You can achieve astonishing leg mass and strength by squatting properly.
By Frederick C. Hatfield, PhD
The squat, more than any other exercise in weight training, has been misunderstood, banned, maligned, performed improperly and surrounded with the most incredible old wives’ tales possible to imagine. In the enlightened age of science, much of the same misinformation still exists among orthopods, physical therapists, exercise physiologists and even bodybuilders.
Physicians often admonish their patients: “Don’t do squats. They’re bad for the knees.” Coaches are won’t to remark, “Squats will slow you down and rob you of flexibility.” Even bodybuilders have been guilty of succumbing to such information, some of them blaming squats for causing a broad-beamed butt.
Enlightened physicians, coaches and athletes in almost all sports __ and bodybuilders __ perform squats in order to, among other things, improve the very conditions for which squats are often blamed! Let’s look at at five pervasive myths surrounding this exercise, and compare them to the scientific truth.
MYTH 1: Squats are bad for the knees.
Just as calluses build on bodybuilders’ hands with the application of stress, so too do ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues thicken in response to the stress of weight training. This is true of connective tissue around joints as well as around musculature. Also, the increased strength of the muscles that cause movement of a joint helps improve the stability of the joint. There is some evidence that even the portion of the bone into which the tendons insert becomes stronger, further improving the joint’s integrity.
Sudden or ballistic hyperextension of flexion of a joint under extreme stress is dangerous. For example, if a karate chop were applied to a board with 500 pounds of force, the board would break. However, if 500 pounds of weight were stacked in the middle of that same board, it would only bend. So, while the application of adaptive stress is required, it must be applied carefully rather than suddenly. Dropping into a “rock bottom” squat position with weight on your back is potentially damaging, but descending carefully into a near-bottom position is proper form that will bring you many benefits.
Relaxing the muscles while in the bottom position is also improper and potentially dangerous. The relaxed muscles will allow the knee joint to separate slightly, placing the ligaments and cartilage under stress that may exceed their tensile strength. Remember always that more is not necessarily better when it comes to stressing the body. While proper stress produces adaptation, overly stressful exercise can cause breakdown of bodily tissue.
MYTH 2: Squats are bad for the spine.
Typically, this mythical disclaimer is accompanied by instructions to do partial or “half” squats. The theory is that by avoiding full squats, both the knees and the spine are spared from potential danger. However, partial squats will not afford the connective tissues of the knees the necessary stress to force the beneficial adaptation. Since one can handle more weight with partial movements, more weight must be used to achieve proper overload of the muscles. Since, in the case of partial squats, the spine isn’t capable of handling the poundages the legs can, it is therefore predisposed to the very injury the exercise was designed to avoid! So, partial squats are both counterproductive (not enough stress to the connective tissues of the knees) and potentially dangerous to the spine (due to the excessive weight that must be handled in the interest of achieving sufficient overload for the legs).
If performed with a relatively flat back, and torso perpendicular to the platform, squats are far from dangerous to the spine. The weight is borne directly over the vertebral column, and torque as well as shearing force is minimized. Some bodybuilders and other athletes prefer to use a supportive waist belt to protect the spine from hyperextension or hyperflexion in the lumbar region. While this is a wise practice when handling extremely heavy weights (i.e., sets of less than 5 repetitions with a maximum weight), it is of questionable benefit with lighter sets of higher reps. The belt will give support, but at the expense of the muscles. Picture the girdle-wearing woman of yore __ once freed from her entrapment, her belly protruded even more than it did before the supportive device was donned! Why? The abdominal muscles never had to work, so they didn’t! One major purpose of weight training is to strengthen the supportive muscles of the body. This, in turn, will enable the major muscles of the body to act more efficiently from their stronger base of support. So, wear the belt when the weight is heavy and low reps are indicated in your training, but otherwise stay away from such supportive devices.
