A few days ago, I decided to throw my hat in the Instabattle ring and submit a video for everyone to try. For those who don’t know, Instabattle was something that Hunter Cook came up with late last year where it was pretty much an exercise of the day that would challenge people to match or one-up in a fun competition. If you want to check out some of the background videos and see what all the fuss is about, go on instragram or Facebook and use #instabattle to find the videos and stuff that goes with it.
Anyways, as I said I submitted a video. I wanted to do a deep squat with a marker for depth, and also use an appreciable load. So I decided to use a Reebok step from group exercise classes (a bumper plate or yoga block would work too, I guess) and used my bodyweight on the bar. The step height was about 4 inches and the weight used was 245.
And yes, that was a poor attempt at a twerk at the end. If you can dip it low with a bar, you can dip it low……AT the bar. Word? Word.
Now in a very unique occurrence, people on Youtube posted comments on a video!! It was truly monumental as this never happens, ever. They ranged from “Why?” to complete dissection of the video with references to Dr. Stuart McGill not liking the squat due to valgus movement and lumbar lordosis.
Funny enough, none of the negative comments mentioned the fact that this was about 60% of my max, so a comfortable and controlled weight, nor the fact that this was my 7th set of squats for the day, so I was quite warm going into it, and had actually done the depth before the video to make sure I didn’t poop out a kidney. I also am fortunate to have some decent mobility and control over my squat pattern, so I have a little more leeway than some, ahthankyouverymuch.
while I will admit that the bottom of the movement showed some internal rotation of the femurs to accommodate the depth, the lumbar spine stayed relatively intact and didn’t flex much at all at the bottom. I’m pretty sure if I just took a slightly more narrowed stance the internal rotation wouldn’t happen. The use of regular sneakers instead of weightlifting shoes with a specific heel to toe camber provided more resistance than benefit to the movement, but only added to the bad-assery involved.
Now I’m sure there’s a lot of people who would say that any internal rotation of the knees is a recipe for my ACL rupturing and exploding out through my patella, or that my discs would explode with the application of only a single rep of this movement, but the jokes on them. I BLEW OUT MY DISCS LONG BEFORE I DID THIS SQUAT!!! Awwww yeah.
In many respects, the critics are right. I wouldn’t recommend this squat depth to a client, especially if they have any issues with their knees or low back. The loss of centration through the valgus collapse increases stress through the knee, and any lordosis under loading increases posterior disc stress that could result in injury.
That said, please also remember that all exercise increases stress on the body. In some instances, you will want to be able to buttress the stressors placed on the body through less than optimal ranges of motion, and also utilize new ranges with joint centration that haven’t been trained as of yet. Do your feet always need to point forward? Does your knee always have to stay behind your toes? Is that air you’re breathing?
The main goal of any training program should be to start people under control in a neutral spinal alignment with joint centration. This is a great place for a healthy and strong progression for people looking to improve their strength, stability, and control over movements. That said, after a while you will need to alter the positioning, range of motion, and alignment used to produce new movements that aren’t gym specific to find increased mobility or control. Think of a gymnast or dancer looking to improve their range of motion or control through a variety of movements or positions. They can’t exist solely in confined positional isolation. They must adjust.
I conceptualize movement based on windows. Not the OS that crashes when you try to install and play a game of Worms, but those things that open and close and let the sunlight shine in.
When they’re completely open, it’s the total amount of mobility you have at a specific joint or within a specific movement without the influence of gravity. Call this your passive range of motion if you will. Most people will only use a small amount of their movement window, meaning it’s like the window is only halfway open. That’s still pretty good. Some people who have pain will need to have a smaller movement window until they have the ability to control what they are using in a way that improves their strength, control and alignment, which in a biomechanical sense should reduce pain associated with biomechanical issues. This is analogous to closing the windows when it rains, or only having them open a crack.
Once the individual can control their window effectively, we can open it further by including new positions, stances, depths, ranges of motion, and requirements on the body. Essentially, you open the window.
