So when you come to do your personal training sessions at Embody, you have certain expectations as to what exercises your trainer will have you do. Today we look at one of our all-time favourites…

The squat – and let’s get things straight here, I’m talking about the full back squat with the bar sat on top of the shoulders/upper back – is one of the most controversial and written about exercises there is. I’ve changed my opinion of the squat over the years and have some very firm opinions on its use and applicabil-ity to populations and situations. Here’s my take on ‘The King of Lower Body Exercises’:

The squat is one of the most effective exercises for developing strength and power in the lower limb as well as developing muscle mass and definition, which is why it is common for personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches to use it for developing strength and power in the lower limb as well as muscle mass and definition. There are not many muscles that are not involved, in some way, while squatting – especially when you take into consideration the trunk (I hate the term ‘core’) musculature that is having to stabilise the spine in order to prevent unwanted movements (incidentally – that’s the definition of stability in my book – the ability to prevent an unwanted movement). Add to this the massive beneficial hormonal effect that multi-ple sets of heavy squats will have by stimulating testosterone and growth hormone production.

So, if the squat is such a good exercise, why the controversy?

I don’t need to go back through the annuls of history to give you the exact time and place when it happened but someone once said that squatting so that your knees go more acute than 90 degrees is bad for the knee. Someone else once said that the knees should, under no circumstances, go over the toes.

I know this to be true because I was taught, and subsequently taught, the very same technique. It doesn’t matter who said it, or what their reason was – they were wrong! There was never any explanation why this technique was bad – just that it was really bad!

Actually, what has subsequently come to light is that not going beyond 90 degrees and not allowing your knees to go over the toes is inherently bad for the knees as you will not recruit the glutes to their full extent, nor will you fully recruit the vastus medialis muscle on the inside of the quadriceps.

As the stability of the knee relies on the strength of both the glutes and the quadriceps, surely their lack of strength would be a bad thing? Add to this the fact that the knee joint is capable of moving through a certain range – so why not go through that full range? I would never advise someone to do half a biceps curl ‘be-cause it’s bad for the elbow’ so why would I do the same for the knee? If nature intended it to stop halfway it would have changed the structure of the knee so that, mechanically, you would not be able to move it be-yond a certain range. I once read that countries whose populations spend a lot of time eating or hanging around in a deep squat position have a far lower incidence of orthopaedic knee surgeries than Western countries. Yet more reason to exercise through the full range of motion!

So, do I now programme the squat into all my programmes? Not exactly. Here is my thought process when deciding whether or not to use the squat.

1. Does the subject possess the mobility to perform a squat properly? I am talking here about whether they can maintain an upright spine with natural lumbar curve while the thighs pass parallel and the feet stay firmly on the floor without the heels moving inwards. The reality is that many people won’t be capable of perform-ing a decent looking squat so why, therefore, would I put 100+kg on their back and ask them to hope for the best. When I worked in a professional rugby environment I banned squats for all but 2 of the players as inju-ries kept occurring to the lower backs of some players following heavy squat sessions. Remember that the number 1 goal of a strength and conditioning coach is injury prevention – it doesn’t matter how good the player is if they are not on the pitch/court etc. The next time you are in the company of a toddler playing, watch how they pick things up – it will be with perfect squat form.

2. Is the risk reward ratio positive? By going heavy is the potential reward greater than the risk of injury from potentially poor technique/fatigue induced poor technique? If not then why bother? Again – see point 1. The same applies to all of our personal training clients – keep them healthy and they will be able to train consistently and reach their goals. Injure them and they will lose motivation. Someone with a strength dis-crepancy between legs would not benefit from squats as it reinforces the discrepancy and does nothing to correct it.

3. Is squatting specific to the achievement of goals/will it improve performance? This is a big one for me. From a sporting perspective, I cannot think of many sports (powerlifting, weightlifting and rowing aside) where both legs are used together at the same time. Most field/court based sports, as well as endurance sports, rely on single leg strength in order to run, jump, change direction, speed up and slow down.

So why not programme exercises that address single leg strength and the stability that is required to perform powerful single limb contractions?

Single leg strength

As you will have guessed, I don’t really use squats that much anymore, preferring instead to use split squats, front and rear foot elevated split squats, lunges, side step ups, front step ups, Russian step ups, triple jump-ers step ups and … Goblet squats! I love goblet squats because holding weight in front of the chest some-how allows people who are unable to perform regular squats, to perform great looking squats. It’s difficult to load too heavy (as your arms burn) and easier to reach the correct range of movement.

My lack of use of the squat has not been detrimental to any of the clients/athletes I’ve worked with – quite the opposite. We don’t see the same injuries to the hips/lower back region and I’d say that they were functionally stronger. Meaning that they were better able to do whatever it is they train to do!

At Embody all clients undergo a screening process with our Sports Injury and Rehabilitation specialist who will assess mobility/stability and help direct programme writing so that injuries can be avoided. This focus on form and functional movement means that we maximise our results by making sure we avoid injury as much as possible. Our screening process distinguishes us from this competition and keeps our discerning, London based clientele healthy from a musculoskeletal perspective and therefore better able to train consistently! As a famous American strength coach once said – “if you’re not assessing, you’re guessing”.

Article written by Chris Walton