Squat Controversies

by Felix Sempf on August 26, 2015

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RKC Instructor Felix Sempf

Although many good articles have been written about squatting, coaches are still frequently confronted with “do not go below parallel or 90°”, “you shouldn’t bring your knees past your toes”, or “squats are bad for your back”. Given these controversies and the fact that the squat is one of the fundamental exercises for RKC kettlebell training, the purpose of this article is to review the most important aspects of this exercise.

The squat is versatile—it has been shown that a 1RM squat is highly correlated to jump and sprint performance (Wisløff et al., 2004) and it can improve knee stability through a development of tighter joint capsules (Chandler et al., 1989). It is particularly useful for training athletes, but can also help improve strength and functionality in non-athletic populations. Squats improve the function of the gluteal muscles which will prevent injury or decrease back pain. Squats can also help everyone with daily tasks such as lifting items from the ground, or climbing stairs. It is important to note that research has not been able to establish a relationship between (deep) squatting and a greater risk of knee and back injuries, given that the exercise is performed with proper technique (Meyers, 1971; Panariello et al., 1994; Steiner et al., 1986; Hartmann & Wirth, 2014).

Squat Depth

Li et al. (2004) showed that the greatest stress on the posterior cruciate ligament during squatting occurs at around 90° of knee flexion. The authors further stated that deep squats help to constrain the knee joint and significantly reduce anterior and posterior tibial translation as well as tibial rotation compared to smaller flexion angles, thereby reducing the stress on the cruciate ligaments. Li et al. (2004) also found “the tolerance to load is enhanced in the deepest portion of the squat with a protective effect conferred to ligamentous structures”. This is in accordance with other researchers (Kanamori et al., 2000; Li et al. 1999; Sakane et al. 1997) who observed reduced stress on the crucial ligaments for knee flexion at angles greater than 90˚.

Caterisano, et al. (2002) looked at the relationship between squat depth and activation of the gluteus maximus and found no difference between partial and parallel squats. However, they reported significant increases in gluteus maximus activity during the deep squat. Given the high incidence of hip osteoarthritis in former elite athletes, and the correlation with reduced passive ROM in hip-flexion (L’Hermette et al., 2004), deep squats may be a useful tool in the prevention of hip-osteoarthritis by improving hip flexion. In summary, there is evidence to suggest that squatting below 90° with proper technique reduces stress on passive structures such as the cruciate ligaments and can have a protective effect in regard to hip and lower back health.

(Source: http://www.aaronswansonpt.com)

(Source: http://www.aaronswansonpt.com)

Squats and Injuries

Tibiofemoral compressive peak occurs at 130° of knee flexion and the menisci and articular cartilage will bear significant amounts of stress (Nisell & Ekholm, 1986). As peak patellofemoral compressive forces occur at or near maximum knee flexion, those with patellofemoral disorders or acute injured menisci should avoid high degrees of knee flexion (Sakane et al., 1997; Escamilla et al., 2001). With regard to the cruciate ligaments, Li et al. (2004) concluded, “For those with existing injury or previous reconstruction of the PCL, it is best to restrict flexion to 50° to 60° so that posterior shear is minimized”. “However, there is little evidence to show a cause-effect relationship implicating an increased squat depth with injury to these structures in healthy subjects” (Schoenfeld, 2010).

Knees Over Toes

List et al. (2013) showed that restricting the amount of ankle motion (knees not allowed over toes) led to a smaller ROM at the knee, higher changes in the curvature of the thoracic spine, and higher segmental motions within the trunk. Consequently, the stress placed on the back increased when ankle motion was restricted. This is in agreement with other research, “Although restricting forward movement of the knees may minimize stress on the knees, it is likely that forces are inappropriately transferred to the hips and low-back region. Thus, appropriate joint loading during this exercise may require the knees to move slightly past the toes” (Fry et al., 2003). Escamilla (2001) came to the conclusion that significant strength and sagittal plane mobility is required at the ankle for proper squat performance.


