In my first two myth-busting blogs I focused on nutritional myths (Cholesterol Myth and Milk Myth). In this installment I want to talk about one of the biggest exercise myths that I hear perpetuated in the gym more than anything else. The myth that (drumroll) squats are bad for your knees. Squats are in fact one of the single best exercises you can include in your program for strength, muscular development and burning fat. When I hear people say that they don’t squat because it hurts their knees I always ask them to demonstrate some squats for me. Every time I watch one of these demonstrations my suspicions are confirmed. It is not squats that are hurting their knees, it is how they are squatting that is hurting their knees.
Why are squats good?
- Squatting is one of the most fundamental human movement patterns that is transferrable to anything we do in sports or daily life. If you want to make yourself a better athlete you need to be squatting.
- Squats develop all the major muscle groups around the hips and knees, the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles. Strengthening these muscles takes the load bearing pressure off the knee joint and onto the muscles that are meant to stabilize the joint.
- Squatting is one of the single best core exercises. When you squat your abs and all the muscles in your back are working hard to stabilize your spine during the movement. Heavy squats done with good form will make your abs stronger than any traditional “ab exercise” you have been doing. Doing high volume squats with lighter weights will build core endurance and melt away the fat around your midsection.
- Since squatting is a compound movement that requires the use of all of the biggest muscles in the body it is one of the best exercises for burning calories and fat. Don’t believe me? Pick a weight that you can do 15-18 squats with and then attempt to do 6-10 sets of 10 squats with a one-minute break. Let me know what happens to your heart rate during that workout and then try to tell me Zumba was a better workout.
- If the traditional Back Squat is good for your core, the more advanced Front Squat is even better…And the very advanced Overhead Squat (OHS) is ‘mo betta. If you don’t have experience with the Front or OHS I would recommend having an experienced trainer or someone with a lot of Olympic lifting experience work with you on your form.
Squatting is becoming a lost art because it is hard work and most people avoid something hard when there is an easy alternative (enter the leg extension and a host of other ridiculous leg machines that isolate muscle groups in a way that they don’t work in natural movement and take the core completely out of the equation). In order to squat safely without pain you have to be able to properly organize your spine by bracing your core and have the mobility in the hips, knees and ankles to move through the proper range of motion. When people stop moving and start sitting for long periods of time core function and mobility, particularly in the lower body, deteriorates rapidly.
Regaining core function and mobility takes work and a certain level of knowledge. We’ve already established that most people avoid work when at all possible, so they either quit squatting or they continue squatting poorly. Another unfortunate and unforgiveable trend in the industry is the large number of trainers that can’t teach or demonstrate proper squatting technique and progressions. In my opinion that is like an English teacher not being able to teach sentence structure, yet it see it every time I visit another gym.
Squatting Red Flags
Watch yourself in a mirror or ask a friend to take a video of you squatting. Look for these common squatting dysfunctions before you add squats to your program or advance to more difficult squats.
- Knees caving in at any point of the squat. This points to tight hip flexors and calves as well as weak glutes.
- Hips sliding to one side. This indicates some hip or knee mobility issues and some glute dysfunction. Address mobility issues and lighten the weight or regress to a corrective like the goblet squat.
- Heels coming up off the ground during any point in the squat. This means you have tight calves. Stop wearing heels, do calf mobility work and squat with your heels elevated on 10 lbs. plates or a wood plank in the interim.
- Upper or lower back rounding during the movement. This means your core isn’t engaging properly during your squat pattern. You need to regress to a corrective exercise like goblet squats and focus on strengthening your core with exercises like planks.
Now that you know what NOT to do when you squat, check out my Squat 101 blog to learn proper squatting form and cues.