To Squat Or Not To Squat

There's still a lot of controversy as to whether trainees should include squats in their exercise programs. For some experts the squat is the undisputed "king of exercises." Squat proponents claim that no other exercise equals it for increasing total-body muscular mass and that because squats work the largest muscles in the body, the thighs, they help stimulate metabolism.

Squat detractors, however, say that the exercise is both dangerous and ineffective, that squats impose forces on the knees, hips and back that increase the chance of long-term injury. Many bodybuilders, particularly those who already have massive thighs, avoid squats, believing that this exercise throws off their proportions. Still another would-be negative aspect is the speed at which your hips and gluteus supposedly thicken when you do heavy squats regularly.
In a recent position paper the National Strength and Conditioning Association looked at the scientific evidence concerning the possible drawbacks and benefits associated with squats.

Back in the l960s researcher Karl Klein found that squats can be detrimental to knee stability because they can stretch the knee ligaments. The NSCA paper points out, however, that more recent investigations found Klein's work to be in error. Klein himself only said that full squats were the problem, and he suggested that lifters could avoid it by squatting only to parallel.

The NSCA paper also goes against conventional training dogma by stating that doing higher numbers of sets and repetitions increases connective tissue strength. Many bodybuilders assume that you build ligament and tendon strength through heavy weights and low reps. Since these tissues do not have a good blood supply, though, it makes sense that the higher reps will have a more beneficial effect, since they will probably suffuse the tissues with more blood and nutrients.

Another common misconception is that imposing heavy loads on a joint like the knee automatically causes injuries. The NSCA paper points out, however, that, if anything, heavy squatting increases knee stability. It does this by increasing compressive force at the joint. Exercising this joint regularly increases collagen turnover, which thickens the ligaments and thus increases knee stability. In fact, the microdamage to ligaments that results from an intense squatting session causes the ligaments to hypertrophy as a means of compensation for increased force.

Although powerlifters and bodybuilders who squat heavy frequently complain about sore knees, studies show that they rarely experience long-term damage. For example, weightlifters show no increased incidence of arthritis compared to people who don't exercise. The NSCA paper contends that leg extensions produce more force on the knees than squats do. This relates to the stabilizing aspect of the hamstrings when you squat. In contrast, during leg extensions the knees get the full brunt of the weight.

In reality it doesn't make sense to load extremely heavy weights on the more isolated exercises like leg extensions. Multijoint, compound exercises such as squats or leg presses are more suitable for heavy training because the load force is distributed over a greater area. Specifically, in squats the hips, gluteus and hamstrings work with the quads to lift the weight. On leg extensions the quads do almost all the work, thus stressing the knee joints. A similar situation exists between the bent-leg deadlift, which is a compound movement, and the stiff-legged deadlift, which is more isolated.

The worst thing you can do to your knees when squatting is to bounce in the bottom position. Frequently trainees do this as the result of a too-rapid descent. You should control the weight at all times and make a conscience effort to squat slowly. This usually prevents bouncing in the full-squat, or bottom, position.

Not warming up properly is yet another common cause of squatting injuries. Many bodybuilders like to stretch their quads before a squatting session. This is fine-as long as the muscle is not cold. Cold stretching is worse than no stretching. A good plan is to start out with a very light set of 15 to 20 reps in the squat and then stretch.

Overtraining the thighs may lead to chronic tendinitis or bursitis of the knees. Of course, what constitutes overtraining varies among people. Some have better recovery ability and benefit from more frequent training. For most folks, however, it's best to do no more than two squat workouts a week to ensure complete recovery.

Those who wish to increase their squat and, consequently, their thigh strength, may need to reduce aerobic training. Research shows that endurance and strength training may not be compatible for fostering strength increases. This doesn't mean that you need to cut out aerobics completely, but rather that you should reduce the frequency of your aerobic training when you want to build squat strength. It's just common sense that your thighs will never completely recover from your heavy thigh workouts if you do aerobics every day. This, of course, is irrelevant when you're in a cutting-up or fat-burning phase of training.

Using poor form on squats may lead to back injuries. Poor form means leaning too far forward, turning the movement into a sloppy version of good mornings. While you don't need to keep your back perfectly erect when squatting, bending too far forward is not only dangerous for your back, but it takes much of the stress off your thigh muscles.

It's a good idea to use a lifting belt when doing squats. A belt increases intra-abdominal pressure, stabilizing and supporting the lower back. Knee wraps raise the internal joint temperature, which reduces friction and increases joint elasticity. But wrapping the knees too tightly not only cuts off the blood supply, but also overheats the joints. This causes a gradual weakening of connective tissue that leads to increased injury potential. The NSCA advises against using heavy, multilayer knee wraps because this style of wrapping may throw the kneecap out of its normal path, thus leading to future injuries.

As for excessively building the hips and gluteus, this relates more to genetics. For every bodybuilder who ascribes a big butt or wide hips to past use of squats, dozens more will step forward and proclaim that squats did nothing but produce a magnificent set of thighs. Used properly, this exercise can do the same for you.

by Gary Perryman

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