SQUATS AND MYTHS (1995) Dr Mel C Siff School of Mechanical Engineering University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa My comments on squatting technique have drawn a mixed bag of agreement and upset, which is always the case with fundamental exercises which tend to be surrounded by years of superstitious application. GENERAL COMMENTS Rest assured that this type of analysis is not meant to belittle. Heaven knows how many times we are all challenged at lectures, conferences and lifting platform about the appropriateness of our technique. I thank those who have chosen not to be politically correct and kind to me over the years, otherwise I would have been happily contented with the same old myths forever. Argumentation, analysis, refutation, rebuttal and counterproposal are all time-tested ways of research and teaching. Regrettably we often feel that if someone attacks ideas we believe in, then we are being personally attacked. Most of the time we did not even create the offending idea, yet we have used it so often that we become emotionally attached to it. In the case of religion, politics and coïtus, criticism invariably leads to such passionate encounters that even families become split up and nations go to war. Even science is not immune to this belief fervor - just try to argue about evolution and you will see what I mean. In the world of fitness, a similar scene rules and it is inordinately easy to tread on toes. The one merit of the Internet is that everyone can attend (unlike some costly conferences and some forbidding lecturers) and become involved and for that we thank fellow list member, Pansy. She prodded all of us into a series of encounters from which we will all emerge enriched, if personality clashes do not cloud the content. So, those of us such as myself who have analyzed your comments in some depth still appreciate your willingness to become involved. SOME SPECIFICS That having been said, it is still essential to comment on one of the worst beliefs that one encounters at virtually every fitness convention and in every popular publication, namely: "This exercise is for the average person or beginner and is not meant for athletes or experts" While the sentiments are well founded, they often tend to insult the 'average' person - who on earth always wants to be just 'average'? None of my clients wants to stay 'average' or 'novice' - that's why they are visiting a professional - they want to move out of averages and progress to something far greater. Of course, we start with carefully graded sequences of exercises, beginning with no added loading, and then progress cyclically to greater heights to achieve mutually agreed-upon goals, but we must never lose sight of the fact that any beginner HAS to be moving progressively onto significant resistance (or duration, degree of difficulty, range of movement etc.) - and this is where the problems begin. Research has shown that skills developed with minimal loading do not necessarily transfer effectively and safely to situations with greater loading. Moreover, learning a skill using movements which are similar to, but not the same as the actual exercise being taught, causes the same sort of motor problem, because the controlling program being instilled into the central nervous system is different for every different variant or pattern of movement. Thus learning of the half squat, power clean or machine bench press does not properly prepare the beginner for safety and efficiency with heavier loads. In fact, the well-meaning, but misguided advice to do certain 'safe' movements can actually lead to the dangerous situation in which the client may be MORE vulnerable to injury if he/she by chance is called upon to execute the banned form of that exercise. ADAPTATION AND OVERDESIGN Just as one overdesigns roads and buildings with a greater "Safety Factor" than 1 to withstand greater loads in earthquake zones such as San Francisco, so we should overdesign the body just in case it is sometimes called upon to do that dread activity that all the fitness authorities cautioned us against. So we have to teach, modify or relearn the skill each time we are exposed to some noticeable change in its characteristics, such as degree of resistance, range, speed, duration and pattern. If one is likely to be exposed to fatigue with an exercise, then we have to ensure that the client knows the different skills of learning and coping under conditions of fatigue. It is highly misleading to believe that there is only one specific skill for a given exercise at a given time for every single person. It is also misleading to lump all squats together. Even though they all involve knee, hip and spinal actions, the powerlifting and weightlifting or deep-knee bend squats differ very significantly in execution and distribution of forces through range of movement. There tends to be an irrational fear associated with deeper-than-parallel squats, even though most of this is based on theoretical analysis and is usually contradicted by clinical studies which show that even more knee injuries occur in activities which do not flex the knee anywhere near parallel (such as running and jumping). Others show that partial squats can traumatize the knees even more than full squats! Do the critics not appreciate that full squats executed under appropriate control throughout the movement actually produce adaptation (that is what all training is about, anyway!), enhanced strength, better stability and greater resistance to unexpected loading? That is what the principle of Gradual Progressive Overload is about, isn't it? THE REAL DANGERS The sooner folk realize that safety of execution does not depend primarily on the exercise alone, but the technique with which it is executed. Thus, a full squat executed slowly over full range may produce smaller patellar tendon forces than a part-range squat done a bit more rapidly. As a matter of fact, the patellar tendon force is frequently much greater during step aerobics, running, jumping, kicking and swimming than during controlled full squats with a load even exceeding twice bodymass. The dangers of a squat (even a part-range one) lie more in inward rotation of the knees, unequal thrusting with one leg, loss of stability with fatigue or poor concentration, unskilled use of ballistic action or the use of some object to raise the heels and increase the stress on the patella and its tendon. Does this mean that we should then advise against all these activities? Of course not! If we presented a table of the stresses and strains acting on all the tissues of the body during apparently innocuous daily activities (including the pressure in smaller blood vessels subjected to the pumping pressure of the heart), we would never get out of bed. Sorry, these arguments of great forces and stresses and so forth have to be looked at in context - the body grows, adapts and flourishes in response to an optimal level of regularly imposed stress. It is also misleading to talk about forces and tensions being large, because we should only do so in the context of knowing something about how big, strong and dense the tissues are upon which they are acting. If the tendon has a large cross-sectional area and the connective tissue comprising it is strong and extensible, then we have far less to worry about than if the tendons were not like that. Remember that a knowledge of the STRESS (force averaged over the cross-sectional area of the tissue) and STRAIN (how much the tissues lengthen relative to their original length) is far more relevant than the force itself. Forget about forces being quoted out of context - we have to be far more specific than that before we can condemn some poor exercise to death.