21 Apr The Deep Squat. Is It Safe? The Surprising Answer to a Controversial Exercise Question.
Are deep squats safe?
This is a controversial question that I will share some perspectives on.
I’ll answer this question, knowing what I do about anatomy and biomechanics. with my background as an orthopedic physical therapist and long-time lifter.
First, there was an article about this subject in the issue of The Strength and Conditioning Journal (April 2012, Volume 34, No. 2, p.34-36) which originally peaked my interest in this topic.
The article gives a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ viewpoint, possibly further confusing things.
The ‘pro’ viewpoint provided some solid rationale as to why doing deep knee squats are safe and effective.
Let me define deep knee squats as squatting past parallel and performing a full range of motion to “rock bottom.”
The question is, is this safe to do?
According to the literature, there was some initial concerns with the potential risk for injury doing full squats.
According to some of the earlier studies, there was a concern that full squats could contribute to the increased knee joint structure laxity.
Specifically, the collateral ligaments (medial and lateral) and the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).
More recent studies, however, have failed to show an association between deep knee squats and increased risk for injury in healthy subjects.
Other data referenced has suggested that there was no compromise in knee joint stability in subjects that performed the full squat compared to the half squat.
One study even found that subjects that performed full squats had tighter joint capsules, which means there was no laxity in the knee joint by doing full squats.
Interesting and somewhat conflicting information.
The ACL (a major knee joint stabilizing ligament) is actually most stressed at 15 to 30 degrees of knee flexion (meaning the knee is more straight than it is bent).
With full knee squats, the stress on this important ligament is actually diminished.
What about the increased stress on the internal knee joint structures (the menisci and articular cartilage within the knee joint)?
This appears to be a legitimate concern with deep squats due to the anatomy and biomechanics of this movement.
Again, the data shows that peak tibiofemoral and patellofemoral (knee joint articulations) are increased with deep knee squats.
However, the clear relationship of the increased contact force and the incidence of injury has not been established.
The key point here is that in a healthy knee there does not appear to be an increased risk of injury, even though the knee joint force is increased in the deep knee squat.
I would agree that there are clear benefits to performing deep squats, based on my own experiences.
Certainly, full range of motion squatting is a more functional movement pattern, is it not?
Benefits of full squats may include include:
-Potential greater muscle activation of the quads
-Improved functional capacity
-Enhanced athletic performance
-Preservation of optimal knee joint mobility and health
What about the counterpoint on the ‘con’ side of deep squats?
One study suggested that there was, in fact, an increased incidence of osteoarthritis (chronic degeneration of the joint surface) with performing deep knee squats in healthy subjects.
What’s up with that?
I thought I just reported it was safe and there was not an increased risk for injury.
Welcome to the world of research.
Sometimes one trial might find one thing and another trial might find the complete opposite.
That’s when you have to look at the finer details in the study and really consider the study parameters, trial design, study population and flaws of the studies.
No one study is ever perfect and addresses all the things it should.
Do the risks outweigh the benefits?
I believe the risks are minimal and the benefits are significant in subjects with healthy knees and provided excellent technique is used.
Great coaching should be a given.
I provided the list of benefits.
The real answer to the question is, how does the movement feel for you?
What are your reasons for squatting deep?
If you can perform full knee squats pain-free, then this is probably good for you to do.
If you have pain, then it’s not.
And, you must know your “why.”
If you cannot do a full knee squat because of something other than pain, then there is some other type of problem going on (joint restriction, muscle imbalance, or potential motor control issue).
This is my point.
Many people cannot perform a full deep squat (and I’m talking about a squat pattern that is un-weighted).
Unfortunately, people lose this movement pattern that we were all born with.
Some reasons are due to inactivity and immobility, which cause other problems.
Should we all be able to perform a deep knee squat?
This is truly very functional activity and I perform deep squats in my normal day-to-day activities all the time.
Let me give you an example.
I have 2 small children.
I constantly squat down to pick them up, to speak to them, to play with them, etc.
You won’t convince me that this isn’t a functional movement pattern and that we don’t need to do full squats.
I don’t buy it, but that’s me.
Deep squats are a very important functional movement pattern.
Getting back to answering the question, it appears that the majority of data suggests that deep knee squats are safe and do not compromise knee joint integrity.
And, because we lose our joint mobility as we age, this alone is a solid reason to perform some type of deep squat (such as the kettlebell goblet squat), again providing we can do this without pain.
In summary, are deep squats safe?
My answer is yes, they are.
But, let pain be an indicator.
And know why they’re important.
A solution for the 3 most common mobility problems…
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