Wednesday, July 7, 2010

To Squat or Not To Squat That is The Question

There is a lot of debate about performing squats. Here are some of the typical arguments.

1. Squats are dangerous and produce too much compressive forces on the vertebra's of the spine.

2. Squatting is not a good exercise for bodybuilders because it builds the gluteus maximus too much and thickens the hips producing a squatty thick look, which is undesirable for bodybuilding.

3. Squats are bad for the knees.

4. Elevating the heels by standing on weight plates or 2x4 is pointless and only causes harm.

Here is the deal!

First off, as I mention all the time, if an exercise causes you undesirable pain and discomfort then do not do it. No one is forcing you to do an exercise, if it doesn't work for you then do not perform them. Not every exercise is going to work for everyone. I am amused at the feedback I receive when I discuss a particular exercise. Guys will write me in anger telling me how the exercise doesn't work for them. I tell them to calm the heck down and relax. These guys are way to uptight. I tell them if the exercise doesn't work find one that does. Calm down!

1. Squats are dangerous and produce too much compressive forces on the vertebra's of the spine.
Squats are the king of all exercises. When performed correctly squats activate the central nervous system like no other exercise. They are the best exercise, in my opinion, for back health. Most of the time when someone has a back problem: i.e., herniated disc. The cause is due to insufficient muscular activation among the agonist and antagonist muscles. When there is an imbalance in the musculature among the supporting back muscles then the disc polarizes to the more vulnerable area. If a person were to perform a squat when they are in an acute symptomatic condition chances are the load on the spine would be too great and the compressive forces would amplify the pain response to the damaged area. This is when squatting is not a good idea. The disc needs to be repaired or rehabbed to line up correctly within the spinal column before squats can be effective.

For those that are not suffering from a vertebral dysfunction or injury, squatting is a great exercise. In fact, those that squat on a regular basis tend to have greater muscular development of the agonist and antagonist muscle groups supporting the spine. This means that they have greater bone density of the spine and a greater nutritional support system to the spine.

People who suffer from chronic muscular soreness are usually compromised because of poor body mechanics and muscular imbalances. People who stand all day tend to develop muscular fatigue in the paraspinals, glutes, abdominals, upper thoracic muscles. They usually are slightly bent forward working on a desk or table. They end up putting too much stress on the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. Over time this will cause a muscular imbalance and will disrupt the normal blood flow and energy pathways to the nerves and discs of the lower back. Lack of oxygen and blood will cause the discs to become compromised and prone to chronic injury.

People who sit all day develop musculature weakness in the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, abdominals, neck, traps, pectorals, abdomin. When sitting for hours on end body mechanics are horrible. The body is not designed to sit for extended periods of time. Muscles are designed to be moved constantly to stimulate nerve activation and to encourage oxygen and blood flow. This constant flow improves the energy systems of the body to allow for a synergistic connection with all the systems of the body. If any part of the part is "blocked" or compromised then dysfunction results. Sitting over time will produce the glutes to be inhibited, forcing the erector spinae muscles to become a supporting contributor to keeping the torso upright. The erector spinae muscle group are long thin muscles that run up and down vertically along the sides of the spinal column. They help assist in the extension of the back. They are in constant opposition of the abdominal rectus abdominus. The rectus abdominus (the six pack) muscle group help to flex the spine. When sitting the abdominals are turned off and the back begins to lose its normal curvature. The sternocleidomastoid, thyrohyoid, omohyoid, sternohyoid the anterior muscles of the neck turn off and flex too much causing the levator scapula, splenius, suboccipitals, semispinalis capitas, cervicis, longissimus capitas and the deeper multifidi and rotatores to stay on in a stretched position. Over time this will cause lack of oxygen, blood and energy flow to the neck region. The thoracic muscles will lose their supportive qualities causing the torso to slump forward. This is because the pectorals are turned off and concaved, the shoulders are hunched forward and the upper thoracic area becomes tight and stretched. Again causing lack of blood, oxygen and energy flow. Finally, with the abdominals turned off, the erector spinae and other paraspinal muscles are turned on and stretched to support the upright position of the torso. The weight of the torso is too great for the erectors to support, this will eventually put too great of force on the discs resulting in injury, disease, or dysfunction. Poor energy, blood, oxygen flow and muscle imbalances all contribute to the development of back disorders. Also, when sitting the quadriceps and hamstrings shorten. This will cause a tremendous tightness and in the lower back. Due to the lack blood, oxygen and energy flow through the glutes and legs the pain can be debilitating when standing up. Often times people who sit for long periods end up having a tough time standing up into an erect position. They have trouble getting full extension and maintaining a normal curvature of the spine. Some people never get their full normal extension back and end up always in a flexed forward position. They are usually the ones with chronic back pain and have to resort to surgery to get fixed. The sitting position is horrible for the biomechanics of the spine.

