Hopefully, by now, we’ve finally gotten past the erroneous notion that squats are bad for the knees. In fact, the preponderance of peer-reviewed research on the squat shows not only that squats are kind to the knees, especially when compared to other types of leg exercises, but that those who practice squats are less susceptible to knee injuries. Seriously, it’s time to move on.
We’ve learned a lot about squats in the past few years, and here are 10 things that are particularly good to know. Some of these concepts are relatively new; others I’ve included because they’ve been reinforced by new research.
1. Full squats are best for improving the vertical jump. A German study scheduled to be published this year in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that full squats, both front and back, are superior to quarter squats for improving the vertical jump. The study used recreational athletes and lasted 10 weeks; the full squat was described as reaching a point where the hamstrings covered the upper calf. The average increase in the vertical jump for the deep squat groups was 8 percent, and in fact the quarter squat group did not improve their vertical jump at all!
2. Only powerlifters should box squat. While box squats have an application to powerlifting, they are of little use to other athletes because during this exercise the shins don’t travel forward – in what sport do the shins not travel forward? Next, there is a risk of the exercise causing extreme trauma to the sacral vertebrae if the trainee loses concentration and crashes down on the box. Finally, the restricted movement pattern of the box squat changes soft-tissue integrity. Trainees who do a lot of box squats are often abnormally tight in the piriformis muscle, and tightness in this muscle will impair the ability to change direction in sports.
3. Weightlifting shoes can improve squatting performance. In addition to being very rigid to give you a solid platform for squatting, the weightlifting shoe will have an elevated heel, usually about 1 inch. This heel enables the shins to incline forward further so the back can maintain a more upright position during the squat. This effect is especially valuable for those with tight calves, as they would have to lean forward excessively when squatting to compensate. The rigid design of the shoe also helps align the bones of the ankle and foot so it is easier to keep the knees in the proper alignment when squatting.
4. Squats don’t damage young spines. A controversial study was introduced at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the North American Spine Society that suggested that the changes in posture during the squat may be associated with a pars interarticularis fracture. This is a fracture to a relatively weak bony structure between the facet joints, a type that that is considered very difficult to heal. The problem with the study is that it did not involve any before-and-after methodology – the researchers just looked at the biomechanics of the lift. The fact is, and this has been proven by peer-reviewed research and empirical evidence, the squat is one of the single best weight training exercises to increase strength and prepare young athletes for athletic competition.
5. Squats ratios can determine structural balance. The most practical way to determine structural balance between the quads and hamstrings is to simply compare your maximal front squat to your back squat. If your front-squat strength is less than 85 percent of your back squat, then you have a structural imbalance.
6. Squats can help athletes run faster. In the article “Running Performance Has a Structural Basis,” published in July 2005 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, the authors hypothesized that there is a relationship between body mass and sprinting ability. The authors looked at the physical characteristics of the world’s fastest 45 runners at eight distances (100 to 10,000 meters) run in international competitions from 1990 to 2003. “Specialists in shorter distance races were generally more massive than those in longer ones,” noted the authors. One reason for this difference is that running speed is influenced by being able to apply more force into the ground, not by moving the arms and legs faster – and of course one of the fastest ways to develop the ability to apply force into the ground is to get stronger with squats.
7. The front squat can be used to test flexibility in the upper body and lower body. The front squat immediately demands flexibility because you will not be able to perform the exercise properly unless your flexibility is superior in all the major joints. As a coach, when you give a strength test that requires flexibility, your athletes have a strong incentive to train for flexibility. This is obviously not the case when performing the back squat, but it is particularly true for bench press addicts who have problems supporting the bar in the correct position on the clavicles. If an athlete has very tight forearms and external rotators of the shoulder, it will be very hard for them to hold the bar. This deficiency can be corrected by learning proper technique from an experienced weightlifting coach.
8. The front squat is easier on the knees compared to the back squat.Biomechanical analysis indicates that the front squat places less compressive forces on the knees. In other words, the front squat works the quads harder with less stress on the knees. EMG data suggest that the front squat is more effective than the back squat for activating the vastus lateralis and the rectus femoris.
9. The back squat can be used to determine weightlifting pulling strength. For nearly half a century European weightlifting coaches have been using a form of structural balance to help them with program design. They looked at how much their athletes lifted in the classical lifts – the snatch and the clean and jerk – and compared these results to how much they lifted in assistance exercises such as the back squat. For example, if a lifter is able to clean and jerk nearly as much as they can back squat, this suggests the athlete needs to focus more on squats in their training. For a more specific example, an athlete’s back squat should be 137 percent of the power clean, which means in this example that an athlete who can power clean 100 kilos should be able to back squat 137 kilos.
10. The VMO is key to proper squatting. What’s unique about the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is that it is the only one of the four quadriceps muscles to cross the knee, and as such it plays a significant role in knee stability. A weak VMO makes any back squat training ineffective by affecting knee alignment and puts you at risk of injury. The one and one-quarter squat is a great way to correct weakness in the VMO. Here is how you do it: Squat down for a 5-second count until you hit the bottom position, come up a quarter of the way at a slow and deliberate pace, go back all the way down under control until the hamstrings cover the calves, and then come up until your knees are short of lockout. That consists of one rep.
This list is by no means complete, but hopefully it reminds you why the back squat is still the king of lifts. Long live the squat!