The squat is called “The King of Exercises” because of the effect it can have on a person’s overall level of conditioning. If your personal trainer doesn’t have you doing squats, or if you aren’t doing them on your own, you should be. Properly educated personal trainers and other strength professionals have always included squats in their clients’ routines despite an erroneous perception in some quarters that this exercise is potentially harmful.
The benefits derived from performing squats are many. When performed properly, squats are safe and can be a significant factor in the prevention of knee injuries. As a matter of fact, squats are used in the rehab setting in place of leg extensions (quadriceps) and leg curls (hamstrings) – exercises that are incorrectly viewed by some as safer and more effective options – precisely because squats actually put less stress on the Anterior Cruciate Ligament of the knee than these machine based movements.
The shearing forces at the knee – the stress produced as a result of a movement that forces the bones above and below the knee to move – are greater when performing leg extensions and leg curls than when performing squats. When performing the machine-based exercises the long lever arm – think about where the pad meets your legs when you do these – put a great deal of shearing force on the knee.
Being anchored in a sitting position while all the force of the movement is through the tibia puts a ton of stress on the ACL. And if a trainer ever tells you that shortening up this lever arm and moving the pad closer to the joint minimizes this problem they are wrong and lazy.
Get a new trainer. Actually, if you personal trainer doesn’t have you squatting you should get a new one anyway.
The squat movement is more specific to many real world activities and therefore is more suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. To use the above-mentioned machine exercises as a point of comparison, these movements break down the movements of the legs into component pieces and work these muscle groups separately. We don’t move this way in the real world, ever.
To produce movement – especially walking, running, doing yard work – all the muscles of the body work together. Squatting requires that all of the muscles of the body work together in order to produce movement. Exercises like the machine-based leg press do require that the quads and hamstrings, and to a lesser extend the hips and calves, work together.
However, the leg press also removes the involvement of the lower back and other stabilizing muscles of the trunk while minimizing the work done by the hips and calves. Being locked into a machine removes the needed stimulus of balance and coordination that all people need to develop and maintain, especially older members of the population.
Make no mistake about it; doing squats with poor form and with too much weight can contribute to back and knee injuries. However, the squat is not a difficult exercise to master and the vast majority of people can benefit from performing them without needing to add additional weights.
Here’s a checklist for performing the squat.
- Place your feet at about shoulder-width apart.
- Descend under control and ascend with a variety of speeds. Don’t get sloppy at faster speeds.
- In order to support your torso, hold breath from the start of downward movement until you start moving upward.
- Don’t bounce or twist from the bottom position. Perform squats in front of a mirror until you have the form down so that you can make sure you are properly aligned.
- Keep your back as vertical as possible during the entire lift and keep you knees in line with your feet. Don’t let your knees buckle in.
- Descend to the point where the tops of the thighs are at or slightly below parallel to the floor. Sometimes athletes will squat into lower positions when their sport requires they get into such a stance.
- Feel should be flat on the floor and you should maintain an even balance. Don’t push more with the front of back of the foot.
- Don’t move forward during the descent phase of the movement and don’t let your knees go beyond your toes. Keeping your shins as vertical as possible will reduce the shear forces on the knee.
- Especially for beginners, maintain a constant pattern of motion throughout the set, as this stable movement pattern will help prevent injury.
The squat is one of the best exercises that you can do and everyone, no matter what their fitness level, can reap the benefits.