To Squat…Or NOT?

Everyone knows that friends don’t let friends skip leg day.  After all, the ultimate display of bromance in any commercial gym is one guy standing behind his bro, acting as  a spotter as the bro in question attempts sets of 5 at 1.5x bodyweight.  Bromantic moments aside, squats are known for being one of the most critical exercises for an individual to master.  Squats engage the entire lower body musculature and much of the upper body (trunk and upper back for stabilization, etc.), thus targeting the largest muscles in the body and creating one of, if not the, greatest metabolic effect of any traditional lift.  I’ve been squatting since I first starting weight training seriously about 7 years ago…except for the one year that I went to a gym that had only one squat rack that was occupied every single time I was there, and by a bro doing bicep curls, no less (I kid you not).  I’ve written HERE on the blog about the importance of doing squats with intensity and proper form.  Of course, I have some knee problems that can make squatting difficult sometimes, but my usual response has been to simply scale back on the weight (and sometimes volume) and really focus on checking my form.  Sometimes it takes a few weeks of squatting with nothing more than an olympic bar, or even just my bodyweight, in order for my knees to feel comfortable again, but I always find my way back to the squat rack eventually.

SQUATS

About the same time I injured my ankle in May, my knees started acting up again.  This time, I took a break from squatting with anything more than my own bodyweight, since my pathetic ankle stability made me nervous about potentially compromising my form and further injuring myself.  I’ve also been working on strengthening my vastus medialis (my lateralis is very dominant) and abductors on both sides, per my physical therapist’s instructions, to help with my knee stability.  I’ve found that my knees aren’t improving, even though it’s been over a month, and that has been worrying me.  After a bit of research, I’ve found mixed results.  Some sources suggest continuing to squat until the pain is absolutely unbearable, others suggest continuing to scale back the load/volume, and still others recommend implementing different leg exercises and reintroducing squats with a more diverse approach to lower-body training.

But then I came across THIS article.

Spoiler alert: He doesn’t squat, and he suggests that maybe no one else should either.

The article goes into much more detail, and includes links to further detailed pieces from other sources, but his basic point is this: barbell squats are a high-risk exercise with only moderate rewards, which are quickly diminishing to boot.   He addresses the issue of loading through the spine – which has its own inherent risks – and particularly the problems that arise from lower body strength increasing so much more quickly than that of the muscles surrounding/protecting the spine.  This discrepancy between the amount of loading that can be handled by the lower body versus the spine only grows as a squatter becomes more experienced (bro-speak translation: “all the gainzz”) and squats heavier and heavier weights.  Confounding the problem is the issue that squat safety is so desperately dependent on the squatter having perfect form with every repetition, which will obviously be more difficult to maintain as the lifter moves through a training session and is battling fatigue.  (This would obviously be more of a problem for someone with a particularly high training volume or particularly heavy load on the bar, and the same problem could be said in varying degrees of many other exercises.)

This is not an idea that I had ever encountered before.  I found it particularly interesting not only because it was counter to most everything I’ve ever heard about fitness, but because it resonated with my own experience with squats.  I get stronger and am able to squat progressively more weight until I am inevitably derailed by the same injuries or chronic pain…lather, rinse, repeat.  Obviously, that’s just anecdotal and certainly not enough to say anything definitive about the merits of the might squat, but it reminds me that my goal in all my fitness endeavors is longevity.  I want to be healthy throughout my whole life, and I value enduring fitness over my performance (i.e. squat PR’s, etc.) at any given moment.   If that means no squatting, then I’d not squat.  Simple as that.

Of course, there are thousands of other sources that will attest to the wonderful benefits of squatting regularly and with heavy loads, and in spite of the injuries/chronic pain (which is surely at least in part due to my unique I’ve experienced some fantastic benefits from squats over the years.  I’m not writing off squats because of this article and a few others to which it linked.  But it made me think more about why we do the exercises we do, and whether my training is more in line with my goals or my pride.  For instance, do I train the way I do because I enjoy it and am reaping the benefits I desire? Or am I training this way because I want to be able to keep up with the bros and be able to say that I’ve squatted so-many pounds, or demonstrated any other kind of performance?  I don’t think either motive is right or wrong, they just reflect different values.

Since I’ve got at least a few weeks left before my ankle is ready for real squats (and that timeline may be wishful thinking), I’ll be doing quite a bit more research and re-evaluating my training.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear what yall have to think:

 Do you squat?  

What do you think of the article I shared?

What are you motives for training the way you do?

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4 thoughts on “To Squat…Or NOT?

  1. Nope, don’t buy it. There are loads of articles out there which caution against deadlifting due to spinal loading, but not as many condemning squats. I can speak from personal experience – squats have helped me immensely, even though it is an extreme love-hate relationship.

    The whole reason I got into weight lifting was because of a bad injury to my right knee. I was instructed to build muscle. I started off with machines only but, as my strength increased, moved to squats. Then last year I injured my other knee even more seriously when I was hit by a car.

    Consequently, squatting is not fun at all for me, as I will never have full strength in my knees (hence why I do strongman – which never has squatting events – and not powerlifting). I have accepted that I need to squat for overall strength and because of the benefits they provide to my leg muscles, but I have also accepted that I will never be particularly good at them. I cringe when I have to squat “heavy” in a gym full of powerlifters, but I just suck it up and put my ego aside. Just as I think it’s a mistake to focus on one type of exercise at the exclusion of all others, I also think it’s a mistake to avoid such an essential compound lift.

    1. I definitely know what you mean about sucking up your pride and squatting “heavy” when you’re surrounded by much stronger squatters. I thought I was the cat’s pajamas for squatting more than my bodyweight until I checked some standards for powerlifting…and realized how puny my squat is. Squats are a love-hate deal for me, as well, because they are tremendously effective for me in terms of hypertrophy and strength gains, but I had the hardest time nailing down my form and it’s still something that takes almost more effort than the squat itself (years later!). I think the key is that heavy barbell back squats are not for every lifter every time. Bodyweight squats, goblet squats, and other variations, can be incorporated to lessen the risks or assist those whose anatomy makes it difficult to back squat well. But I think everyone who trains should learn how to squat PROPERLY and then take the time to figure out what kind of squat program best fits their goals.

      1. Oh yeah, I should clarify – I don’t think everyone should squat with a heavy barbell on their back. I have my clients graduate to back squats. First we do bodyweight, then to a box, then goblet squats, then front squats, and only when I’m feeling confident that they can master all of these variations that I will let them even put an empty barbell on their back. It’s not an easy exercise, but that doesn’t mean we should all chicken out!

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