While I was in Ohio, I received a negative comment on my article I No Longer Give a Squat About The Squat from Jim Price. You can read the full comment here, but below is the meat of his thoughts.
Bodybuilders, on the other hand, subscribe to the philosophy of form before weight. We work only with as much weight as is challenging, while able to maintain form. Squats performed this way will ALWAYS challenge you, and they will NEVER injure you.
I think this is nothing but a scare piece. And anyone chiming in saying they agree and they don’t squat anymore, and it’s because of knee pain, or back pain, has clearly been squatting with bad form. Squats are like anything in weightlifting: do them right, do them safe, and they’ll work wonders for your body. But don’t do them wrong and then complain they’re unsafe. That’s just silly.
His first point might be true in theory, but observation shows that perfect form in skill movements under load EVERY time is a myth for the vast majority. Now up until this point, the only injury I’ve brought up in relation to the squat or other skilled compound movements are those that occur in the gym.
There is another class of injuries that sneak up on you. Those are joint wear and disc compression. Perfect form EVERY time might not prevent these injuries from occurring. One of the problems with this class of injuries is they are slow and accumulative. You see as crazy as it sounds, loading 300 or 500 pounds on the top of your spine several times a month for years isn’t really what the spinal column was designed for.
But don’t listen to me. For $9 you can get the Kindle version of Congruent Exercise by Bill DeSimone.
Congruent Exercise by Bill DeSimone
Congruent Exercise goes into great detail on why the spine was not designed for the barbell back squat. I’d like to share one passage from page 57 of the Kindle edition.
The consequence of mis-loading the discs may not be immediate; it may just accelerate long term wear. You may voluntarily try to keep your back tight during a squat, deadlift, (etc.), you may appear as if you are, but the weight is definitely trying to bend your spine forward. Since you can’t see into the spine, you don’t really know if each of the deep muscles is holding the vertabra in place; they may not be, creating the impingement/herniation, just not yet at a noticeable level. You may squat/deadlift/etc. for years, then tie your shoes and “throw your back out”.
Congruent Exercise also provides exercise alternatives, not just for the squat but for other widely accepted load bearing exercises that are rough on the joints. If you care at all what sort of damage you are inflicting upon your joints and spine in the weight room, read this book.
Was my squat post a scare piece? Yes, it was. I’m trying to share what took me too long to figure out. You don’t need to load the base of your spine with heavy weights to gain muscle in your legs. There are safer alternatives. I believe the risks of injury is far too high. Pointing to the few survivors that can go decades with no ill effects is not evidence the squat is superior to other exercises. It is evidence that some people can thrive and survive extreme levels of stress.
When over 99% of fitness “professionals” cheerlead the almighty squat, I dare to have a conflicting opinion. However, I am not alone. Anthony Dream Johnson gets it. Be sure to read his posts Barbell Squat: the Worst Exercise in Existence? and Top 10 Reasons NOT to Barbell Squat.
Although this post was mostly aimed at the barbell back squat, the core message also applies to any load bearing compound movements, especially the ballistic ones such as CrossFit.
Jun 6, 2013 — 12:21 pm
Never really understood the “You gotta squat” mentality, I don’t gotta do anything. I work my legs by running, if I want to up the intensity we have some really big bridges where I live, the one I use takes me three minutes from top to bottom, I’d like to see the squatters run up a steep incline for three minutes.
If you like to squat knock yourself out but I am in my 50’s and I guard my joints very zealously, it wasn’t hard to figure out that putting that kind of weight on them isn’t a good idea. The overhead press is as far as I’m willing to go with weight-bearing exercises, and with the overhead press we are talking about a fraction of the weight that would be used in the squat.
Still have a good back, good hips and good knees in my 50’s, been weight training since the late 70’s, I must be doing something right.
Jun 6, 2013 — 12:30 pm
Nah, man….you dudes just don’t get it. Its all about living life to the extreme. Whenever I am at a crossroads I look down to my left forearm, which has in large block letters “YOLO” or “you only live once”!
Jun 7, 2013 — 1:06 am
I do worry about squats, I’ve often wondered if it’s safe to the spine in the way described. I’ve found doing ‘super slow’ with a much lighter barbell works well, and it must cause a lot less stress.
