Squatters right to leg power
Brian Mackenzie examines the benefits of squatting exercise.
Downhill skiers do it, too. Most track and field athletes consider it an essential part of their supplemental training. Even soccer and hockey players rely on it.
It's squatting, the performance of knee bends while holding a weight on the shoulders. Squatting is one of the most important parts of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting training programs, and many coaches in a variety of sports believe that squatting is the supreme way to build strength in the upper parts of the legs. In a way, all of this fuss about squatting is pretty strange, since almost nothing has been known about the forces passing through the hip and knee joints during squatting exercise, nor has much been known about the exact activities of the "quads" and hamstrings during squats.
Also, although squatting is a fairly safe activity, there have been some reports of serious knee injuries during squatting workouts. Since the actual forces on the joints and leg muscles haven't been known, the value of squatting, as part of the rehabilitation process for injured athletes has been unclear.
Fortunately, scientists in the Departments of Anatomy and Kinesiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden (Wretenberg et al. 1993) have recently determined exactly what happens to the legs during squatting sessions. Eight burly young national class Olympic weightlifters took part in the research. The average body weight was 180 pounds, the mean age was 19, and a typical one repetition maximum (1RM) during squatting exercise was about 230 pounds.
Each squatting exertion was a "high bar" squat, with the weight bar centred across the shoulders just below the seventh cervical vertebra (the first knob one feels when passing the hand down the back surface of the neck). For every squat, the actual weight used was 65% of an athlete's one repetition maximum.
The subjects tried four different knee flexion angles while squatting:
The first two squats, 45 and 90 degrees are just partial squats with athletes remaining in a semi-standing position and the buttocks only slightly lowered toward the floor. Among coaches, there's considerable controversy about which form of squatting is "best" for athletes. Videotaping and electromyography were used to determine joint forces and muscle activity.
As it turned out, the 45 and 90-degree squats did a poor job of activating the quads and hamstrings, compared to the parallel and deep squats. However, the former two squats also produced fairly low forces at the knee and hip joints, so the 45 and 90-degree squats are probably excellent exercises for athletes who are attempting carefully to recover from leg injuries.
Surprisingly, there was no difference in muscular activity between the parallel and deep squats, even though coaches tend to recommend the latter. The total times required to perform parallel and deep squats were also similar, so neither exercise provides more total work for the leg muscles per training session. Although the parallel and deep squats produce equivalent amounts of muscle activation, the parallel exercise is better for athletes who have suffered from knee problems, since it produces less strain on the knees.
Athletes with hip problems should probably rely on 90-degree squats since both parallel and deep squats upgrade hip loading forces significantly. Overall, squatting does a great job of activating both the quads and hamstrings, especially if one uses parallel or deep squats. Parallel squats are as good as deep squats at working the muscles and better than deep squats for limiting the risk of knee injuries.
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About the Author
Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.