The Dark Side of Barbell Back Squats

weightlift fail
Photo: themovementprogram.wordpress.com

I don’t usually publish an “info” blog on a lift day, but my wife’s van is in the garage and I have to drive her to work when I’m normally at the gym. No lifts for me today.

Anyway, when I was doing some research for yesterday’s blog post, I came across some interesting and even controversial articles about back squats (also, the kid who dumped a 300 pound barbell in a failed squat attempt inspired some additional reading).

Actually, the first two articles I read were authored by the same person, Anthony Dream Johnson: Barbell Squat : the Worst Exercise in Existence? and Top 10 Reasons NOT to Barbell Squat, published in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He seems pretty sincere.

From the second blog post (which is basically a commentary on the first, including the public’s cry of outrage):

Once upon a time I published a post on this blog titled “Barbell Squat : the Worst Exercise in Existence?”. As it turned out, barbell squat fanati fans were not pleased with this post.

In fact after they got done kindly telling me how upset they were with my ideas, they proceeded to link my post from the front page of every major “fitness” forum on the internet, so all of their buddies could join in on venting bottled up rage from early childhood abuse.

Excuse me, leaving entertaining and constructive comments on my blog for the betterment of mankind, care bears, and unicorns.

Okay, let’s get serious. This post is being produced because I’m not done criticizing the stupidity that is the illustrious, the worshiped, the magical, the super-natural, and our lord and savior, THE BARBELL SQUAT.

There’s a lot of material covered in Johnson’s two missives, so please click the links I’ve provided and have a look for yourself.

squats
Photo credit: strengthtech.com

I have to admit now that I’m better prepared and trained to do proper back squats, I’m sort of in love with the squat rack. Of course, I’m not trying balance a 300, 400, or 500 pound barbell on my traps. My post-personal training PR yesterday was a mere 200 pounds, and that only for 2 reps. I suspect the risk of injury increases exponentially once the barbell weight goes up beyond a certain point, but there are other things to consider as well.

A Flex Magazine article mentions height as a critical factor:

Consider what you’re doing when squatting. You have a heavy weight on your traps, sometimes more than 500 pounds, pressing down on your spine. Then you bend down, putting your lumbar region in a vulnerable position, not to mention the strain on your knees and even your shoulders, from holding the bar. All of this is compounded if you’re my height or taller. If you’re Lee Priest or Dexter Jackson, you can do squats all day with good form and little discomfort, but if you’re over 5’10”, it’s tough to do them without bending forward too far.

I’m just shy of 6’3″ (about 190.5 cm) which apparently is a problem. On the other hand, I’m nowhere near squatting 500 pounds, so that could make a difference.

T-Nation.com published an article called The Squat: Good Exercise Gone Bad? which brought up similar points. Actually, the article was written in response to a video by strength coach Mike Boyle who said that no one should squat–ever.

The blog writer Nate Green interviewed training and exercise pundits Dave Tate, Christian Thibaudeau, and Eric Cressey to gain insights from their differing perspectives.

Green also interviewed Boyle to get more details on his opinion and, in part, Boyle said:

The whole purpose of the conventional squat is to put a barbell on your shoulders and transfer power from there, through your body, and into your legs. But the weak link isn’t your legs—it’s your back. Watch someone squat and you’ll see they rarely have trouble getting out of the hole. But nearly all of them will bend forward when they fail.

back squat legs
Photo: muscleandfitness.com

Given my past experiences with squats (although deadlifts were the greater offender), I’d have to say he’s onto something. That said, my legs have grown noticeably since I started doing squats. All the leg presses and leg extensions I did prior to learning how to barbell back squat didn’t do jack compared to what my legs look like now (no, not like the photo to the right, alas).

On the other hand, powerlifter Dave Tate says:

There’s just bad application or bad programming. Is there something wrong with the squat? Yes and no. If the program is a disaster or the person isn’t built for it, then yes, there is something wrong. If it’s programmed well then I don’t see any problem at all.

So the back squat isn’t universally bad or evil, it just depends on the circumstances. He did say it’s possible to overtrain, but that’s true for any lift. He didn’t say what it was to be “not built for” squats, however.