Beginners often find squats somewhat uncomfortable to the cervical spine (the neck) because of the pressure of
the bar resting there. This condition generally goes away with time __ you’ll get used to it. In the meantime, however, it doesn’t hurt to wrap a towel or piece of rubber around the bar to alleviate this discomfort.
MYTH 3: Squats are dangerous to the heart.
Many weight training exercises restrict blood flow due to prolonged muscular contraction. The result is elevated blood pressure. As the condition is temporary, it is not dangerous. The heart, like any other muscle in the body, responds to stress by adapting to it. Eventually weight training strengthens the cardiovascular system; some regimens rival jogging in their promotion of cardiovascular efficiency.
Squats, however can sometimes tax the heart to dangerous limits because the weight is directly on the thoracic cavity. People who suffer from coronary disease will find heavy squats more taxing than beneficial. Also, a condition known as the “Valsalva maneuver” is not uncommon to weightlifters. The weight compressing the thoracic cavity causes blood flow to the brain to slow down, resulting in blackout from anoxia. This rarely occurs when doing repetitions, however, and is more commonly observed under maximum loads such as in Olympic weightlifting competition.
In rare instances, aneurysms (abnormal swelling of a section of a blood vessel) have appeared which have ruptured, thereby causing death. Needless to say, this type of tragedy may have been prevented if a physician were consulted first. The victim of this unfortunate incident obviously had a condition which would have contraindicated such heavy training, and a qualified sports physician would most likely have been able to prevent the accident. 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 make you slow.
Exercise physiologists know that the stronger a muscle is, the faster it contracts, particularly against external resistance. An athlete’s running and jumping ability can only be enhanced through the development of great leg strength.
However, let’s consider some rather important preconditions of athletics that affect training for speed. For example, flexibility must be maintained so the athlete’s stride (gait) is preserved, and to prevent the increased tonus (normal state of partial contraction) of the muscle from causing undue strain when stretched. Also, muscle size and muscle strength are not necessarily coincidental concepts. Muscular strength comes primarily from increased numbers of myofibris in each cell, whereas muscular size stems from increases in quantity and size of many cell components.
When taken to extremes, this increased size may often cause inflexibility or tend to slow a runner because of the additional mass being transported. Squats done by athletes who require great speed and squats done by body-
builders are quite different. The key to maintaining or improving running speed is to do the required exercises properly, and especially so for squats. A bodybuilder need not fear that his or her increased size will diminish speed and flexibility. Performing speed, flexibility and agility exercises concurrently with squats will ensure maintenance of a reasonably high level of these fitness components through the size building process.
MYTH 5: Squats broaden the gluteal area.
The width of the hips results from the genetically predetermined width of the pelvis. The size of gluteal muscles can be developed just as any muscle, but the pattern of development is generally in depth rather than width. Squats performed with the hip joints at a radically acute angle (as is the case with some powerlifting techniques for squats) places much stress on the glutes and they develop in response to that stress. However, if squats are performed in strict, upright fashion with a narrow stance and body perpendicular to the floor, the majority of the stress is borne by the quadriceps rather than the glutes. Thus the legs continue to grow due to the severe overload they’re receiving, while the glutes develop only to the level afforded by the submaximal overload. If the low level of overload on the glutes remains constant, there won’t be further gluteal development.
What is proper technique?
Through exploding the more pervasive myths about squats, some important points of proper technique have been exposed. It’s immediately clear that there are several ways to perform the squat. An individual’s basic goal from squats must be identified so he or she can choose the technique that is most applicable. For example, powerlifters in competition use a technique that in no way resembles the technique that in no way resembles the technique a bodybuilder or athlete should use in training. Beginning bodybuilders and other powerlifters are very often guilty of mimicking the advanced powerlifter’s contest technique because more weight can be hoisted squatting that way.
With feet spread beyond shoulder width, the bar is carried as far down the back as rules permit (three centimeters below the deltoid), and the lift is considered complete when the thighs barely break parallel. Also, a considerable amount of forward lean allows the legs to share the load with the glutes and the spinal erectors. The weight distribution together with the more advantageous leverage afforded by the bar position and wider stance allow the powerlifter to squat with as much as 20% more weight than when using the bodybuilder’s upright technique.
