Barbell Squat : the Worst Exercise in Existence?

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.

 

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Now, as far as the points made, they summarize as follows. They are all very basic. Nothing revolutionary in and of themselves.

 

One:

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.

 

Two:

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.

 

Three:

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.

 

Bottom line:

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.

 

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Links for more info:

Congruent Exercise (book)

Congruent Exercise (free video)

Congruent Exercise on Facebook

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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“.

 

Happy squatting!

About Anthony Dream Johnson

CEO, founder, and architect of The 21 Convention, Anthony Dream Johnson is the leading force behind the world's first and only "panorama event for life on earth". He has been featured on WGN Chicago, and in the NY Times #1 best seller The Four Hour Work Week.    His stated purpose for the work he does is "the actualization of the ideal man", a purpose that has led him to found and host The 21 Convention across 3 continents and for 6 years in a row. Anthony blogs vigorously at TheDreamLounge.net and Declarationism.com.

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676 Responses to Barbell Squat : the Worst Exercise in Existence?

  1. Mike May 7, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    Great comment vancem..Wonderful comment..I concur with your concerns of equipment in the gym is terrible for building legs..Just dumb straight bar city …

  2. Mike May 7, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    They try to make money off seminars with straight bar stuff because they mislead everyone even if not intentionally that is proper form that leads to injuries in the barbell squat & deadlift..Rippetoe gets people to believe with proper form nothing will go wrong..Here’s what’s wrong on the whole barbell squat..The pyramid like structure of the spinal column..At least the safety bar yoke is bigger in shape & wraps in front of the shoulders & behind both..Not the index finger wrapped around with the thumb in circumference in size is the yoke..A tiny in circumferenc barbell has terrible pressure points on the body BTW..

    But even the safety bar isnt the best load..Better in pressure points than a barbell squat though..But it is still pressure away from the large muscle and bones of the leg & bigger massive part of the spinal column..The tail bone & sacrum that’s between the hip joint or even below it is the biggest & can support biggest loads of the delicate spinal system..Then from the sacrum..The vertebra goes up from there & keeps getting smaller & smaller in mass….Anything where the majority of the load is at or below the hip is bringing this part of the anatomy as the primary support of the loaded weight..The upper part near the top of the vertebare should be secondary support structure..Hence, maybe a larger in circumference bar coming out of the yoke and a welded bar from the top going down to around the hip joints or even below where you can load the most weight there than at the top..Or better yet..The hip belt lift..

    So Rippetoe keeps saying form on a system that makes the least supportive in mass of the spinal column the primary support of a weighted load, instead of the secondary support of the weighted load..He can go on all day with proper form that essentially is backwards to begin with as far as a making near the top of the spinal system the primary support..Stupid, stupid..If that’s the case..If someone supports the back barbell squat like Rippetoe, then if you ask me, don’t listen a word Rippetoe says about barbell squatting or anyone for that matter….

  3. Alex Kripac May 25, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    There is one MAJOR flaw in your argument. Your argument hinges on the idea that loading your shoulders with a heavy barbell is unnatural and potentially very dangerous for the spine, as it was not meant to be loaded that way.

    Where do you think your arms connect? Your arms are clearly designed for heavy lifting – picking up objects, moving them around, catching things, pulling you up, etc. Your arms connect to the top of your spine.

    Ancient caveman kills a gazelle and lifts it up to take it back to his family. He is going to have to use his arms when he picks it up, that force anchors to the top of his shoulders, down his spine, down to his legs.

    Please tell us again why loading the spine is unnatural?

    • Anthony Dream Johnson May 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

      I realize how the arms are connected to the rest of the body. I happen to have a pair myself.

      Your comment is conflating unlike things as like things. Would you say a barbell squat and a dead-lift are the same thing?

      No you wouldn’t. Nor would most of the commenters here, including the critical one. This is because picking something up with your hands are not equal to sticking a barbell on your back.

      In the circumstance you are referring to, the loading point is your hands, not your upper back. These are worlds apart.

      Other parts of your thinking are dubious as well. See other comments and the original post.

      • Weight Off by Weightlifting June 9, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

        Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been squatting for 8 years and was up to 130 pounds total plus the bar (I’m female and weigh 120 pounds). I now have spine damage (right where the bar goes across, and, yes, I had correct form) for which there is no fix. I experienced exactly what you are talking about…my legs could take the increasing weight, but my skeletal frame could not. My sports doc looked at me like I should have known that, but I followed the recommendations of the trainers, and every website I found. Obviously, I didn’t find yours. Wish I had.

