Squats: Awesome or Awful & Overrated?

If you want to be a successful bodybuilder do you have to do squats? Do squats unlock your bodies testosterone supplies leading to massive muscle growth or are they overrated? Are they required to build mass or are there safer options? The answer might surprise you.

Passions run high when it comes to squats and I’m going to help you understand the risks and benefits of doing squats. We’ll start with the benefits of squats but first lets debunk a common myth – squats do not have magical testosterone increasing properties that help you pack on muscle mass. Yes intense resistance training causes a temporary increase in testosterone and growth hormone but that goes for ALL exercises, not just squats.

Squats are a great compound exercise that work the quads, hamstrings, glutes, core while enlisting many smaller stabilizing muscles as well. Its an exercise that only requires an olympic bar and a rack which is available at virtually every gym in the world. If you ask any pro powerlifter or bodybuilder, they will probably list it as the #1 most important exercise.

Many people claim that “There is no substitute for squats” – Mullarky! Maybe for people who dont do any sports outside the gym there is no substitute but for the rest of us active in other sports there is. A safe and effective subsitute for squats is leg press and leg curls and then a game of basketball, soccer, volleyball, rugby, hockey, or lacrosse to work the stabilizing muscles.

For an experienced powerlifter, squats have some risks but for the unskilled, squats can be a 9-1-1 call waiting to happen. Lets talk about the risks, there are knee injuries but most common, and most serious, are the back injuries.

I want to first cover why machines are superior to squats when it comes to back safety. Remember from your high school physics that the sum of the forces in the X,Y, and Z directions must be zero. If you have a 495 pound bar sitting across your shoulders in a squat then the ground must be pushing back up with an equal but opposite 495 pounds of force to keep you from sinking into the floor. Therefore, your spine is under 495 pounds of compression – 495 pounds of force pushing from each end.

Now lets look at a leg press machine. Its set to the same weight so the foot pad is pushing with 495 pounds of force. The difference here is that the opposing 495 pounds of force is being applied at the hips. The sum of the forces again is zero and the legs are under 495 pounds of compressive force just as in the squats. The difference is that the spine here is under no compressive stress at all. Zero pounds on the head is counterbalanced by zero pounds pushing from the seat.

So, the main difference between squat and a leg machine is that in the leg press, the spine is under no compressive load whereas in the squat, the spine is supporting the full weight. With squats, the stronger your legs are, the more weight you need to use and the more compressive load your spine is under. With leg press, even the strongest powerlifter in the world has no compressive stress on their spine.

Not everyones back can withstand that immense compressive force from squatting. Good technique and a strong core can lessen the spinal compression somewhat but squats compress the spine – period. Human spines are poorly designed for handling vertical compressive loads, its one of the reasons why 10.2% of the population has debilitating chronic back pain. Our spines are much better designed for being horizontal and on all fours like a horse.

So, should you do squats or not??? Squats ARE a great exercise but they are not for everyone. They are great if you:

• you are over 18 and under 40 years old
• you have been trained by a professional powerlifting coach
• you, your parents, and your grandparents have no history of back problems
• you have either a squat cage with safety catch bars set at hip height or higher

Otherwise, skip the squats and use leg machines and play sports!

18 thoughts on “Squats: Awesome or Awful & Overrated?”

  1. Squatting with proper form will always be superior to leg press because of the overall muscle involvement involved in both supporting and pushing the weight through a full range of motion. People are free to use whichever machines they wish to use and I would never criticize anyone for doing so, but anyone who claims that the leg press or any machine that works the legs is superior or even equally as beneficial as free-weight squats performed with good form is massively in denial, misinformed, or straight-up ignorant of the cold, hard facts.

  2. The leg press is the only machine I use at my gym and I get crap for it because it doesn’t develope strength or some broscience all these bandwagon jerks seem to be spewing out the mouth.

    It seems like harping on some guy for doing LP rather than squats is the equivalent of me running up stairs to the bench press room and mocking the guy who just did 300 for reps because he did it with a barbell rather than two 150lb dumbells, or going to the lat pulldown machine and calling the dude a wuss for not doing real pullups.

    People need to give it a rest, leg press is still capable of developing lower body strength and odds are the people who do leg press do a variety of other exercises to strengthen their core and stabalization muscles. I know I do

    I agree 100% with Scooby,Squats are a benefecial exercise but they aren’tfor everyone, and it certainly isn’t a requirement to develope a powerfull body.

