The squat is one of the foundational exercises used for almost all types of training including: athletic performance training, functional training, power lifting, bodybuilding, and even basic conditioning.  There are a variety of methods used to complete this exercise.  Some of which I would like to review here.

Biomechanical Variations of the Squat
From my perspective, there are three basic variations to performing the squat.  While other, more minor variations are used I consider the minor variations as general off-shoots from the three I have listed below.  Of these three, I prefer the functional, movement based squat, which presents the least risk while delivering the greatest benefit.  

Functional or ‘Power Lifting’ Squat

  • Stance is hip width or wider
  • Movement initiated and controlled by hips
  • Builds strength in hips and gluteal region; quadriceps secondary
  • Increasing speed of hip movement will build more explosive power through hips and gluteals

‘Bodybuilding’ Squat

  • Closer foot stance
  • Movement initiated by knees
  • Focuses on quadricep development
  • Often involves deep knee bend

Deep Barbell Squats

  • Variety of foot stances used
  • Movement initiated either at the hip or knees but generally the knees
  • Targets enhanced development of VMO (vastus medialus oblique) responsible for knee stability and extension

While it may seem to be the most effective, the risk of a deep barbell squat (extreme stress on joints, potential loss of stability to name a few) often outweighs the main benefit (development of VMO), especially when VMO can be targeted effectively in other, less risky exercises.

When attending a conference given by UM Strength and Conditioning coach Mike Barwis a few years ago, he recommended squatting to the parallel position and not beyond, for this same reason.  It was nice to hear that our theories of training were similar!

Potential Risks involved
Knee Pain
Any of the squat variations can cause knee pain.  If you experience knee pain you should first analyze the biomechanics of your movement.  Use the ‘function’ guidelines to perform the squat and a light weight.  If knee pain ensues, stop performing the movement and see a doctor.

Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain during a squat is a good indication that the weight is too heavy or that your biomechanics are incorrect.  If this occurs, you should first analyze the biomechanics of your movement.  Use the ‘function’ guidelines to perform the squat and a light weight.  If knee pain ensues, stop performing the movement and see a doctor.

People often experience lower back soreness the day after performing heavy squats.  As long as the soreness is reasonable and goes away in a day or two, it’s probably just a response to stabilizing the heavy load.

Torque on Joints when squatting heavy weight under fatigue (end of sets)
As you get fatigue at the end of a set, the body will naturally offer leverage in the form of compensation and poor biomechanics in order to continue moving the weight (knees often buckle and back often arches). Stay focused at the end of heavy sets and be mindful to train yourself to fire the same muscle groups and maintain the same form throughout the entire set.

Things to watch for

  • Ideally the hip, knee, and ankle joints move at the same rate of speed.  This will decrease tension in the knees and prevent undue stress on the low back.
  • Be aware that there is a load being placed on the spine and a demand is being put on the core and back muscles.  If you haven’t squatted in a long time it’s wise to progress from a lighter weight into heavier weight in order to safely train or re-train the nervous system to fire the correct muscles and reduce the general risk involved when placing a load on your back.
  • Exaggerated lordosis (an extreme arch in the lower back) shifts some of the load from musculature to joints, ligaments, and bones.
  • Head position.  Throwing head and neck up and back can cause a compensatory arch in the low back and may also shift the distribution of weight during the lift.
  • Foot or knee movement during the lift should be minimal.  The safest and most effective squat is performed in a position that is both safe and maintainable throughout the entire lift.

If you notice yourself tending towards some of these habits i.e.: knees moving medially (in and out) or heels turning in, the best decision is to reduce the weight and progress yourself forward once you have worked through these biomechanical deficiencies.  This will ensure a safe and highly effective lift.