had its critics. Dr. Karl Klein (1961) from Texas, had come out and stated that the squat caused a loosening of the knee ligaments and that this condition actually made this exercise a hazard. Other researchers have speculated over the hazards of the exercise. This type of research makes up a small percentage of the research on this exercise, but the negativism about the exercise still exists. Since the sixties numerous studies have been done on the squat and have shown it not to be dangerous when performed correctly. The problem with lifting is like anything else, when it???s done properly you will be fine. When it's done improperly you???re looking for trouble. Lets examine some of the more common myths.

Squatting is bad for your knees

Dr. Klein can take the credit for launching this one. Studies carried out over the past twenty years have rejected Klein's findings. In a study that looked at the effects that full squats and half squats had on knee stability showed no change, over eight different tests for stability, when compared to a control group. To determine the long-term effects, the same researchers looked at the knees of competitive powerlifters and weightlifters and found that powerlifters and weightlifters had tighter knee joints than the controls (Chandler & Stone, 1991). Another study found that the involvement of the hamstring in full squats plays a role in helping protect the anterior cruciate ligament (Manariello, Backus & Parker, 1994). In a less scientific approach, the late John Grimek (1963) pointed out, in Strength and Health, that if squatting was bad for your knees, we would have a lot of people walking around with bad knees since we perform a squat every time we sit down and stand up. When done properly the exercise actually helps develop the muscles utilized in stabilizing the knee. So how is a squat done properly, I will make it a little more clear in Myth #2.

When you perform the squat, just bend your knees and go down

If you bend the knees first, it limits the hip???s freedom of movement. All the force is felt in the knees, and you will find yourself in a very awkward position on the balls of your feet. When performed properly the squat should start by gliding the hips backwards before the knees break. This is done while keeping the torso upright and is not simply a lean forward (Chandler, Wilson & Stone, 1989). It should be similar to sitting in a chair, especially a low chair. This posterior movement actually helps you get the weight over the arch of your foot. Having the weight on the toes or heel of the foot will affect muscle function and balance. This weight positioning becomes even more crucial when you reach the bottom of the squat. As the top of the thigh reaches a parallel to the floor position or below, it is now time to come up. If the weight is forward on the toes, there is a tendency for the hips to rise up faster than the shoulders, leaving you in a potentially poor leverage position. This situation is when the squat becomes a good morning exercise. The opposite result of having the weight in the heel will leave you stuck at the bottom position or on your backside due to the balance problem.

Myth # 3. Squatting is bad for your back

If you are using your back dynamically, as in the good morning position mentioned above, you are going to make this myth come true. Letting the low back get into a flexed position (improper technique) can create injury (Davies, 1980). The low back muscles, which include the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, multifidus, inter-transversarii, interspinales and rotatores, are all postural muscles. Their primary responsibility is to keep us vertical during standing, seated and other upright activities. When we start using the low back muscles to lift up loads dynamically, we are placing them in a job that they are not designed. It's like going to the dentist for the flu shot. While I would trust the dentist with the flu shot, I don't want him doing open-heart surgery on me. With training they can function dynamically to accommodate heavier loads but it will usually be the weak link in the chain. The low back muscles are much more effective when they are used to maintain the upright posture during squat activity (McLaughlin, Lardner & Dillman, 1978). This position can be created by raising your rib cage. This position is the same as standing at attention for a drill sergeant. The low back musculature should serve to maintain the rigidity of the torso so that the force from the legs can be applied directly to the weight. The raising of the rib cage should occur immediately before you descend with the weight.

Myth # 4. Squat with your toes pointed straight ahead

This seems to make sense because we walk with our toes forward, but there are few similarities between walking and squatting. I have seen a small number of individuals that can squat with their toes pointed forward (less than 5 %). Most individuals have to point or flare the toes outward in a five of one o'clock or ten of two o'clock position. The flaring actually helps orient the head of the femur in the pelvis's socket type joint. A simple experiment to determine the need to flare is to hang from a bar and let your feet dangle. Do the toes point straight or out slightly? Another way to test this is to squat with the toes straight ahead. If your hips feel like they are binding as you approach parallel, simply flare the toes out while in that position and you will suddenly get the appropriate depth. This foot positioning has no negative effect on the function of the muscles used in the squat (Boyden,et al, 2000; Signorile, et al, 1995; Escamilla, et al, 2001).

Myth #5. Squats are for the quads!
If any of you have squatted in earnest, you know that not only do your quads get sore but also your glutes, adductors and hamstrings. The only way to isolate the quads in the squat would be to do them on your toes and even then the glutes will be involved. The hamstrings play the role of helping to maintain the upright posture as well as keeping the shin from moving forward during the squat. The hams and glutes also play a role in extending the thigh while the quads are extending the knees. In looking specifically at the hamstrings, they tend to be more active in the ascent phase and it has been suggested that the length of the hamstrings during the squat changes minimally (Escamiila, et al, 1997; Wilk, et al, 1996). The often forgotten adductors also play a role in stabilizing the leg and also in the role of thigh extensor.
This myth can get complicated when individuals discuss the width of stance in the squat, stating that wide (outside of shoulder width) will affect the muscles differently than a narrow stance (inside shoulder width). It has been shown that in narrow stance squats the gastrocnemius, one of the calf muscles, is more active when compared to wide stance squats. However, no other muscle differences have been found (McCaw & Melrose 1999; Tesch, 1993). The width of your stance should be determined by your comfort with the stance and your ability to get to parallel. If you can???t reach parallel with a narrow stance then widen your feet. Another simple rule to follow is if you have long legs and a short torso you will typically need to squat with a wide stance while the opposite of short legs and long torso can use a narrower stance. This will decrease the amount of lean required for the long legged, short torso lifter. The short legged, long torso squatter can be narrower since he needs less lean to keep the bar over his foot.

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