One of my blog readers sent me a simple question last week: “Are squats a safe exercise?” My answer to this question, like many others regarding safety and specific exercises, is “It depends”. A few things on squats (and we are talking about barbell back squats where an external resistance is placed on the upper back):
1. Most people lack the hip mobility to safely perform squats past a point where their thighs are parallel to the floor. Going beyond parallel, for 90% of people, typically leads to 1 of 2 problems: (1) the torso is pulled into flexion (you get bent over at the waist) or (2) the tailbone “tucks“ underneath. Both of these can lead to back injuries.
You really need to find a point where you can squat to without either one of these things happening. You need to squat to a depth which allows for optimal spine and pelvic alignment. Have a partner watch you squat, or, film yourself squatting with a moderate weight. See where you lose the proper spine alignment and make note of it. Now, set up a box or bench to a height slightly above the point where you lose alignment. Use this box or bench as your depth gauge every time you squat in your workouts. Lightly tap the box/bench on your reps (do not completely sit or “deload” onto the box). This will ensure your spine remains in proper alignment-and safe-while squatting.
2. Are your knees “bowing in” when you squat? If so, place a light resistance band around your knees when you squat and push your knees out against the band as you squat. This will get your hips involved in the exercise and distribute the work evenly, taking some of the stress off the knees.
3. Speaking of the hips, if you plan on squatting with the proper spine and pelvic alignment (especially with heavier weights), you better start improving the flexibility of your hips and “turning on” your glutes. Tight hips can lead to both low back and knee injuries when you squat, so hammer away at stretching, mobility and foam rolling exercises for these areas.
4. Pay attention to your ankles. Are your heels coming off the ground as you squat? If so, you need to improve your ankle mobility and flexibility so you can keep the heels down. Again, a lack of ankle mobility can lead to knee problems, and makes a break down in squatting form likely.
5. Vary your squat exercises. Performing barbell back squats year round, week in and week out, is a recipe for injury. You want to cycle your squat exercises. 3-4 weeks of back squats are enough before switching to some other version, preferably one where the bar is taken off the back, which will reduce the compression on the spine. Front squats, goblet squats, trap bar squats/deadlifts, sumo squats, etc. can all be substituted.
6. Be realistic about how much weight you can actually use on the traditional barbell back squat, and check your ego. Again, poor squat form and body alignment can often be remedied by reducing the training load and finding a depth which allows for proper alignment of the spine and pelvis. Some people, quite frankly, need to get rid of any external weight, and just focus on doing bodyweight squats for awhile and re-learn the exercise. Get the mechanics and alignment right first before you start using additional weight.
7. Everyone talks about squats being hard on the knees if taken too deep, but, referring back to point number 1 above, you have a greater chance of hurting your lower back while squatting due to poor hip mobility. As far squat depth and knee problems, I’ve seen studies suggesting squatting below parallel is detrimental to the knees and I’ve seen other studies showing the opposite. Again, if you are squatting to a depth which doesn’t cause the tailbone to tuck underneath, I think the knee situation takes care of itself…you are not going to get much below parallel anyway.
So, there you go, some tips to make squatting safer. Truth be told, there are very few bad exercises…just bad performance of any given exercise. If you understand what proper form is and tailor the exercise to your specific circumstances and limitations, the squat is perfectly safe.