We’ve all heard it from gym goers, athletes and weekend warriors alike, ‘I can’t squat because it hurts my (insert knee, hip, back) so I just use the leg press’ and incidentally these people do tend to get more injuries and pain than their counterparts who spend a good part of their workout in the squat rack. They may be correct that squatting gives them pain, but when you look at how they move it’s often a stretch to call it a squat and, with a few individualised coaching cues and a couple weeks of mobility exercises, we can generally have people squatting quite comfortably.
Let’s dispel a few popular myths that seem to float around the squat;
1. Your knees shouldn’t go past your toes
This is something I hear a lot in the gym from health professionals and gym goers and is possibly one of the most flawed statements and may also be the reason why you get back pain when attempting to squat deep. This myth came from a scientific study in 1974 that found that when the knee was allowed to travel past the toes in a deep squat there was a 22% increase in torque applied at the knee joint. The flaw in this was that they didn’t account for what would happen at other joints if you restrict the natural movement of the knee and this was shown in a 2003 study that found when the knee was restricted from translating past the toes there was a 1050% increase in torque through the hip and lower back! So although preventing the knees from coming forwards may slightly reduce the stress on this joint, it will inadvertently transfer an enormous stress to your hip/back.
2. You shouldn’t squat ass to grass as it’s bad for your knees
I’m not sure where this came from, possibly people who didn’t enjoy the lover-hate relationship with deep squats, but it is also quite incorrect. Our knees are designed to go through about 140 degrees of motion and are able to produce force successfully at all angles. Numerous studies have shown that powerlifters who squat deep with weights of more than double their body weight have more stable and less joint pain than distance runners, so next time you hear someone further this myth you can remind them that the treadmill is more dangerous to their knees than a heavy deep squat.
3. Leg press is better for your back
This is something that many patients with painful backs and hips often tell me as I’m putting them in the squat rack; and you can’t blame them this is the mantra I hear at most gyms. In fact it is more often found that the leg press causes more back injuries, as reinforced this quote from Dr Stuart McGill, ‘the leg press sometimes causes the pelvis to rotate away from the back rest when the weight is lowered. The resultant lumbar flexion produces herniating conditions for the disc’. In simpler terms, when you are using the leg press you are producing force through the quads and glutes with a fixed flexion at the hips, and this is a very unnatural position to load the lower back. I’m not saying that a leg press will injure your lower back, but to get range of motion, especially at higher weights, it is often observed that the person will allow slight movement in their lower back.
So what should you take from this?
If nothing else, you begin learning to squat deep, allowing the knees to travel past the toes and use the leg press as an accessory movement, not your go to exercise! If you would like to learn to squat with proper technique feel free to get in contact with the team at Holden Hill Physiotherapy.