Parallel Squat

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    The parallel squat is one of themost effective exercises that canbe performed in a strength andconditioning program, but it is also oneof the most controversial. Many of the

    concerns about the safety of the squatcan be attributed to misinformation.This paper will discuss the benefitsand risks of the squat so that coachescan make an informed decision about

    whether or not they should includeit in their strength and conditioning programs.

    The parallel squat is considered theking of all exercises because no other

    exercise works as many major musclegroups as effectively as the squat. It alsostimulates the cardiovascular systempositively and burns more calories inthe same time period than any other

    exercise, and as such also can be a usefulexercise for general physical condition-ing. Consequently, at BFS we believethat if athletes did nothing but parallelsquats, they would have a good weight-training program not great, but good.Conversely, if they leave out the squats,minimize them, or perform them incor-rectly, athletes may not be able to fulfilltheir athletic potential especially in

    sports that have a high strength compo-nent, such as football or wrestling.

    We believe that the parallel squatbuilds the foundation for great speed,regardless of the size of the athlete.

    A six-foot-four, 265-pound footballplayer who has good athletic ability might be able to run a 40-yard dash in4.6 seconds if he practices the squat.If that athlete does some other type of free-weight exercise or substitutes anexercise machine for the squat, such as a leg extension, it is unlikely that he willachieve such results. Further, there aresome machines and apparatus used for

    BFS guidelines on the benets and risks of this popular exercise



    The Parallel Squat

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    squatting that may do more harm

    than good. One example is the Smithmachine.

    One problem with squatting using a Smith machine is that although itmay reduce the stress on the lower back because the athlete can lean backwards

    while maintaining balance, it placessignificantly higher shearing forces (i.e.,forces that work to pry the joint apart)on the knees because the hamstringsare not as active during the exercise.

    Further, squatting with a barbell on a guided vertical (or slightly angled) pathdoes not allow for natural compensa-tions in the movement of the spine,a restriction that can place unnaturalshearing forces on the spine.

    It also should be mentioned that infour lawsuits in which sports-liability consultant Dr. Marc Rabinoff servedas an expert witness, four individuals

    became paralyzed using Smith machines

    because they didnt know how to prop-erly use the safety apparatus on thesemachines. That being said, its not thatmachine exercises have no place in anathletes training, as they are especially valuable in rehabilitation, but that

    we believe free-weight exercises suchas squats should form the core of anathletes training.

    One myth about squats that hasled many athletes and those inter-ested in improving their appearance toavoid them is that they will widen thehips and cause the body to develop a blocky appearance. This idea was pro-moted by the famous late bodybuilding trainer Vince Gironda 1. Gironda wascalled the Trainer to the Stars becausehis clients included Hollywood celebri-ties such as Clint Eastwood, Cher andDenzel Washington. He also trainedprofessional bodybuilder Larry Scott,

    who in 1965 won the first Mr. Olympia title, and Mohamed Makkawy, whotwice placed second in the Olympia.

    Anatomically, the idea that squats widen the hips is not valid becausethe insertion of the gluteus maximusmuscle, one of the prime movers in thesquat, is not on the hips (Figure 1)

    Although most high school weight-training programs for athletesinclude squats, many coaches allow

    their athletes to squat way too high, usepoor biomechanics, such as by allow-ing the knees to buckle (Figure 2) orleaning forward excessively, and spotimproperly (Figure 3). These problemsincrease the risk of injury and decreasethe effectiveness of the strength andconditioning program.


    Are squats bad for the knees?

    Despite credible, peer-reviewed evi-dence to the contrary, this question isconstantly raised, even by those whohave no connection to athletics orphysical education.

    Much of the controversy origi-nated from the belief that squats wereharmful to the knees, an idea that wasintroduced by college professor KarlK. Klein and medical doctor Fred L.

