How real is the threat of injury when getting under a loaded bar?
Barbell back squats form the cornerstone of a multitude of strength routines, and with good reason. It is seen as one of the best exercises to develop strength and power, improve mobility and flexibility, and it builds slabs of muscle as it incorporates over 200 muscles in your body. It also elicits one of the most pronounced anabolic hormonal responses of any exercise.
Even endurance coaches across the world view the squat as an excellent movement to improve performance. It has the potential to make you run faster (research done in 2012 by Comfort P, et al. shows that improvements in sprint performance came as a direct consequence of increased strength with squats) and jump higher (the influence of squatting depth on jumping performance probed in 2012 by Harmann H, et al.).
Despite the multitude of benefits offered, many people will avoid putting a barbell on their backs. They will rather skip squats because they are hard to do and they believe common myths such as it’s bad for you knees or back. The truth is the movement, when performed correctly, is safe and may even be a significant mitigator to knee or back injuries.
The real injury threat
That’s not to say that you can’t get injured when squatting under a loaded bar. However, most injuries occur due to poor form during the exercise, particularly when taking the bar off or returning it to the rack.
Partial squats or going half way down can also create muscle imbalances which often cause knee injuries. The best advice is to perform a full squat to strengthen your hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes.
When you squat you also work your abs and lower back muscles because they stabilise your torso while your upper body balances the barbell. Any weakness in these areas will also result in compensatory movement patterns that may stress muscle groups and joint structures that were not designed to accommodate such forces and loads.
It is also important to note that injuries that are caused by the squatting movement are as a result of training with a pre-existing injury that can be caused by further damage. This may also lead to compensatory injuries anywhere else along the movement chain.
Reduce your risk
So, how can you improve your squat technique to build more power and, over time, a better physique or enhance performance? Take the following tips in consideration to improve your squats:
- Lay the right platform by ensuring you have the requisite mobility and flexibility in your hips and ankles before attempting to squat. This is important for both the proper execution and safety during this movement.
- Correct any muscle imbalances as you progress with your squatting. Common areas most people should be concerned with are tight hip flexors and weak glutes.
- Before squatting grab the bar as hard as possible. The tension initiates greater muscle activation as your body prepares itself for the impending load. This will allow you to exert the maximum amount of force with the right muscles involved.
- Ensure the correct foot position. Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground with your toes pointed slightly outwards. This will assist with stabilisation when you perform the movement.
- The squat should be fluid and controlled throughout the descent and ascent. Keep muscle tension in your legs, back and abs. Remember – more tension equals more strength.
- Keep your chest up and don’t lean forward when you squat to ensure your torso remains upright throughout the lift. Look straight ahead and not down at the floor.
- Keep your back flat as you descend. Rounding your back you will put significant pressure on the intervertebral discs, the soft gel-like cushions that protect each vertebrae. When these discs rupture because of too much pressure a portion of the spinal disc will push outside its normal boundary. This is called a herniated disc and may require surgery to repair.
- Keep your knees pointed in the same direction as your feet. Don’t let your knees bow inward at any point during the squat either.
- Don’t squat above parallel just to handle more weight. Decrease the poundage you use and go down below parallel (hamstrings are below parallel with the floor). Your range of motion will however depend on your individual hip flexibility. Stay in a range that is comfortable.
- Perform your squats without elevated heels because this will only lead to ankle problems. This includes avoiding shoes with a steep heel-to-toe drops, or placing plates or a piece of wood under your heels.
- Don’t rely on a squat belt – it is there merely for assistance. It should be used to support the lower back and torso during the lift. Save the belt only for your heavier sets. If you progress to heavier loads always have a spotter in case you need extra help during the lift.
- Vary your squatting repertoire by incorporating other variations such as front squats (more quad dominant), powerlifting squats (hips, glutes and hams) with a wider stance and Zercher squats (core and upper back engagement) to ensure adequate strength is built in all areas of the movement pattern.
Originally published in Fitness His Edition, By Werner Beukes, Deputy Editor