Bodybuilder Christian Thibaudeau filled in the blanks:

Guys who have long legs compared to their torsos, like hockey players, would turn the back squat into a low-back exercise since their leverage is different. And if you worked primarily with those kinds of athletes, then I could definitely see why you may not think the squat is an optimal exercise. Still, it’s great for the guys who have shorter legs and longer torsos.

And therein lies my problem. I have long arms, long legs, and a long torso, so in terms of squats, my leverage sucks. Actually, this is true about deadlifts as well, which is why I have to get my butt as low as I can before pulling a 200+ pound barbell off the floor.

Thibaudeau suggests the following if you’re not a “natural” squatter:

Just replace them with trap bar and snatch-grip deadlifts. You’ll get some great quad development from those two exercises.

snatch grip deadlift
Photo: crossfitnyc.com

The little gym I train at doesn’t have a trap bar, and snatch-grip deadlifts don’t look to be so much of an improvement, given my “leverage” issues.

Athlete-Creator Eric Cressey states:

I don’t contraindicate exercises; I contraindicate people.

People may be skewed because they deal with different populations. Mike deals with mostly hockey players. For those guys, it’s understood that you’re going to play most of your career with a groin strain. It’s a population where their hips are an absolute disaster. They have poor hip internal rotation and bad adductor tissue quality and length. And when those are your issues it makes it harder to squat deep safely.

Some alternatives to the traditional back squat were forms of one-legged squats, however:

But I think you’re missing out if you drop squats altogether. Bilateral movements are still our bread and butter. I mean, you squat every time you take a shit.

In my case, I have lousy balance, which is why I’m no good at Yoga (and believe me, I’ve tried), so if I’m going to do a squat-like exercise, I’d better do it standing on both feet.

What’s Cressey’s suggestion for improving a problematic squat?

Optimize your hip, thoracic-spine, and ankle mobility. Work on core stability and see what happens. If you fix all of that I don’t know why you wouldn’t squat. Athletes have been doing it forever; it’s just a damn good exercise.

Given my limited experience plus a mere 5 hours of personal training, I’d tend to agree that mobility and core strength are the key to a good squat, even at modest weights (like mine).

gene lawrence
“Cowboy” Gene Lawrence

Bret Contreras wrote You’ll Never Squat Again: Why Physical Therapists and Doctors Should Learn Some Biomechanics as a tribute to doing squats, or more accurately, a tribute to getting on the comeback trail after an injury. He also introduced me to my latest inspiration, “Cowboy” Gene Lawrence (you’ll need to be logged into Facebook to see any relevant information).

Back in June 2013, Contreras wrote:

Gene Lawrence is a badass. He’s a 74 year old powerlifter who has set tons of records in his sport. He didn’t start training for powerlifting until he was 69. Last year, he squatted 225, benched 260, and deadlifted 365, all raw. Last year he also tore his left rectus femoris falling down in his driveway.

The doctor who performed his surgery told him he’d never squat again. His physical therapist told him the same. I knew better. I told Gene that within a year he’d probably be squatting his all-time best.

Notice that Lawrence incurred his serious injury outside the gym, and he put himself back together in the gym…well, sort of.

Following his rectus femoris repair surgery, Gene spent approximately 4 months with his physical therapist, strengthening his quads and hips and regaining flexibility. After that, he returned to training with Charles Staley and me. Immediately, Charles and I had him performing tons of bodyweight hip thrusts and back extensions to strengthen his posterior chain. We also started him off on deadlifts. For two weeks it was rack pulls with light weight, and from then on it’s been from the floor. After a month, we implemented bodyweight box squats. Two weeks later we had him performing goblet squats. Two weeks later came the barbell for squats.

Although my injury was nowhere near as serious and Lawrence’s, Chase, my personal trainer, also had me doing exercises to strengthen my posterior chain including lunges, back extensions, and rack pulls (and I’m “only” 61, not 74 like Lawrence was when he got injured).

And what was the result of Lawrence’s recovery training?

In just 4 months of training with us (and 4 months with the physical therapist before that), Gene has recently squatted 215 lbs (20 lbs off of his all-time best), benched 258 lbs (3 lbs off of his all-time best), and deadlifted 330 lbs (35 lbs off of his all-time best at this weight). He’ll soon beat his squat record, just as I predicted. It’s not easy returning from a surgery when you’re 74 years old, but Gene may soon start setting PR’s due to the hard work and consistency he’s put forth (Charles and I put him on a very regimented schedule).

gene lawrenceYou might wonder why Lawrence would go through all the trouble or why anyone would encourage him. At 74, most guys have long since given up on heavy exercise in favor or more leisurely pursuits.