    FIGURE 1: It is a myth that squats will make the hips wider and create a blocky ap-pearance because the gluteus maximus muscle does not insert on the hips. Shownare Jesse Buttereld (left) and Chloe Van Tussenbroek (right), multisport athleteswho have competed in the School Age National Weightlifting Championships. Jessewent on to become a professional model.

    FIGURE 2: Allowing the knees to buckleis a common error in squatting thatmust be corrected to prevent injury.

    P h o

    t o :

    B l a i r K u n z

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    Allman, Jr. In 1961 Klein published a study that contained some question-able research methods and suggestedthat squats could decrease knee stability and thereby increased the risk of kneeinjury. He later detailed his findings ina book he wrote with Dr. Allman, The Knee in Sports (Penn State Press, 1971,Figure 4).2

    In the years that followed it wasshown that there were flaws in thestudy, and the results could not bereproduced. Further, other studiesshowed exactly opposite results; namely,that weightlifters and powerlifterstended to possess tighter knee jointsthan control groups and were lesssusceptible to knee injuries. What isinteresting is that Klein and Allman didnot disapprove of parallel squats, whichare recommended by BFS, but full squats as performed by Olympic lifters.However, few people have actually readKlein and Allmans book, which saysthat parallel squats are fine and havebenefits to athletic performance.

    In the years that followed, weight-

    lifters, powerlifters and sport scientists were eventually able to convince themedical community and lay public thatsquats were not harmful to the kneesand that competitive weightlifters andpowerlifters did not have greater levels

    of knee instability than other athletes orthe untrained population 3,4. Further, weat BFS contend that performing squatsby descending under complete controlto achieve a parallel position resultsin many positive changes, such as thefollowing:

    The lower-body muscles becomestronger and bigger, especially thequadriceps and hamstrings.

    The tendons become thicker andstronger.

    The knee ligaments become thickerand stronger.

    The entire articular capsule of theknee becomes thicker.

    The bones of the legs become stron-ger and slightly bigger because of increased capillarization.

    The cartilage of the knee becomesmore resistant to injury.

    These positive effects explain why athletes who do squats correctly havefar fewer knee injuries than those whodo not squat at all. Including squats intheir program and performing themproperly is especially important for

    female athletes, because they are up tofive times more likely to suffer kneeinjuries than men are in sports such asbasketball and volleyball. According tothe American Orthopedic Society forSports Medicine, each year approxi-

    mately 20,000 high school girls sufferserious knee injuries, most involving theanterior cruciate ligament, which helpsstabilize the knee.

    Proper squatting technique offersathletes the best defense against kneeinjuries. That being said, deep squatscan present some danger to the knee

    joint, especially if the lifter comes downfast, is out of control or bounces atthe bottom position. Common sensetells us that a football player who doesdeep squats with, say, 400 pounds isasking for problems if he comes downhard and bounces at the deep bottomposition. But if an athlete lifting thesame weight comes down under controlto the parallel-squat position and thencomes up, the knee joint should be inno danger whatsoever.


    Understanding the importanceof depth in squats is imperative. Webase our standards on a parallel depthor slightly below it. The high school

    All American standard is 500 pounds

    for males with heavy builds and 325pounds for females with heavy builds.The all-state standard is 400 pounds formales and 235 pounds (think two platesand a collar) for females. BFS set thosestandards to help athletes and coaches

    FIGURE 3: Examples of great spotting by high school athletes

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    understand when an athlete achievessomething remarkable. Only an excep-tional athlete with special understand-ing of how to do squats can reach those

    standards. If an athlete squats a foothigh, or three inches high with 500pounds, it is meaningless. Not a wholelot is really happening, and the athlete

    will miss out on great benefits.The guiding principle in squat-

    ting is that its necessary to squat sothat the tops of the upper thighs areat least horizontal to the floor so thatthe hamstrings and gluteal muscles arestrongly activated. If you dont squat

    low enough, you only activate the quad-riceps (front thigh muscles). It is ourunderstanding that if an athlete doesnot squat low enough, this reducedmuscle r