By Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D., MSS, International Sports Sciences Association
My youngest son, Beau, has a sign in his room which reads Beau knows Squat. I like it! ‘Course, it’s a play off the ol’ Bo Jackson thing, but I don’t care. I know Beau, and I don’t know Bo. And, Bo doesn’t know Squat!
Humor me once more. See, I used to be pretty good at squatting. Eleven hundred pounds ain’t a bad squat, no? You might say that I too — ahem — know squat!
Ok, ok! I’ll spare you. Problem is, the doctors don’t care, the coaches don’t think, the athletes don’t have time, the bodybuilders don’t want to know, the sports scientists writing about squatting don’t have the in-the-trenches experience to really know.
And I don’t understand. Why someone just doesn’t TELL them why squatting is the one exercise that EVERYONE (bodybuilders, athletes, kids, your Mamma) ought to do. I tried to do it once back in ‘85 with an article in Sports Fitness, a magazine that I launched for Joe Weider. That magazine metamorphosed into what is now known as Men’s Fitness. In that ten year old article, I wrote about a few myths associated with squatting that seemed persistent back then:
Myth #1: Squats are bad for the knees.
Myth #2: Squats are bad for the spine.
Myth #3: Squats are dangerous to the heart.
Myth #4: Squats slow you down.
Well, these four myths, it seems, are still somewhat alive. However, others have arisen that are even more troublesome. And, you know what? This time, the sources and perpetuators of the myths are from the ranks of several muscle mags!
Well, it’s a tough job, but I’m gonna give it my best shot. I’ll tackle these myths — and the old ones — one by one. You pencilnecks out there who disagree with me (anyone who disagrees with me on the issue of squatting has GOTTA be a pencilneck) on these squat issues, do me a favor. Put up or shut up. Let’s see some science for a change, not just jabberwocky and claptrap.
And, please! Get this once and for all! Marketing fitness to the masses does NOT have to include making it palatable for the newly initiated by saying things like, “Beginners shouldn’t do squats, or any of the other myths listed.”
I know better. More importantly, the 42 ladies who participated in a 12 week research project I conducted all LOVED squats. All were chronically obese, 40-70 years old, and none had ever trained before in their lives. My son, Beau — he’s six — loves to squat. Every athlete I’ve ever coached squatted and loved the outcomes. How come it is that elite weightlifters, powerlifters and shot putters — all of whom squat — vertical jump higher and run a 5 meter dash faster than any other class of athletes in any sport? Including high jumpers and sprinters?
Myth #1: Squats are bad for the knees.
Just as calluses build up on the hands with the application of stress, ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues thicken in response to the stress imposed upon the joints during weight training. Also, strengthening the muscles that move the knee joint improves its stability, and there’s some evidence that even the portion of the bone into which the tendons insert becomes stronger, further improving the joint’s integrity.
Relaxing the muscles while in a rock-bottom position is improper and hazardous. The relaxed muscles allow the knee joint to separate slightly, placing the ligaments and cartilage under stress that may exceed their tensile strength. While proper stress produces adaptation, overly stressful exercise can cause breakdown of bodily tissue.
Myth #2: Squats are bad for the spine.
If performed with a relatively straight back, the weight is borne directly over the spinal column, and torque as well as shearing force is minimized. Weight training is supposed to strengthen the supportive tissues of the body (bones, muscles and connective tissues). So wear a belt when the weight is heavy and reps are low, but stay away from such supportive devices otherwise.
Beginners often find squats uncomfortable for the neck (the cervical spine) because of the pressure of the bar resting there. You’ll get used to it. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to pad the bar with a towel or piece of rubber. Me? I prefer the padded yolk of the Safety Squat Bar. Ok, so I’m a whimp! I don’t like unnecessary discomfort!
Myth #3: Squats are dangerous to the heart.
Many weight-training exercises restrict blood flow because of prolonged muscular contraction. The result is elevated blood pressure. The condition isn’t dangerous and it’s temporary. The heart, like every other muscle in the body, responds to stress by adapting to it. In time, the cardiovascular system is strengthened through weight training.
