We’ve all seen it. Massive iron plates loaded to the max on the 45-degree leg press – sometimes augmented with the weight of a dedicated training partner riding the sled like a cowboy at a rodeo. This obsession with monster leg presses inspired one equipment manufacturer to develop a machine that could handle 6,000 pounds of plates! But equally as impressive as the weights used are the elaborate rituals that are often associated with this exercise: knee wraps tightened to an excruciating degree, a weight belt cinched to create a waistline which looks like someone that Jessica Rabbit would admire, and the loud grunting that accompanies each slow, painful rep the trainee grinds out, finally reaching a crescendo with an ear-splitting ARGHHHHHHHH as the exhausted trainee pushes out the final half rep and allows the sled to slam down against the safety supports.
The appeal of such a heavy-duty exhibition of ego is at least partially responsible for the fact that many weight trainees choose almost any leg exercise over the squat. After all, hoisting a ton on the leg press is far more impressive than a measly 300-pound deep knee bend. But anyone who has ever painstakingly inched out from a rock-bottom squat knows how much harder it is than pushing an angled sled a few inches, regardless of the poundage. The fact is, nothing is more difficult and more result producing than the squat – nothing.
If the squat is not a major component of your leg training workouts, you’re probably listening to the “myth-information” that surrounds this exercise. To set the record straight – and to get you back in the power rack – I present for your consideration the eight most common myths about the squat.
Myth #1: Squats widen the hips. The hip-widening myth originated from bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda. Even though Gironda contributed many valuable insights into weight training, there’s no scientific or empirical evidence to corroborate his belief that squats widen the hips. In fact, when the gluteus maximus (one of the prime movers in the squat) develops, it grows back, not out, because neither its insertion nor origin attachment is at the hips. If squats did widen the hips, Olympic lifters, who devote as much as 25 percent of their training volume to squats, would be built like mailboxes.
Myth #2: Squats are bad for the knees. Not only are squats not bad for the knees, every legitimate research study on this subject has shown that squats improve knee stability and therefore help reduce the risk of injuries. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has published an excellent position paper on this subject with an extensive literature review, and data from the Canadian National Alpine Ski Team suggests that regular squatting reduces not only the rate of injuries but also the time it takes to recuperate from injuries that do occur.
When I was hired to work with the Canadian National Women’s Volleyball Team, I found all of them suffered from varying degrees of an overuse injury called patellar tendinitis, or jumper’s knee. I believed the problem was partially caused by a structural imbalance in the lower quadriceps muscle called the vastus medialis oblique (the teardrop-shaped muscle that inserts at the knee). To correct it, I had these athletes perform Petersen step-ups and then gradually progress into full squats. Only one athlete still had jumper’s knee after less than three months of proper training.
Providing you don’t relax or bounce in the bottom position of the squat, you’ve got nothing to worry about. When you relax, the knee joint opens up slightly, exposing the connective tissue to stress levels higher than their tensile strength. Does that mean you should never pause in the bottom position? No. It simply means that if you pause in the bottom position, you must keep the muscles under tension, holding the static (isometric) contraction. In other words, don’t relax at the bottom of the squat and allow your connective tissue to stretch out like a piece of saltwater taffy.
Myth #3. There’s only one way to squat. Whether you switch from doing squats with the barbell on the clavicles to having it on the traps or whether you use a Zane Leg Blaster instead of a safety squat bar, you’ll force adaptation and growth.
Most bodybuilders like to squat while keeping their backs as vertical as possible, a technique that increases the forward movement of the knees; powerlifters tend to squat by bending more from the waist, so there’s minimal forward movement. And, in an effort to handle as much weight as possible, powerlifters often don’t squat as deeply as bodybuilders do. From the field of biomechanics and neurophysiology, we know that the depth of squatting, degree of leaning forward, and knee-motion patterns affect muscle recruitment patterns. We also know that the more you vary your exercises, the more motor units you can recruit.
What this means is that bodybuilders would benefit from squatting as powerlifters do because they would tap into a new motor-unit pool, and the greater the motor-unit involvement, the greater the muscle growth. Conversely, squatting deeply as the bodybuilders do would enable a powerlifter to increase the development of the vastus medialis oblique and hamstring muscles – thereby increasing knee stability. As Tom Platz, a bodybuilder who set the standard in leg development, says, “Half squat, half leg!”
Myth #4. You should squat till you puke. It seems there are weight trainees and coaches who believe that exercise intensity can often be measured by how much you regurgitate. This bizarre belief was discussed in Samuel Wilson Fussell’s controversial book, Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. There is obviously no truth to this myth, and most vomiting can be prevented by proper conditioning and by choosing the rights foods before a heavy workout. For example, scallops leave the stomach much faster than fatty pork chops.
