So I love squats a lot. Anyone who has ever worked out with me knows this.
Correctly performed, squats have the power to make a profound difference to athletic performance as well as injury prevention. They can:
- Increase vertical jump
- Increase agility for both denying and creating lateral space
- Improve box out strength for better rebounding
- Increase 'shove strength' for establishing or denying position in the low post
- Improve straight line acceleration during sprinting
- Improve muscle, tendon and ligament strength for superior durability
- Improve landing patterns to unload the forces on the knees
- Significantly improve defensive and triple threat stances
It's an amazing list of pros.
So why isn't every physio, strength coach and sports med doctor a fan?
The first problem is that squats done wrong can really injure you, leading to severe back problems and painful knees.
The second problem is that almost everyone does them wrong!
Too deep, too wide, too slow, quad dominant, caving in at the knees, bent and twisted spines, over-used adductors and under-used glutes. Compensatory patterns everywhere.
It's a mess.
Just drop in to any gym on a Monday night and have a look around if you doubt me!
Despite this, the great news is that everyone can to learn to squat properly, you just need patience and some supervision (or at the very least a video camera so you can self analyse). Before we get into the dos and don'ts it's important to dispel some of the myths that fuel a lot of the bad squatting
Myth 1: Athletes should squat like powerlifters
I've spent over 13 years having huge no neck gym junkies tell me in big voices 'if its not parallel its not a real squat' and that I should make my athletes lift like they do, some of them even offer to 'help' me train my athletes 'properly'. Strangely I always (politely) decline. The key detail the powerlifting guys forget, is that my athletes are competing on the court not in the gym. The other thing the powerlifting crowd struggles with is the whole less is more concept. They are very much more is more people. It is no coincidence their sport has a high attrition rate with most retiring early due to burnt-out backs, shoulders and knees. I love lifting big weights too, its just that I place safety first.
This parallel to the floor dogma comes from the powerlifting regulation that in order for a squat to count as an approved lift, the top of the thigh must be parallel to the floor. This rule is a necessity in powerlifting as they need a defined end point to the movement in order to conduct fair competitions, and it works ok in a sport where pretty much everyone is short and stocky. However it's a disaster for anyone over 6 foot, as people with long legs just can't get that low without bending their back. A bent back without load is not ideal, however a bent back with load is a long-term disaster and exposes the disks to huge compressive and shear forces, not the mention the wear and tear on the knees.
With the recent rise of CrossFit and its Olympic lifting component even more people are now arguing you have 'squat low or go home' and they are 100% right...IF YOU ARE AN OLYMPIC LIFTER, CROSSFITTER OR POWERLIFTER. For team sport athletes I just don't agree. In fact it is often counter productive for these athletes to get so low under load.
Truth: athletes should squat as low as they safely can
At Core Advantage we like to squat low and we like to squat with load, we just don't like mixing the two.
When it come to a barbell squat this means squatting as low as you can get with your feet at hip width (i.e. stacked under the body as they would be when we run and jump) whilst keeping a neutral spine, and getting enough knee bend that you increase power, but not so much that you grind away your cartilage. For a six foot tall athlete this usually means down an angle of between 60 and 90 degrees or around 9 seats as pictured below. This moderate depth squatting actually elicits more glute activation with less groin based compensation patterns and vastly reduced potential to mess up peoples sacro-iliac joints. It doesn't fit in with cool slogans, nevertheless it will safely and effectively build more explosive athletes with cleaner motor patterns.
N.B. wide stance deep squats without an imposed spinal load are totally fine, and in fact a fundamental primal pattern (how else would our ancestors have gone to the toilet) we are big fans of depth on what we call the R.O.M Squat, just never mixed with load.
Myth 2: Your knee must never pass over your toes
This myth is another throwback from powerlifters and Olympic lifters and is totally valid for people with short femurs (thigh bones), however for many people over 6 foot it's just a biomechanical impossibility. People with too much femur simply can't get into this position without falling over.
Truth: It's the shape of the squat that matters
The shape of the squat should be sitting back into the glutes. I'm ok with the knees ending up a little over the toes as long as the shape of the squat is sitting back rather than drifting forward through the knees.
Myth 3: Weights will stunt your growth
In many ways I think this myth is a really good one, as it keeps lots of young kids from engaging in unsupervised gym training, which can be very dangerous. However it's still a myth. Like many myths, this one has a seed of truth in it, which was that in the eighties a number of junior Olympic lifters damaged growth plates in training. It's crucial to understand that these kids were doing explosive lifts such as the clean and jerk and the snatch.
Truth: Squats are super safe when coached right
At Core Advantage we only use these lifts on our experienced senior athletes as they are highly ballistic and complex to learn. Instead we treat gym day as a form of impact de-load for our athletes. The big thing to understand is that our form of squats isn't just safe in the gym, it actually makes you safer on court. Neutral spine squats increase the integrity of your body and support great running, jumping, and landing technique. A strong squatter will soak up the kinetic energy of sport through their muscles rather than their joints, and will have far safer growth plates than their non-squatting peers.
Below is a video explaining how to squat properly, so just do what the slightly blurry bald man says (sorry about the production quality) and you'll be on the right track.
So the key cues to remember are:
- Feet set hip width apart
- Engage the core (pelvic floor up and belly button in)
- Tear the ground apart with your feet (see the video)
- Sit back into the squat like you are slamming a door shut with your butt
- Drive out of the bottom of the squat with your chest up until you have locked the hips out.
In terms of frequency, don't squat everyday, just do it 2 or 3 times per week, and never squat through pain.
So get stuck in, but make haste slowly. Great squats are a long term project.