Squats can sometimes tax the heart to dangerous limits, however. My blood pressure rocketed to 220 over 130 or more during a set of squats. That can be rough on the ol’ ticker if your ticker needs tinkering! People suffering from coronary disease will find heavy squats more taxing than beneficial. In most cases in which a prior condition existed that would have precluded heavy training, a qualified sports physician could, with careful screening, prevent these kinds of accidents. All athletes as well as fitness enthusiasts who want to train with weights should see a good sports physician before embarking on a stressful training program.
Myth #4: Squats slow you down.
It’s well known among exercise physiologists that the stronger the muscle is, the faster it contracts, particularly against resistance. An athlete’s running and jumping ability can only be enhanced through the development of great leg strength.
There. That takes care of the old myths that I wrote about a decade ago. Look back, and you’ll see that very little has changed in my rebuttals to these early myths. Some science is as good today as it was yesterday.
Here are some of the more recent “opinions I read and hear about squats. The really funny thing is that many of them contradict one another! At least ten years ago perpetuators of myths were together in their belief that squats were bad for you. Nowadays, there are so many new “chiefs (self-proclaimed gurus who, in fact, aren’t qualified or well informed enough to hold an opinion on much of anything, let alone squatting!) that one wonders where all the Indians went!
New Myth #1: Only powerlifters need to do squats.
There are many forms of squatting, each having unique benefits and applications. The powerlifting style of squatting is the best way to lift limit tonnage. It’s also the most dangerous because of the immense shearing forces placed on the lumbar spine. For your information, though, it’s only dangerous for those powerlifters who never learned how to periodize their training. The ONLY time I ever did powerlifting style squats was right before a competition (6-8 weeks out). Otherwise, I did several of the other varieties of squats, depending upon where I was in my cycle and what my training objectives were at the time.
Here are the noteworthy variations to the squat movement that have been employed over the years:
- Powerlifting Squats (wide, intermediate or narrow stance)
- Olympic Squats (also called “High Bar Squats” or “Bodybuilding Squats”)
- Safety Squats
- Twisting Squats
- Lunge Squats
- Side Lunge Squats
- Partial Squats
- Box Squats
- Jefferson Squats
- Hack Squats (with barbell or machine)
- Leg Presses (angle of weight ascent ranging from 0 degrees to 90 degrees)
- Overhead Squats (also called snatch grip squats)
- Magic Circle Squats (also called Raider squats)
- Sissy Squats
- Front Squats
- Platform Squats
- Zane Squats
- Platz Squats (Olympic squats done with a bent bar)
- Bear Squats
- Front Harness Squats
- True Squats
All are good, all have their unique benefits, and at least one or two should ALWAYS be incorporated into all mesocycles of your leg training regimen, regardless of whether you’re just an average Mrs. Jones looking for fitness or Quadzilla. It just depends upon what your objectives are.
New Myth #2: Since no athlete in any sport moves vertically up and down with a load on their shoulders, there’s no reason for athletes ever to do squats. They’re just not sport-specific.
Good observation, although not entirely logical. Any good strength coach knows that there is a general movement away from general movements to more specific movements as the competition season gets nearer and nearer. Straight up-and-down squats are done in the off-season. They give way to lunge squats, side lunge squats, Bear squats and finally the ultimate form of squatting for most athletes — twisting squats.
Didn’t know that? It doesn’t surprise me. You don’t know squat!
New Myth #3: Bodybuilders will get bigger, more cut quads with leg extensions, and they’ll get bigger, more cut hams with leg curls. So they don’t need squats.
I recognize the need for other leg exercises in a bodybuilders routine. Leg curls and leg extensions are great, but don’t get the idea that they are how bodybuilders get cuts! DIET provides the cuts. As for squatting, well, let me give you words of wisdom from Jeff MADDOG Madden, the ISSA-certified strength coach for the University of North Carolina.
Down the road, in a gym far away
A young man was heard to say,
“No matter what I do, my legs won’t grow!”
He tried leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses too.
Trying to cheat, these sissy workouts he’d do!
From the corner of the gym where the big guys train,
Through a cloud of chalk and the midst of pain,
Where the big iron rides high, and threaten lives,
Where the noise is made with big forty-fives,
A deep voice bellowed as he wrapped his knees,
A very big man with legs like trees,
Laughing as he snatched another plate from the stack,
Chalked his hands and monstrous back,
Said, “Boy, stop lying and don’t say you’ve forgotten!”