Myth #5. Smith machine squats are safer than regular squats. This is a downright lie, and as proof I know of several lawsuits that were filed from individuals who became quadriplegics from accidents that occurred using this equipment. My experience with the Smith machine squat is that it’s very hard on the patellar ligament and the anterior cruciate ligament, both of which act as stabilizers for the knees.
Most bodybuilders who use a Smith machine perform squats while holding their trunks vertical, a technique that minimizes the involvement of the hamstrings. Also, leaning back against the bar increases the stability of the trunk, further reducing the involvement of the hamstrings. This is not desirable, as hamstring activation is a direct antagonist to quadriceps activation at the knee, and this “co-contraction” neutralizes the harmful forces of the upper and lower leg bones.
With a Smith machine, the bar is on a track, and this increased stability decreases the requirement of the body’s neutralizer and stabilizer muscle functions. Therefore, the strength developed on such machines has minimal carryover to a three-dimensionally, unstable environment such as occurs during the freestanding squat. This is an especially important fact to those who use weight training to improve sports performance. The bottom line is that free-weight exercises should always precede machine exercises, and athletes should limit their machine training to no more than 25 percent of the total work performed.
Myth #6. Squats are bad for the back. As long as you squat with the proper form, the center mass of the barbell will not be far away from the center of gravity, and this in itself will help prevent injury. Some trainers recommend squatting with a tail-under posture, keeping the back flat or slightly rounded – a technique frequently used in aerobics classes in a misguided attempt to increase glute involvement. Lifting with this posture places excessive strain on the ligaments and other connective tissues of the back.
To protect the ligament structures of the back, you should squat with a slight arch. This lifting form increases the stress on the musculature to make up for not using the ligaments to support the back. This may be associated with a higher incidence of lower back muscle strain, but you should understand that the alternative is a ligament injury. When you consider that a muscle takes three to eight days to recover from a mild or grade 1 tear but a ligament sprain takes at least 21 days to heal, the decision to arch slightly becomes relatively easy.
Another important safety technique is to squat with the hands pulled in and the elbows tucked directly under the bar, which helps keep the torso upright during the lift. Also, you should try performing a few of your lighter sets of squats without a belt, as this will stimulate the development of the trunk muscles that help protect the back. Always wear a belt on your heavy sets, though!
Some beginners find squats uncomfortable on the upper back area and may try to minimize their discomfort by rolling a towel around the bar. I strongly advise against this practice. The larger diameter of the bar caused by the towel can be harmful to the neck and increases the risk of the bar rolling down the back – I’ve seen this happen on several occasions.
A better idea is to use a device called the Manta Ray. By redistributing the weight over more muscle mass, it minimizes the stress on the traps, and it does so without displacing the center of the mass of the bar. The only problem is that although the advertisements claim one size fits all, individuals with especially large traps may find the device uncomfortable. Another option is one of the various safety-squat bars with padded yokes that distribute the weight slightly differently than the traditional high-bar squat does. In time, however, most individuals will get used to the feel of the bar on the upper back. The best way to alleviate discomfort is to simply build up the traps.
Myth #7. Squats make athletes slower. Squat performance can be directly related to success in track and field sprinting events, as well as in many other sports. Great examples of the relationship between squatting and athletic performance are the successes of bobsledder Ian Danney, who has become one of the most successful strength coaches for professional football players. Danney has front squatted 418 pounds for 2 reps at a bodyweight of 185 pounds. Other impressive athletes I’ve seen are skier Kate Pace, who back squats 264 pounds for 3 reps at a bodyweight of 150 pounds; and alpine skier Michelle McKendry-Ruthven, who squatted 66 reps in 60 seconds with 70 percent of her bodyweight.
Which is better for athletes: front or back squats? Although sprinting performance has been more closely correlated to front squats than back squats, I believe these results have occurred because my sports science colleagues have varying interpretations of how the back squat should be performed. With a front squat, the weight is resting on the clavicles, and the technique is fairly standard. In contrast, there are many types of back squat techniques, some more effective than others in their carryover to sprinting performance.
Myth #8. Squats can damage the heart. Squats will temporarily raise blood pressure, but the heart adapts to the stress in a positive fashion by making the left ventricle grow larger. Interestingly, studies have shown leg press performance on a 45-degree angle will increase the blood pressure three times more than the squat will. Obviously, if you suffer from cardiovascular disease or if it runs in your family, you should consult an experienced sports medicine practitioner before engaging in a serious squat program.
While I believe the squat is the king of lifts, it is not the entire royal family. There are plenty of bodybuilders who have achieved extremely high levels of muscle mass by focusing their leg training around hack squats, lunges and leg presses. Likewise, many athletes have achieved the highest levels of performance without squatting. However, I do believe that most of these athletes would reach new physical heights if they incorporated the squat into their training.
The squat has been an unfairly maligned exercise. Whether or not you choose to include it in your program is your personal decision, but be sure you base that decision on the facts, not the myths.
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