Here’s what Gene’s doctor and physical therapist failed to understand. Powerlifting is what makes Gene tick. It gives him strength, courage, and zeal in life. Gene’s home gym is his pride and joy – it houses his hundreds of powerlifting trophies and plaques. Setting PR’s gives him a reason to get up and train. It’s in his blood. If you’re a fellow lifter, you get it.

One of the things I read in Bill Gifford’s book Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) is that people tend to live longer and are more active as they age if they’ve got a compelling reason to get up in the morning.

That reason can be just about anything as long as it motivates you to drive forward. For Gene Lawrence, that driving motivation is powerlifting.

Contreras has a pretty optimistic view of squats compared to some other trainers:

The squat is well-tolerated if you understand progression-regression continuums. If you start at the appropriate level and perform the movement properly by sitting back and ensuring that the knees track over the feet, then there’s no reason to worry. You can start with high box squats and work your way down in ROM, then add load in the goblet position. People have to squat in their every day lives, so there’s no avoiding the movement pattern. You can either pretend the squat doesn’t exist, or you can take the time to make sure the individual is squatting correctly; distributing the load properly to the hips in order to spare the knees.

Will I be doing squats when I’m 74 years old? I hope so, but Lawrence’s performance and longevity may be attributed not just to will and strength but good genetics and the right body proportions as well. As I’ve mentioned already, being tall with long legs, arms, and torso is a disadvantage when doing squats and deadlifts (and just about any other free weight lift). I’ll have to keep working on them.

To round all this out with a bit of humor, check out Bodybuilding.com’s article Don’t Squat. Hint, it was published on April 1st, 2013 (wink, wink).

Oh, I’m posting a three-minute video of Gene competing a few years back. See if you can figure out how heavy his bench press and deadlifts were (the weights are announced at the end of the video).

Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.

Napoleon Hill

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4 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Barbell Back Squats

  1. It seems there are many different options when it comes to training. One of the ways is HIT ( high intensity training) one ore two,sets to failure using reps in the 8 to 12 range for upper body and 15 to 20 or more for lower body, with short rest between sets and exercise. You may want to,check out some writtings by Dr.Ken Liestner.. He does advocate squats for almost all his. trainees.and doesn’t like the use of a belt until training competition when you do lower rep work.
    Then you have the Starting Strenght system five reps and plenty of time between sets and use a belt after your warm up weights.
    I have found now at 66 yo that squats are not a problem but I do use my belt on work sets . And for sure I can’t do the linear progressions as it says in Ripps book. For my sqts after some warm ups,I have been doing a set of 5 with a weight I know I can do, add 10 and do a triple then add 5lb and do 2 I will stay at these weights until I can do all 3 work sets with 5 reps.
    I wouldn’t give up on sqts but also don’t do them when my back is sore. I have been reading that for some one week doing squats and next week deadlifts is enough work for the lower back.

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    1. So far, the relatively modest weights I use for back squats are quite manageable. My biggest challenge is getting back up out of the hole once the weight passes 135 pounds. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time doing ancillary work to build my abs and lower back strength so maybe by the time I can manage a heavier squat, my back will be able to tolerate it.

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    2. Someone should tell the folks at cyberpump not to publish text to the web that covers the entire width of the browser window. The human eye can’t take it all in. I had to copy and paste the contents into a text editor and resize it just to make the article human-readable. I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve gone through it, Jerry.

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    3. Found another Leistner article. There seems to be some inconsistency in that one article recommends no bench presses while this one does.

      It’s easy to get pulled into different directions since different exercise pundits seem to have views that oppose each other. They all say that they’re right and only their method will truly work so you can achieve (fill in your goals here).

      Having just rebooted my plan for a 5/3/1 workout, I’ve hardly given it enough time to see how effective it is at increasing my strength. In the very short run, I do seem to be slowly able to handle increased weights with no associated injuries or pain, so I’m inclined to stick with what I’ve got for now and see where it takes me.

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