Strength Training the Right Way: Squats by Fred Dimenna, CSCS

     According to gym folklore, squats are the king of all exercises. However, if you accept that proclamation, you must also recognize that many gym goers denigrate his majesty. For example, it's common to cite a long list of excuses to keep this movement out of an exercise program. In addition, those who do pay homage by performing squats regularly can also be disrespectful by falling victim to numerous execution flaws.

     In its purest sense, a squat is a deep knee bend performed against an external load. It is classified as a compound movement because motion occurs at more than one joint. The primary two are the knees and hips, so muscles that cross those articulations are the prime movers. These include the quadriceps (four muscles that comprise the front thigh), hamstrings (three muscles of the rear thigh) and the gluteus maximus (the butt). All of these muscles are very strong and the overload required to induce positive adaptations specific to strength training is one that should bring muscular failure (inability to continue to complete repetitions with proper form) in a short period of time (60-90 seconds). This means that bodyweight is typically not sufficient to elicit the appropriate degree of effort. If it is, squatting without an externally-applied load will suffice for now. However, it won't for long because your muscles will become more capable due to regular application of this type of stimulation.

The most common way to load squats is by supporting a barbell on the shoulders behind the neck. This is a relatively easy way to hold a lot of weight (versus holding dumbbells in your hands, for example), but does present a challenge to balance. The bar must stay positioned over your base of support throughout, which necessitates leaning forward as you descend. To avoid injury to susceptible components of the back, it is important to accomplish this exclusively by angling the spine forward at its base while maintaining neutral alignment between vertebra. To ensure that this is the case, the chest should be held high with the shoulders back. Tight muscles also challenge balance when squatting. If your calves and Achilles tendon are shorter than optimal, your heels will rise off the floor as you descend. This increases both stress at the knee and the likelihood of stumbling forward.

Many trainers believe it is important to challenge yourself with free weight squats in an attempt to rectify the problem if you fall victim to these balance-related concerns. I have a different view. I believe that some people are built to squat with free weights, while others are not. Cajoling those in the latter group to continue to practice until they become perfect squatters is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. The key adaptations that strength training brings (stronger bones and muscles, a more efficient nervous system signaling pathway and the maintenance of lean body mass and its associated energy cost as you age) are based on muscles contracting very forcefully and anything that interferes with their ability to do so prevents these outcomes. The belief that balance is a trainable commodity is not well supported by scientific investigation and even if it is amenable to positive change, the training effect is likely task-specific.On the other hand, the improved musculoskeletal and neuromuscular capacity gleaned from resistance exercise is well established, but is unattainable when limitations are present that prevent the appropriate degree of effort.

If your goal is to break a specific link by pulling on the ends of a chain, you will be unable to do so if a weaker link is present. Similarly, if balance is your weak link, you are not "built to squat" because the objectives of strength training cannot be met with the free weight version of the maneuver. But if this is your cross to bear, fret not. I came to the same conclusion with regard to my own training in 1984 and haven't squatted with free weight since! But that doesn't mean I haven't squatted. The bar of a Smith machine can be supported the same way, but is fixed horizontally by the machine's vertical guide rods.

Consequently, you can move your feet out from under your center of gravity without fear of falling. Putting the feet forward places the lower leg musculature on less stretch as you descend, thereby allowing you to keep your feet flat. In addition, the ability to vary foot position with respect to the downward direction of the opposing load also allows you to modify the degree of stimulation the different involved muscles receive. If the weight is positioned above the hips, the muscles of the thigh are emphasized, while placing the feet so that the weight's line of opposition passes directly over the knees as you descend shifts the duty to the hamstrings and glutes. With free weights, the allowable degree of this type of manipulation is much less because, regardless of how you maintain your torso (bent forward in the powerlifter's "low-bar" position or more upright), the load must stay somewhere between the two joints.       

Fred Dimenna, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant is a two-time Natural Mr. United States and a WNBF drug-free professional bodybuilder. Visit him at www.freddimenna.com or email him: mrnatural@yahoo.com