Login | November 21, 2018

The simple back squat

Pete’s World

Published: December 4, 2017

Seems more often than not when I introduce clients to the back squat they inevitably respond with the same uneasy question: “Isn’t squatting bad for the knees?” Unfortunately, there’s some validity to their question.

That’s because many people––and I do mean many––perform this exercise incorrectly. Heck, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed one deplorable squatting scene after another, no matter who’s the squatter, what their ability level might be or where the facility resides.

Improper squatting technique means risking potential injury, which usually involves…you guessed it, the knee and low back. This is why the back squat’s gotten such a bad rap over the years.

And that’s a shame because the back squat is one of the most beneficial exercises you can do. Squatting develops leg and hip strength and promotes full-body mobility and stability. Not only that but squatting builds muscle and burns fat––in a big way.

So let’s cut to the chase and begin this discussion by first looking at the technique flaws side of squatting, then move on to a squatting checklist which details the proper way to squat.

Okay, three of the most common squatting mistakes are “valgus collapse,” “loss of neutral back” and “heel rise.” The first, valgus collapse, or medial knee displacement, means the knees bow inward while squatting.

Now the problem with knee valgus is that it can lead to patellofemoral pain, ACL tears and ITB (iliotibial band) syndrome. And this is precisely where the “Isn’t squatting bad for the knees” question comes from.

Knee valgus issues need to be corrected prior to one progressing to any actually squatting. And this can take anywhere from a quick 5 minutes to a tough couple of months. We’re talking about neuromuscular reprogramming here, and that involves time, persistence and repetition. Some people learn quickly while others don’t.

The second squatting flaw, loss of a neutral spine, is another big no-no. Improper back position can increase the likelihood of spraining a spinal ligament or herniating a disc. Dynamic and static flexibility work for the hips coupled with a great core training regimen will help immensely in correcting this technique defect.

Heel rise is far less injurious to the body than the first two, but it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed. Usually this failing is the result of tight calf muscles and tight hip flexors and a good stretching and strengthening program is the proper way to address this issue.

Okay, so let’s get down my checklist for a solid, technically correct squat––from start to finish.

Address the bar with an even, slightly wider than shoulder width grip.

Get under the bar such that it’s resting across the trapezius - NOT the cervical vertebra of the neck. Retract your shoulder blades as far back as you can, creating a slightly uncomfortable feeling.

Hold your head straight, push your chest forward, and keep your back arched. Take a deep breath, hold it, then unrack the weight and take two steps back. Exhale.

Position your feet a bit wider than shoulder width and rotate them outwards about thirty degrees.

Before squatting, inhale such that you’re holding air in your abdomen, rather than your chest.

Keep that chest up and back arched, while at the same time push out on the sides of your feet like you’re trying to spread the floor.

Begin the descent by breaking at the hips, which entails pushing your butt backwards and down at the same time. Squat down to a position such that your thighs are near parallel, or parallel to the floor.

Now rise up by leading with your head, driving backward into the bar while looking straight ahead.

Your chest should remain protracted and you should drive your elbows forward and under the bar. Make sure to push your hips forward while consciously engaging those gluteal muscles.

Stay with that deep breath you’ve held until you’re at least half way up, then begin exhaling as if you’re blowing through a straw. Never let all the air out before reaching the top (finish) position.

Pause at the top, let out all your air, think through this checklist, take another big inhalation and do the next rep.

If you take it slow and steady, thinking through good technique with each succeeding rep, you’ll help to quash out that “Isn’t squatting bad for the knees” question which hangs in the air of every gym.