The Myths of the Squat and Bench Press.
By Rob Wagner
In your daily coaching pursuits, you have probably had some skeptic approach you with concerns about the lifts performed. It happens to me almost every time I speak at a clinic. I have put together some of the more common myths I have heard and try to dispel them using the available research.
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 still 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. Let examine some of the more common myths.
Myth # 1. Squatting is bad for your knees.
Dr. Klein's 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 were 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.
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, intertransversarii, 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. Its 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 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 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 need less lean to keep the bar over his foot.
Myth #6 In squats the bar placement doesn't matter
Bar placement does matter and it can enhance your ability in the lift if you have the right placement. Bar placement when in tune with your stance, can make all the difference in the world with your squat performance. The two typical placements are high bar where the bar sits on top of the traps below your 7th cervical vertebrae and low bar where the bar is placed across the posterior deltoid or on top of the scapula. In either case create a solid foundation, for the bar to sit on, by lifting the elbows posteriorly toward the ceiling. Some guidelines I suggest if you are that long legged, short torso person is to squat with the bar in a high bar position. This will lessen the degree of forward lean you will have to achieve to keep the bar over your foot during the squat. For the long torso, short leg person the low bar position is advantageous because it will allow you to stand more upright and will reduce the work done by the low back. In Sweden a study was conducted using weight lifters (high bar) and powerlifters (low bar). In this study the high bar squatters tended to distribute the load more evenly across the knee and hip while the low bar lifters put more load in the hips joint. The low bar lifters handled the heaviest weight in the study but showed lower force values at the knee joint than the high bar squatters. When they looked at the hams and quads involvement they found that the low bar squatters had more activity in both sets of muscles than the high bar squatters and that the low bar squatters had more hamstring activity than the high bar (Wretenberg, et al, 1996). One note about this study was that there was no selection of bar position based on limb and torso lengths. If this had been considered I feel there would have been fewer significant differences between the two groups
Myth #7 Squats will make your butt big
This will happen if you have the big butt gene. If your family has large rumps, then yes, it's a good chance that you have one already and squatting may enhance it. However, if you don't have this physical characteristic and no one in your family displays it, the likelihood of you getting a big butt from squatting is slim. In the case of having the big butt gene, squatting does not have to be eradicated from your program. Focus more on strength development by keeping the reps lower (5 and under) regardless of weight used. From my experience higher reps can put on the size when supported nutritionally. Alternatives like the front squat can also be used.
Myth #8 Squat slow
Actually the way to squat is with controlled speed. The control relates to your ability to maintain correct posture during the entire movement. McLaughlin (1989) suggests that more experienced squatters lower their squat at speeds under 2 miles per hour or 2 feet, 10 inches per second. He recommends that 1 mph is better and that would be around 1.5 feet per second. So if you are about 6 feet tall, a full squat could have the bar traveling around 3 feet in distance. You would want to lower the bar down to parallel in a range of one to two seconds. I am more of a 1 second fan, but I feel that that speed plays a big role in athletic development. On the ascent you should move the bar as fast as you can with control. Your ability to maintain posture will always determine your speed.
Now that the uncertainty has been laid to rest lets get after squatting like Milo did with that calf. Keep in mind what we covered. The squat when performed correctly is not hazardous to the knees or back and won't give you a big butt unless you already have one. When you do squat make sure you determine the proper foot placement, stance and bar placement before going under the bar. When the bar is in it proper position, elevate the elbows, lift the chest up and glide back putting the weight in the arch. Take the bar down in 1-2 seconds in a controlled manner maintaining the posture of the torso. Once you hit parallel or below explode back up maintaining your posture and balance until you finish the rep. The squat is a great exercise for the legs and in the words of my lifting coach Phil Pelura "you are only as strong as your legs". Until the next issue stay strong!
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