We live in a society that doesn't want gray areas. People want right or wrong, up or down, and left or right. This mindset carries over to the gym, too; lifters want to be able to say that Exercise A is evil, and Exercise B is safe.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple, so with that in mind, I'm devoting this article to killing off some myths, establishing some more well-defined gray areas, and making recommendations on who can do what.
I'm going to come right out and say it: in the absence of musculoskeletal pathology, no movement is fundamentally bad. Sure, there are exercises like kickbacks and leg extensions that don't give you as much bang for your buck as their multi-joint counterparts (e.g. dips and squats), but that's not to say that these pansy exercises are "bad" for you. Likewise, it's rare that I write any sort of machine lift into my programming, but there are rehabilitation patients that benefit greatly from certain machine training.
In my opinion, there are only five scenarios in which exercise is ever truly bad for you from a health standpoint:
1. When that exercise is performed in excessive volume.
2. When that exercise is performed with poor technique.
3. When that exercise is performed in a manner that puts it out of balance with the rest of the programming that is in place.
4. When that exercise irritates an existing injury or condition.
5. When that exercise is performed with excessive loading (relative to the lifter's capabilities).
Now, it's not feasible for me to outline every specific instance where every exercise is safe or unsafe, but I can address some common adages we frequently hear in our gyms.
Adage #1: Your knees shouldn't pass your toes when you squat.
First off, you need to consider whether you're a powerlifter or a bodybuilder. In other words, are you planning on hammering your posterior chain by using predominantly the hamstrings, glutes and lumbar erectors to complete the movement? Or, are you looking to overload the quads?
It goes without saying that the movements are significantly different, so it's important to first differentiate between the two. In the powerlifting squat, you'll be sitting back, arching hard, and attempting to keep the shins perpendicular to the floor; in other words, there will be more trunk flexion, thus facilitating recruitment of the hip extensors and enabling you to get to parallel easier.
While the knee extensors are going to be involved to some extent (as there is knee flexion occurring on the eccentric), it's the muscles acting at the hip that account for the majority of the force that brings you out of the hole. It is, however, virtually impossible to squat rock bottom with a powerlifting style squat; your chest would be on top of your thighs far before your hamstrings hit your calves (unless you have freaky big hamstrings and calves).
In the Olympic version of the squat, initiating the movement is still about sitting back, but not nearly to the same degree as the former example. Essentially, we're looking for a happy medium between sitting back and sitting down. The knees are going to come in front of the toes simply because this is the only way to get deep when the trunk is more upright; if the knees stay directly above the toes on an Olympic squat, your base of support is too narrow, your center of gravity is shifted backward, and you fall backward (and still don't get your depth). You see this all the time in beginners. It's almost as pathetic as when they talk on their cell phones in the gym.
So, the question arises of whether or not the knees coming in front of the toes during the Olympic squat is dangerous. Fry, Smith, and Schilling (2003) examined joint kinetics during back squats under two conditions.(1) In the first condition, a board placed in front of the participants' shins restricted the forward displacement of the knees. In the second condition, movement wasn't restricted at all; they squatted normally, and the knees passed the toes (gasp!).
The researchers found that restricting the forward excursion of the knees during the squat increased anterior lean of the trunk and promoted an increased "internal angle at the knees and ankles." The results were a 22% decrease in knee torque and a 1070% increase in hip torque!
Sure, they "saved" the knees by limiting stress on them, but those forces were transferred more than tenfold to the hips and lower back! The researchers concluded that "appropriate joint loading during this exercise may require the knees to move slightly past the toes". "May?" Ugh. I mean honestly; look at these photos that the authors included. Isn't the lumbo-pelvic position in "B" just lovely?
Source: Fry and Smith, 2003, J Strength Cond Res.
In consideration of this study and photo "B," some might wonder whether powerlifting squats are safe on the hips and lower back. My answer is a resounding "YES" for several reasons. First, powerlifters attempt to minimize, not eliminate, the knees coming in front of the toes. There is always going to be at least subtle anterior excursion of the knees relative to the feet.