Trouble with you is you ain’t been SQUATTIN’!
New Myth #4: The ONLY way to get big legs is to squat.
Squatting provides the greatest amount of adaptive stress to the greatest number of major muscles in the upper leg. That simply means more bang for the buck. More effect for the effort. But don’t get the idea that squatting is all you have to do to get big legs!
There’s many other exercises (listed already), that are necessary, but they’re to be regarded as auxiliary to squatting! Why? Read Maddog’s poem again!
New Myth #5: Narrow stance for the vastus lateralis sweep.
While the inner and outer quads are activated via separate neural input, they function as a single unit for most intents because 1) the origin points of 3 of the quads are so close together, 2) they share a common insertion and 3) the quads span such a long bone. There may be a bit of differentiation possible through foot placement, but not so much that overall size takes a back seat to whatever meager shape changes you can effect.
Get big, and hope that the good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, gave you the genes necessary to have that pleasing “sweep” bodybuilders favor.
New Myth #6: Squats will give you a broad butt.
First, re-read my response to New Myth #5. Add to that bit of wisdom the fact that gluteal development is more often a genetic thing. Look at Tom Platz! No hammer there! Lots of guys and gals squat without getting big butts. Wide, intermediate or narrow, it doesn’t really make that much difference.
On the other hand, no advantage is ever gained by going real wide (beyond, say, 24-36 inches wide) for anyone other than powerlifters. So keep your stance somewhere inside 24 inches or so, and you’ll do great.
New Myth #7: Hack squat machines, Smith machines, leg press machines and the amazing plethora of other leg machines the past 30 years have witnessed are all safer than squats, and just as effective. So why even bother with the old fashioned squat?
Folks, squint your eyes and watch as someone does hack squats. Likewise for leg presses. Tell me what you see! Visualize that person standing on the floor and doing the precise same movement with the precise same body position. What do you see?
An unbelievably funky lookin’ squat that isn’t much good for much of anything.
Now, that’s not to say that while in the machine (instead of standing on the floor doing the same movement) it’s a worthless exercise! Hack squats have value. So do sissy squats. So do leg presses. Most you us who live in the trench know them all. But don’t tell me that they can take the place of squats! They are to be considered auxiliary to squats. Only during injury are they ever to be considered replacements for squats.
Proper technique for the Bodybuilder’s Squat
- Position the bar on the squat racks at a height approximately three to five inches lower than your shoulders.
- With at least two spotters standing by (NEVER only one spotter), position your hands evenly on the bar and, with your feet squarely under the bar, lift it from the rack with the legs.
- Step back just enough to avoid bumping the rack during the exercise, and position feet at no more than a bit more than shoulder width.
- The weight should remain centered over the back half of the feet, not on the heels or toes.
- Slowly descend into a near-bottom position, keeping the torso and back erect so that the hips remain under the bar at all times. Do NOT allow the hips to drift backward or the torso to incline forward.
- A check on proper position is to ensure that the angles formed at the knee joint and hip joint are close to being equal. (Powerlifters almost always have more of an angle at the hips, and close to a right angle at the knees.)
- Do NOT relax or drop swiftly into a rock-bottom position. Keep the muscles contracted and stop just short of the bottom.
- Rise out of the squat position following the same path that you descended — the torso and back remain erect and the hips remain under the bar throughout the ascent.
- Repeat the squat movement for the required number of reps.
- The use of supportive devices is not advised except in cases where the weight is extremely heavy.
- When returning the bar to the rack, have the two spotters carefully guide you in, being sure that the hands are not in the way of the bar or racks. Your fatigued state has diminished your control over the heavy weight.
In disproving the more persistent myths about squats, we’ve exposed some of the more important points off proper technique. For example, it’s clear that there are several ways to perform the squat, but you must identify your training objectives for the cycle you’re in before choosing the technique.
