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Jul 14, 2011

The King of All Exercises or Back Injuries? How to Squat Safely and Effectively!

All too often I hear war stories about guys who had their back go out numerous times during free-bar squats. It may be because their body is not built for it or more likely it is due to their idiotic obsession with squatting 500 pounds and being proclaimed a “huge monster” for doing so. Forgive me for going
with the later assumption.
change it up and give squats a rest and try something new
[Even the King of the Jungle needs a rest. Traditional squats move over, it's time you had some company on lower body exercises]
Now I’m no doctor but having that kind of weight straddling your neck and shoulders just screams serious injury and compression damage to you spine. But let’s dig into the research because it’s somewhat surprising…

Do Squats Lead to Back Injuries?

For such a basic exercise movement, squatting sure stirs the pot regarding its risk to lower back injuries with personal trainers and scientists alike.

Yes, they are the devil and should be avoided at all costs…
Researchers from the University of Bristol have confirmed the increase of compressive forces acting on the spine. More specifically, researchers have suggested that these forces acting on the lumbar spine during half-squats carried out with a loaded barbell can be equal to six to ten times an individual’s body weight. (NOTE: Force and weight are fundamentally different concepts… don’t get too hung up on it, just know we’re talking heavy weight here). This may increase the risk of a rupture of an inter-vertebral disc or even a stress fracture of a vertebra. Ouch!
On the other side of the debate, there is research that shows squatters and weightlifters actually have a relatively low frequency of back pain and injury.
No, they’re awesome like bacon and eggs…
A study from the American College of Sports Medicine detected a low risk of back pain for weightlifters and the incidence of back pain in former lifters was less than in the general population. The study mentioned good spinal flexibility, lifting with a straight back, and strong para-vertebral muscles (muscles which run between the vertebrae) as important factors in protecting these strength trainers from back troubles.

Wait, I’m confused? Are squats good or bad?

For every study that criticizes squats as “back and knee injuries” waiting to happen, there are noticeably more studies that speak highly of it’s ability to affect body composition (weight loss), increase leg strength, and/or jumping ability.

What are some alternatives to traditional squats?

People easily get stuck with the idea of having to do squats at most workouts because it carry’s the label of the “king of all exercises”. Nonsense! Variety makes your workout less of a chore and more enjoyable so forget about using traditional free-bar squats every time. Instead, spread the load out over your entire back with a machine hack squat (the back pad puts the load over more surface area). How about prisoner squats? With your hands placed behind your head it helps maintain your good form throughout the movement. Or maybe you want to get a little European with a Bulgarian Split Squat?

But I like free-bar squats, should I still use them?

Of course you can. Squatting, just like any other exercise, is a safe activity when its done using proper form. The following tips should help you reduce your risk of injury while you squat your way to a better body:
1. Depth Check
If your new to this exercise squat only to the point at which the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor. Over time, as your strength, coordination and comfort improve, you can increase the depth of your squats because studies have proven more quadriceps muscle activation occurs as squatting depth increases.
2. Forget Failure
Another popular slogan “training to failure” need not apply here. Avoid squatting when you are fatigued as the possibility of your form suffering and/or losing control of the barbell are much more likely. After last week’s serious throat injury to USC Trojans’ tailback Stafon Johnson during a bench press exercise, I shouldn’t have to say much more.
3. Buffalo Stance
Catchy song, hilarious video. Always should be feet-shoulder-width apart. Sure there are other stances out there but master this one and you’ll have a solid foundation.
4. Mass Control
Control on the way up, control on the way down. If you jerk or rock back and forth then you’re probably using too much weight.
5. Warning Signs
When I see guys reaching for knee wraps and/or weight-lifting belts I cringe. Masking your back or knee pain is simply ignoring your body indicators that you should stop and reassess your 

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