This post is going to get me drawn and quartered. Oh well, it has to be said. Why are we training the weakest joint angles? If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that the human body is strongest when all joints are extended and weakest when all joints are flexed. For this post, I shall be using the squat as an example. We are strongest when standing (duh) and weakest in the bottom position, where all working joints are completely flexed. To take it a step further and add shoulder flexion, the weakest squat would be the overhead squat. Have you ever seen somebody overhead squat more than they back squat? I didn’t think so. There are enough strength coaches that don’t think the overhead squat should be trained (like Poliquin). However, these same coaches believe that the full squat (high bar ass to grass) should be an integral part of everybody’s training. This blog post will question that thinking and suggest alternatives.
First off, I should say that if your sport requires you to express strength and power from the full squat position (like Olympic weightlifting), this post is not for you. If you’re lifting for athletic power, general strength, and or powerlifting, read on.
Let’s examine the full back squat. From Bret Contreras’ site “A proper Olympic back squat is exemplified by going rock bottom in a squat while keeping the knees out, chest up, and feet flat” (Contreras). It’s truly a work of art when done right. Look at the picture below of Anatoly Pisarenko squatting some big weights with some picture perfect form.
Now that you’ve stopped admiring the picture, let’s analyze the joint angles. The knee and hip are completely flexed, which means the hamstrings have checked out, and the stress is completely on the quads and glutes. More to the point, since we have a fully flexed knee and hip, we are moving less weight because we are limited by that weak link. The weakest joint angles are stopping us from training our strongest joint angles, while putting a lot of stress on the knee joint. Let’s compare this to the picture of Arnold deadlifting.
As you can see, the knees are shallower and as a result, the hips are shallower. This takes place because of something called passive insufficiency: The inability for a biarticulate muscle to stretch enough to complete full range of motion in both joints simultaneously (exrx). Because the knees are shallower, the hamstrings are involved to a much higher degree. Since we are not completely flexing the knee joint or the hip joint, we can handle much heavier loads and train the strongest joint angles. That's the reason why a person's deadlift is almost always more than their full squat. Also, as Gray Cook has observed, you can’t help but have some stress through the knee joint when full squatting. But when deadlifting, there’s almost no stress going through the knee joint because the stress is more on the powerful muscles of the posterior chain (Cook). You may ask, but what about the back? Less stress on the knee joint means more stress through the back right? Yes, you are right. However I would counter by saying that the muscles that support the lower back and pelvis have a far larger surface area and are far more powerful than the muscles that support the knee, and are designed to handle far heavy loads. Cook makes the argument that you should maintain the squat movement, but train the deadlift heavy. You can read more about his argument in the article linked in the references section.
However, some people just love to squat. There is that incredible feeling when you squat that you just can’t get with any other movement. So how do we squat heavy and get stronger while making sure our joints don’t get stressed? Enter the low bar "powerlifting style" squat.
As you can see from the above picture, this style of squatting satisfies all the problems listed above. By squatting with a more moderate stance and having the bar lower on the shoulder, the knees remain shallow in the bottom position, putting a lot more stress on the hamstrings then the Olympic style squat. In fact, strength coaches like Mark Rippetoe think that this squat is so much more beneficial that he’s written an entire book and program based on the low bar squat. For all the athletes that are looking to run faster or jump higher, the low bar squat will improve on all of that because it strengthens the posterior chain to a much higher degree than the Olympic style squat. For all the general fitness people who just want to be able to play ball on weekends or be able to play with their grandkids, the low bar squat removes a lot of stress on the knees, puts them on the more powerful muscles that control the hip and lets you squat longer in life. For the powerlifters, you should already be using the squat because it lets you lift the most weight.
If you just have to full squat because you love the feeling of being that low with weight on your back, I strongly suggest you consider exclusively using the front squat. The front squat has the same amount of muscle activity as a back squat, but with lower weights. This means that the stress on the joints will be much lower than the back squat (precision nutrition). Of course, if you just don’t want to squat but want the same muscle benefits, the deadlift and its variations will give you enough activation, size and strength through the legs.
I hope I’ve convinced you to at least try the low bar squat and strengthen your strongest joint angles. If you’ve got achy knees, your squat isn’t going anywhere, or you just want to hoist some heavy weights around, you owe it to yourself to utilize the low bar squat to its full extent.