    • Mike December 1, 2014 at 10:36 am #

      Sorry couldn’t wait 6 mos without commenting..YES LOADING THE BAR LIKE A BARBELL SQUAT IS UNNATURAL..I am going to do a further answer to the above gazelle loading comment or other animals above..First of all, man didn’t feed much on animals low in fat like tigers, gazelles or lions anyway..Also, for thousands of years man cleared boulders off the land for farmland..But when man killed a pig for example– the only squatting occurred when he started to hoist the pig off the ground bending the thighs to do so and once it got close to hip level with the killed animal, man’s legs were and still is already fully straightened out of the squat to pick up the dead animal..Right about the hip level or below it is the legs fully straightened out..

      Then he would hoist it on one shoulder wrapped around front & back & walk with it.. And no more squatting with the killed animal..It all occurred when the animal was below the hips until it gets to to about the hip level..Also, not only is any creature ever loaded for carrying where a barbell back squat is loaded, but there is no animal that narrow in circumference as a barbell..I can’t wrap my thumb & index finger around a pig anyway-and of course it is loaded wrapped front and back on top of one shoulder when it is carried..

      That answers the supposedly one major flaw above..So yes, loading the spine where a barbell back squat is unnatural, along with the narrow in circumference in shape of a barbell..Also, based on record hip lifts being much more by hundreds and hundreds of pounds over the record barbell squat, the load for building legs in the most efficient and safest way should be about near hip level or below it or straight across the back like in a backlift..Wheels have been around millions and millions of years, but not car jacks..Man used to backlift carts out of a mire when the wheel got stuck before there was asphalt..So a backlift is more natural than the ‘small in circumference terrible pressure point’ barbell squat..

  4. john June 9, 2014 at 10:37 pm #

    I can see your point you are trying to make here and I’m not going to knock your personal preference but clearly there are many things you don’t understand and one of them is increasing strength and muscle mass safely. Squats including deadlifts and bench press are absolutely necessary for anybody who wants to see gains in the gym. These exercises are all completely safe when done correctly with form and proper weight. They are also not to be left up to Olympic athletes. anybody can and should learn these total body exercises. Do some research before posting an article like this one. And when you say that people are open to their own opinion don’t go swearing and calling opposing viewpoints dumbasses when they are simply offerring their viewpoints in this. Its ok if you are the guy that plateaued at 135 lbs for squats but don’t go feeding weightlifters with years of experience as well as others with false info lacking fact based arguments. We’ll keep squatting and lifting big and putting on gains while you skip squats and wonder why you stay small and weak in and out of the weight room.

    • Mike December 1, 2014 at 4:42 am #

      Its kind of funny when you mentioned quote ‘ you skip squats and wonder why you stay small and weak in and out of the weight room’ unquote..Anthony just mentioned that he far outweighs in body mass with a lower body fat percentage too and thicker thighs than he ever got once he stopped doing barbell squats and the other lifts of the so-called big 3 and replaced such lifts with the hip belt squat..

      Heck, his 26.5 inch legs is only about 2 inches shy when say Lee Haney was winning Mr Olympias back in the day..He lifts up to 1500 lbs in hip belt squats and I backlift about a ton of weight on average on sets & my legs and body mass never got that big doing the big 3..Why would it be the King Of Mass Building when the record hip lifts & backlifts far exceed the record barbell squat..And you call the barbell squat a big mass gainer..Just where on top of the kinetic force chain can the barbell back squat be?..Certainly not even close on top of the weight chain..The greatest backlift is 5340 lbs & hip and harness lift greatest lift is 3515 lbs..My on my, put the barbell up there like an elephant is on top of the food chain & you are thus giving out misinformation my friend..

      Your so called barbell is just a small barbaric useless device that was the first and probably only device you were introduced to..Because I can put my thumb and index finger around the barbell makes it a useless pressure point for gains on the human anatomy that has over 600 muscles besides ligaments and tendons..Look up Death of Squatting Mike Boyle on YouTube and that will explain why the barbell squat isn’t building the legs in the best kinetic way possible..Even the core as well..Unless you consider cracked stress fractures at the lumbar sacrum area as building up the core..Lol..

  5. Mike June 16, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    You know I keep seeing people say do research about increasing gains with squatting..How about someone that doesn’t agree with someone that says barbell squats are dangerous and not the best thigh builders as far as equipment to do research on hip belt squats or backlifts and see what kind of size can be gained on it who have performed them & gained size with it instead of doing the big 3..

    I keep hearing the barbell guys say to do the research of barbell squats & I have & found many injuries & I and several friends have done hip belt squats & backlifts & gained more muscle mass than when we deadlifted or barbell squatted..Also,I have given an abundance of names with injuries (some replaced hips like Ed Coan, fused vertebrae from doing 600 pound barbell squats & many more name & even gave a scientific study that barbell squats are dangerous that I put out on the other blog, the Top 10 one near the bottom of the blog) to the spine..So we have done the reasearch..

