Here’s a subject that stirrs the ghosts since probably the dawn of time. Or not? For thousands of years, humans were squatting every day – when working in the field, preparing meals, eating, doing the number twos or just relaxing around the campfire. In some areas of the workd this is still customary. Squat is also a way to absorb the force when jumping from any height, and the knee is a hinge which was made to be flexed all the way. If all this proves that the squat is completely natural movement for a human being, then how and when did it became so notorious?
The squat became problematic and sort of an “entfant terrible” only during the last few decades. In 1970 Arthur Jones decided to change the image that bodybuilding had (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Star, Reg Park, Vince Gironda, Frank Zane, …), where a bunch of knobbly, sweaty men was pushing various huge weights in some crummy ol’ cellars and garages. So, he constructed a few machines with cables and various levers, gave them a name Nautilus and offered casual trainees a new, super-sexy-wannabe way to train. Nautilus became the new craze and our Arthur made millions. All that you had to do was sit in a comfortable “armchair”, chose appropriate reading material, do a bit of pushing or pulling and let the machine guide you. By doing this, mr. Jones also gave the media (mostly Muscle&fitness type magazines) lot’s of material for new articles and training routines. Everybody wins, that’s awesome, no? Well… -no.
It is purely human nature to avoid the hard and potentially dangerous stuff, whose success depends on slight nuances. “Why stand if you can sit? Why sit if you can lie down?” Unfortunately, all we achieve by doing things this way is reduced mobility, obesity, muscular atrophy and injuries.
PROPER SQUAT AND WHY IT IS GOOD FOR YOU
Variations are numerous – back squat (high bar and low bar), front squat, split squat, etc., but what they all share is the depth. Properly performed squat ends when the hips cross the level of the knees. Of course, it’s more complicated than that but for the sake of this argument let’s keep it at this.
People should squat deep, if possible deeper than the dreaded “never squat to a point where your upper thigh is below paralell to the floor” point because that is the point wherre greatest posterior chain activation begins. This means that all the forces acting on the knee are in balance – anterior sheer force exerted by the quads and posterior forces exerted by your hamstrings and glutes. The quads have their distal insertion point at the front of the shins while hamstrings insert at the back; this is how they keep things in balance. Movements that the knee WASN’T built for are rotations, various lateral and medial forces.
Important note – how to get all the benefits from this posterior counter-force from hamstrings? Do not let the knees drift too far forward (this loosens the hamstrings) and keep your back tight and in slight extension. Back muscles attach to the pelvis from above while the hamstrings attach to it from below. If the tension in the back muscles is lost, the pelvis will tilt posteriorly and this will also cause loss of the tension in the hamstrings.
Other leg exercises performed on various machines do not offer the benefits of this anterior posterior balance. When doing the leg extensions the hamstrings are completely shut down. This puts the knee under a lot of anterior sheer force (stress from the front side), which is horrible for the folks who have had injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament. Squats on the Smith machine fix our body in an awkward position and do not allow for the micro adjustments so needed for everyone’s different anatomy, while the leg press in almost all trainees leads to posterior pelvic tilt and lumbar spine flexion (bad!). Leg press and leg extension are really dangerous when done incorrectly, under huge loads.
After everything written so far in this article, it is hard not to conclude that the only proper way is to load the bar on your back and squat f*** deep. We can’t produce scientiffic studies so we will have to trust the one that Clein did in the sixties – the only good squat is the deep squat. By doing it so all the benefits are reaped, whole leg musculature gets stronger and this is good for your knees.