Squats: Good or Bad?

Few subjects in the realm of strength and conditioning inspire the wealth of opinion that this question does. Although long recognized as one of the premier lower body exercises for developing strength and beloved by rehab professionals for its ability to screen for strength and mobility deficits, the squat is often viewed as being bad for knees and backs. Complicating matters is the fact that there are as many variations to the squat exercise (stance width, foot position, knee flexion angle, without weight or with a barbell, etc.) as there are opinions on the proper way to perform it. Even the minds behind the depraved—but frequently brilliant—sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” inserted their own take on proper squat form in one previous episode:

“All right, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to take all the weight on your neck. Then you’re going to jam your legs down and hyper-extend your ankles, and then shoot back up and lock your knees in place.”

Ouch! Truthfully, much of the apprehension involving squats stems from this misperception that heavy weights and large movements of the body are required. Squats of this variety can only be safely performed by properly trained individuals. For the rest of you who may have avoided squats due to concerns about their safety and benefits, here are some reasons to reconsider:

Your 1-year-old son/granddaughter/nephew does it

If you’ve had the opportunity to observe a toddler, you know this: from the time a child first learns to stand, they know how to squat. Not just squat, but squat PERFECTLY. Thighs parallel to the floor, trunk upright with spine aligned and feet flat on the floor—the perfect harmony of strength and mobility. Even more humbling, watch them maintain that position for 1-2 minutes and then return to standing without even a hint of effort on their faces. The lesson: the human body was designed to squat. It’s only as we get older, start to neglect joint mobility, posture and muscle strength that squatting gets unfairly cast as a “bad” exercise.

Squats are a functional exercise

The true beauty of the squat is that its utility crosses all age and ability levels. From the high-school athlete performing off-season strength and power training to improve his vertical leap to the 80-year-old grandmother wanting to have an easier time standing up from chairs (or perhaps improve her vertical jump as well…), squatting is a requisite task for many of our daily tasks.

Squatting (correctly) can actually prevent injury

While it certainly bolsters the strength of crucial thigh, hip and core musculature to help deter injuries to the knee, hip and lower back, the benefits of squatting don’t end there. Including the squat in your regular exercise routine can also lead to improvements in balance and joint mobility, extensibility of muscles and fascia, and strength of connective tissues.

Squats are safe

But don’t just take our word for it. In a comprehensive review of research examining the biomechanics of squatting, Rafael Escamilla (Ph.D., physical therapist and noted contributor to research on all things squat) concluded that squatting not only “does not compromise knee stability, but can actually enhance stability when performed correctly” (Escamilla, 2001).

Now that we’ve hopefully convinced you of the benefits of squatting and reduced some of the anxiety related to perceived risks, the question becomes “What is the correct way to squat?” Certainly the best way of ensuring proper form is to seek the expertise of a strength and conditioning specialist, fitness professional or physical therapist—particularly if you have pre-existing joint pain or dysfunction in the lower extremities or spine. Below are some general guidelines for proper squat mechanics.

  • Set feet approximately hip width apart with toes turned slightly out.
  • Break at the hips and knees simultaneous: the hips moving backward (imagine sitting down in a chair) while the knees travel slightly forward with each knee staying centered over the middle of the foot.
  • Lower the body slowly and with control, keeping the torso as erect as possible (maintain slight arch in lower back) and the chest up.
  • Keep your chin level or slightly tilted up.
  • Feet stay flat on the ground throughout.
  • To return to the starting position, extend the hips and knees together while keeping the torso upright.

Take a look at the two photos below.

The image on the left demonstrates proper squat mechanics as described above.

In the image on the right we see unsafe squat mechanics most likely caused by decreased mobility of the ankle and tight hamstring muscles. The feet are no longer flat on the ground, the lower back is rounded with excessive forward trunk angle and the knees have traveled excessively forward. Each of these form flaws can lead to joint pain and dysfunction.

Remember, squats can be an effective exercise even when performed through smaller ranges of knee flexion (bending). Focus on proper mechanics and pain-free movement vs. depth of squat. In the end,  squats are good.  The reason they have the stigma of being bad is because people continue to do them with pain or poor form.

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