Back in 2012, I posted what would end up being one of the most popular posts on this blog. It was titled I No Longer Give a Squat About The Squat. It has been almost seven years and I still stand by every word of that article. Yet, I want to revisit the topic briefly from a different angle.
What if I cared about the squat? How would I have approached it differently? Could I have had a better relationship with the exercise, instead of memories of pain and injuries? Perhaps. Here are some ideas that came to me recently.
#1 Get a Coach Early On
The barbell back squat is a technical lift. Having an expert watch your form in real time and provide feedback on correcting that form is an excellent idea. I don’t know how great my form was when I was squatting in my home gym. I think it was fine. But I’m certain it wasn’t perfect.
If I would have had a coach watching for signs of fatigue and guiding me that could only have helped me develop solid habits while the weight wasn’t too heavy. Building strength on bad habits may not be an issue early on, but as the weight gets heavier, those minor mistakes could have consequences.
If you don’t have access to a coach, record video from at least 2 angles (facing and to the side) and then share the videos online in fitness forums. The feedback won’t be real time, but at least you’ll have some tips and a record of your progress.
#2 Do Single Leg Work
I believe the root of many of my injuries has been a strength imbalance between my left and right side. If you never do single-leg work, you might not notice one leg outperforming the other until it is too late.
Doing single-leg work also is great for getting the hip and glutes fully firing. When I started doing single leg presses recently, I was shocked at how weak my left glute/hip was compared to my right. Maybe that imbalance was there during my squat days and if it was, it probably resulted in a few less-than-perfect reps, especially at the end of a set.
#3 Stretch, Yoga, Etc
This is so obvious in hindsight, but back when I cared most about pushing iron, I didn’t care at all about flexibility. I highly recommend listening to Super Human Radio’s recent interview with Skip Hill (SHR #2314). Skip is a guy that got big on squats, then injured, and now no longer squats. Skip discusses the importance of stretching on injury prevention.
#4 Reduce Spinal Loading Stress
One of my concerns with the squat, which I touched on briefly in the 2012 article, is the spinal loading problem. I’d use lower weight and longer rest periods between sets. After a few sets, I’d cycle over to a trap-bar deadlift. It is not the same movement, but I suspect combining the two might be beneficial for leg development and provide a reduced risk of injury.
This is speculation, but it makes sense to me. Then again, I am a much bigger fan of the trap-bar deadlift. With the trap-bar deadlift, there is no spinal loading and the movement is technically easier for taller folks like myself.
UPDATE 2022: I was wrong that the trap-bar has no spinal loading.
The squat can be a great tool. Use it while you are young. Do it intelligently, grab those initial gains, and then step away before the weight gets too heavy or you get too old. How heavy? How old? I don’t have a firm answer for either of those questions. It would depend on your ability to recover. As the pounds increase and your recovery times take longer, start scaling back.
These are all my opinions. I’m not a fitness professional. My bias is always going to be safety first.
Mar 23, 2019 — 6:31 pm
Your article has an error. The trap bar has lots of spinal loading. This is the reason Arthur Jones of Nautilus used double pre-exhaustion for the legs. The hip belt squat loads through the hips and eliminates spinal loading. Alleviating all spinal loading may not not be completely the course of wisdom, as Wolff’s Law shows some spinal loading may be beneficial for the spine.
Mar 23, 2019 — 7:26 pm
@Marc – That is news to me. I just did a quick search on the topic and all I found were articles on fitness sites stating the trap bar DL had less spinal loading.
One article on T-Mag said:
And from my own experience, trap bars have been fine. I’ve never felt any of the back issues I had with squats.
Mar 23, 2019 — 10:12 pm
The trap bar loads the hands, connected to the arms, connected to the shoulder girdle, supported by the back … which support bones are the spinal column of several vertebral. The resistance is thus transferred to the spinal column in a downward manner. The standard deadlift has this same loading pattern. Figure out a way to load differently.
Mar 24, 2019 — 6:52 am
Funny how stretching myths are passed on. Unless you do dynamic stretching or active stretching, you cause more injury according to research. https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20845445/does-stretching-prevent-injuries/
Mar 24, 2019 — 7:18 am
Somewhat off topic, but related to both squats and stretching — I’ve been working on unweighted resting in the squat position with feet flat on the floor. Often referred to as “third world” or “indigenous” squats. I feel a really good stretch in the back when I do them. I’m working up to 10 minutes.
