You’re warmed up, jamming out to your favorite music, loading up your barbell. You’re pumped and ready for the first set of your favorite exercise. You step under the bar, grasp it with both hands, get it situated in that special spot on your traps. You stand tall, lift the bar, and take a step back.
Your first squat feels great. You rep out nine more and re-rack the bar. It’s going to be extra hard to make it up the stairs to your apartment after this workout!
Suddenly, some guy in a sweaty tank and basketball shorts taps you on the shoulder, right in the middle of an awesome chorus line. You pop your earbuds out…
“Bro, you shouldn’t go below parallel, you’re going to blow out your knees!”
A trainer happens to overhear the conversation and bolts over.
“Let me show you how to do a squat. Look up, keep your chest up, your back straight and your knees behind your toes. Like this.”
Then, some bozo from across the gym screams,
“Go low or go home! Parallel is for pansies!”
As well intentioned as most of these unsolicited comments are, the regular ol’ Joe Schmoe at the gym doesn’t know squat about squats. And, neither do most trainers!
A recent study surveyed 412 physical education and personal training students.
What they found out will shock you….
Over half said they don’t know what proper squat form looks like!
You’re different though, right? I know…you’ve been squatting for years! Your high school football coach taught you all you know about squats, and you’ve got perfect form. Good for you. But that doesn’t make you an expert.
You’re about to get schooled on squats!
Allow me a moment to enlighten you on the so-called “science” behind the squat. It’s imperfect at best. Whenever you read an article about squats – or any other exercise for that matter – you have to consider the human factor.
Differences in the age, gender, height, weight, exercise experience, and health status of study participants vary from one study to the next.
This makes it very hard to generalize the findings of one study to anyone outside of the study group.
Furthermore, researchers use different squatting styles, they test different loads, collect different data, and use vastly different research methods to conduct their studies.
That means that when trying to compare two studies done on the same demographic, say Zumba instructors, each will collect different information about that group. One study might ask why they only play Pitbull songs, while the other will try to find out why they wear glitter, jingle bells, and leopard print leggings!
Regardless of research design, there will be some bias in any article you read. If you’re a powerlifter, you have a preferred squat form that is different from a tennis player’s or downhill skier’s form, and you’ll be more likely to advise others on your preferred form.
What is clear is that whatever form is appropriate for one group is not always best for another group.
Why are squats important?
Aside from the fact that squats come in very handy on rustic camping trips, for busting a groove at the club, and in public restrooms (ladies call it “hovering”), the squat is a fundamental, functional movement that we use every day.
Training the prime movers of the squat is essential for maintaining fitness, a fine physique, and independence into old age.
Watch any toddler for more than 30 minutes and you’ll see him squat a dozen times. It helps him explore. It’s a natural movement that get’s him up close and personal with his environment.
Are you an American football fan? How do you think those receivers get downfield so quickly? They train for power in the squat so they can sprint off the line to make the catch.
Ever watch the Winter X Games? Each of those elite snowboarders trains using the squat, but they aim for endurance and flexibility as well as power.
But squatting also helps office staff, stock clerks, teachers, mechanics, and other everyday athletes.
Each of these professions requires sitting and standing, lifting and reaching, all of which are made easier with strong hammies and quads.
Pistol squat. Sumo squat. Ninja tuck-jump squat. Say WHAT?
There are only six basic squat movements, but do a Google search for “squat” and you’ll see there are well over 40 different variations ranging from straight-up difficult to down-right silly. But there are only two basic squat forms, the front and the back squat. And there are only three depths at which you can train squats: partial, parallel, and full.
First, let’s talk about the pros and cons of each of the basic movements.
THE TRIED AND TRUE, YET CONTROVERSIAL BACK SQUAT
Where’s the longest line at the gym? The squat rack!
It’s a great exercise that, according to some research, has been proven effective for
- increasing tendon, ligament, and bone strength and
- developing speed, power, and strength in the lower back, hips, and knee musculature.
But other research says that there are just as many negative effects from back squats as there are positive. Some of these include:
- joint degeneration,
- osteoarthritis and osteochondritis,
- muscle strains,
- damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and
- knee instability.
With back squats, it seems that the variable for preventing negative outcomes is depth!
According to a literature review of 164 research articles, parallel squats are the main culprits in knee injuries. This review notes that squats between 80 degrees and 100 degrees place the highest compressive stresses on the patellofemoral joint because there is only a “minor tendo-femoral support surface”.
Another study compared parallel and full squats and found that full squats produce less spinal joint stress. They also found that neither the posterior or anterior shear forces at the lower depth were enough to harm an intact ACL or posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).
Still another study found that the deeper you drop your squat, the better the load distribution and force transfer, with lower compressive forces.
THE ALTERNATIVE: FRONT SQUATS
One study called the front squat an, “excellent alternative to the more commonly used back squat” because it is just as effective regarding overall muscle recruitment with significantly less compressive forces on the knee.
