By Michael Simmer BS, CSCS, LMT, FST
The squat a long loved and at the same time long hated exercise; though most of the hate comes about 36 hours later. Squatting is a staple in every gym because well it is a great exercise; most of the time. This post is not looking to discredit the benefits of squatting or tell anyone that they should never squat, instead it will look to give an alternative for those who deal with joint or back pain, those who may have been told by a doctor not to squat heavy and for those of us who are physically limited by our genetics and joint depth within our hips.
Many of us have heard the phrase “one size fits all” well in the gym that phrase is most definitely not true, what works for one person may not work for another, and when it comes to the squat it is no different. One person may be able to squat with proper form, heavy weight and go very deep; while another person may only be able to get to 90 degrees of knee flexion. So which one is right? Well both, the whole “ass to grass” motto some like to say is not only wrong it can also be extremely dangerous. One thing I learned from Dr. Stuart McGill while attending his lectures at the Perform Better Summit this year, was that squat depth has more to do with a person’s hip socket depth, then any other factors. Dr. McGill has been studying the spine for over 30 years, and has noted that the shallower a person’s hip socket will allow for greater range of motion which in turn will allow a person to squat deeper. The flip side of that is of course a person with a deep hip socket will have a more restricted range of motion which will increase the risk of injury the deeper they squat. Now while plenty of other factors will also play a role in the depth of a person’s squat, the biggest take away is that you should only be squatting to a depth that feels comfortable and safe to you, and that will hold true while under any load not just a heavy load. Once again I am not looking to discredit the squat as a movement, it is a terrific movement which is why it has been around since the beginning of time. I will only be looking to provide an alternative for those of us who cannot squat under heavy load safely for a variety of reasons, whatever those reasons may be.
So you can’t squat heavy? Now what?
It’s time to look to Santa, maybe not his physique but his mode of transportation, Yes the sled! Performing a Heavy sled push allows a person to move a greater amount of weight then they could squat, while at the same time saving their hips and their back. In fact, Dr. McGill believes that a person with squat limitations can save themselves years of damage and a possible hip injury in the future by sticking with the sled, and can still see results. Dr. McGill is not alone in his beliefs, A study performed at the University of Newfoundland in 2014 (Maddigan et al.) looked to compare the results in muscle activation from a traditional exercise like the back squat, and a relatively newer movement (in a gym setting) like a sled push. All participants in the study were men who had a minimum of two years of resistance training experience and had squat experience. An Electromyography (EMG) was used to analyze the quads, hamstrings, calves, lower back and obliques. With the EMG showing basically how hard the muscles were working during the movements. Their results yielded results showing firstly the amount of weight one can push on a sled to be significantly higher then what they could squat, but this should not be too surprising, especially to anyone who has worked with a sled in the past, the more interesting results came from the EMG. The results pertaining to the quads and hamstrings were almost equal, with the quads be slightly higher during the squat, while more hamstring activation was detected during the sled push, but the differences were minimal. The sled push did produce a much higher rating in calf activation then the squat, with much lower activation in the low back. The sled push is giving us exactly what we want, with similar activation in the quads and hamstrings, while having a limited to no impact on the lower back. Again remembering that I am looking for an alternative to a heavy squat for those who have had a low back, knee or hip injury. Squats are an amazing exercise and will always be one of the greatest ways to build strength and power in the legs, people need to squat, people should squat, but not everyone can squat and that’s ok! If you are someone who has had an injury or you are not comfortable performing a heavy squat, then save yourself and save your joints and let out some ho, ho, hos and go push a sled.
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