Powerlifters, for instance, use a technique during competition that in no way resembles the one bodybuilders or athletes should use in training. But non-powerlifters are often guilty of mimicking that contest technique because more weight can be hoisted. The feet are spread beyond shoulder width, and the thighs barely break parallel when the lift is completed. The bar is carried as far down the back as rules permit, just below the deltoid muscles, and a considerable amount of forward lean is used to allow the legs to share the load with the gluteus and hamstring muscles. The weight distribution and better leverage afforded by the bar position and wider stance allow the powerlifter to squat with as much as 20 percent more weight than the upright technique allows.
Athletes have their own particular way of squatting, although the difference is not so much in position as it is in speed of movement. Athletes interested in developing explosive power (for jumping, running, kicking, tackling and the like) typically use explosive movements in their weight training, particularly in squatting.
This is referred to as compensatory acceleration training, and it requires that maximum effort be exerted against the bar throughout the entire range of motion. For example, near the top of a squat movement, the weight is easier to move because of improved leverage. Athletes compensate for the improved leverage by accelerating the bar, thereby applying maximum overload in the full range of motion. Such explosiveness also leaves you with an amount of learning– training explosively literally teaches the athlete to be more explosive.
So what constitutes good squatting technique? This booklet sets down the important points of proper squatting form for athletes in all sports. But the theory behind the technique tips isn’t all that simple. For example, what about the isolation principle? This important theory states that it will be easier to apply adaptive overload if a muscle is isolated. Implicit is the notion that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Relating this analogy to anatomical terms, if a group of muscles act to move a weight, the strength of the movement can be measured by the strength of the weakest muscle in the group. While the stronger muscles in the group may get some benefit, the overall gain to the group will be minimal.
This would appear to be a strong argument in favor of the leg curl and leg extension exercises over squats for overall leg development. But is it really? Because of the peculiar arrangement of the leg muscles’ insertion and origin points (three of the quadriceps and 2 of the hamstrings span two joints, the hip and knee), it’s impossible to get sufficient intensity of effort during maximum isolation movements, such as leg curls and leg extensions. The leverages involved in squatting generate more intensity of effort than do the isolation movements, and overload is more easily achieved. It takes both intensity and isolation to maximize the benefits of overload. The squat’s efficient mix of isolation and intensity will yield improvements in both size as well as strength much faster than will any other leg exercises.
OFF-SEASON LEG TRAINING FOR MAXIMUM SQUATTING POWER
Despite the fact that they have been much maligned by (pencilneck) physicians who rarely have the opportunity to observe “healthy” people (they usually only see sick people), squats are the single most effective leg exercise ever conceived. This is true whether your training goals are those of a bodybuilder, power athlete, endurance athlete or fitness freak. For powerlifters, they’re obviously an integral part of the sport.
In all honestly, however, and in deference to the good docs who eschew squats, they have to be done VERY carefully.
So, without disregarding those of you who squat for basic leg strength or size, I shall direct my attention to off-season squat training for my brothers and sisters of Irondom, the powerlifters.
To work best — with the utmost safety and effectiveness — your off-season squats must be done with an upright torso, with knees not extending beyond your feet in order to protect the integrity of the tissues comprising your knee joint. Despite what some of the purists among you may believe, I strongly advise you NOT to “bury” your off-season squats so deep that you inflict trauma to your knee joints rep after rep. Remember, your contest style squats are performed in such a way that your knee joints are as close to 90 degrees as possible. So why train beyond that during the off-season?
You should go to a depth necessary to stimulate maximum quadriceps contraction, but not so deep that 1) your knees are traumatized, or 2) hyperflexion of your lumbar spine exposes you to serious back injury. Descend to a depth where your thighs are approximately parallel to the floor.
Well before contest day — around 6-8 weeks out — you must turn to the more effective contest technique of distributing the weight to your hips, hams, back and quads.
Despite the fact that your off-season training requires them, conventional straight bar squats (called “Olympic” or “Bodybuilding” squats) have several inherent disadvantages:
- The chance of leaning forward or rounding your back under heavy loads is always a problem
- Falling off balance forward or backward also jeopardizes your safety during heavy squatting
- Your shoulder girdle, shoulders, wrists and elbows often take a beating holding the straight bar firmly in position
- Missing a squat attempt is something which happens to all of us from time to time, often with dire consequences
- Discomfort to the back of the neck (typically at the 7th cervical vertebra) where the bar sits is a problem we all shrug off as part of the game
- Individual anatomical peculiarities often make it extremely difficult — if not impossible — to assume the most efficient stance in order to derive maximum benefit from squats
- Not being able to squat because of the lack of competent spotters has been one of my personal gripes
- Perhaps the most dangerous part of squatting is the need to take several steps backward to set up, and then return to the rack after squatting. This factor alone accounts for over 75 percent of all squatting-related injuries!