People who perform squats on a regular basis, and who perform them correctly can eliminate many of the muscle imbalances associated with back dysfunction.

2. Squatting is not a good exercise for bodybuilders because it builds the gluteus maximus too much and thickens the hips producing a squatty thick look, which is undesirable for bodybuilding.
This has been a big controversy in the bodybuilding circles for years. To squat or not to squat is the question. Power lifters, who are not concerned with symmetry or muscular definition are usually the squatters. Where as the bodybuilder who is concerned with symmetry and muscular definition avoid performing back bar squats.

Back bar squats utilize the help of the glutes to generate power on the extension of the movement. Next time you see a power lifter squat notice how they have a big hip and glute complex. Their quads are thick and powerful. This is due to the fact that they lift so much weight and get down so deep on the squat. This is desirable for some but not everyone wants to have a big thick lower body. If your goal is to remain within your own symmetrical make up and to have a small abdominal area and having a nice sweep of the legs to cause the appearance of having bigger legs and a small waistline, then I would suggest doing leg exercises that de-emphasize the spreading of the glutes. Not everyone is designed to perform back bar squats and should use caution. Proper technique is crucial.

3. Squats are bad for the knees.
If performed correctly squats are fantastic for the knee. Proper form will help lubricate and flex the thick fibrous tendons of the quadriceps. Good flexibility, increased blood, oxygen and energy flow throughout the tendons will only help the health of the knee and hip joints.

4. Elevating the heels by standing on weight plates or 2x4 is pointless and only causes harm.
Many of the so called experts today have said that standing on a weight plate or 2x4 raising the heels is pointless for the athlete performing squats. I beg to differ. I pretty much stand true to the fact that I do what works for me and never listen to the hot shots of today who make it their quest to debunk everything. I know the philosophy and the kinesiology of the ankle joint, knee joint, hip joint, and all their tendon and muscle origins and insertions. I understand the reasons why the young over zealots slam the use of 2x4's, however, I have always used the 2x4 when squatting have received great benefit. For me it works and I will continue to use it. For some it might not work. I used to perform squats straight on the floor and all I got was a big ass! Then I changed it up and performed front squats with my heels on a 2x4. And like magic my quads developed and my butt didn't get bigger. This technique might not work for everyone but it worked for me. I have been performing squats like this for twenty five years with no problems. Nothing has ever happened to my gait, tendons, knees, hips, back from performing squats with heels elevated. The young researchers that are against the idea of raising the heels were not even born when I started performing them. And for them to tell me that I should stop using the heel support is ridiculous! The reason why they are against raising the heels is because they believe that it will shorten the achilles tendon and cause a muscular imbalance among the hamstring, glutes and quadriceps. I have been doing heel raised squats for a long time and have never seen any shortening effects on my achilles tendon, gastrocs, hamstrings or quadriceps. Maybe some people have experienced problems but I never have. I find that I can actually deeper and keep my back perfectly straight with heels raised, as opposed to with heels on the floor. I can do both methods with ease, but I like heel raised better for me. You will have to experiment with both methods to see which works best for you.

The best way to perform a squat is to keep the back perfectly straight, do not deviate! Flexion will compound the torque in the lumbar vertebras and will cause discomfort and possible injury. Try squatting by keeping the back straight, maintaining a neutral spine the entire time. Put all of your strength and focus onto your legs. Drive up pressing into the floor with the heels. Squeeze the glutes tight as you come up. Keep the abdominals engaged (braced) to add more support to the lumbar. Inhale going down into the squat, exhale as you come up. The key is to never allow spinal flexion to occur.

Overall, squats are the king off all exercises. When performed correctly they will help strengthen the muscles that support the lumbopelvic complex. Many people think I am crazy when I prescribe back patients to do squats. I start with the basic foundation of the movement and then progress to the more advanced techniques once the goals are achieved.

tags: squatting, power lifting, bodybuilding, exercise, nutrition, health,


  1. I cant imagine going into a gym and not doing squats. They are hard as hell but feel amazing! My body comes alive when I do them and I can tell that my legs, butt and back are sooo much stronger since I started with your routines, Daryl!