Now that you’ve been schooled on squats, here’s how to school your clients!
How to drop it like a squat: Your Barney-style guide to getting it right
We’re going to focus on one squat form: the back squat. This is one of the most researched forms of squats because…it’s the most basic.
The following is a training progression from an article by Czaprowski, Kedra, and Biernat (2012).
STAGE ONE: HIP HINGE MOVEMENT
Before getting started, ensure that your client has adequate mobility in their ankles, hips, and thoracic spine and stability in their feet, knees, and lumbar spine.
The hip hinge movement is NOT a forward trunk flexion.
To perform the hip hinge, the body mass must be shifted backward and weight transferred to the heels while maintaining a neutral curvature of the spine.
Have your client practice first with hands on their hips. As you progress them through this movement, add the simultaneous movement of both arms straight forward and above shoulder height.
STAGE TWO: SQUAT
Begin by checking your client’s body position:
- Head should be in a neutral position with gaze forward or slightly up.
- Thoracic spine is slightly straight and mobile.
- Lumbar spine is neutral and stable.
- Hip joints bend backward behind heels and are mobile.
- The knee joints are in alignment with hips and feet and are stable.
- Feet are at shoulder width, in a neutral position, heels are firmly on the floor.
To perform the squat:
- Begin with a bend in the hip joints.
- Knees then bend to the desired depth.
- Watch that the trunk angle (from the floor) is stable in each movement phase.
Take it easy when training proper form in the squat. Remember, even clients who have been squatting for a while may have been doing it wrong.
Take care to train form first, and then add progressive loads.
Begin by teaching your client partial, unloaded squats. Increase in repetitions and sets before increasing the range of motion (depth) of the squat. Keep your eyes peeled for all the points I mentioned above in Stage Two!
When they’ve gotten the partial squat down, continue to full, unloaded squats. Ensure that your client is pain-free throughout the movement. Don’t jump ahead in the training plan until the client has performed the prescribed amount of sets and repetitions at each depth, with good form and zero load.
Then you can add progressive loads to the squats. Begin at the top by training loaded partial squats to the desired sets and repetitions. Gradually increase the range of motion.
Keep in mind that the lower your client squats, the lighter the load should be.
STAGE THREE: FUNCTIONAL SQUATTING EXERCISES
After mobility, stability, and strength have been developed, you and your client can get creative! Allow them to try any of the variations of squats, including single leg squats, plyometric squats, and unstable squats.
Watch your client like a hawk to make sure they still have good form!
How you and your clients can avoid injuries
First of all, let me just say, ”Don’t shoot the messenger!”
I’m here to provide you with the latest research so you can be the Wizard of Squats. If you disagree with what you read in this section – take it up with the researchers who wrote the studies.
Forget about the whole “knees behind the toes” thing…
Everyone, including your grandmother, will tell you to keep your knees behind your toes, but research tells us, it’s okay if they move forward.
According to one study, males tend to move their knees forward of their toes by 6.4 cm to 6.5 cm when close to (within two percent of) their deepest squat position.
Females move their knees forward of their toes by 9.3 cm to 9.7 cm as they get close to their lowest squat depth.
Another difference between the sexes is that females tend to stand taller in their squat while males tend to bend further forward. It is this difference that makes the “knees behind the toes” argument kinematically invalid.
One study says protruding the knee joints over the line of the feet by a few centimeters is recommended.
Another study says that instructing clients to keep their knees behind their toes should, “be strictly avoided,” citing that the recommendation is based on a misinterpretation of existing data.
Congrats! You now know what a proper squat looks like, which puts you ahead of the pack! You have the tools to safely and effectively train your clients with good form.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at some improper squat forms that you’ll see at the gym:
Now…you know squat!
Researchers don’t often agree on much, but they do agree that expert supervision is necessary during squatting routines and that squats are a functional exercise that should be included in most fitness programs. Why?
Kids learn fitness is fun!
For kids younger than ten, just make it fun and games. Think hopscotch, over-under, leapfrog, and other games that get them crouching down and springing up. Remember, kids are still growing, so be careful with those sensitive growth plates.
Squats prevent knee injuries for Adolescents.
Nearly 30 percent of adolescents complain of knee pain. Adolescent females have a greater incidence of overuse knee injuries than their male counterparts. Whether they are athletes or not, adding a safe and progressive squat routine will help combat these injuries.
Squats improve neuromuscular efficiency for Seniors.
As people age, the neuromuscular control of the legs and head changes and can affect muscle recruitment patterns during squat-to-reach movements in daily activities.
One study found that older adults who could complete a single-leg squat test were 57 times more likely to independently negotiate stairs, which is a huge factor in maintaining independence into senescence.
The bottom line: your clients will improve their mobility, stability, and strength, suffer fewer aches and pains, and enjoy greater independence when you teach them the proper way to squat.