It’s conventional practice in personal training and coaching to perform squats in order to develop the legs, glutes and back. Squats have a lot of benefit when your body is prepared and under the right circumstances. For instance, doing squats is helpful for the previously mentioned benefits when your body is free from injury to the lower extremities (ankle, knee, and hip), and free from spinal issues. Most injuries that result from performing squats, even when correctly executed, comes from an imbalance of the person’s sensibility (skill level, present injuries, energy level, body awareness) and the amount of load or total weight placed on the bar. Sensibility should always be the primary consideration before loading if you want to minimize risk of injury.
Conventional squats are performed with a weighted bar that is situated behind the neck. Weights are stacked and the bar is lifted off the rack. Next is a pair of small steps backward to prepare for the actual descent of the bar, low enough to go below (or clear) the horizontal plane of the thighs. Some techniques encourage full or near full knee bending while clearing the horizontal plane, a caveat that is only advisable if you have pain-free flexibility at this range. The overall effect of the squat is that the load effect on the body signals bone density adaptation in addition to the development of movement skills and overall strength…but only under supervised, sensible and healthy circumstances of that individual.
When improperly executed, or when sensibilities are compromised, the loaded squat becomes an exercise full of liability. It has the same effect as the force of a hammer on the end of a chisel. The load along with gravity acts as a hammer on the spine (the chisel) and lower back (the chiseled end) which can be drastic on a disc, causing a dormantly dysfunctional disc region to flare up into acute symptoms.
Here are 5 alternatives to the squats to minimize the chisel effect on your body:
1. Lunges or Split Squats (Fig. 1): The difference is with lunges, you are moving forwards or backwards, and split squats are performed in place. Tip: go low enough WITHOUT touching your back knee on the floor. You can increase the load by holding dumbells at your side, or at the chest level. This move offsets the loading of weights from the lower back to a more broad distribution of force throughout your body.
2. Goblet Squats (Fig. 2): One of my personal favorites, this is a loaded squat while holding a single dumbbell near or towards your chest, while performing the usual squat movement. The distribution of forces allow for less concentrated stress on your lower back.
3. Air Squats (Fig. 3): An unloaded alternative to squats, you place your hands in front of your body while conducting the squat movement.
4. Squat Press (Fig. 4): Similar to Goblet Squats, uses a weighted bar or dumbells at the chest level as a start point. Perform a squat movement and use your body to lift the weights over your head as you stand up from the ground position.
5. Isometric Squats: Like the air squats, but you hold your position for time at the bottom of the squat movement. An alternate move is to lean against a wall with your knees at 90 degrees flexed…for time!
Before doing any of the above moves, make sure your sensibilities match your abilities. Have a coach or trainer observe your squat movements in an unloaded state, and correct any deficiencies or pain that is present with movement. There is always a risk factor with any exercise, and finding the combination that achieves your fitness and clinical goals often involves your coach or health care provider.
Dr. Adrian has been a Chiropractor and Strength and Conditioning Specialist since 2000. He has worked extensively with professional athletes and patients of all ages. You can reach him through his website, www.southpaschiro.com.