You’re probably wondering to yourself: did I really read that right? The conventional wisdom has, for so long, been that squats are bad for your knees. Could a newspaper with such a large readership actually publish an article that goes so against the grain? That says squats are good for your knees?!? Before you get too excited, let’s look at what it says.
The article appeared in last Friday’s NYT, January 25th, entitled Ask Well: Squats for Aging Knees. A reader asks how he can keep up his workouts (dancing, weightlifing, and yoga) without continuing to hurt his knees. Within the answer, the author suggests squats and makes the following hopeful quote:
Although many of us have heard that squats harm knees, the exercise is actually “quite good for the knees, if you do the squats correctly,” Dr. Hart (previously identified as an assistant professor of kinesiology and certified athletic trainer at the University of Virginia, who often works with patients with knee pain) says.
Sounds good so far, right? Like maybe the rest of the world is catching up to what we already know, summarized well by Dan John: “Squats aren’t bad for your knees. How YOU squat is bad for your knees.”
I was hopeful at this point. A mainstream publication with the readership of the NYT publishing this seemed like a good step in the right direction in terms of awareness of the benefits of strength training generally, and squatting specifically.
Dr. Hart continues:
Simply stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and bend your legs until your thighs are almost, but not completely, parallel to the ground. Keep your upper body straight. Don’t bend forward, he says, since that movement can strain the knees. Try to complete 20 squats, using no weight at first. When that becomes easy, Dr. Hart suggests, hold a barbell with weights attached. Or simply clutch a full milk carton, which is my cheapskate’s squats routine.
Mark Rippetoe dedicates 64 pages to the squat in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training (3rd ed), so seeing someone attempt to break it down into a few sentences is, at best, an oversimplification. But considering this is a short newspaper piece, that’s not necessarily a problem as long as it’s acknowledged and the simplification doesn’t include anything incorrect. The problem is that Dr. Hart manages to mangle even those few sentences.
Let’s break it down and analyze the problems with this small part of the article. This will be useful not only to clarify proper squatting technique, but also to demonstrate how even people acknowledged as experts can be ill-informed about the basics of what is apparently their own profession. The latter is important because often arguments about this topic come down to authority. It’s important to realize that no matter how big a supposed authority someone is, if their position doesn’t make sense, it should be disregarded. Just because the US Ski Team does a lot of work with the Bosu ball, doesn’t mean the Bosu is useful. Let’s get to it!
Simply stand with your legs shoulder-width apart – seems sensible enough, right? Problem is, which part of your legs? If your heels are at shoulder width apart, your legs will make an angle inwards as they ascend up towards your hips, like an uppercase A. So is this shoulder width? But if you narrow your stance so your legs are straight, then they’re not shoulder width anymore. If you widen out so your knees are at shoulder width, then your feet are WAY outside shoulder width. So this statement is not very well thought out and essentially meaningless because it doesn’t actually tell you how to position your legs. It also doesn’t address your feet: should they be straight, slightly toe-out, in a plie’, etc…?
The correct stance (to start with, can be adjusted later if necessary) is heels at shoulder width and toes turned out about 30-35 degrees, give or take.
…bend your legs until your thighs are almost, but not completely, parallel to the ground. – Another meaningless statement. The position he describes is completely subjective. There are no specific, definable points by which you can judge if you’ve indeed gone down far enough or have gone too far. By definition then, the movement is not replicable. Which is ironic since his next comment is “Try to complete 20 squats.” That sounds like reps, doesn’t it? Reps is short for repetitions. You know, because you REPEAT the movement. But if the description of the movement is so vague as to be irreproducible except by subjective estimation, then it’s not exactly a repetition then, is it?
Further, and more importantly, you should NOT stop at this high point. Full squat depth is defined as the crease of the hip dropping below the top of the kneecap. Not only are these two easily visible and definable landmarks by which to ensure repeatable consistency in the movement, but stopping higher than this actually puts MORE stress on the knee joint. It seems counterintuitive but a thorough evaluation of the hamstrings’ structure and function reveals that the hamstrings can only fully engage and balance out the forces around the knee joint if the squat is completed to this full depth (see the squat chapter in Starting Strength for all the details, as such a thorough analysis is beyond the scope of this article).
So this short comment right here is good for not just one, but two really huge, glaring errors.
