“But, Neil…I heard that if you go too low in a squat it will mess up your knees.”
My response, “Actually it is quite the opposite.”
What most people do not understand (even trainers and other fitness –so called- experts) is that squatting below parallel, when you are able to do so, is the most functional way to completely strengthen the entire musculature of the lower body. This flies in the face of conventional practice. Of course, conventional practitioners aren’t focused on or concerned with functionally strengthening your lower body when they recommend a squat. This is assuming they recommend squatting at all. Many professional fitness instructors feel squatting, (a movement you do daily in real life situations) is too complex and dangerous a movement for you to wrap your tiny little mind around. We will talk about this in future articles. For now, let’s focus on the merits of squatting below parallel.
During the squat, it isn’t until the knee passes a 60 degree bend that it needs more support from the surrounding musculature. Past 60 degrees, the angle of pull at the knee joint from the quadriceps muscle becomes severe. Because of this ever sharpening angle as you squat lower, and lower, much of the pressure applied by the quadriceps muscle (big muscle on the front of your upper leg) is now focused more on the knee than on the tibia (the bone which the quadriceps inserts upon and moves around). This causes huge sheering forces to be generated on the kneecap. These “huge sheering forces” would be catastrophic for your leg if your body hadn’t already considered the dangers of this and developed some compensations. This fact is usually lost on other fitness professionals.
Your body is smart. Another fact lost on many fitness professionals. It is very motivated to stay healthy and intact. So usually when it is put in a position where you would think it was going to blow up…it won’t because it has ways of coping with what someone (read, over-thinking physiologist) might think would hurt it. The below parallel squat is one of these positions. As you pass the 60 degree mark of angle at the knee joint, your body compensates by engaging two of the strongest and most capable muscle groups you have. These are the glutes and hamstrings, among others. At high angles (big bends) near the knee joint your glutes and hams have a better angle of pull than do your quadriceps. So as you squat below parallel, the lower you go the more you recruit these muscles. This happens as the hams and glutes take over and the quadriceps backs off to some extent. Developing these muscles add balance to the musculature of the lower body. By balancing the muscles of the lower body you actually strengthen the knee joint and prevent incidence of injury. Ask any orthopedic surgeon. How can I develop stability in my knee? He or she will tell you to increase the strength of your hamstrings. Do you now see a case for deep squatting?
The problem is that most fitness professionals will go about strengthening the hamstrings and glutes in an entirely wrong way. Many will suggest you do exercises that isolate those specific muscles. While there is application for this in rehab, it completely lacks application for functional movement or movements that happen naturally in daily life. In other words, the strength and fitness you build while doing these exercises have very little carryover. Almost without exception, the human body never makes a movement by isolating one specific muscle group or joint. Why then would we try to strengthen it in ways it does not act?
The reason many professionals advocate isolation exercises outside of rehab is due to their false conceptions that these isolation types of exercises are safer. While isolation exercises ARE safer to perform while doing them, they are actually less safe when applied to real life situations. In other words, they do not prepare the user for real life situations, leaving the user vulnerable to injury and failure through weakness. Although the specific muscle the participant is strengthening is more fit, it would be rare for the human body to use the fit muscle in the way it was trained.
Real life situations, with rare exception, use a variety of muscles and joints to perform. For example, when you do a squat, as in getting out of a chair, you use most of the muscles and joints in the body at some point in this daily movement. Each muscle and joint is moved in a very specific manner which optimizes your body for this motion. Just because I work the muscles of the thigh (one of the muscles used in a squat) as when doing an isolated leg extension, it doesn’t prepare the rest of my body (glutes, hams, calves, core, etc) for the rigors of this motion. This has the effect of leaving you vulnerable to weakness and/or injury in real life situations. This is why we are fundamentally opposed to isolated exercises when used alone as the basis for one’s workout programming. We think it is irresponsible to advocate exercises in the fitness facility that do not directly increase one’s functionality outside of that facility.
It is our opinion that exercise should MAINLY be done in ways that simulate real life situations. Better yet, we would be pleased if the exercises we perform for daily health were ACTUALLY real life situations played out in their entirety. Where this is not possible/convenient we make exception by simulating these situations as closely as possible in the fitness facility. In this way we create a fitness that is safer while at the same time functional and infinitely more useful.
Health and fitness professionals the world over have been teaching the squat and other leg exercises in a way that leaves the participant vulnerable. Moreover they are teaching these exercises in a way that contribute mainly to the development of the quadriceps muscles. By only going 60 degrees in to the squat (think half way down) there is much less involvement of the other important lower body movers. This has lead to an overdevelopment of the quadriceps muscle in relation to the other primary movers of the lower body. In other words, this has led to the development of a quad-centric exercise culture. The development of a quad centric culture has, no doubt, contributed greatly to imbalances at the knee joint. We believe this to be a major contributor to the reported knee injury and pain epidemic among exercisers and sports participants in our society.