Unlike the power squat, the bodybuilding squat requires a flat, perpendicular back, and during descent the knees travel forward far more than the hips travel backwards.
Other athletes have their own pecuiliar ways of doing squats, although the difference is not so much
in the positions through which the body travels as it is in the 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 squats. This kind of training is referred to as “compensatory acceleration” training, and requires that maximum effort be exerted against the bar throughout the entire range of motion. Nearer the top of a squat movement, the weight is easier to move due to improved leverage. Athletes “compensate” for this improved leverage by accelerating the bar, thereby ensuring that maximum overload is applied throughout the full range of motion.
Also, such explosiveness literally teaches the athlete to be more explosive. Of course, the athlete must slow down near the top of the squat to prevent the bar from being literally thrown from his shoulders.
Proper Technique for the Squat
1.) Position the bar on the squat racks at a height approximately three to five inches lower than your shoulders.
2.) With at least two spotters standing by, position your hands an even distance apart on the bar. With your feet squarely under the bar use your legs to lift it from the rack.
3.) Step back one small step __ just enough to avoid bumping the rack during the exercise __ and position feet at or less than shoulder width.
4.) Slowly descend to a near-bottom position, keeping the torso 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.
5.) The weight should remain centered over the middle of the feet, not on the heels or toes.
6.) Neither relax nor drop swiftly into a rock-bottom position. Keep the muscles contracted, and stop just short of the bottom.
7.) Rise out the squat position following the same path through which you descended __ the torso remains erect and the hips remain under the bar throughout the ascent.
8.) Repeat the squat for the required number of reps.
9.) The use of supportive devices is not required except in cases where the weight is extremely heavy, or to avoid injury.
10.) When returning the bar to the rack, have the spotters carefully guide you in, to make sure that your hands are not in the way of the bar or rack, and also because your fatigued state has diminished your control over the heavy weights.
11.) Off-season training will generally require at least three to five sets of squats with a weight of from 60% of max (approximately 20 repetitions) to 85% of max (about 5-6 repetitions). Other leg exercises should also be performed, but squats should predominate in order to emphasize mass and strength.
12.) As your contest nears, emphasis should probably shift to higher reps (12-20 per set) and more auxiliary leg work in the form of leg curls, leg extensions, hack squats, sissy squats and the like.
So what constitutes good squat technique? The accompanying table (“Proper Technique for the Squat”) describes the proper technique for using squats for athletes in all sports, including bodybuilders and powerlifters engaged in off-season strength training. The theory behind the technique tips is not all that simple. For example, what about the Weider Isolation Principle? This prescribes that if a muscle is isolated maximally, it will be easier to apply adaptive overload. Implicit in this principle 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 acts to move a weight, the strength of the movement can be measured by the strength of the weakest muscle in the group. This muscle receives the majority of the beneficial effects of the overload applied to the group. The stronger muscles in the group get far less benefit. This seems to be a strong point in the argument that the leg curl and leg extension exercises top squats for overall leg development. But is it really so?
Because of the peculiar arrangement of the leg muscles’ insertion and origin points (the quadriceps and hamstrings span two joints, the hip and knee), it is impossible to get sufficient intensity of effort during maximum isolation movements such as leg curls and leg extensions. The leverages involved in squats are more conductive to generating maximum intensity of effort than are the isolation movements, and overload is more easily achieved. The Isolation Principle is very important, but must in some cases be tempered with the intensity factor. it takes both intensity and isolation to maximize the benefits of overload.
In squats, this efficient mix of isolation and intensity will yield improvements in both size and strength far more quickly than will any other leg exercise. The other popular leg exercises __ leg curls, leg extensions, hack squats, lunges __ are more suitably included in a bodybuilder’s routine when symmetry and cutting up are of paramount importance. Even at this stage of contest preparation, squats stand out as the best method to improve size and strength.
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