Mar 24, 2019 — 8:11 am
@Marc – What exercises would you use to safely build leg muscles?
@Mitch – That article you linked to actually made the case for stretching. “U.S. Army research team found that trainees with the highest and lowest flexibility had the highest injury rates…” Which makes the case for some stretching. Some. Not a lot.
Runners (the audience of that article) are more likely to stretch too much, whereas (and this is just a guess) lifters are more likely to not stretch enough.
And my personal experience is that as I’ve gotten older, I benefit more from stretching. Stretching is a complicated topic and I don’t feel there is any one size fits all solution.
Mar 24, 2019 — 10:34 am
@MAS – I’d have to agree with Marc. There is gogin to be spinal loading with the trap bar deadlift. As he says the load is still going vertically through the spine. The load is not sitting on the top of your spine as in a back squat, but there is a still a compressive load on the spine coming through the load in the hands.
Alternatives? I’d go back to Bill De Simone’s work – Congruent Exercise or Moment Arm Exercise. In Congruent Exercise he recommends the Hip Belt Squat or Leg Press. In both of those the spine is not loaded vertically. Of there is the wall sit. Other alternatives I use are unweighted calisthenics like the king deadlift/skater squat, reverse lunge or (super) slow air squats.
With respect to stretching, I am currently reading “Gift of Injury” by Brian Carroll and Stuart McGill. McGill is not a fan of stretching for lifters. He proposes that those squatting and deadlifting heavy weights need stiff spines that through work and training become calloused and more resilient. Stretching – especially flexion – is about making the spine less still and more mobile, not what you want with heavy weights.
You are right that the squat is a technical lift – there is a lot to it in terms of bracing and keeping the spine stiff. Also many people – Including tall people like us – simply are not built for it anatomically – hip sockets and levers just make it too dangerous. I don’t think it is worth the risk for most.
Mar 24, 2019 — 11:58 am
@Chris – Thanks, Chris. I want to give that hip-belt squat a try. For the weights that I’m lifting (less than bodyweight), I don’t see any issues with the trap bar. That is me personally and not advice for others.
@All – The ideas in this post are not for heavy lifters. It is about using the squat to get those low hanging gains while young and then stepping away or scaling back.
So with that said, I don’t see much of an issue with some stretching. I included it in the section with Yoga and etc. The point being mobility is a good thing. You learn things about your body’s range-of-motion that you don’t want to learn when under load.
Mar 24, 2019 — 1:37 pm
Safely build leg muscles.
For what purpose, athletics, or personal benefit.
Most are not even close to being a competitive athlete. If you are fortunate to have that rare genetic ability, enjoy it while you can. All the rest should train legs for personal benefit.
Show any woman and most men a picture of Tom Platz’s legs in his bodybuilding prime and they most likely will be disgusted. Bodybuilders have long perverted safe healthy exercise. Legs are used for human locomotion of an enduring modality. Furthermore, legs can be used to run , jump and preserve upright balance.
I am tempted to utilize legs, (calves are the 2nd heart), mainly for cardiovascular improvement.
A peasant would get an old Army rucksack to load and find hilly areas to traverse up and down. Those with back issues could go without a rucksack to build their legs safely.
Resistance training for the legs has been covered way too many times, and does not carry the extra “Cardio Code” benefits as hiking would. Above all else, ignore HIT training advice on cardiovascular conditioning. These aficionados are about two light years behind on cardiovascular training.
Mar 26, 2019 — 10:30 pm
As Marc said, the force you apply to hold weight in your hands or on your shoulders or back has to be transferred somehow through your body, and it’s the spine that does that. Another silly idea is that you can somehow leesen the tension in the spine via some drills like bracing, but it can’t work. Yeah, they make a spine rigid in hopefully a neutral curvature, but that’s it. If you think about it, a spine is basically a drawbridge and if anything keeping it stable against a load adds tension instead of taking it away.
Trap bar allows you to assume less awkward, more upright position, so it feels better for what it’s wirth.
Mar 27, 2019 — 6:52 am
@All – I did a few lightweight hip belt squats yesterday. Since it as Day 1, I did far less than I was capable of doing. Master the movement first. Add weight later.