Jun 7, 2013 — 8:50 am
Before I am became a convert to HIT protocols, I had already switched from the back barbell squat to the goblet squat using a single dumbbell. It was humbling to see the level of fatigue generated by a much lower weight. And it was amazing that I had no back issues.
I still like the goblet squat, but now I do fewer reps and instead add more static hold time.
Jun 7, 2013 — 9:54 pm
I can’t agree on the blanket assessment. The squat is, after the deadlift, the most natural heavy weight movement. This doesn’t mean it is for everyone or for everything. I reckon that, as an exercise, it simply comes down to personal choice.
Jun 8, 2013 — 6:14 am
To me, it all comes down to, as Robb Wolf might say “Who are you and what are you trying to do?” Clearly powerlifters and olympic lifters must squat. The move is part of their competition. There may be people out there who – for reasons of injury or competition should never squat. I read your original squat piece as your personal statement about why the squat was not right for you given your goals at that time – not a blanket condemnation of the s
Jun 8, 2013 — 6:22 am
(Continued. Please pardon my Saturday morning “butter fingers”)
– not a blanket condemnation of the squat for everyone, everywhere, all the time. In this piece you seemed to have hardened and broadened your position on the squat to a more general audience.
As I see it, the people who shouldn’t barbell squat fall into a few groups: (1) people with pre-existing medical conditions that contraindicate the move, (2) people who don’t know how to do the move properly and aren’t willing to learn, (3) people who don’t know the risks or aren’t willing to accept them, and (4) people for whom squatting is inconsistent with their personal goals. If you don’t know the mechanics or risks of squatting, don’t complain when (not if) you get hurt. If you know how to do it and the risks of doing it, then also don’t complain if you get hurt since you knew what you were getting into.
What I don’t understand is the passion a barbell move inspires on both sides of the debate.
Jun 8, 2013 — 6:59 am
@Txomin – The squat movement by itself is fine. My issue is with the barbell back squat. As the leg muscles get stronger, the amount of weight is increased, which puts further stress on the spine. Congruent Exercise shows why the weight lifted should be below the pelvis and not resting on the top of the spine.
There likely isn’t an issue with doing an occasional low weight barbell back squat, but for long term leg strength, I think there are better/safer alternatives.
@Geoff – I find it interesting that guys start squatting to gain muscle. Some get good at it and then they decide that they are now power lifters. Yet only a very small number of these guys will seek out a qualified PL coach. Considering the risks of the sport, having a coach guide you to perfect form under extreme load, seems like a prudent strategy.
Jun 8, 2013 — 7:10 am
That’s a point where we are in total agreement. Squatting max weights in competition without quality coaching is blindly accepting a massive risk. People who get hurt doing that need to blame themselves, not the squat.
Jun 9, 2013 — 12:57 pm
“…people who don’t know the risks or aren’t willing to accept them…”
a discussion of which is the whole point of Congruent Exercise.
Jun 10, 2013 — 1:14 pm
” … (2) people who don’t know how to do the move properly and aren’t willing to learn, (3) people who don’t know the risks or aren’t willing to accept them … ”
This is a clever way of avoiding the fact that loading a squat with a barbell on your back is categorically more “risky” than any other practiced variation of the squat. Knowing “the risk” and learning how to perform a risky move, are irrelevant because said risk is unacceptable for any purpose outside of sports/recreation. [It’s not a personal preference].
Exercise and rehabilitation require the improvement of health. Periodically hitting the reset button of injury, in slow motion, or in one big press, is idiotic to put it nicely, and if done knowingly (which would be the “risk accepters” in this context).
It’s ironic. If one actually values the field of strength training, and the squat in particular, you have to condemn the barbell squat in favor of sound loading methods as well as the leg press.
Jun 29, 2013 — 8:02 am
Hey MAS, I’m flattered to have motivated a follow-up article. 🙂
Seriously though, I appreciate you coming from the heart. We obviously have two opposing viewpoints, and that’s fine. It’s what makes the world go around.
Enjoying your blog, keep writing!
Sep 15, 2014 — 6:39 am
I don’t back squat, and I don’t front squat. I only do the Zercher squat. I’m a confirmed Zercherist and likely to remain one. Good luck all ye back squatters!
Sep 15, 2014 — 7:14 am
@Moss – Thanks for the idea.
Everyone else, here is a video of the Zercher Squat.