It all comes back to controlling neutral, and if that can’t be achieved, their available window is reduced to work on that aspect, then opened slowly based on their progress. It’s not really a difficult concept, but works really well.
Now about the knees collapsing into valgus. There’s a difference between collapse through rapid eccentric loading, and moving into valgus to find the range of motion needed. If I were to jump and land and see my knees smash into each other, that would be a bad sign.
The faster the rate of force application, the more important joint alignment becomes. Consider it like your wheel alignment on your car. When you’re cruising around at 10 mph, you don’t notice it that much, but when you get up to highway speeds, even a slight toe in can make you have a shaky ride that wants to veer into opposing traffic.
I don’t really get that too much when I jump.
For me in the first squat, the rate of force application is pretty slow, and there’s ample time for me to adjust positioning to ensure I’m not causing any pain or damage to the area. You’ll also note that both my hips and ankles rotate to allow the knee to move easily in a hinge position versus being caught between the two. Essentially, I accommodated the movement to allow the rotation without exploding my knees.
You could also make the case that at elite levels of performance, it’s almost necessary to see some form of valgus collapse to maintain the rate of force application, with the hope that the ACL and other structures have seen enough positive adaptation through repeated stressors to manage the area properly. Watch Dmitry Klokov clean and press a brick house, specifically around 35-40 seconds where his knees do in fact go slightly valgus.
Now watch Evgeny Chigishev do the same movement with an additional Olsen twin on the bar, showing minor valgus on both the catch and jerk.
You could say that minor deviation in knee positioning increases their risk of injury, but guess what? Lifting over 500 pounds from the floor to overhead will increase your risk of injury regardless of whether you knee stays in line or drifts slightly. Stepping outside and walking off the curb will increase your risk of injury. Laying in bed all day increases your risk. Exposing your body to gravity, or not exposing your body to gravity increases your risk. Everything you do physically comes with risk.
There’s a risk that is warranted, like having your knees track slightly out of alignment but under control, and then there’s an unnecessary risk, such as purposefully rounding your lumbar spine during deadlifts to shorten the hip extension moment at the risk of your spine.
We could reduce the risk of injury in the movement by altering the lever lengths being used, which reduces the force acting on fulcrums and torque centres, but to say a rounded back is dangerous in all situations belies the fact that you have 13-14 degrees of flexion available per vertebral section. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I wouldn’t want to load it up, but it’s important to maintain. If you want to sit up out of bed, bend to pick something up off the floor without doing a pre-activation series and hip mobility work, or have “nighttime recreational activities,” you need lumbar flexion.
With the squat, if it’s not loaded to max, you can do a lot of things within tolerable limits and not have any problems. Body weight mobility work is awesome and makes you look like a gad damn ninja in the gym.
The hip is a ball and socket joint, meaning it has the ability to move in 3 planes. A squat involves moving the hip in a fixed saggital or slightly frontal plane depending on width, turning this awesome ball and socket joint into more of a hinge joint. The knee is a hinge joint, so it should be treated as such, but not the hip. Allow it to move when it’s not under max loading.
Loading changes the game. As load goes up, that available window of movement discussed earlier should be reduced to the ability to control the range of motion being used, the pathway of best accommodation, and the ability to hoist mass against gravity for the desired volume. Box squats work really well to control this depth while ensuring you still hit it. All you do is find a box that won’t collapse if you sit on it, then squat to the box and stand up again.
Another option with load is to simply stop your range of motion when you get your hips parallel with your knees, make sure you have a relatively straight line from your hips to knees and ankles, and don’t pass out while lifting. That sucks, and people typically don’t want to have to clean up the mess of you all broken and bent under some significant load of iron and failure.
To circle back to the beginning of the post, context of movement is always important. This was meant as a challenge to see if it could be done, not something I would use in a regular training session. It’s important to have a broad range of motion available, and to be able to use it effectively, but as loading increases that range will decrease accordingly. The mobility should be maintained though, and through as many ranges, positions and alignments as possible to ensure the health of that ball and socket joint.