Keep your upper body straight. Don’t bend forward, he says, since that movement can strain the knees. – The problem here is that it’s impossible to actually squat this way. Try to squat using this advice: squat all the way down and keep your torso vertical. Did you fall back onto your ass? If you didn’t, then you either bent forward or barely went down at all, and we’ve already discussed how the latter is not really a squat. But Dr. Hart says this bending forward will strain your knees! On the other hand, we just demonstrated that it’s physically impossible to squat without bending forward. What gives?
This is so basic that it’s actually mind boggling how someone can be a professor of kinesiology and still get this so wrong. With very few exceptions of people who have ridiculous ankle mobility and/or are anthropometrical outliers, the human body literally cannot squat without the torso inclining forward (even assuming you wanted to – which is a longer discussion). If you try to squat with a vertical, unbent torso, too much of your bodyweight ends up behind your feet, and thus, you fall backwards. It’s just basic balance – you have to keep your center of mass over your base of support, your feet. If you don’t, you’ll fall. Yet Hart says you have to squat, somehow, violating this unbreakable law of physics. Weird.
So, do yourself a favor. Embrace the lean-over. You have to lean over to squat correctly. Stop thinking about your squat like this
See how the dude would fall if the wall weren’t there? THAT’S BECAUSE YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY SQUAT THIS WAY, WITHOUT LEANING OVER, IN REAL LIFE!
and start thinking of it like this
Image used with permission by The Aasgaard Company. Notice the torso lean? Necessary, neither evil nor bad for the knees.
Next: When that becomes easy, Dr. Hart suggests, hold a barbell with weights attached – really, it’s that easy, just like that? While we do teach the unloaded position first and then proceed right to the barbell, we actually, you know, teach you how to position, hold, and squat with the barbell. The advice right here (which in fairness may have been shortened for editorial purposes, and not representative of Hart’s full statement) is just to “hold a barbell with weights attached.” Huh? Could not be more vague. Especially to someone who has never done it before.
Finally: Or simply clutch a full milk carton, which is my cheapskate’s squats routine. – Now I suppose that squatting with some resistance is better than with none at all. But this statement, from a supposed expert, completely ignores everything we know about exercise physiology. The basic model from which all programming stems is Dr. Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome, which leads to the concept of Supercompensation. Others have proposed more complicated, perhaps more accurate models such as dual factor supercompensation and so forth. But the basic idea that the body adapts to the workload it’s given, and then needs a bigger workload to adapt further is sound and has been demonstrated hundreds of thousands of times in the last 80 years or so since it was first proposed.
So that milk carton thing will cause you to adapt a teeny, tiny bit (because it’s only a milk carton, after all), and then you’ll get no further benefit from it. Yet he essentially equates it to being just as good as a barbell. A barbell which you can load with an infinitely variable possibility of loads: an older woman can start with a 15lb barbell and make 1lb incremental jumps using a pair of washers. A 19 year old college football player starts with a 45lb bar and can probably add 10 lbs to every squat workout for the first two weeks, being 60lbs stronger in only two weeks.
The point is, the barbell is a more titratable tool by any stretch of the imagination. (See how I used a really sciency word, titratable, to prove how smart I am, and how I can write about this topic in a smart, sciency way, just like Dr. Hart? Cool, right?) So why insult our intelligence by saying you can just clutch a carton of milk and get the same results?
So ladies and gentlemen, this is why you must be very skeptical of what you read when it comes to fitness. Even a professor of kinesiology at a major university who is also a practicing athletic trainer can be no less than exceptionally misinformed when it comes to topics like exercise technique and progression. Given that, how likely is it that a personal trainer with a weekend course or self-study certification knows this material well enough to correctly teach and coach technique?
If you’re planning on engaging the services of a fitness professional for training purposes, I highly encourage you to find a Starting Strength Coach. As far as I know, the SSC Certificate is the only one in the industry that both teaches a through analysis of the correct movement for the most fundamental exercises to a fitness program and requires both practical and theoretical demonstration of that knowledge. You can find SS Coaches through the Starting Strength Coach Directory. There are other good coaches out there, but not a specific credential that reliably produces good coaches.
And as for the NYT article? Well, they were certainly right about one thing: squats – done correctly – ARE good for your knees!