It never fails to amaze me how much misinformation you can find floating around a gym. Misconceptions of how or why to perform an exercise are touted as truth by so-called trainers and coaches, and bald-faced error is passed on from trainee to trainee as if it were sacred ritual.
Most of these misconceptions seem to be based on pronouncements of that dangerously ill-informed and ubiquitous group known as "they." You can always tell when someone doesn't know what he's talking about, because he peppers his speech with the phrase "that's what they say." I've found, in my experience, that these they folks are pretty much full of shit.
For example, we've all heard this canard, I'm sure: "They say that you should never bend your knees past 90 degrees when you squat, because it's bad for your knees." This type of statement is pretty common among trainees who have never had proper coaching. They also probably train in commercial gyms, where misinformation spreads like herpes in a Bangkok brothel, and proper form is the exception, not the rule.
There's a unique conceit among many weight trainees, a weird mix of ignorance and pride that makes them think they can manage just fine without a coach (everyone needs a coach). Perhaps they're too proud to admit they need coaching (everyone needs a coach), or they think they're being adequately coached by their buddies and training partners (everyone needs a coach).
More than likely, they figure that with all the great information available for little or no cost on internet sites and in glossy bodybuilding magazines, who needs a coach?
"Everyone needs a coach."
In any case, in this 2-part series of articles, I'm going to clear up some of the more pungent misconceptions of the weight training world, in hopes of helping you accelerate your progress, and get the most out of every exercise.
I've grouped the misconceptions by exercise, so we'll begin with everyone's favorite two exercises.
SQUAT & DEADLIFT
"Keeping your back straight means keeping your back/torso vertical."
This is a major pet peeve of mine so I placed it first on my list. This one isn't really a "they say" type of thing, but it's something that's misunderstood all the time. How many times has somebody told you to "keep your back straight" when lifting something heavy? More times than you can count, probably.
It's not bad advice, as long as you understand that keeping your back straight doesn't mean keeping your spine absolutely perpendicular to the ground. First of all, it can't be done. Especially not when you're squatting with a bar on your back or deadlifting a heavy weight off the floor.
To prove it to yourself, sit on the toilet (make sure the seat is down). Straighten your torso so that it's completely perpendicular to the floor, and without tilting your upper body or moving your feet, try to stand up. Bet you can't do it. If you were able to do it, I bet you cheated. You either leaned forward, or else you moved your feet way back underneath your body to accomplish the task.
You probably won't be able to stand up at all.
Many people also mistakenly think that keeping the spine completely vertical is always safer than allowing their torso to be inclined forward to a certain degree. Of course, excessive forward lean can be dangerous, but keeping the torso ramrod-stiff and vertical isn't much safer at all. As with most things, it's a matter of extremes. Trying to deadlift a heavy weight with the torso completely vertical can actually be moredangerous than leaning forward properly, because you can't maintain the proper position of your spinal curves (more on this in another section below).
You can also put excessive stress on the knees when back squatting in this "jack in the box" manner. Somehow, forward lean became something that many equate with being dangerous or altogether "bad," and something to avoid. Quite the contrary. Not only is it not bad, it's necessary in some movements.
The idea of trying to stay vertical comes from a desire to minimize the shear forces on the spine, since the spine itself handles compressive forces very well. You need to understand that the shear forces that come from any degree of forward lean are countered by the muscular forces that keep the spine neutral.
It's critically important to understand that there's a big difference between spinal flexion (moving from the spine) and hip flexion (moving from the hip joint). This is where the confusion arises. Basically, lumbar (lower back) spinal flexion under load can potentially be a very bad thing, as it can lead to possible disc problems due to the shearing forces from the movements that occur at the intervertebral joints. This is obviously not what you want when performing these two movements.
The spine itself must be kept "straight" which really means it's locked in its normal/natural curves while some degree of forward torso lean (coming from the hip joint, not the spine) naturally must occur to allow proper lifting biomechanics. This means keeping the middle of the barbell centered over the middle of the base of support on the ground (the middle of the foot).
