“There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what a squat should look like, whether or not you should be doing them, and how you should be doing them. I am here to set the record straight on the most common and unfounded squat myths you are likely to hear as your embark on a strength training journey.”
Part 1: Mythbusting Broscience
Squats. You put the bar on your back, squat down, and stand back up. Simple, right? So why does it seem like everyone has an opinion about squatting? While not everyone agrees on who should squat and how, one thing that most people agree on is that squats are hard, yet highly effective at developing general strength. This is why many of us have a love-hate relationship with them, and perhaps why many people think they can’t or shouldn’t perform squats. While there aren’t many universal truths when it comes to training for strength, one thing is for certain: if you can squat, you should squat.
As Starting Strength Coaches, we are in the business of making people stronger. Strength is a muscular adaptation to the stress of training, or, more specifically, to the exercises that make up our training. So, we choose exercises for our clients based on 3 criteria:
- Uses the most amount of muscle mass
- Uses the greatest effective range of motion
- Allows them to lift the most weight
These criteria, in balance, give us the exercises that produce the best strength response with the least amount of complexity.
The low bar back squat satisfies these criteria extremely well and is, therefore, the squat variation we use most often. A properly performed squat is one in which:
- The barbell stays balanced directly over the middle of the foot
- The feet remain flat on the ground
- The feet are turned out about 30 degrees, and the thighs remain parallel to the feet
- The hip crease drops just below the top of the knee
- The spine remains in rigid extension
(Remember these, there will be a test later) 😉
While I may not need to sell you on the squats-are-good-for-you argument, there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of myths and misconceptions about what a squat should look like, whether or not you should be doing them, and how you should be doing them. I am here to set the record straight on the most common and unfounded squat myths you are likely to hear as your embark on a strength training journey. We will kick off this 3-part series by busting 3 “broscience” myths to help you achieve a more efficient and effective squat!
Myth #1 – Take Whatever Stance “Feels Right For You”
Storytime: the first time I went to visit a Starting Strength Coach for coaching, I argued with her for a solid 5 minutes about wanting to take a parallel stance and not let my knees go past my toes. After all, I am a physical therapist, and that’s how I learned it in school and that’s what seemed right at the time. Okay, maybe that wasn’t a very good story. But my point is that sometimes what “feels right to you” isn’t always the most beneficial.
Set your stance at shoulder width. The reason we set the stance the way we do is to allow you to hit proper depth, which if you remember (told you there’d be a test!), means that the crease of the hip drops just below the top of the knee (in other words, just below parallel). For most people, the stance will approximate the width of their hips and shoulders. An excessively wide stance tends to stretch the adductors to their limit early. As your external rotators attempt to keep the knees in line with the toes, the adductors will be elongated. Once they reach the limit of their extensibility, you cannot squat further down while maintaining the correct relationship between your thigh and toe angle. An excessively narrow stance, on the other hand, will cause the thighs jam into the pelvis on the way down. This can limit your depth, make it difficult to keep your back extended, or contribute to sore hip flexors as soft tissue is impinged between the femur and the pelvis.
Toes out, knees out. The knee is a hinge joint, meaning it likes to flex and extend in a single plane, and is limited in its ability to rotate or twist. Rather than having the feet parallel, we set the stance with the toes turned out about 30 degrees. This means that as you descend, you must shove your knees out so your thighs are angled out in the same direction as your toes. This not only keeps the thigh and the lower leg in the same plane, but allows for even better clearance between the thighs and the pelvis, making proper depth easily attainable for almost any body type. This knees-out position also brings more hip musculature into the picture: the hip external rotators (the little muscles in your hip that hold the knees out), and the adductors (which help aid in hip extension out of the bottom). That’s right; a knees out, toes out squat is basically an advanced version of the abductor/adductor machine, and you also look way more awesome while doing it.
Myth #2 – Low Bar Squats Don’t Work Your Quads
Nobody wants to have weak quads. But which type of squat is the best when it comes to quad gains? Some like to blast their quads with front squats, but if you remember back to our 3 criteria for exercise selection, we want to involve the most muscles mass to lift the most amount of weight, in order to make you generally strong. This is why the low bar squat remains our favorite squat variation for the development of general strength.
Without getting too technical, a front squat involves more knee flexion and less hip flexion than a low bar squat. The knees also slide further forward in a front squat, placing a greater burden of force production on the muscles that extend the knees (the quads), and less on the muscles that extend the hips (the glutes and hamstrings). A high bar squat falls somewhere in between, with more force on the knee joint than a low bar squat, but less than a front squat. So while it’s true that a front or high bar squat is more “quad dominant”, this argument misses the forest for the trees.
While the popular concept of “targeting” specific muscle groups has some merit – localized muscular tears lead to size increase in the prime movers for each exercise – it ignores a couple important factors. One is the systemic response to training. Part of what causes the localized muscular gains is the systemic hormonal response to training. The bigger and more stressful the exercise, the better that hormonal response will be. This is why we favor multi-joint, compound lifts over isolation exercises. It is also why if you want to get your bench press stronger, you still need to squat because squats help increase the systemic response to training. The other important factor is the overall intensity of the lift. Heavier weights make you stronger than lighter weights. This means that while front squats and high bar squats might target your quads better, shifting so much of the force production means that you aren’t going to be able to lift as much weight or develop those lifts as readily as the low bar squat. And that development necessarily means your quads have to get stronger.
Tl;dr: while a front or high bar squat might require the quads to produce a greater amount of force, this does not mean that a low bar squat will not make your quads strong. Any exercise that requires you to straighten your knees under a significantly heavy load requires your quads to produce force, and increases their ability to adapt to stress. If someone can squat below parallel with 300lbs. and stand back up, regardless of where the bar is held, their quads are not weak!
Myth #3 – The Deeper, the Better
My biggest fear in life is ending up on the @quartersquatgang_ Instagram. Okay, maybe that’s not true, but many serious gym-goers know that partial reps are basically weight room heresy. If you think you may be a partial-repper, no need to panic! Luckily I just explained how you can achieve proper depth in the squat. So if just below parallel is good, then all the way down must be better, right? Not necessarily.
When you squat, we like for you to use a stretch reflex. A stretch reflex is a muscle contraction in response to a stretch. As the muscles of the knees and hips are stretched eccentrically during the descent, this tells the neuromuscular system that a strong concentric contraction is about to follow. This primes the neuromuscular system to recruit more motor units. At just below parallel, the knee extensors and hip extensors are in position to contribute to the stretch reflex, and therefore create a stronger contraction.
Any experienced lifter can lift more weight squatting to just below parallel than by hitting their ankles with their butt. To go 6 inches below parallel, something has to relax to get there. Because the hip and knee angles are so closed, the quadriceps and glutes are no longer actively producing force in order to hold the lifter just below parallel. And if the hip joint has reached its maximum amount of flexion, the spinal extensors may relax as well to achieve depth through lumbar flexion. Now the lifter must produce enough force to reverse directions, without contribution from the stretch reflex. Squatting “ass to grass,” therefore, dissatisfies our 3 criteria for exercises selection because the range of motion is not effective at helping you lift the most weight.
Just-below-parallel squats, on the other hand, maintain ongoing force production of the hip and knee extensors, allow you to keep your back in rigid extension, and will still earn you weight room brownie points for achieving proper depth. Win-win-win!
Maybe all of this sounds fine and dandy if you are someone who is young and in shape and can still do squats. But what if you have knee arthritis? What if you’ve had a torn ACL? What if you just have “bad knees”? Maybe squats aren’t for you. Or maybe they are…
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we dissect some myths and misconceptions about squats and knee health!