Recently the news media jumped on a study that claims squats could cause spinal fractures in young people. Here are three headlines I came across in newspapers and web publications, no doubt designed to present an image of young athletes collapsing on gym floors after a set of heavy squats, grasping their lower backs in pain:
“Danger Zone: Study Warns That Squat Lifts Are Tough on Spine”
“New Research Urges Teens to Skip Squat Lifts”
“Squat Lift Exercise Bad for Spine”
Just what we need – another excuse to keep athletes away from the squat rack. Now we’ve got parents worried that squats can damage their kids’ spines, rip their knees apart and also stunt their growth. Best to keep your kids out of the weightroom, and treat powerlifting and weightlifting coaches with the same regard as you would a drug dealer or sexual predator. Let’s get real.
First, let’s deal with some facts about the study in question, “The Effects of Two Different Types of Squat Exercise on Radiography of the Lumbar Spine,” by the following authors, including where they are employed:
John McClellan, MD, Nebraska Spine Center, Omaha, NE
Nick Aberle, MD, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
Kay Ryschon, MSN, Nebraska Spine Center, Omaha, NE
Travis Manners, PT, CSCS, Athletes’ Training Center Physical Therapy, Omaha, NE
Because the full study is not yet available, all we know (from the abstract) is that it involved 20 individuals and used radiographic imaging to examine the alignment of the lumbar spine and pelvis during the squat. The study did not involve any before-and-after methodology – the researchers just looked at the biomechanics of the lift. The researchers concluded that the changes in posture during the squat may be associated with a pars interarticularis fracture, which is a fracture to a relatively weak bony structure between the facet joints, a type of fracture that is considered very difficult to heal. In one interview lead researcher McClellan commented that he has seen over 500 kids with pars fractures and “often they remember hurting themselves doing squats.” That anecdotal commentary is pretty much all we’ve got to go on until the full study becomes available.
The study was introduced at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the North American Spine Study. And to make certain the message got out that the squat is the devil incarnate, the organization issued a press release to the media about it entitled “New Spine Research Urges Teens to Skip Squat Lifts in Weight Training.” This is a bold statement to disseminate in a press release to the media, and my concern is that volatile statements such as this often end badly. Case in point: chromium picolinate.
Follow the Science
In 1989 the media received the results of a study on the dramatic effects of chromium picolinate on improving body composition in a group of college football players. It turned out that other researchers were never able to duplicate the results of this study, and six years later the Federal Trade Commission ordered this company to cease making claims about the product they could not substantiate. Further, the chemist who conducted the study had a conflict of interest, as he was a consultant for a company that manufactured chromium picolinate. It took six years for justice to be served, and in the meantime a select group of people made a lot of money selling a supplement that didn’t live up to its hype.
Even when studies such as these are available, the methods used must be closely examined – an abstract alone does not furnish enough information to warrant alarmist headlines. This is exactly what is happening with the press release warning that squats are bad for the spine. Let’s take a journey down memory lane for more on squats, this time in relation to the knees.
In 1961 a study was published by college professor Karl K. Klein that suggested squats could decrease knee stability and thereby increase the risk of knee injury. There were flaws in how the study was conducted, and the results could not be reproduced. In fact, future studies showed exactly opposite results; namely, that those who practiced squats had more stable knee joints than control groups and as such were less susceptible to knee injuries.
What’s interesting is that 10 years later Klein and medical doctor Fred L. Allman published a book on the subject: The Knee in Sports
(Penn State Press, 1971). However, if you read the book, you’ll see that the authors did not disapprove of parallel squats but rock-bottom squats such as performed by Olympic lifters.
A simpler problem with squats occurred when many orthopedic professionals promoted the idea that performing heavy squats could damage the growth (epiphysial) plates of the knees in young athletes – in effect, that squats could stunt a young athlete’s growth.
The late Mel Siff, PhD., who did his doctoral thesis on the biomechanics of soft tissues, said there was no scientific research or clinical evidence to support the hypothesis that weight training damages the epiphysial plates. In his book Facts and Fallacies of Fitness
, Siff said, “It is extremely misleading to focus on the alleged risks of weight training on children when biomechanical research shows that simple daily activities such as running, jumping, striking or catching can impose far greater forces on the musculoskeletal system than very heavy weight training.” I agree with Siff’s assessment, and I would add that a good general guideline for young athletes is to avoid lifting heavy weights before puberty.
Unfortunately, the medical establishment still has reservations about having young athletes lifting weights at all – even well into their teens. In a position paper (which is an opinion piece, not a research study) published by the American Academy of Pediatrics
, the authors concluded, “Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid power lifting, body building, and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity.” Whoa!
Because physical and skeletal maturity can be delayed in some individuals until their late teens (generally age 16 for females and age 18 for males), this paper suggests that some athletes should wait until after they graduate from high school before they can safely lift heavy weights – ridiculous! In any case, the researchers’ opinion clashes with the research cited in their paper, which includes the following comment: “Appropriate strength-training programs have no apparent adverse effect on linear growth, growth plates, or the cardiovascular system….” They also said that weight training was an effective way to improve bone density. As such, their recommendations don’t make any sense.
When it comes to discriminating between inflammatory statements and fully supported conclusions, we always need to “follow the science.” When the full study on the squat is published, I will read it and consider any ramifications it might have for training young athletes. However, the preponderance of research shows that weight training is the single best way to increase strength and prepare young athletes for athletic competition, and right now I see no evidence to change my mind.