To sum up, the concept of keeping your back straight means to keep the spine neutral (normal spinal curves) and allow some natural torso lean to occur from the hip joint as you descend in a squat or as you start a deadlift. Understand that you should lean forward to some degree; you should not round your spine on either movement.
Straight back, bending at the hip: good.
Rounded back and shoulders, curving spine: bad.
Now, don't interpret this to mean that it's okay to lean forward as far as you can on your squats and deadlifts. I'm saying the problem isn't forward lean itself, but improper technique and/or loading.
Remember, it's a matter of extremes. For example, if one descends in a squat, but ascends with the hips rising first (without the barbell moving and without keeping the chest up), you will probably exceed the ability of the spinal extensors to maintain neutral extension. Can you really perform the concentric phase of a good morning with as much weight as you can do the eccentric phase of a back squat? I don't think so. A certain amount of forward lean is safe, natural and efficient, but you have to find the optimal amount of lean for you.
This is one of the holy grails of training and coaching: finding the optimal position for each individual performing each exercise. In his book Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe makes the simple but excellent point that bar position on the body determines back angle for the exercise. This is a key lesson, and it ties in with what I said earlier: to perform any kind of pull or squat efficiently and safely with a heavy weight, the center of mass of the bar must be over the middle of the feet.
When you examine this you will see and understand why a front squat (bar in front of the spine) has more vertical back angle than a back squat or a deadlift. The relationship to be examined from a coaching perspective isn't how upright the torso position is, but rather the relationship of the middle of the bar to the middle of the feet and the spinal position.
Take a look at the pictures below, noting how the angle of the torso changes as the bar position changes in each exercise.
High bar, Olympic-style back squat
Low bar, powerlifting-style back squat
Proper form has as much to do with individual anthropometry and biomechanical factors as it does with "textbook" technique. A critical lesson for all of us to learn is to not try to fit individuals into our preconceived notions of what their form should look like.
We must take each person on a case-by-case basis and determine the most efficient and safe biomechanical technique for them based on some universal criteria for safe exercise performance. (For more information on this, consult Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, listed in the references at the end of this article). The art of coaching and performing weight training exercises is all about this key concept.
The lesson to learn here, once again, is that forward lean isn't dangerous when performing squats and deadlifts. Forward lean is OK as long as you can maintain the proper position of your spine to counter the shear forces that occur.
Critical factors to consider are the following:
1) Ensuring that the bar is placed on the body so that it's over the middle of the feet.
2) Maintaining a rigid spine position while leaning forward and squatting and deadlifting.
3) Ensuring the hips and shoulders rise at the same rate on the ascent of the squat and deadlift.
Problems or incorrect technique with one or more of the above can be potentially dangerous.
"They say that 90 degrees of knee flexion equals a parallel squat."
At the risk of starting a flame-fest, I'll assert here that a real parallel squat (or slightly below parallel) is actually a pretty deep squat. "Parallel" means different things to different people: let's define our terms so that we all know what we're talking about. The question is, "What is parallel to what?" I define parallel as a position in which the crease formed by the upper leg and hip joint is even with the top of the knee joint at the bottom of a squat in reference to the floor.
If you prefer, you can define it as the topsurface of the thighs being parallel to the ground. Powerlifting rules state that the crease in the hip must be belowthe top surface of the knee to obtain legal depth.
So, real powerlifting depth is actually slightly below parallel. Let's say someone truly goes to the parallel position (or slightly below) using the criteria we established above. If you were to get out a goniometer to measure the knee angle, you would find that the knee angle is, in fact, significantly greater than 90 degrees of knee flexion.
Measuring knee angle with a goniometer.
Angle of knee flexion in a "parallel squat" is around 110 degrees.
I did this little exercise on myself with a couple of colleagues, and found the angle with my powerlifting style squat to be 110 degrees. Theoretically speaking, the only way the knee angle at this position would measure 90 degrees is if one was actually able to keep the shin vertical, which no one can when doing an unsupported free squat since the system has to be in balance with the bar over the middle of the feet.