    You guys do the reaserch on hip belt squats or backlifts & then tell us the injuries you have found on YouTube on such exercises..You have the onous to do the research..You generate way more kinetic force when the weight is at or even lower than the hip area than a barbell squat..If it wasn’t true, then Josephine Blatt hip and harness lifted over 3000 lbs & Anthony about 1500 lbs & I have backlifted 2400 lbs for 3 reps..Way more weight than the barbell squat..I researched the barbell squat by doing them myself & the deadlift & barbell bench press..Got way more size with other exercises I mentioned than those & used far more weight in my hip belt lifts & backlifts than the barbell squat..My friend got more mass in his thighs (30 inched) than barbell squats doing backlifts with me for 2 mos..Also, so has Anthony with hip belt squatting..

    You throw some injuries of hip belt squats in YouTube & also find a barbell squat that is heavier than Steve Schmidts over 1 tom hip lift or many backlifts way more than a barbell squat or Anthony hip belt lifts..Last I use to do the Bulgarian one legged squats & found if I doubled the weight, no way I could barbell squat even 40% probably of the one legged weight..Your back gives out before your legs do in barbell squatting..Its the truth..Squats are great..Not the barbell squat though.. Not the thin in circumference barbell squat on top of the spine..Its all many of you were exposed to unfortunatley..The weight should be at or even a little below the hip area to get the best kinetic force possible for the legs..Its a fact that I have proven in max lifts compared to a barbell squat greatest lift over the greatest hip lifts or backlifts for that matter..The latter lifts have more kinetic force to the legs & you can lift greater weight..Its a definite fact..

  6. brandon June 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    alright, so it sounds like you’re an intelligent guy, you’ve obviously fared well in life, so I’m not gonna attack your intelligence. But you really need to understand why this article is wholly unconvincing. You are not a name in the industry, nor do you have any credentials relating to any field related to weightlifting or physiology. More importantly, you provide ZERO scientific evidence for your claims. If you’re going to attack the single most praised exercise in weightlifting, an exercise that has been studied by many a scientist who do in fact have pertinent credentials, you either need to find some evidence from those people or not bother writing an article. people with credentials or write out a physiologically based argument so sound that those with credentials can come on this site and be all “damn son that shit is hot. He on to somethin here.”. Otherwise, you’re really trying to only going to start fights with people who have clearly spent alot more time studying this subject. Is that what you’re trying to do?

    • Anthony Dream Johnson June 30, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

      Credentialism 101.

      I’m not even sure how to respond to what you said. You are placing consensus thinking, the trending popularity of an exercise, and “credentials” over knowledge itself.

      Either I know what I’m talking about, or I don’t.

      If you really think barbell back squats are a fundamentally sound exercise, good luck to you, let me know how it goes.

      – ADJ

  7. Luca Ironman Del Signore November 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    well said. i stopped doing that shit exercise 9 years ago and by using nly leg-press and trap-bar deadlifts my legs are bigger and stronger than ever and thanks to trapbar even my torso but without the useless risks related to squats. Ah, and for what regards Rippetoe.. He’s just a sub-human, fat pile of lard

  8. Ed November 7, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    My My ,you do have a talent of upsetting applecarts,causing sacred cows to flee and generally stirring up worshippers of the squat.I have elswhere written as both a former strong squatter and weight training instructor for three Uk Weight Training Orgs I agree with you.No I did not have poor technique{why Oh Why is that old chestnut trotted out} yet I experienced back pain in the sacral area,a sense that my body had been compressed after 500ilb squats{and of course it had been} and breathing difficulties the next day with the feeling that I could not get a complete breath.I had also trained for decades.None of this will unfortunately make any difference at all to those who have not hurt themselves ot have believed all the squat propaganda -squat or you should carry a pink purse.what a truly asinine comment.Please carry on upsetting people I like it and someone as they say has to do it.

  9. Mike December 4, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    For anyone to see how Ronnie Coleman is doing ever since he had back surgury where an acute lumbar & sacrum injury happened that he mentioned when he barbell squatted in a session of using 600 lbs, you can go to YouTube and type in Ronnie Coleman can barely walk..Hope the best for him..

  10. Luca Ironman Del Signore March 24, 2015 at 10:26 am #

    i subscribe every single words. As a bodybuilder i don’t give a damn on how i grow my legs. And since i can do it much better and in a much safer way with trapbar DL and leg/press, fuck squat and rippetoe. And talking about Ripeptoe: He looks like a fat slob,a drunker truck driver from the Oktoberfest. even the worst bodybuilder in the world ridiculize his terrible physique easily.

