The squat exercise continues to have a dual identity in the realms of fitness, sports performance, and physical rehabilitation. On one hand, an exercise like the barbell back squat is in an elite category for its ability to build full body strength, especially in the legs. It has even been called the “King of exercises” by some enthusiasts. On the other hand, there is a polar opposite perspective in the industry where squatting is misconstrued as a negative exercise that increases wear and tear on the knees.
Despite the lack of consensus about the safety and effectiveness of this movement, industry professionals will continue to train people in squatting exercises, whether as part of a physical therapy plan of care, an individualized resistance training routine, or a group exercise class. The squat is a staple movement pattern proven to develop superior muscle control, hypertrophy, strength and balance. Here are some popular types of squats, just to name a few:
- Barbell back squats (high-bar)
- Barbell back squats (low-bar)
- Barbell front squats
- Box squats
- Bulgarian split squats
- Chair squats
- Goblet squats
- Isometric squats
- Lateral step out squats
- Lateral squat walk
- Pistol squats
- Plie squats
- Side-to-side squat walks
- Single-leg squats
- Squat jumps
- Sumo squats
- Suspended squats (Redcord)
- Wall squats
I will take a stance here and say that squatting is not bad for you. If you have read my previous article addressing safety with the overhead press (Is the Overhead Shoulder Press Safe?), I will once again emphasize that it is not necessarily the exercise causing harm to your body, but rather the poor joint tissue health, lack of mobility, impaired muscle control, improper technique, and/or bad training habits that are causing pain with squatting. Therefore, if you have some of these issues or pain triggers, squats may not be your best option at first. However, you can still work up to squatting at a reasonable capacity under the guidance of a qualified physical therapist.
To fully appreciate the value of squatting, you have to first view it as a fundamental movement pattern; one that is part of the normal human developmental sequence, and not just an exercise that exists within the realm of the gym. The squatting pattern is present in everyday activities that foster independent mobility in life, such as getting up and down from a chair/toilet, getting into and out of a car, and stooping down to pick up an object.
On a CNBC interview, the Founder and CEO of Crossfit, Greg Glassman stated, “Our understanding is that the needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind. One needs functional competence to stay out of the nursing home. The other one wants functional dominance to win medals.” To put this in perspective, an elite athlete trains to squat for strength and performance; meanwhile an aging adult trains to squat for independence with transfers and activities of daily living.
For those who do not quite see the connection yet, take a look at the box squat. This exercise has been used as a staple movement for elite level powerlifters and strength athletes. Take away the barbell and you are left with a movement that looks exactly like getting up and down from a chair.
If you continue to train progressive leg strength with squatting patterns, you will likely have little to no difficulty performing these everyday tasks. You will also build greater capacity and resiliency to potentially harmful stress to the associated joints. In other words, whether you want to improve your leg strength for elite sports performance or basic functional mobility, you should keep striving to make the squat movement pattern strong.
What about the thought that “squatting places increased stress onto the knee joint?”
Just like any exercise that is more complex or can be loaded heavy, it is true that increased stresses can occur. We have to understand that stress is not inherently bad. Our body has the ability to adapt as long as the stresses are not excessive in load, intensity, volume, or frequency. The potential for injury occurs when the amount of stress applied exceeds the tissue’s structural capacity to withstand the forces. When dosed properly, these stresses can allow favorable adaptations to the structures of the body. Some studies even suggest positive adaptations to cartilage structures as well as muscles when looking at squatting.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Squatting is a necessary movement pattern for optimal health and performance. In the absence of pain or pathology, all individuals should be able to perform and train some variation of a squat with competence.
If you are experiencing pain with squatting, find a physical therapist who truly understands your sport and activities. A good PT can help you modify and scale your squatting exercises for long term health and performance.
Now that we are clear that we should keep squatting, I will address some common misconceptions out there about HOW to squat. I will break this topic down into a 3-part blog series, addressing one misconception at a time. Stay tuned for so much more to come!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.