Second, powerlifters know to sit back and not down when they squat; the participants in this study were still attempting to do the latter when they performed the restricted squats. If you try to Olympic squat with the shins perpendicular to the floor; your lower back is going to round... period. Engaging in this debate would amount to comparing apples and oranges.
Third, powerlifters are proficient at establishing and maintaining a tight arch of the lumbar spine; this position is crucial to keeping the chest up and, in turn, the center of gravity within the base of support (or else the movement becomes a good morning). This position also places the hamstrings at a mechanical advantage.
Fourth, powerlifters assume a squatting stance that is at least a little wider than that of Olympic lifters; this repositioning "opens up" the hips and enables one to get deeper without considerable forward excursion of the knees.
Fifth, photo "B" is not a powerlifting squat; it's just a mess of torso and limbs with a bar on top.
Adage #2: You should not squat below parallel.
I'm on a roll with the squatting issue, so I might as well stick with it. Let's get something straight right off the bat: the "parallel" designation is something that was not borne out of any biomechanical rationale whatsoever. Rather, it is a product of needing a way to determine if the squat is completed in lifting competition. Where people lost sight of this fact is beyond my comprehension, so I'll simply ask this: would you use partial range of motion on other exercises in a healthy individual without any exercise contraindications? I didn't think so. Although this reasoning ought to be enough for most of you, how about a little literature to back this up?
Salem and Powers (2001) looked at patellofemoral joint kinetics in female collegiate athletes at three different depths: 70 degrees (above parallel), 90 degrees (at parallel), and 110 degrees (below parallel) of knee flexion. The researchers found that "Peak knee extensor moment, patellofemoral joint reaction force and patellofemoral joint stress did not vary significantly between the three squatting trials (2);" there was no support for the idea that squatting below parallel increases stress on the patellofemoral joint.
It's important to also note that squatting depth should be determined by the athlete's flexibility and goals, as well as the nature of his sport. If one doesn't have the flexibility to get below parallel safely, then the rock-bottom squat shouldn't be part of his arsenal; this athlete's attention would be better devoted elsewhere and possibly supplemented with squats at or above parallel.
It stands to reason that different athletes will have different goals in light of the demands of their sports, too. For instance, Olympic lifters and rock climbers would require positions of deep closed-chain knee flexion more often that offensive linemen and marathoners. Then again, the nature of some sports requires that deep squatting be used to offset the imbalances that result from always working the knee extensors in the 1/4 and 1/2 squat positions; this is one reason that cyclists, hockey players, and athletes who do significant amounts of running (e.g. soccer players, marathoners) ought to prioritize deep squatting and single-leg movements early in the off-season.
Finally, it's important to remember that while a full range-of-motion squat will offer noticeable carryover to top-end strength, 1/4 squats will not yield strength increases in the lower positions. Effectively, you get more bang for your training buck by squatting deep, which is one reason why this modality is the best option for those purely interested in looking good nekkid.
Adage #3: Your toes should point straight-ahead when squatting.
"Should" and "Can" are two completely different stories. In order to squat, leg press, or do any other closed-chain movement involving considerable knee flexion, we need a certain amount of dorsiflexion range of motion at our ankles.
Unfortunately, as Mike Robertson and I pointed out in our Neanderthal No More series, a large percentage of the population has tight calves and tends to over-pronate at the subtalar joints (leading to flat feet). As a result, dorsiflexion ROM is compromised, and if the lifter tries to squat deep with the toes pointing straight ahead, he must compensate by a) rising up on the toes, b) increasing the amount of hip flexion, or c) combining the two in what makes for an extremely ugly squat.
Fortunately, you can alleviate these problems by simply externally rotating the feet (pointing the toes outward); doing so "unlocks" the ankles and gives you the requisite amount of dorsiflexion you'll need to squat. You should still, however, work toward a point where you can squat with the feet pointing nearly straight ahead; this "work" should consist of loosening up the hip flexors and plantarflexors.
Adage #4: Good mornings are bad for your back.
Generalizations are a very dangerous thing. I think it's fair to say that the ordinary folks who criticize you for doing GMs assume that you're using the exercise to train the lumbar erectors and not the entire posterior chain, specifically the glutes and hamstrings. Essentially, these individuals fail to differentiate between lumbar and pelvic motion.