Therefore, parallel can't be defined as 90 degrees of knee flexion! How could it be? This 90 degree position between the femur and the tibia would probably be better termed a perpendicular squat with respect to the relationship of these two bones. It baffles me why this position is equated with parallel even in many research studies.
The only way I can think of to equate a parallel position with something close to 90 degrees of knee flexion is possibly what's referred to as "hamstring" or bottom of thighs parallel to the floor. This is a partial squat or half squat. Is this what people mean by "parallel?"
I repeat: a true parallel squat is actually a pretty deep squat for most people, and the training world would be a much better place if everyone actually got to at least this depth. Does this mean that you should always stop at parallel as we defined above? Not necessarily, and I'm not suggesting it here. Just realize that it's much deeper than you might think.
The key fact is that no matter how deep you go, you must not lose the natural curve of your lumbar spine. You need to maintain your normal lordosis to keep your back safe.
The onset of lower back rounding defines a lower limit for safe squatting when heavy weights are used, and you should stop above this point. Most people can develop the necessary mobility to back squat to parallel, slightly below parallel, or even lower in some cases if enough work is put in to do so. The benefit is certainly well worth the work put forth to accomplish this. So do it!
By the way, you should be aware that 90 degrees is actually the most unstable knee angle, and this is a position that physical therapists will test for knee joint instability. 90 degrees is bad news, whichever way you look at it. And it's not parallel.
True parallel: a line connecting the top of the knee and the crease of the hip, parallel to the floor.
Here's what it should look like.
"They say your knees shouldn't go past your toes."
This one has been hammered on by many people (including my boss, Alwyn Cosgrove), so I guess I will go ahead and get my licks in as well, because this horse just won't stay dead.
Strength coaches prepare to debate the ever-popular "knees past toes" issue.
We can show how goofy this guideline actually is pretty easily. Maybe the idea behind this rule was that this would protect the knees through not letting you load them with too sharp of an angle. There's nothing really conceptually wrong with this. The problem is that the concept of "knees over toes" really doesn't address this very well at all in practice.
Here's an example that should show how easily this "rule" breaks down. Consider two lifters, each 6'0" tall, 160 pounds, with the same inseam and even knee height. In other words, at the bottom of their squats, they should have the same knee angle. Now what if one of them has size 9 shoes and one has size 11 shoes? The guy with size 11 shoes might have his knees one inch behind his toes at the bottom, while the guy with size 9 shoes is an inch past.
According to this silly "rule," one guy is safe and one guy isn't. However it should be obvious that both have the same loading on their knees and all the other relevant angles are identical. Some "rule," huh?
If you insist that your knees stay behind your toes, then you need new lifting shoes.
What we really are trying to avoid here is excessive (there's that word again) forward travel of the lower leg. This is simply an issue of improper squatting mechanics, and not the knees over the toes. Length of levers and positions vary too much amongst individuals to make this a good guideline.
"They say a deadlift is just a squat with the bar in the hands."
This is an easy one. A lot of people try to turn their deadlifts from the floor into squats, and attempt to "reverse squat" the bar up. Bad idea, and I'll tell you why. If on the deadlift, you start out by trying to put your hips in the same position they would be at the bottom of the squat, the barbell will move away from your body increasing the distance of the barbell from your center of gravity. This will move the bar forward and make it next to impossible to maintain the normal curves of your spine with anything resembling a heavy weight.
Understand that while the squat and deadlift are movements that involve many of the same muscles, they're still different exercises. One has the barbell on the body, and one has the barbell hanging from the body in the hands. The hip position (amongst other things) will be different because of this. On the deadlift, the hips will start higher. Again, you must ensure the barbell is over the middle of the feet to execute both movements safely and efficiently.
Former United States Olympic Weight Lifting Coach Jim Schmitz advises that the hips start higher than the knees, and lower than the shoulders. The exact positions will vary between individuals based on body proportions, but you can use this as a guideline.
Turning your deadlift into a "reverse squat" puts your hips too low.
This is the proper hip position.
That wraps it up for Part 1. Next time I'll discuss some misconceptions about popular upper-body exercises.