Squats are often considered one of the best and most effective resistance training exercises. They are an awesome test of lower-body strength and will simultaneously blast your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Unfortunately, squats have gotten a bad reputation for causing pain and damage to the lower back and knees. Although squats may not be appropriate for everyone, you should be able to safely perform these powerhouse exercises as long as you use proper form.
Risks of Squats
Squats can actually help to strengthen your knees if they aren't already injured or damaged, as long as you don't bend them past 90 degrees at the bottom of the movement or hyperextend at the top by locking them out. If you are performing heavy squats to build or test for maximal strength, the weight you use can place substantial pressure on your back through spinal compression, even with proper form. The key to avoiding excessive spinal compression is to limit extremely heavy, low-rep sets. If your back is otherwise healthy, periodically performing heavy squats with proper form is OK, but the majority of your squats should be performed in the eight- to 12-repetitions range to maximize hypertrophy, build strength and keep your back safe.
Ensuring Proper Technique
Many people think they are properly performing squats, but a glimpse around the squat racks at the gym often proves otherwise. To safely perform a squat, carefully place the barbell across your shoulders, taking care to keep pressure off of your cervical spine. Remove the barbell from the rack and step back, standing with your feet parallel and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up and look up as you bend your knees and thrust your hips back to lower the weight. Stop when your thighs are parallel with the ground. Be sure to inhale as you lower the weight and exhale as you push the weight back up to the starting position.
If a weak core, back pain or knee damage prevents you from safely performing squats, there are still many great exercises you can perform as alternatives. Because the squat primarily works the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, you should look for other exercises that will target these same muscles. Leg extensions are a great isolation exercise for the quads and seated or lying hamstring curls will work your hamstrings and glutes. The leg press and hack squat machines are good substitutes for the squat because they work the same muscles without the direct back and knee pressure. You may also want to try body weight and stability ball squats -- both of these exercises will allow you to perform motions similar to weighted barbell squats without the same joint pressure.
Consult with a doctor before beginning any exercise regimen. If you need help with form, ask a qualified professional. Never engage in weightlifting exercises without a spotter. If you have current or past injuries to your back or knees, ask your doctor if squats are safe for you.
- Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning; Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle
- Sports Injuries: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention; Stephen R. Bird, et al.
Jessica Bell has been working in the health and fitness industry since 2002. She has served as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Bell holds an M.A. in communications and a B.A. in English.