I'll be blunt; rounding the lumbar spine under compressive loads is not a good thing. In the position of full forward flexion, the passive structures (discs, ligaments and thoracolumbar fascia) and NOT the muscles bear the overwhelming majority of the load. This occurrence is referred to as the "flexion relaxation response of the erector spinae."(3,4) This position is bad enough for the ordinary trainee, but even worse for folks with shear instability conditions like spondylolisthesis.
In fact, this group of individuals should avoid lumbar flexion exercises such as sit-ups (more on that in Part II) and even reverse hypers, which have received much praise in rehabilitating lower back injuries of different sorts.
So what can we do to make good mornings safe? How about a little of modern-day natural selection in a resistance training context where only the strongest survive? Let's say that we have 100 trainees that represent the gym-going population as a whole. Roughly 65 of these individuals will be deconditioned with a complete lack of proficiency in any realm of fitness; we can eliminate them from the good morning pool immediately. For the sake of this argument, based on all the emails I receive and my experience on the T-Nation forums, I'm going to estimate that the majority of our readers are in the "Upper 35" echelon.
I'd estimate that 20 of this echelon's trainees, although possessing an average level of general fitness, need to be focusing on other core exercises before moving to those (like good mornings) that sit a little higher-up on the risk continuum. Exercises like deadlifts, squats, various presses, rows, dips and a boatload of prehab work are what they need. Good mornings may come eventually, but they don't need to worry about crossing that road just yet.
That's not to say, however, that there aren't steps to be taken in anticipation of crossing that road. Specifically, it's important that they learn the concept of abdominal bracing to optimize spinal stability. As Stuart McGill has vehemently advocated, you should imagine "locking the rib cage to the pelvis."(5) A ton of core work is just what the doctor ordered, in these cases.
Serious postural issues and substitution patterns in the lumbo-pelvic area are contraindications to really hitting GMs hard. An accentuated lordotic curve is the most concerning issue on this front; if your lumbar erectors are overactive to compensate for a lack of glute and hamstring contribution, the only way to pre-stretch the "faulty" prime movers and potentiate force generation is lumbar flexion. As I noted above, the flexion relaxation response phenomenon makes this a very bad idea.
The remaining 15 are in a position where they can properly execute GMs, -that is, unless they have a significant (either cumulative or single traumatic) history of lower back injuries. If they're part of this at-risk population, I recommend that they stay away from GMs altogether. Last I heard, it's estimated that about 80% of people have some sort of lower back pain during their lives, so this issue obviously carries over to the aforementioned trainee groups, too. I'd estimate that this eliminates another three trainees, 20% of our hardcore crew.
We're down to twelve legitimate candidates, eight of whom can safely perform the GMs in 5+ range, but their form goes down the tubes when the weight gets too heavy and they panic. In my experience, form is far more likely to crap out under heavy loading than it is under accumulated fatigue in the last few reps of a set.
This leaves us with the Final Four. What can I say? I'm writing this from the college basketball capital of the universe during March Madness, and I went with the mood. These four T-Men are ready for "chaos training" as outlined by Dave Tate here.
Brace the core, maintain a neutral spine, and you're good to go. Potvin et al. (1991) asserted that "the risk of injury may be influenced more by the degree of lumbar flexion than the choice of stoop or squat technique."(4) If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be that the spine should not flex under heavy load.
So, out of 100 trainees, I estimate that twelve are actually able to handle GMs in their programming, and only four of them can get really hit them heavy. In T-Man terms, it works out to about a third of you doing them, but only one-tenth of you doing them balls-to-the-wall. Then again, even that is going to be dependent on your goals.
In consideration of the good morning debate, I'm reminded of something Dr. Jeff Anderson, Director of Sports Medicine at the University of Connecticut, said to me once: "If you live your life the right way, you'll likely find yourself in an orthopedist's office at some point. If you live it the wrong way, you'll likely end up in cardiologist's office instead."(6).
