I wouldn’t normally care to pick on someone like Mark Rippetoe, but he’s one of the most popular proponents of performing a barbell squat, AND, he says stuff like this on a consistent basis.
There are few things graven in stone, except that you have to squat or you’re a pussy.
As it turns out, this isn’t true. In fact in reality, you would be quite wise to avoid the free standing barbell squat entirely.
I discuss why in the (informal) video blog below, in which I might come off as polarizing or aggravating to some. If I do, please understand that wasn’t necessarily my intention, nor did I try to avoid it.
I was primarily interested discussing the downfalls of the barbell squat, not being sensitive (or insensitive) towards your feelings, and potentially decade + long investment into the barbell squat.
So I simply don’t care one way or the other, and if the video aggravates you, just stop watching it.
Certainly no one is forcing you to.
Now, as far as the points made, they summarize as follows. They are all very basic. Nothing revolutionary in and of themselves.
Loading the top of the spine — which in many respects is a pyramid — with a 200, 250, 300, 350, 400+ … pound bar, and then moving that bar up and down a few feet, does not seem especially wise in and of itself.
Please see the picture below for further reference. (Try to think: does this structure look especially suited for loading the strongest and largest muscles in my body with a shit ton of weight?)
If you’re a barbell squat fan, the question you should be asking yourself is: at what point in human history did this become a good idea?
Or as stated in the video, what person without social/cultural influences suggesting if not pressuring him to perform a free standing barbell squat, would decide on his own to set this exercise up and do it?
On this level alone, it appears to be a really bad idea.
The primary muscles that most squatters intend to work, are the muscles of the legs, which are huge muscles, surrounding huge bones, supported and surrounded by comparatively huge joints.
The spine on the other hand is perhaps the most delicate joint structure in the entire body. Small bones, that get smaller towards the top (where the multi-hundred pound bar is applied), surrounding small muscles with little room for hypertrophy, supported by delicate connective tissues.
Certainly the consequences for injuring it in any meaningful way are along the lines of : you’re fucked.
The point I’m getting at here is: why are you applying resistance so far, in fact as far as physically possible, from the intended muscle group?
You can do a belt squat or a leg press and effectively get as close as possible to the intended muscle group.
A barbell squat is the equivalent of loading your triceps through your feet, upside down against a wall. Aside from loading the barbell on your skull, there is no more ineffective, bass ackwards way to load your legs with a heavy resistance.
Furthermore, you’re force feeding that resistance through your spine. There is no way around it. The only bones connecting the weight and your legs and pelvis are your vertebrae.
Which brings me to my next and final point.
The barbell squat is absolutely self-defeating. Why?
Because success in a barbell squat means primarily, stronger legs. Stronger and stronger legs will need more and more resistance.
If 150 pounds of resistance, force fed through the spine, is antagonistically bad to begin with, 200 pounds is exponentially worse.
250 pounds is further worse.
251 pounds is still worse.
252 … 253 … etc.
The stronger you get, and the more success you have performing a barbell squat, the more ineffective and dangerous the exercise becomes. The risk of injury not only increases, but so does the actual effect of a potential injury.
One pulled, torn, stretched muscle, one mis step, one hard slam of that bar on the rack is all it takes to cause an injury, however minor or severe.
Think this is a rare thing that won’t happen to you? Keep dreaming. In a long enough time span, I would bet the risk of injury on a free standing barbell squat is 100%.
I.e. if you start squatting from a young age, and continue this over a lifetime like Mr. Rippetoe would have you do, the chance of an injury happening approaches 100%. It becomes inevitable.
Are you really willing to gamble your ability to walk on your “perfect skill” in performing a barbell squat? You really think you’re going to squat 1,000 times and never have a “freak” accident?
It’s not freak at all, it was bound to happen and easily predictable by looking at a third grade level picture of the human spine with a crappy photo-shopped barbell at the top.
The free standing barbell squat is a bad idea anyway you cut it.
The only way to “fix” it, is to stop doing it, and instead perform any other compound leg exercise available, of which, there are a ton of options. Some are better than others.
All are better than a free standing barbell squat.
Links for more info:
Congruent Exercise (book)
Congruent Exercise (free video)
As stated clearly at the beginning of the video, while many of the conclusions I make here stem from Congruent Exercise and Bill’s work in general, I do not officially represent him or his work in any form, shape, fashion, or capacity.
He represents himself, so all hate mail should be directed to me, not him =D
Odds and ends:
I realize I made a number of errors in word choice in this (informal) video (blog). Happens when doing a video blog, and I don’t particularly care, beyond the degree of mentioning that I’m aware of it.
Also, I realize a lot of people squat in a rack, so falling forward does not necessarily entail the instantaneous crushing of your neck by the 300+ pound bar. Or does it?
It certainly doesn’t do a damn thing if you fall backwards, and little to nothing if you fall to either side. In fact the only direction it might protect you from injury is via falling forward.
But does everyone actually squat in a rack when available?
No. I’ve been to enough gyms and seen hundreds of people perform a barbell squat outside of a standard squat rack, or even a smith machine. So it certainly happens hundreds, if not thousands of times a day in this country alone. Perhaps tens of thousands of squats are done every day outside of a standard squat rack.
And even if you are squatting in a rack, who says it will fully protect you?
About 3 weeks ago in Fort Myers Florida a friend of one of my best friends blew both his knees out squatting in a rack.
I asked my friend what he meant when he said the guy “blew his knees out”.
His response was “the bones were about to stick out of the skin“.