Felix Sempf, RKC, PhD Candidate, M.A. Sportscience, trains and instructs at the FIZ in Göttingen, Germany. He can be contacted by email at: felix.sempf@sport.uni-goettingen.de and his website: kettlebellperformance.de


Training Mindfully

by Robin Sinclear on August 19, 2015

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Robin Sinclear Kettlebell Press

Before becoming a fitness coach, I was a Paramedic for over 20 years. Responding to 9-1-1 calls for that length of time taught me a lot—and I honed the skill of trusting my instincts. I learned how to read people and situations within a matter of seconds. I became acutely aware that situations can change in an instant, and that sometimes we must adapt and adjust even the best plans. I also realized that my temperament, and a calm, confident, commanding presence could determine the outcome of a situation. If I had a poor attitude or questioned my abilities, things could quickly go sour. These abilities became very important life skills that I now use daily when coaching, and in my own training.

These skills came from a need to be aware—a practice of being mindful and present. As a Paramedic, I was taught a step-by-step rapid assessment of the pre-hospital scene and of the patient. Within a matter of seconds, I needed to take in a global view of the scene, establish safety for the patient and practitioners, determine the mechanism of injury, and take action to stabilize life-threatening injuries. Once all of that was done, I constantly needed to reassess the patient’s condition—which could rapidly change for better or worse. I wasn’t “great” at all of those things in the beginning of my career. It took time and practice to sharpen these skills without falling into common traps like tunnel vision or failing to re-evaluate whether my interventions were making my patient better or worse.

Robin Sinclear WindmillBeing mindful requires an attentiveness that helps us recognize the conditions around and within us. Most people are not really “there” most of the time. Instead of being present, their minds are caught up in their worries, fears, insecurities, the past, or the future. All of this disconnect and distraction is not productive when we are training. Injuries, poor performance, or just a lousy workout are often side effects of not being fully present.

Practicing mindful training is a worthwhile discipline. When your mind is with your body, you are established and engaged in the present moment. We can then observe and respect how our bodies feel, then we can work on trusting our instincts. We will know if we need to push harder or back off, if we should add weight or go lighter for more reps? We will also know if our recovery methods are effective.

If you are wondering how to incorporate mindfulness into your kettlebell training, then try this in your next training session to reevaluate your direction on every set:

  • Perform a set of an exercise
  • Take 10 seconds and ask yourself what you should do next
  • Choose from the following
    1. Use a heavier kettlebell for the next set
    2. Decrease weight for next set
    3. All is good, repeat exactly as before
    4. Do less reps
    5. Do more reps
    6. Stop entirely

A training plan—and the workouts within that training plan—must be adaptable and adjustable based on how we feel in the present moment. When we are present and attuned to our bodies, then we can listen to our instincts and align the workout based on those observations. If your training plan calls for a max effort lift on a day you feel less than 100%, it will probably be counterproductive. Why not change or modify your plan until you have a day that you feel like a badass? Why push when it won’t go well, then beat yourself up mentally because you didn’t hit the number you were “supposed” to hit that day? Does it really matter for the big picture?

Robin Sinclear Get-UpIn general, I find that men have a harder time putting their ego aside and dialing back their workouts when they aren’t feeling 100%. Their tendency is often to “push through it”. This is usually when an injury occurs. On the other hand, women tend to fear trying a heavier lift—even if they’re feeling strong. In both situations, it pays to have a good coach who can help you read the signals from your body, and guide you in the appropriate direction.

Your attitude can make or break your performance as well. And none of this is an excuse to phone it in, effort-wise. If you tell yourself you “can’t”, you will be right every time. Remaining calm, confident, and commanding a good outcome will generally lead to great things!

Next time you head to the gym, try practicing some mindful training. I say “practice” because it takes repeating this action to improve. You will catch yourself drifting away many times, and that’s ok as long as you can become aware and shift your mind back to the center. Over time you will learn to read your body and your internal performance cues.

Your body provides you with constant feedback, and you need to listen. The more you listen, the more feedback your body will provide. Eventually you will be able to use the insight and awareness you gain from this practice throughout other areas of your life as well.


Robin Sinclear, RKC-II, is the co-owner of Velocity Strength and Fitness in Chico, California. Her website is VelocityChico.com. She can be reached by email at velocitystrong@gmail.com or by phone at 530-520-2297. Follow Velocity Strength and Fitness on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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