Why Squats aren’t always a good option

February 5, 2009

The other day, one of the other trainers I used to work with commented on my post about my current training program. His comment was “No squats??”…now I don’t want it to come across as though I’m attacking his comment, just that the comment got me thinking. In essence it got me thinking about my training philosophy and how squatting fits into programs I make. So here we go!

Squats are one of those big bang for your buck, basic strength training exercises, and for good reason…they get you big, strong, and can even help you lose fat. And I love them for these purposes, as long as certain conditions are met that justify their inclusion in a training program.

If someone has had back pain, I will be a lot more hesistant to include them in a program. This is the main case for excluding them from my own programs. I got back pain first two years ago doing some (too) heavy deadlifts, since that time I’ve re-aggravated the injury 2 or 3 times, the latest of which occurred while I was doing squats. Now this doesn’t mean I’m never going to do squats again, just that I don’t want to risk re-inserting squats into a program before I’m ready; I’d rather be overly-cautious than overly-aggressive.

Still on the subject of back pain, with a barbell squat we are placing load directly on the spine which means compressive forces out of the you-know-what. If I can have a load in the hands (deadlift) vs. the on the spine (back squats), I have one more benefit as far as injury prevention is concerned.

The other big criterion is that if you’re rehabbing from back pain have you done anything about the underlying cause or have you just let the back pain heal?? Rarely do people hurt their backs becasue they have bad backs; they hurt their backs becasue of bad hip and/or upper back function. So I’m going to look at improvement in movement and motor control at those two areas in determining the cost/benefit ratio of re-inserting squats. Pain going away doesn’t tell me anything’s been fixed.

Another factor is age. I will be a lot more willing to squat a younger person than an older client, and if there’s a history of back pain, I’m going to be MUCH MORE weary.

With that said, if I’m not having someone squat, I still need a way to train the lower body for strength and through a full range of motion (ankle, knee, and hip), so this will include the tag team of a deadlift variation and a single-leg supported exercise (split squat or lunge variation). The point I’m trying to make here is that a program can still be effective at improving strength or size or whatever if squats aren’t included.

Off to watch The Wrestler now!! Anyone else seen it — thoughts??



7 Responses to “Why Squats aren’t always a good option”

  1. ladlam Says:

    Wow, weird coincidence. I was just thinking today about how similar squats and deadlifts are. I have to admit though, while I was having back troubles the one thing that seemed to make it feel any better was doing squats. Obviously that’s going to differ for different issues though.
    I do prefer deadlifts now though – I found it pretty uncomfortable having so much weight being driven down through the back.

  2. PT Says:

    Good post Chris. Of course if I knew about your back issues I wouldn’t have asked the question.

    But you’re creating the assumption that there is only one style of squats.

    What exactly did u do to your back?

    My philosophy on it: if you can’t squat, why? And then fix the ‘why’.
    There are a number of variations for squats. I try and explore all options. There is almost always a squat option that someone can do. No matter the age. Or experience.

  3. Chris Brown Says:

    You’re right, I guess I should have clarified. I mean heavy squats (<5 reps/set)…with these I will look at rack pulls or something while I’m fixing whatever needs to be fixed so that I can still get a strength training effect. (obviously thats not in phase 1 of the rehab).

    The other thing is usually its a hip mobility issue which can be seen by the butt tucking under at the bottom portion of the squat. So my thinking here is I’d rather due a full range of motion trap-bar deadlift than a partial range of motion squat.

    The age issue is just that if a 20 year old hurts their back, it can heal pretty quickly. With a 40 year old person hurting their back, recovery from the same injury can take longer. So if someone’s normal training is affected for a longer period of time, I’m going to be less inclined to take a risk that could result in the training injury with them.

    The squats I’m really starting to prefer just for everyone is a touch and go box squat (bar on front). With the box, I’m just looking for the person to break parallel not go all the way down, plus theres less compression force by the bar not being right on the spine.

    Anyways this is a long one! Let me know your thoughts Paul!

  4. Great post Chris. I hurt my back three years ago and I’ve found that lifting heavy tends to help as long as I’m not in a period where it’s flaring up whether it be squats or dealifts. I do prefer deadlifts for safety reasons. If that bar gets away from you it’s much easier to drop it from the deadlift position. And since when I workout, I often do it in less than appropriate gym wear, I don’t want the paramedics to have to come rescue me. Also, working out alone, I’m more comfortable with deadllifts. I’ve tried the front squats and am unable to perform them without aggravating my impinged nerve on my right wrist and straps are quite akward. I also do like dumbell squats with the dumbells to the side but then with lifting heavier dumbells, it’s hard on the shoulders to hold them out to the sides so as not to hit the hips on the up and down of the squat.

    Sorry also for the overly long comment!

  5. Light exercises are good for back pain. These heavy lifting programs can harm our back.

  6. I disagree, heavy lifting can be good for a bad back. Heavy lifting causes you to have to engage all the accessory muscles in the back as well, meaning less risk of injury. Training your body to work that way can lead to less back pain down the line. Even heavy lifters don’t often hurt themselves on the lift, its when they pick up that paperweight that they get injured- when the accessory muscles are not kicked in.

  7. pathfitness Says:

    I like the front squat as well. If you can get someone to front squat with good form, the back squat will become much easier.

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