The Plague of High Squats

It happens in every country, on every continent.  All around the world, people are squatting high, and the reasons are endless.  Some people just want to move more weight; reducing the range of motion allows for this.  Pack on the plates, bro.  Others mistakenly think that squatting is bad for their knees, because their dad, dentist, milk man, and their mother’s second cousin all told them that squatting destroys your knees.  Unfortunately, many fitness magazines reinforce this, extolling the safety of half squats, and their ability to isolate the quads.  As a result, there are people who do this and call it a squat:

I’m not exactly sure what to call that, except a waste of time.  Unless, of course, you use very light weights that don’t require any effort to hold, and perform 2 sets of 30 to really tone your thighs, in which case this is acceptable.  That’s called cardio, isn’t it?

Now, if you already have issues with your knees and squatting deep aggravates your condition, then by all means don’t listen to what I’m saying.  I’m not a doctor, I’m not a physical therapist, and I’m not in the same room as you checking out your squat.  Please make sure that you know the difference between protecting your bum knee and making excuses for having poor movement patterns.  There IS a difference.  Below you’ll see one of my favorite quotes, from strength coach Dan John.  I’ve also included a video of some abysmal looking squats.  If there is even the possibility in your mind that you’re high, you should take the time to relearn how to squat.

“Squatting is not bad for your knees….the way YOU squat is bad for your knees.”

It’s no wonder that people say that squatting is bad for your knees!  But if the media helps continue the myth that squats are dangerous, and your doctor and some celebrity trainer says that they’re bad for your knees…well, where did they get it from in the first place?  The following information can be found in The Biomechanics of Squat Depth Hot Topic paper from the NSCA:

In 1961, Kari Klein, from the University of Texas, published a paper showing that deep squats loosened the knee ligaments (J Assoc Phys Ment Rehabil, 15: 6-11, 1961). Based on this study, the American Medical Association recommended against deep squats. This paper caused several generations of American men to practice ‘curtsy squats’ and leg presses in the gym. Since then, many well-controlled studies showed that deep squats-when practiced correctly-strengthened and stabilized the knee joint. These studies showed that the forces on the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in the knee decreased as the knee flexed.

Unfortunately, the results of subsequent studies can’t seem to shake our fear of the deep squat.  “In a study using a knee ligament arthrometer to test nine measures knee stability, Chandler, et al. found that male powerlifters, many of them elite class, demonstrated significantly tighter joint capsules on anterior drawer tests compared to controls.  Moreover, both the powerlifters as well as a group of competitive weight lifters were significantly tighter on the quadriceps active drawer tests at 90 degrees of knee flexion than control subjects.”  Maybe you don’t care about what the studies say, but if you do, I’ll link again to The Biomechanics of Squat Depth Hot Topic paper from the NSCA.  Read it.

If you only care about the best things to do, then you know what I’m going to tell you to try; squat deep!  Unfortunately, many people can’t quite squat deep: they lack the ankle and/or hip mobility, or they don’t have the core strength necessary to maintain a neutral spine.  If you’re sitting at your computer right now, hunched over like Quasimodo, then you may fit that description:

Now while this is obviously not a good thing, it doesn’t mean you’re going to look like a turtle for the rest of your life; there are things that can be done about it.  Personally, I think that that a two strategy system works best for increasing your ability to squat deep; bilateral squatting and unilateral squatting.

It’s not exactly rocket science, and you make be hating me for the over-simplicity, but if you want to squat better you have to squat more.  The caveat there is that you need to use proper technique or you won’t get anyway.  In addition to just squatting more, you need to do more unilateral work, for several reasons.  These include that it will make your legs stronger, it will help train a stable core, and it will increase your mobility.

You may quarter squat 405, but you get stapled to the floor with 135; what’s the point to that?  You’ve developed ‘strength’ through a very limited range of motion, and your joints are going to make you pay for it the long run.  When you start using single leg work you’re very limited at first because it takes a while to master the movements.  (About a week ago I watched a friend go through a lower body workout of body weight split squats; he said he was sore for a few days after.)  While you’re learning these movements, you can focus on achieving a full range of motion.  For some of you, this may just involve touching your knee to the floor on lunges and split squats.  If you have more flexibility, you’ll need to elevate your front foot.  This gives you more range of motion for the flexed hip, which will carryover to increased depth in a deep squat.  Check out the depth on Eric Cressey’s Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat from a Deficit.  If his split squats are symmetrical, he shouldn’t have an issue maintaining a neural spine during bilateral squats.

In fact, click through to THIS post from Ben Bruno, titled Reasons to Go Deep, where he covers 7 reasons you should increase the range of motion on your split squats.  As you increase range of motion on your single leg work, you’ll find that your hip mobility increases, which effectively allow you to get the best out of strength training and mobility training.  Efficient, right?  An added benefit is increased core stability that single leg work allows you to develop.  Say you perform a set of ten reps for each leg.  That’s 10 reps per leg, but 20 reps that your core musculature had to stabilize your spine; you’ve added core training by doing more leg work.  (That’s rather simple logic, and your core strength will only develop appropriately if you perform your exercises correctly.  If you wobble through your sets, you’re not going to get any of the benefits.)

While developing a smooth, deep single leg squat can help you fix some of the limitations on your bilateral squat, you still have to perform your basic squat to see results.  I’m repeating myself, as well as much smarter people, when I say that you should start with the goblet squat.  If you can’t drop it like it’s hot with a weight held against your chest, it’s unlikely that you’ll do it with a bar across your chest or your back.  You can learn how to do it below:

Between deep Goblet Squats, and some extended range of motion single leg work, you’ll certainly have the hip and ankle mobility required to squat deep.  As these mobility gains occur, you’ll also be developing the stability through your torso that’s required to drop into a deep squat.  When you find that balance between the two, you’ll find yourself squatting safely, strongly, and ass-to-grass.  Please, do your body and my eyes a favor, and stop squatting high.

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2 thoughts on “The Plague of High Squats

  1. One thing I always emphasise with my clients and gym members is that squatting is a fundamental human movement. Squatting until your arse drops right below your knees, weight through heels with your knees in line with your ankles, this is something about four billion Asians and Africans do every single day when they go to the toilet (their toilets are at floor level) and when they sit in the street and talk to their mates.

    A bit over one-quarter of Westerners over 70 cannot sit down on and stand up from chairs without using a forward lean and their hands to steady or push them, nor can they lift 5kg off the floor to waist height. How then do they go to the toilet unaided or do their own shopping? Thus, your ability to squat will someday affect the quality of your life and your independence. Do you really want your adult kids doing your shopping and wiping your arse for you? If not, then start squatting now.

    We’re not talking about a barbell squat with twice your bodyweight or anything like that. Just a simple goblet squat as shown in the post above.

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