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Forget What You’ve Heard: 4 Reasons Why Full Squats Save Your Knees

Hips below knees, back more horizontal. No, it's not what your trainer told you.

by
Mark Rippetoe

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February 21, 2014 - 10:48 am
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Squat5

(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)

The idea that below-parallel squats are bad for the knees is complete nonsense that for some reason will not go away. This mythology is mindlessly repeated by orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, registered nurses, personal trainers, dieticians, sportscasters, librarians, lunch-room monitors, and many other people in positions of authority with no actual knowledge of the topic and no basis in fact for their opinion.

I have been teaching the below-parallel squat for 37 years, and have taught hundreds of thousands of people — in my gym, through my books and videos, and in my seminars — to safely perform the most important exercise in the entire catalog of resistance training. Yet here in 2014, well into the 21st century, we still hear completely uninformed people — who have had ample opportunity to educate themselves yet have failed to do so — advise against performing squats under the assumption that they look scary or hard and are therefore “bad for the knees.

Here are four reasons why this is not true, and why you should immediately start squatting correctly if you entertain the notion that you’d like to be stronger. 

1. The “deep” (hips below the level of the knees) squat is an anatomically normal position for the human body.

It is used as a resting position for millions of people everywhere, and they squat into it and rise out of it every time. There is nothing harmful about either assuming a squatting position — whether sitting down in a chair or into an unsupported squat — or returning to a standing position afterward.

If you look at the knees and hips, you’ll notice that they seem suspiciously well-adapted to doing this very thing. Infants and children squat down below parallel all the time in the absence of pediatric medical intervention. These things should indicate to the thinking person that there is nothing inherently harmful in assuming this anatomically normal position. The fact that you haven’t been squatting is no reason to seek justification for not having done so.

The world powerlifting record for the squat is over 1,000 pounds. My friend Ellen Stein has squatted 400 at the age of 60 at a bodyweight of 132 pounds. Everybody seems to be okay.

Yes, friends, we’ve been squatting since we’ve had knees and hips, and the development of the toilet just reduced the range of motion a little. The comparatively recent innovation of gradually loading this natural movement with a barbell doesn’t mean that it will hurt you, if you do it correctly.

You don’t get to do the squat incorrectly and then tell everybody that squatting hurt your knees.

Disclaimer: This discussion refers specifically to the strength training version of the movement, the one designed to make you progressively stronger by lifting progressively heavier weights. If you are doing hundreds of reps of unweighted squats, your knees and everything else are going to be unavoidably and exquisitely sore.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
I must say, Mark is right. I'm a 65 year-old physician, with no ACL in one knee and an unoperated menscal tear in the other. Started squatting almost three years ago--my lifting buddy is a former competitive power lifter, and he is meticulous about my learning proper technique--and my knees are stronger, my low back is stronger, and I finally have a butt. No knee pain and no low back pain for the first time in 35 years! BTW--the 3rd edition of Mark's book, Starting Strength, is outstanding in its detail; the first chapter, Squat, runs over 70 pages.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can't comment without knowing the details of your situation. But for knee and hip replacement patients my advice is always to start very light, do as much of the range of motion as you can, and go up very slowly.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
The fall of Western Civ is our toilets?

Nice one.

I would offer that other cultures really cruddy plumbing indicates that they are a really cruddy culture.

But I could move to Pakistan tomorrow to save my knees, so I got that going for me.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (56)
All Comments   (56)
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The knees out form is the part that is most important- you do that, most of the rest of the form falls naturally into place. Most of the people I see doing the exercise do it with the knees held in. I also see the exact same thing with a lot of people who use the weight sleds. The knees in is a very unnatural way to do both the squat the related exercise with a leg sled.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Decades of distance running and military service left me with shredded menisci in both knees. One doctor told me I'd never run again, which was unacceptable. I had surgery on the left knee back in 2010. Learning to squat correctly was part of my physical therapy. Once I could reliably squat without weight, I started adding weight.

Four months after surgery, I tied for 2nd place in my battalion's power lifting competition. Six months after surgery, I passed the physical fitness test (including the run) by a wide margin.

This stuff works, kids. Use it.

ps: I also completely changed my running technique to prevent further injury, but that's a different subject.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am very fortunate to have an orthopedic surgeon (who I've visited for various little things) who has encouraged me to do a broad range of dynamic strength exercises - including Olympic lifts ("just don't overdo it - take your time and build strength").

On the other hand, another orthopedic surgeon who I met online was adamant to the point of rudeness that *any* squats would result in a knee replacement and that my doctor was a quack, etc.