Despite these problems, all of us put up with them and get on with the business of learning good technique, taking proper precautions, and doing what we know is best for us. We squat no matter what, because, it has always been thought of as best to do so. That we’ve gotten by and made progress with conventional squats is due in no small measure to the fact that squats are a necessary part of our training. It’s what we do.
Of course, the ubiquitous pencilnecks who suffer an injury will opt to completely eliminate squatting from their training. But impassioned powerlifters — those of you with more than half a brain and more than your fair share of heart — will find a way around whatever injuries you may have until the problem is solved. The best way around problems with squatting is to find other means of training your legs that eliminate trauma to the injured area.
Here are a few leg exercises (including some unique squatting techniques) which may provide both protection from and ways around injuries:
Here are many variations to the squat movement. One extremely important one is the “lunge” squat. Lunge squats can be done to the left, right or forward, placing the weight on the lead leg. The quad muscles of the lead leg are targeted with both front and side lunges. Side lunges also target the groin muscles (especially the adductor gracilis of the opposite leg).
From a front lunge position, you can “twist” to the opposite side of your lead leg while ascending from the lunge position. This is an exercise which I had originally developed for athletes like down-linemen or shot putters who are required to explode laterally out of a lunge or squat position. Powerlifters benefit too, in that fuller leg development is achieved in the sartorius and adductor muscles of the upper leg.
“Twisting squats,” as they’re called, require a special harness to wear on your chest and shoulders to hold the short bar in place. DO NOT attempt to do twisting squats with a long bar, or with the bar placed on your shoulders! Loss of control in this exercise can mean groin, knee and low back injury.
Hack Squats and Leg Presses
Hack squat machines and leg press machines come in handy if 1) you haven’t learned how to do squats properly yet, 2) you don’t have a safety squat bar, 3) you don’t have a spotter to help you do squats, or 4) if your back is tired or injured and you can’t do regular squats. They’re good substitutes for regular or safety squats, but NOT a replacement for them.
Hack squat machines come outfitted with a weighted sled that rolls up and down on tracks or slides on linear bearings, and shoulder pads so you can support the weight while squatting. Leg press machines’ padded shoulder supports are stationary, on the other hand, and a sled device similar to those used on hack squat machines is pressed upward at varying angles, depending upon the design of the specific leg press machine.
Stiff Legged Deadlifts
A lot of powerlifters ill-advisedly use stiff legged deadlifts to exercise their lower back. Because your lower back is more efficiently and effectively developed with back extensions, there is no need to do any other off-season exercise for your lower back, and ESPECIALLY not stiff legged deadlifts!
However, stiff legged deadlifts are particularly effective for developing your hamstrings (the back of your upper legs). The traditional way of performing this exercise is to lower the weighted bar all the way down to your bootstraps while standing on a platform or bench with stiff legs (or knees slightly bent). In this way, it’s believed, you’ll get maximum effect on your hams. This may be true to a degree, but you’re also going to unnecessarily expose your lumbar spine to injury. Those intervertebral discs down there come loose all too easily!
I submit that there’s a better way. With barbell in hand, poke both your butt and belly outward. In this position, you look kinda like one of the “Keystone Cops” you see in the 1920s movies. This variation of stiff legged deadlifts has thus become known as “Keystone Deadlifts.”
This seemingly strange position will prestretch your hamstrings because of the forward tilt of your pelvis the position entails. Then, while maintaining this position, slowly lower the barbell to around your knees, keeping the bar close to your legs during the descent and ascent. You must NOT go more than an inch or two below your knees. By the time you reach your (slightly unlocked) knees, your hip joints have fully flexed, and any further lowering of the bar is accomplished ONLY through eccentric hyperflexion of your spine — a NO-NO!
