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Stuart [McRobert) dropped me a line recently about a letter he received from a reader which he wanted me to comment on in a future article. I thought, however, that it was important enough to warrant a comment now -- not just because of this one letter but because the issue concerned seems to have become a "hot topic" recently [May, 2000].
In a nutshell, the reader believes that low-bar, to-parallel squats are a "copout" and not as "manly" as high-bar, butt-to-the-floor, Olympic-style squats. He also believes that the high-bar style brings about better muscular development. An inference was also made to the belief that low-bar squats caused more stress on the lower back than the high-bar style. With that said, let me give my two cents worth.
The Safety Issue
I've always believed that any exercise has to be performed safely by the trainee concerned. Just because I can do rock-bottom squats safely doesn't mean that everyone who trains should also be able to do them in this fashion. The truth of the matter, based on my 26 years of training and nearly 15 years as a strength coach, is that most people can't squat rock-bottom safely due to their biomechanical make-up, or other physical limitations. But, just because they can't go rock-bottom doesn't mean that their squatting "only" to parallel (or even an inch or two above) is any less valuable, result producing, or tough as squatting all way down!
Most trainees can't squat below parallel safely. Because of the length of their femurs, tibias and spines, a basic premise of knee safety is violated -- "never break the knee-toe line." In other words, for most trainees, when descending into a squat you never want your knee to jut out past an imaginary line that runs perpendicular to the floor from your toes. If the knee does jut out beyond the knee-toe line, this puts an enormous amount of stress on the knee structures -- especially the patella and patella tendon. Now, please not that I said "most trainees." There are some people who can squat rock-bottom without breaking the "knee-toe" line (and never suffer and consequences); and there are some trainees who can break the knee-toe line and yet still not have any problems.
The high-bar style, because of the length of the spine, femur, and tibia, makes most trainees (who have medium-to-long torsos relative to their leg length) bend over too far when the "going gets tough" during a set, putting the lower-back structures in a compromised position. By lower-back structures I'm not just talking about the muscles. I'm talking about the vertebrae, discs and nerves -- the "stuff' you need to keep healthy if you plan on walking for the rest of your life! "Safe," to me, means keeping the vertebrae in a position that causes the least amount of uneven compression on the discs.
Whenever you place a load on your shoulders you're causing compression of the discs. Now, don't get concerned and stop squatting! Your body is designed to handle this compression for the most part. What I want to avoid is uneven compression on the discs, because this is much tougher for the body to handle. Uneven compression can cause disc disturbances that create a number of acute and chronic physical problems. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but I hope you get the gist of it.
For most trainees, riding the bar high on the back/neck causes a tremendous increase in the length of the "lever arm" as compared to a low-bar style. The lever arm that I'm referring to is the length between the pivot point -- fulcrum -- in your lower back, and the point where the bar sits. The longer this lever arm is, the harder the lower-back structures have to work to maintain a safe position. In my experience, most trainees with medium-to-long torsos who ride the bar high will have a much greater tendency to bend over too much, creating poor leverage and putting much more stress on the lower back than they need to.
I can hear some of you thinking, "Well, if it makes the lower back work harder, then it makes the exercise tougher and hence it should be more productive." Wrong! This is a gross misinterpretation of the theory that an exercise which is made harder, is more productive. Only an exercise that's made tougher and which doesn't increase the risk of injury, is generally more productive.
Here are two examples: If we all used a cambered bench press bar with a two-inch bend in it to bench press, it would definitely make the exercise a lot tougher because we would have to start the ascent from a point two inches below our chests. I guarantee that most of us would have some type of shoulder injury within the first few weeks, if not from the first workout! A good example of making an exercise tougher and actually safer is to pause the barbell (regular type, not a cambered one) on your chest when benching.
For most trainees, riding the bar relatively low while squatting -- on the posterior delts -- will work the leg musculature harder because the lower back won't give out (since the lever arm has been shortened), and leverage will be increased thus allowing the trainee to use more weight. This is true whether the trainee has the capabilities to squat to rock-bottom of "only" to parallel.
Some might argue that the high-bar squat actually forces you to maintain an upright posture. I agree, but this position can only be maintained during the really tough reps of a set by a trainee with a short torso. For medium-to-long-torso trainees, when the set gets tough the lower-back muscles will generally give out, losing the more upright position, losing leverage, compromising the lower-back structures, and terminating the set long before the leg musculature gets worked as hard as it should.
Another problem with riding the bar high is the pressure it puts on the seventh cervical vertebrae -- unless you have enormous trap development, and I do mean enormous. This pressure can cause disc problems resulting in localized as well as referred pain -- usually down the arm. Other problems are the deterioration of the discs and a narrowing of the grand foramen (the channel in the vertebrae where the nerves run in particular the spinal cord). Why risk injury?
Play safe and put the bar on your posterior delts and the thickest part of your traps. By placing the bar here, not only will there be less risk for your cervical vertebrae but you'll get better leverage and be able to handle more weight.
The "Macho" Stuff
Any trainee should be respected first and foremost for the amount of effort that he is putting into an exercise on a consistent basis, regardless of the weight they are using or the exercise they are performing. So what is someone's not performing high-bar or rock-bottom squats?
At least some of the those who criticize trainees who don't perform high-bar rock-bottom squats -- though I'm not saying that the reader in question is one of those people -- fool themselves into thinking that they (the critics) train "as hard as possible" when in actuality they don't. They like to focus on an exercise that's known to be "tough," and which they happen to perform rock-bottom, to hide the fact that they really don't want to train hard themselves.
Just because a trainee can't squat to rock-bottom, or chooses to squat to parallel instead, doesn't make him any less of a "man" than the person who chooses to squat to rock-bottom as long as maximum effort is being applied over the long haul. One trainee passing judgement on another just because of exercise selection or interpretation is "out of place machismo" and the type of thing I really dislike. It reminds me of the old but incorrect thinking about using machines instead of free weights. Supposedly, if you used machins you were just "copping out" because "real" men use barbells.
Of course, there are plenty of trainees who physically can squat, but won't and instead choose to fool around on the leg press machine. But, don't judge everyone based on those trainees.
Dan Foy is one of my strength coaches who at 6-1 and 270 pounds with an 18 inch arm, 33 inch thighs, and a 52 inch chest, has squatted 450 pounds for 20 rock-bottom reps, and will squat over 700 pounds in a meet this year. He recently did 30 reps on our Hammer Strength leg press and said it almost killed him. Does Dan's leg pressing make him any less of a "man"? John Stanley, at 6-2 and 230 pounds (at 50+ years of age), performs Hammer Strength leg presses with over 450 pounds for "many reps," followed by trap bar deadlifts and pressing a 100-lb sandbag overhead for reps, but is not doing any squats. Is he any less of a "man" because he doesn't squat at all? Of course not! I could give you many examples of men and women who don't squat at all (high-bar or low-bar, rock-bottom, parallel or above parallel) but yet they are as tough as they come. Exercise selection alone, or a specific form interpretation, is not a determinant of a trainee's toughness or commitment.
Stick with what your body allows you to do safely, add a little iron to the bar every workout, and train hard consistently for a long period of time. I know this formula will deliver the goods. Don't get caught up in all the bull surrounding the training world. Stick with the basics.
Enjoy Your Lifting!
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