Building a stronger back (part 4) - preface to the barbell squat

Posted by David Wang 4 years, 1 month ago Comments

Occasionally, you will hear "experts" ask people to not do squats, because it compromises the knee, the lumbar spine and is generally considered a very risky exercise. Horror stories of debilitating injuries are often attached to such statements. Frankly, I think such statements are over-simplified and taken out-of-context, as most health-related info are nowadays, and in this case, misinformation with exercise tips are definitely not out of occlusion. The truth is squatting (with or without added weights) is essential to lower body health and is even a great tool to rehabilitate the injured body. However, it is not to say that everyone will instantly benefit from the exercise and that preventative measures need not be taken to avoid injuries. There are always exceptions to the rule. Rather, my purpose for this entry is to approach the topic of squat safety objectively and to present my interpretation of the risks and benefits of the barbell squat.

First, the Pros and Cons.

The challenges of the barbell squat

  1. A highly technical movement that has a high learning curve to aquire some level of proficiency.
  2. Utilizes virtually all muscles and joints of the body.
  3. Requires sufficient mobility in multiple joints: ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, hip flexion, shoulder external rotation and thoracic extension!
  4. Consequently, when mobility is inadequate, one can be subject to injuries of the biceps muscle, shoulder joint, patello-femoral joint (knee cap & femur) and the lumbar spine, leading to biceps tendonitis, patellar-tracking disorder and intervertebral disc pain, respectively.

*(On top of the above, individual body types vary wildly and must use different form and stances to avoid injuries. More will be discussed on how to modify the squat according to individual anatomy).

The benefits of the barbell squat

  1. A highly technical movement that stimulates the brain's motor cortex and motor pathway (CNS), which in effect, stimluates the limbic system's production of muscle building components (I.E. testosterone); in other words: muscle hypertrophy.
  2. Trains primary muscle groups such as: hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteal muscles and calf muscles.
  3. Trains secondary muscle groups such as: trapezius, diaphragm, pelvic floor and the abdominal wall; all together forming increased intra-abdominal pressure, which is synonymous to lumbar core strength.
  4. When weight-loading (or joint loading) is performed optimally with good form, injuries can be effectively avoided, while joint mobility increases in the hips, shoulder and improved overall posture can be achieved.
Given the appropriate circumstances that one is relatively healthy without major illness and/or near-debilitating physical conditions and is fully capable to walk up 3 flights of stairs without stop, the benefits of the barbell squat should outweigh the potential risks of injury. Even just the process of learning to squat is highly beneficial in improving one's physical conditions. Thus, the ideal situation is to hire a personal trainer or strength trainer to customize and monitor your training routines focused on the back squat, but it may not be available for everyone. Personally, I found it very gratifying to have learned to squat by myself through trial and error, by researching and educating myself on web-related resources and YouTube, where there is an flurry of info on how to squat. For this reason, I've linked below 3 very well-informed and experienced lifters whom I believe to be very good arenas of strength-training, all of whom share competent information for beginners and intermediate level trainees on how to squat safely, efficiently and effectively.
(More on squat techniques to be continued...)
Happy Training!

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