You will feel a decided “burn” in your hams and glutes when keystones are done correctly. You should feel virtually no discomfort or stress in your lower back. If you do, experiment with the movement until you feel no discomfort at all. Invariably, a slight adjustment in your position will correct the problem. The nice thing about doing stiff legged deadlifts this way is that you can use a far heavier weight, thereby getting better adaptive stress applied to the targeted hamstring muscles. All without any low back trauma at all!
One more important caution: NEVER do this exercise explosively! You’ll risk pulling a hamstring or blowing out a lumbar disc.
Leg Extensions and Leg Curls
These two exercises are favorites of bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts. While they may be “ok” for them, they are decidedly useless for otherwise healthy powerlifters. Eliminate them from your training except during times when, due to injury, they’re the only movements you can perform safely and pain-free.
Squatting With The Manta Ray
The Manta Ray is a shoulder girdle support manufactured from indestructible hi-tech molded plastic. It clips to a straight bar and completely eliminates the discomfort of the 1″ round bar pressing on your 7th cervical vertebra, or the sharp knurling ripping your flesh. I personally LOVE this thing, and if I don’t have a Safety Squat Bar (see below) to use, I ALWAYS have my Manta Ray. In fact, it is a device I instruct all ISSA-certified personal fitness trainers to use for their clients. My belief is that ANYTHING that makes squats more comfortable is great because a perennial problem with squatting has always been that people just don’t like them! They’re uncomfortable to newcomers and ironheads alike! The Manta Ray solves this problem exquisitely.
There’s a training device called the “Safety Squat Bar” (sometimes called the “Hatfield Bar”) which can give you a new lease on effective off-season squat training. Some of you may have seen it collecting dust in the back of the squat platform. Pick it up! Put it on the rack and use it! The exquisite isolation the Safety Squat Bar™ provides for your quads will be a truly unique experience, I assure you. Let’s go over the good points of the Safety Squat Bar one by one. Your hands are not holding the bar. This allows you to grasp the handles on the power rack. Because of the heavy loads involved in squatting, there is a tendency to “round” your back and place unnecessary stress on those easily displaceable intervertebral discs. This is avoided by exerting pressure against the power rack handles and thus maintaining a perfectly straight back throughout the entire squatting motion. Using your hands to spot yourself prevents you from falling forward or backward. Squatting with a straight bar, you’re forced to use a load that you can handle in the weakest position. This results in using an inadequate amount of weight in the strongest position of the squatting motion. This problem is solved by use of the hands in the Safety Squat Bar™. When the “sticking point” is reached, the hands can be used to help you through it. This unique feature allows you to work with heavier weights in the ranges of movement where you are strongest and gives you help when you are weakest. You are exerting closer to your maximum effort through the entire range of motion. The padded yolk that the Safety Squat Bar is equipped with effectively eliminates neck and shoulder girdle discomfort. And the fact that you needn’t use your hands to hold the bar on your shoulders eliminates wrist, shoulder and elbow discomfort.
By using your hands to regulate body position, your posture under the bar can be adapted to suit your own anatomical peculiarities so that you can literally “tailor” your squatting style to afford maximum overload. Conventional squatting places the weight behind you, fully four inches behind your body’s midline. That caused you to lean or bend forward for balance. With the Safety Squat Bar, the weight is distributed directly in line with your body’s midline, and completely eliminates the need to lean forward. Finally, because you are holding onto handles build onto the squat rack, you do not back up before squatting, and you are not obliged to walk back into the rack after squatting. This element alone has the potential of eliminating up to three quarters of all squatting-related injuries. As a final note, remember that your off-season training is NEVER meant to be a time for impressing your training buddies by seeing how much weight you can squat with — or “still” squat with after your long layoff, as the case may be. It is a time for establishing a solid foundation for the high-intensity pre-season training to follow. It is a time for eliminating weaknesses. It is a time for establishing a high degree of limit strength in all muscles of the body in preparation for the highly ballistic speed-strength training that must be incorporated into your precontest preparation.
And remember this. Explosive strength, which can only be maximized by first establishing a supernormal level of limit strength in all of your synergistic an primary muscles, will give you your greatest squatting ability come contest day. There is no way that you can get away with being explosive before you’ve adequately prepared your body for the tremendous stress such training entails.