Unfortunately, we got into a pissing match about conditioning. Fortunately, on every measure of fitness - but especially vertical leap height - I was so much stronger and better conditioned than he was that he just ended the conversation in frustration ("when you blow out your knees, don't come to me to fix them"). It was sweet - especially since I am nearly 20 years older than him as well!
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Many doctors deserve the reputation they have given themselves. Some do not.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
How important is quad activation/vmo on a squat? After a knee surgery, went to a PT and was advised I was quad dominant. Due to this perceived ailment, the PT focused on glute med strengthening. We did so much glute strengthening, I'm convinced I can crack a walnut. Problem is my quads no longer fire on the squat causing my knees to bear the brunt of the load (causing anterior pain). I guess my question is, how do you re-train the quad to fire on the squat? Are there auxiliary exercise to help this?
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm sorry, but your entire post consists of PT-babble. This is probably not your fault, since you accepted what the PT told you. But facts are unfortunate things. There is no such thing anatomically as a separately-innervated "VMO". Simply does not exist. Look it up. If you were "quad-dominant" it was because you were doing some version of a front squat that places all the moment force on the knees/quads. Correct squatting corrects the results of incorrect squatting.

But all squats involve knee extension. If your quads do not "fire" on the squat, you would also be stuck on the toilet. And since the quads operate the knees, how would it be possible for the knees to bear the brunt of a stress that their extensors cannot operate under? If you squat, your knees -- by definition -- have extended. If your knees have extended, your quads extended them. Therefore, if you squat, you are strengthening your quads.

In the absence of neurological damage, muscles contract when the movement pattern they produce is executed. If you do a movement correctly, and that correct movement involves the quads, they have "fired". They may not be very strong, but they have contracted. See this for more:
http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/.../rippetoe_goes_off&cr=
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Roger that, appreciate it.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
unless your patellas are already grinding away the joint and you've been putting off replacements :)

edit:
should add we did try these for strengthening but damage (military) was too much at that point. I have seen people get good results from them, both in knees and lower back.

course I am limited to 25 lbs due to multiple l4-l5 and l5-s1 tears and shoulders being held together with bone anchors so this became a total non-issue for me
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
not sure why it posted like this, I actually was editing org comment
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
unless your patellas are already grinding away the joint and you've been putting off replacements :)
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
All I gotta say is that you must have healthy knees. I have had two surgeries because of football injuries and if I were to do what you are recommending I would have to have both knees amputated.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, okay. Better to remain seated, I suppose.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark, My daughter had a cerebellum stroke caused by a freak softball accident three years ago. She underwent over a year of physical therapy to relearn to walk, has permanent vertigo. She can walk but has no sense of balance; if she tilts she falls and doesn't realize it until she hits the ground. Bottom line is she has now hurt her back both in the neck and lumbar region and suffers near constant pain from these injuries on top of her stroke problems. Doctors and pain therapists have nothing to offer. I wonder if back strengthening exercises might help. She was a world class athlete in incredible shape before the accident and can work through pain. Any advice?

22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I imagine that it would help if she did squats with a constrained bar that moves vertically on a rail. Else a couple of good spotters.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
The squat is an extremely balance-dependent exercise. Strength will help her, but in her case I'd probably use a leg press to train her, at least at first.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark,
Thanks. We'll start there, again; she had been doing leg presses but after the falls, she stopped.

22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
RIP, how do you feel about the front squat v. back squat debate? I know you only prescribe back squats, but many of the folks I lift with have switched over to only front squatting because it requires more engagement from all the involved muscle groups throughout the movement, and it's a more "athletic" forward-oriented movement, such as a sprinter or lineman would need. Also, front squats keep you honest. You can't just rest the bar on your back and shoot your ass out behind you as you squat down, the way you do in the back squat. Do you have an opinion on one over the other?
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I see absolutely no application for front squats unless the athlete is an Olympic weightlifter. The squat is superior in every way, and in keeping with the topic of this article, squats take the stress off the knees while front squats place the stress directly on them.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Just saw my orthopedic surgeon on the second anniversary of a partial knee replacement. I still have pain. It's no surprise that I "feel" the pain at the site of the surgery, although -- logically -- it can't be there, since the titanium implants and the plastic "cartilage" are (by x-ray) perfect. So it's soft tissue. The doc says it's the hamstring. So . . . starting my fourth round of physical therapy next week. Question: when an implant is present, would inject caution into your enthusiasm for squats? BTW, I'm 66 but very fit.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have taught many people to squat on their knee prostheses, one guy went to 500 (against my advice). But you can certainly squat if you learn to stay out of your knees and make your hips take the load.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
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