Need proof? Granhed and Morelli (1988) found that retired heavyweight lifters demonstrated a markedly greater reduction in disc height on x-rays when compared with age-matched controls.(7) You simply need to find how far toward one end of the spectrum you want to be. If you want to do something incredible, you need to be willing to take risks while maximizing safety.
Adage #5: You should wear a belt.
This issue has been addressed quite a bit, but for some reason, the message never seems to hit home with people. Perhaps the problem is that a lot of the research cited only investigates the use of belts in workplace safety scenarios and not resistance training contexts.
As is the case with a lot of these adages, the decision to use or not use a belt is goal-dependent. First, let's make it clear that you should not be using a belt for anything below 90% of 1RM; for most, this comprises sets of more than three reps.
One of the most common misconceptions regarding belt use in a resistance training context is that simply because the belt assists in increasing intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), it must automatically reduce the compressive load on the spine. This is completely false; the belt certainly doesn't have a favorable impact on compressive forces, and may even increase the compressive load! (5)
It's readily apparent that wearing a belt has helped many lifters to move heavier weights than they would under "raw" conditions, but the question remains: do they decrease the risk of injury? Well, in consideration of the fact that they restrict the end of the range of motion in lumbar spine flexion, one would have to agree that they do, especially in those who cannot maintain a neutral spine.
Interestingly, this is one of the reasons belts can add pounds to your total; they facilitate the elastic response to torso flexion; the more neutral the spine is (as it should be), the less profound this effect is. Oddly enough, as McGill puts it, "to obtain the maximal effect from a belt, the lifter must lift poorly and in a way that exposed the back to a much higher risk of injury."(5)
An additional mechanism by which belts increase one's ability to move big weights are via expansion of the base of support to increase torso stiffness when placed under heavy loads. This stiffness helps to prevent the spine from buckling. (As someone with a pretty sound knowledge of biomechanics, I can assure you that buckling is a bad thing.) Belt use and "natural" methods to increase IAP are both effective in enhancing stability, both individually and in tandem.(8)
So what's the problem with belt use? It alters firing patterns such that the belt becomes a crutch, and important core musculature is not called upon to stabilize the spine. Considerable evidence exists to suggest that wearing a belt causes individuals to unknowingly alter their motor patterns.
Cholewicki et al. (1999) compared belt use and increasing intra-abdominal pressure "naturally" under situations where lumbar spine stability was challenged via a sudden load release (in either trunk flexion, extension, or lateral flexion). The investigators found that belt use caused activity to decrease for the thoracic erector spinae in extension and the lumbar erector spinae in flexion (8).
With all this in mind, here are four broad recommendations for belt use:
1. Gym-goers with purely physique benefits in mind have little to no use for belts.
2. Powerlifters and those most interested in optimizing strength should use belts as a means of increasing spinal stability only on their heaviest attempts. A noteworthy exception is when the belt is used to hold other equipment (e.g. squat suit, bench shirt) in place.
3. When used, belts should be coupled with natural methods of increasing IAP.
4. Use belts for winning competitions, not improving core strength.
These five adages should give you something to chew on until Part II, when you'll get some more food for thought!
1. Fry AC, Smith JC, Schilling BK. Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):629-33.
2. GJ Salem and CM Powers. Patellofemoral joint kinetics during squatting in collegiate women athletes. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon), June 1, 2001; 16(5): 424-30.
3. McGill SM. The mechanics of torso flexion: situps and standing dynamic flexion manoeuvres. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1995 Jun;10(4):184-192.
4. Potvin JR, McGill SM, Norman RW. Trunk muscle and lumbar ligament contributions to dynamic lifts with varying degrees of trunk flexion. Spine. 1991 Sep;16(9):1099-107.
5. McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Stuart McGill, PhD, 2004.
6. Anderson, J. Personal Communication. November, 2003.
7. Granhed H, Morelli B. Low back pain among retired wrestlers and heavyweight lifters. Am J Sports Med. 1988 Sep-Oct;16(5):530-3.
8. Cholewicki J, Juluru K, Radebold A, Panjabi MM, McGill SM. Lumbar spine stability can be augmented with an abdominal belt and/or increased intra-abdominal pressure. Eur Spine J. 1999;8(5):388-95.