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The squat — it’s one of those exercises that we learn naturally. Prior to walking, infants spend quite a bit of time in the squat position. Soon enough they are stumbling along, grabbing a hold of anything in reach to keep themselves balanced, but are soon back to squatting in order to reach that favorite stuffed animal. As we grew up, so did the squat, which went on to become “the king of exercises” in the fitness arena.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, aspiring bodybuilders were following the lead of one Henry “Milo” Steinborn, champion strongman and the namesake of the “Steinborn Squat,” which became a staple move in the world of weight lifting. The Steinborn Squat involves lifting the weighted bar from a tilt position (no rack), carefully placing the bar across the back, dropping down in a deep squat as far as you can go, then returning to an upright position, and placing the bar down again in tilt position. Milo went on to greater feats such as lifting automobiles and elephants. Yet one thing that Milo did became taboo, and it wasn’t the tilted approach or lifting cars and elephants — it was deep squats.

Though the deep squat didn’t kill Milo (in fact, he lived to a ripe old age of 95), by the 1960s the recommendation was that squats shouldn’t go past the parallel position and that deep squats contribute to knee injuries such as ligament tears. But today deep squats are back. So why the taboo and what has changed to dispel the myths?

The deep squat taboo
In 1961, Dr. Karl Klein, a University of Texas researcher, released a paper called “The deep squat exercise as utilized in weight training for athletes and its effects on the ligaments of the knee.” Comparing 128 weight lifters that regularly performed deep squats to 360 college students who did not, Klein found that the weight lifters’ knee joints showed greater laxity and instability than those of the students. As a result, Klein recommended that full squats be discouraged citing that doing deep squats could result in a “debilitative effect on the ligamental structures of the knee.” Later that same year, the American Medical Association (AMA) backed up Klein’s claims. As a result of the backing of the AMA, these claims triggered a snowball effect causing physical fitness trainers and school superintendents to halt the practice of full squats. But that wasn’t all as soon after several branches of the military also followed suit and banned deep squats from military training exercise regimens.

But it’s natural
As mentioned earlier, full squats are part of our natural movement from infancy. In fact, the human fetus has been known to rest in the squat position within the womb. If it’s a natural movement — how can it be bad for us? Dr. Klein’s results have never been duplicated by other researchers. In fact, many have found issues with Klein’s research. Some of the participants in Klein’s study, for example, noted that the aluminum apparatus used in the test (which fit like a cast around the knee) applied too much pressure and was painful. Also, though Klein highlights the implications of maximum force on the knees, he fails to mention the “wrapping effect” or the contact area between muscles and bones. The wrapping effect minimizes shear force on the ligamentous structures of the knee, specifically to the anterior and posterior cruciate ligament.

In addition, more recent research shows that doing deep squats correctly can be quite beneficial (Williams, D.). First off, when doing deep squats, exercisers utilize full range of motion (ROM) and, secondly, they can help support joint health, help prevent deformity and dysfunction, and help reduce pain. “Deep squats are necessary to stretch the soft tissue in the lower body and to improve mobility and ROM,” according to Maksim Seredov, CSCS, RKC, FMSC. Seredov is the owner of L.I.F.T. Strength & Conditioning, LLC and is a Beachbody Master Trainer certified in both INSANITY® and P90X®. Seredov notes that other deep squat benefits include: maintaining gristle health in the hip, improvement of ankle and hip joint mobility, and increase in knee stability and sprinting and jumping performance.

Thirdly, the fact that full ROM is not accomplished in the half-squat approach means that you are not fully working all the muscles that benefit from full squats. A study presented at the 2008 Congress of the European College of Sport Science showed that subjects performing full squats for 12 weeks had a significantly greater increase in thigh muscle growth compared to those doing shallow squats.

When going deep, technique is key
As with any exercise, the key is to do it correctly. No warm-up is needed before jumping into deep squats; in fact, the deep squats can be part of your warm-up. Seredov notes that there is no one technique that will suit all; however, there are certain criteria that exercisers/athletes should follow in order to properly perform a deep squat. Note: If at any point a participant feels pain as a result of doing deep squats, they should stop immediately.

  1. Heels must remain flat on the ground and there should not be a noticeable shift to the ball of the foot. Having the entire foot on the ground is incredibly important for creation of a stable base and adequate torque from which to develop power.
  2. Feet should not rotate out during the execution of the squat; they must stay firmly planted on the ground. It is normal to demonstrate varying degrees of external rotation of the foot when squatting due to anatomical differences and training goals. The key is that this amount of rotation shouldn’t change from start to end.
  3. The knees should not move inward (valgus collapse) during the squat, as this type of movement results in approximately 70% of all knee injuries, chronic and acute.
  4. The hip crease should descend below the knee crease. All athletes should have the mobility and motor control to reach full squat depth in order to ensure long-term knee health, mobility, stability, strength, and performance.
  5. The low back and neck must remain in a neutral position during the entire squat. A combination of mobility and motor control issues can impact an athlete’s ability to maintain a neutral spine while squatting. Not maintaining proper spine positioning places unnecessary stress on the tissues of the spine.

Be careful, some people don’t know squat
Seredov points out that many squat-related injuries occur because people are misinformed and obtain information from unqualified sources, often on the Internet. “The Internet can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. Since anybody can call themselves an expert and false information is everywhere, it is difficult to distinguish real truth from [false] outdated information,” Seredov says. One of the issues among exercisers trying to do squats is inadequate dorsiflexion in the ankle joints, which may be a direct result of changing styles in athletic footwear. “Fitness shoes used to be made with a significant heel lift,” Seredov points out. “Now the shift is to minimalist, barefoot, and zero drop cross training shoes and this is why so many people squat on the balls of their feet on their toes with their heels completely off of the ground.”

Another issue people run into is motor control. Most people can lie on their back and go through the motions of a squat with no problem, but upright, with gravity in play, people find themselves off balance and falling over while attempting the same moves. Seredov notes, “The second a load is introduced, i.e. gravity or a barbell or kettlebell, most people’s kinetic chain breaks down and the movement becomes dysfunctional.” If a person’s basic motor skills and balance issues are not improved prior to taking on deep squats, trainers can expect participants to repeat bad behavior and risk injury.

As far as weight is concerned, deep squats don’t require exercisers/athletes to use weightlifting bars. Seredov says that deep squats can be performed as standalone bodyweight movements.  “If the athlete is advanced, a load can be introduced or if the athlete is a beginner to deep squats, bands like the TRX or other suspension trainers, a ballet barre, or even a doorknob can provide assistance as the athlete descends into the squat position.”

In Conclusion
Deep squats, once looked upon as dangerous knee killers, are now revered by fitness experts as a great way to maximize your workout and strengthen muscles utilizing full range of motion.  They can be done with an added bar for weight or by using your own body weight. And most importantly, remember proper technique is the key to avoiding injury. So next time you want to tackle some squats, don’t take the shortcut…go deep instead.

Author Bio: Kevin McGuire is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has been writing on topics of health, fitness, and nutrition for 10 years. He can be reached at mcgurk1266@gmail.com.