Question: Have you every seen this guy in the gym? The one that has the upper body of Arnold, pre-Governator, and the lower body of a 16yr old cross-country runner? Yes you have… Don’t be that guy… For many reasons… You see if you neglect to train your legs, specifically with squats, you are missing out on a TON of health and performance benefits. Unfortunately most people are terrified to do squats because the think squats are bad for them. This could not be further from the truth and I will tell you why.
Having been in the fitness industry for 20 years now and worked with hundreds of people, I have heard all kinds of reasons to why people don’t do squats. The one that stands out most is “my doctor said squats are bad for my back and knees”. So if it comes from your doctor is MUST be true. My usual first response is, “does your doctor exercise”? “Is he/she familiar with proper squat mechanics and form”? The answer is usually no. Now hear me out, I am not trying to discredit the knowledge of your MD, but the fact is a large majority of them don’t work out and/or do it properly. I have personally worked with my fare share of Drs. That have terrible movement mechanics and are quite frankly a mess. So how could they possibly educate you on proper exercise movements. I’m just sayin.
In my 20 years of experience people feel pain when they squat for two main reasons. First, poor squat mechanics. Any movement that is done incorrectly can cause pain not just in the muscle but in the joints as well. Here is a good study demonstrating the benefits of squats. You see poor mechanics in the squat will cause an uneven “shearing” at the joint and can lead to problems down the road. Do you go onto your toes when you squat? Do your knees collapse in towards each other and do the arches in you feet collapse when you squat? If so, your movement mechanics are incorrect. Start slow and be sure your form is correct.
Second, unless you have had a trauma to your knee, meaning a fall, accident, etc, the pain you are feeling in your knee is 99.999% of the time an issue of a tightness and/or an imbalance/weakness in the musculature of your legs. In this Huffington Post Article the author actually wrote a book on how he cured his “bad knees”. I too had a similar experience when I first got into endurance sports. My knee pain was so bad that I actually went to the Dr to schedule a C.A.T. scan and possible surgery. Thankfully, I wised up, did my research and through foam rolling, massage and creating a better leg training program my chronic knee pain disappeared for good. Maybe I should have written a book on this J.. Honestly though, since then 100% of the people I have worked with that have “bad knees” that haven’t suffered a prior trauma, I have been able to alleviate the pain.
On to my next point. People will tell me that you shouldn’t go lower than 90 degrees in a squat, even body weight, again because it’s bad for your knees. We actually had many great debates over this issue in my early years of training. I agree, that if you have had a legit injury, deterioration of the joint or EVER feel pain when you squat then you should evaluate your form and limit your ROM. But if there is no pain or prior trauma I see no reason why you can’t drop it drop it low gurl. Take a look at this range of motion.
Now do you think we were created with this perfect posture and range of motion early in life but it somehow magically becomes terrible for us in our 30’s, 40’s and beyond? Well how about this one:
Do you think this guys Dr. or P.T. told him to only go to parallel or above? Probably not. So if we are born with the ability to squat to the floor and do so most of our young lives what happens that all of a sudden makes is the worst thing we can do for our knees and back? Western life happens. Once most people get to high school, or the latest college, there range of motion goes from what you see above to half that at most.
In fact, if you look at any indigenous population from young to old, from the beginning of time through today, they all squat very low every day not for exercise but as a way of life. They cook, clean, and wash this way. They “sit” and socialize this way and yet they have perfectly healthy joints well into the later years of there life. Now check out the guy below.
As you can see this guys range of motion is nowhere CLOSE to the photos above. Add to this a poor inflammatory diet and no lower body strength training and you have a recipe for “bad knees and back”. You see, as we get busy in our lives with career and family we forget about a very fundamental part of being a human. MOVEMENT!! They lack of movement effects our balance, coordination, and unfortunately our ability to literally move through life without pain.
Are you one of these people? Can you get down on the ground and play with your children without pain? Can you squat down and pick up something from the floor or under a table or chair without feeling pain in your knees or back? Heck, can you stand up out a chair without feeling pain?
If you answered no to any or all of the above don’t worry. I will give you the steps to start correcting the problem in just a second. But first, I need to give you a few more reasons squats are good for your health and performance and are literally the best overall movement you can do.
- Squats build muscle throughout your entire body not just your legs. Squatting, when done correctly, has anabolic effect on your body which increases growth hormone and testosterone production. So before you run to your Dr. to get your dose of “Low –T” medication, get your butt underneath a barbell. Low testosterone levels have been linked to many adverse health effects in both men and women including increase cardiac disease risk, increased cholesterol, and possibly diabetes.
- Prevent injuries. What?! That’s right. Squatting, when done correctly, improves connective tissue strength, which in turn protects your joints, ligaments and tendons from being strained or torn. Squats increase range of motion in your ankles and hips.
- Whether it’s one of the prime movers or acting as a stabilizer you need virtually every muscle in your body in order to do a squat properly. Hence, this one exercise is like a total body workout one rep at a time. Crunched for time? Hit the squat wrack.
- Boost your athletic performance. If you want to run faster and longer, PR your next event, or chase your kids around all day without fading (yes mom’s you are athletes in your own right), squats are essential.
- Speed recovery and healing. Squatting increases the pumping of fluid and nutrients throughout your entire body. So after a race or hard workout add a few sets of body weight squats to your recovery protocol.
Ok, so let’s get to it.
Self-myofascial release or foam roll your calves and quads. Foam rolling breaks up any scar tissue/adhesions between the muscle and fascia and allow for an instant increased range of motion, often times pain free. This is way better than stretching, as stretching actually makes the muscle weaker and can decrease the ability to protect your joints. If you don’t have access to a foam roller don’t fear. I actually had a lady tell me after watching one of my how to foam roll videos, she used her rolling pin from the kitchen.
Strengthen your glutes. There is a saying “Your knee is a dumb joint”, meaning it does what the hip and ankle tell it to do. If the stabilizer muscles in your glutes are weak your knee won’t track properly causing pain. See my video here on how to strengthen your glutes to protect your knees and back.
START SLOW!! If it has been a while since you have worked out start by simply squatting with body weight, as shown in the video link above for 2 sets of 10-15 reps. Since there is really no external load you can repeat this every other day slowly increasing your range of motion each time. After the first week use a wooden dowel/broom stick to place across your back to simulate the barbell and assist in opening your shoulders/chest. Then, slowly progress to a light barbell. One key, keep your heels on the ground! I have a gentleman I have worked with for over 5 years. When we first began he had chronic knee and calf pain and very limited range of motion. After incorporating foam rolling and proper form he now, at 72 years old, can squat well past parallel with ZERO PAIN.
Do all squats in front of a mirror so you can monitor your form 100% throughout each set. If you can, get with a qualified trainer/coach to take you through a movement assessment to identify weaknesses and imbalances. See below for what your knees should and should NOT look like.
I can’t end without saying, specifically to the ladies, squats WILL NOT make your legs big! Quite the contrary, squats can shape and tone your legs and glutes. If you are an athlete concerned about maintaining a certain weight or a non-athlete not wanting to gain size you can squat for strength, power, and mobility but not gain mass. People who get big legs from lifting, lift a specific way and eat a very specific diet TO get big. Trust me, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said this I would be very very rich.
If you have any questions, comments, or need help starting a smart functional training plan you can leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.