Often heard in strength training circles: “If you ain’t squatin’ you ain’t nothin’.” Indeed, the squat is considered to be critical to the foundation of any strength program. Many football programs document the degree to which their players are in the gym squatting. If they fail to participate, they are not on the team; period. Therefore, this report, that claims that squatting likely causes hard to heal stress fractures in the lower backs of young athletes has generated a great deal of controversy. In the scientific world it does not get much more definitive than, “These are high-risk lifts whether you’re a child or an adult,” said lead author John McClellan, a pediatric and adult spine surgeon at the Nebraska Spine Center in Omaha. “For years, coaches have blamed spinal fractures on kids’ poor weightlifting techniques, so we wanted to put that theory to the test.”
In contrast to the almost breathless way this was reported last fall, in most ways, this report is nothing really new. It has the feel of researchers eager to publish something profoundly significant, while at the same time the media does no real due diligence to put the findings in proper perspective.
Pars interarticularis (lumbar spondylolysis) has been identified has a problem peculiar to sports participation for many years. While non-athletes show pars defects at a rate of 3-5%, it has been reported that the lifetime prevalence in those athletes aged 11-17 is as high as 30.4%. Table 1 – shows “the prevalence of Spondylolysis in different sports.” Notice the very high incidence of over 40% in divers; also, 20 out of 80 wrestlers showed evidence of this overuse injury. (Note: Since the authors of this summary appear to be Italian, I assume that the listed “football” refers to soccer.)
Speaking of what’s commonly known around the world as “American” football, given the prevalence of pars defects in other sports that involve a lot of violent twisting, turning, and impacts, I wondered if there were any studies showing the spinal loading of football players while blocking and tackling. Sure enough, there are. To quote the abstract from Impact Loading of the Lumbar Spine During Football Blocking:
“We quantified the loads at the L4-5 motion segment throughout the blocking sequence. Five Division I-A college football linemen were subjects for our study. Kinematic data were obtained while the subjects hit a blocking sled instrumented with a force plate. Three plane forces were then calculated from these data. The average impact force measured at the blocking sled was 3013 N (677 pound-force) ± 598 N. The average peak compression force at the L4-5 motion segment was 8679 N (1951 lb-f) ± 1965 N. The average peak anteroposterior shear force was 3304 N (743 lb-f) ± 1116 N, and the average peak lateral shear force was 1709 N (384 lb-f) ± 411 N. The magnitude of the loads on the L4-5 motion segment during foot ball blocking exceed those determined during fatigue studies to cause pathologic changes in both the lumbar disk and the pars interarticularis. These data suggest that the mechanics of repetitive blocking may be responsible for the increased incidence of lumbar spine injury incurred by football linemen.”
It is not likely that you could reproduce these kinds of forces by merely putting a barbel loaded with 100 to 500 pounds and performing clean squat. I can certainly see the possibility, however, of especially sloppy squatting technique exacerbating preexisting conditions that more than likely first develop as a result of participating in the athletes’ respective sports. The likelihood of squatting making a bad condition worse increases tremendously if the athlete is coached to push the exercise past momentary muscular failure. In other words, if you continue a set beyond the point where you can maintain complete control, you are bound to break form and put yourself in a position where injury is much more likely to occur. Another frequently seen mistake by coaches is to schedule too much, too often, resulting in overtraining.
So, should you let your kid squat? Should you bother incorporating such a “high-risk” exercise into your own fitness program? In my opinion, yes; but only if there are qualified coaching and supervision to insure that proper form is guaranteed. Those same coaches have to be smart enough to know that kids can’t handle anywhere near the same volume of work that they see drug supplemented professional bodybuilders claim to do in the magazines. Also, I would ask those coaches how familiar they were with Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. In my opinion it is probably the most convenient and easy to understand source for getting it right. My original version was lost years ago when I loaned it to someone. Last year I downloaded the Kindle version for a measly $10.00. Seriously moms and dads, you would be better off using this book to teach your kid the fundamentals of weight training yourself than to leave your darling to the mercy of people that just don’t know what they are doing.
The first indication of whether or not an athlete can maintain strict form with weight, is if they can perform a good, strict deep knee bend. If they are not strong enough, conditioned well enough, and disciplined enough to be able to perform 10 sets of 20 bodyweight squats; then I don’t see any point in magnifying those deficiencies by adding weight to their backs. The risk of injury, especially aggravating preexisting conditions far outweighs any potential nominal value they might get from going through the motions. I call this pretending like you’re working and at best it’s a waste of time.
The next consideration is that it is not worth the risk to perform more repetitions than can be managed with perfect from. Yes, I am well aware that continuing a set beyond momentary muscular failure is a common way of adding intensity to the workout in hope of eliciting a greater training response. However, there are just certain movements that by virtue of their complexity and the potential of the weight handled are so inherently intense that going beyond the point of maintaining good form is not necessary. Barbel squatting is such an exercise; deadlifting is another. Really, I don’t think Ed Coan needed to do a third rep in order to up the intensity after he did this good strict double at 950 pounds.
Speaking of doubles performed by the greatest powerlifter of all time — doing limit triples, doubles, and especially singles is inherently much more risky than using a weight that can be strictly handled for a minimum of 8-10 repetitions. Indeed, I would argue that very few young athletes are practiced enough to have been able to develop the coordination necessary to perform maximum effort triples, doubles, and singles. Most, in fact, should be operating in a rep range closer to 12-15. Yeah, I know, that is not generally considered a rep range that will optimize strength gains. However, if the maximum weight that can be handled with perfect control happens to correspond to that which the athlete can squat 12 or more times, then so be it. That’s the heaviest they should go until they develop the strength and technique to be able to handle more with the same strict form.