  11. Luca Ironman Del Signore April 14, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    just compare: mark ” you should squat or you’re a pussy” rippetoe:
    https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTtTjc5UFM3Gn7aWfgIehZaGm6p1QfIvrnYqli5LxbPYQQZm-Lg

    with Dorian Yates, 6x mr O (1992-1997), which stopped squat in 1986 and performed leg presses:
    http://www.bodybuilding.com/bodybuilders/dorian72.jpg

    Well, if being a “man” makes me look like that fat slob (rippetoe) and being a “pussy” makes me look like Yates, i want to be a “pussy” lifelong ahahahah

  12. Mike Bashanak June 22, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    Hi Anthony,
    You are arguing with “true believers”. Your information makes them VERY
    uncomfortable and confronts their deeply held dogma. I have long noticed squats are damaging to knees and spine.

    Take care,

    Mike

  13. Chad Waterbury October 6, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    First! what? oh.

    Doing “pistol” squats is roughly equivalent to a barbell squat of 1.5x body weight and (obviously) doesn’t load the spine at all. Personally I am much more interested in training for power production, rather than “slow” strength.

    It is so peculiar that so many of the commenters here seem to have made squatting into a religion. Why is that? Why is it so upsetting to them when someone says “putting a heavy weight on your back is bad for your spine”? Some have mentioned how primitive people would do it all the time…without mentioning those same primitive people were typically dead before age 40. Read up on the wear patterns on the skeletons of of pre-industrial people.

    Anthony, I’ll take your observations one step higher in terms of context. Some people see a certain activity as being harmful — in the future — and change their behavior to avoid it. The majority of humans will ignore the risk and then cry bitterly when the Piper shows up with the bill. See smoking tobacco. In terms of health, I would bet real money that 100% of the people her braying about your video are in fact severely damaged already and just don’t know it (or are in denial).

  14. Lifter October 16, 2015 at 7:27 am #

    This is valid advice! No-one was a stauncher advocates for squats than I was, then the years of “abuse” caught up with me. My chiro was the first to point out the damage they were doing to my upper-back…x-rays don’t lie.

    If not for Tom Platz, who was made for squats, they wouldn’t had the resurgence they had. The spine wasn’t meant to be loaded from the top down. If you analyse it, like Bill DeSimone wisely did, it’s kite shaped,,,hardly makes sense to load the weakest part to load the legs. Instead the legs are best loaded from the feet up, where it is safest and strongest. Likewise with toe presses vs calf raises.

    Like Yates, I have small hips, hence squats are far from ideal. My quads are fuller with better shape–as Dorian found–once I adopted leg presses over squats.It’s your spine and your knees, do with them what you wish…for longevity I know which way I’ll go.

  15. Alex November 4, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    I’d be more inclined to believe our buddy Tony if he looked like he did any sort of exercise. He doesn’t, though. He really doesn’t. I’d be surprised if he could squat anything above 100 kg. Why take exercise advice from someone who a) looks like shit and b) can’t lift worth shit? Why not from, I don’t know, someone who actually devoted his life to exercise? Someone like Bill Kazmaier, who squatted more than 800 lbs and left with his spine intact?

  16. Lifter November 7, 2015 at 6:17 pm #

    After nearly 4 decades under the bar, I entrust Bill DeSimone for my longevity… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e34h3VIjEj4

  17. JdH December 7, 2015 at 7:23 am #

    Hello,

    I’ve been walking all my life and since I’ll be walking for many more years to come, the chance at getting injured approaches 100%. Do you reocmmend I ditch walking and get a wheelchair?

    • Anthony Dream Johnson December 20, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

      This is a straw man argument. You are a bipedal organism. Walking is entirely normal for you to engage in for your entire life, and you should. It is not exercise though. It is an effectively necessary activity used for a variety of different end purposes. Occasionally for better health, but it is done with the full knowledge that is is extremely safe. This is fundamentally different from loading a barbell on top of your spine and dropping your ass up and down, in an effort to improve your health over a life time, and specifically work the largest and strongest muscles in your body.

      Why put your spine between the weight and those muscles? You can easily work them directly in a variety of other ways that don’t involve the risk of paralysis.

      – ADJ

  18. Heavy Metal Training July 1, 2017 at 7:12 pm #

    This article is so LOL

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Squat weight heavy on my back. - Page 3 | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page 3 - May 29, 2014

    […] at a third grade level picture of the human spine with a crappy photo-shopped barbell at the top. Barbell Squat : the Worst Exercise in Existence? | The Dream Lounge Reply With […]

  2. Scientific Training | SUMOMAN - August 12, 2014

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