  3. Thank you Scooby for ths well written article & truthful video. I can testify first hand that what you have stated is true. I pushed myself with heavy squats for over 20 years and two months after my 40th birthday, I herniated a disc.

  4. "Also exerting high intra-abdominal pressure obviously conveys risks of it's own."

    Sounds to me like you're talking about hernia.

    I personally am a fan of the low bar squat, so basically the load of the weight is not pressing on the straight back. I don't see the reason for doing the high bar squat, because you can work the anterior chain with front squats.

  5. Yes I would say that they do! But in the case of 200 kilos of vertical load on the spine (straight back) I find it hard to figure how they can help much. Also exerting high intra-abdominal pressure obviously conveys risks of it's own.

    I myself enjoy doing squats but I don't recommend them for everyone – perhaps then that the leg press is the next best thing? Lunges are great too though!

  6. @Seriousmiso – right, the role of the abdominal muscles in increasing intra-abdominal pressure was a point that I left out. Thanks for pointing that out. Correct me if I'm wrong though, but doesn't the intra-abdominal pressure prevents the spine from curving unnaturally (rounding)? If that is the case, then the ab muscles are actually protecting the spine, right?

    @Alex – I'm not sure about others but I did not take what Scoob said personally. Not attacking him personally either. It was just a friendly, civil debate (no name callings, personal attacks and such). I was just explaining why I disagreed on the notion that leg presses are superior than squats.

    Besides, honestly, I don't know what other exercises can replace the deadlift and squat when it comes to lower back conditioning.

  7. Compression fractures of the spine is not common in middle age power lifters nor is spinal disc herniation. Bad lifting technique (unnatural curve of the spine) puts the intervertebral discs under immense strain. The result would probably be acute (not chronic) back pain.

    The abdominal muscles (external oblique, rectus, internal oblique, transversus)support the spine during contraction in that they increase intraabdominal pressure, especially if you hold your breath. The reason for their existence has more do to with movement and protection of the trunk (and rapid exhalation) than taking load of the spine.

  8. @KevL, I said that in my post, I quote: "Good technique and a strong core can lessen the spinal compression somewhat …"

  9. "So, the main difference between squat and a leg machine is that in the leg press, the spine is under no compressive load whereas in the squat, the spine is supporting the ***full weight***."

    What about other major stabilizer muscles like the lower back, abs and transverse abdominus? Do they not support the weight at all? These muscles exist for a reason – to protect and take the load off the spine. That's why we can lift heavy in deadlifts and squats.

    Squats are indeed the king of all leg exercises. Because compared to the leg press machine, squats help to build 'real world strength' – it develops a huge amount of neuromuscular skill and strength as it forces muscles to 'work together', compared to the leg press machine which is done at a fixed ROM. If you do leg presses only, you will only get better at leg presses, and I don't see how superior can that be compared to squats. Squats on the other hand have great carry over value to other sports and activities. Also, the hormones released during the squat is nothing magical, but because more (bigger) muscles are used to perform the squat, more anabolic hormones are released as a result. You won't see the same result with the bicep curl.

    "Human spines are poorly designed for handling vertical compressive loads."

    I think Andy Bolton, Konstantine Konstantinovs along with the sea of other powerlifters out there who can deadlift and squat more than 200kg can prove that statement wrong. Besides, the cause of chronic back pain can come from a multitude of factors.

    I understand your concern on people with dodgy backs though. If a person has a back problem, he/she should get it fixed first before performing any exercises that tax the back. If it can't be fixed, then the squat and deadlift is not the exercise for you.

  10. I have a theory (nothing spectacular) that rather than doing 15 squats with a 200lb weight, just do 75-100 squats with no weight. At the end of the 75th squat, even with no weight, your thighs will burn. Sure, it takes more time but it can even be done at home, watching TV. If it takes 3 minutes to do 75 squats, rest for 4-5 minutes and do it all over, you could have done well over 200 squats and watched your favourite episode of 'The Office' (yup – I still enjoy 'The Office').

  11. I do squats but I am always cognizant of the dangers of such exercises. I was shocked when I went over 200 lbs and now that I do 250 lbs 5×5 I am thinking of slowing down while my muscles start to catch up with the movement.

    I would never, ever attempt to '1RM test' squats. But that said, I think squats are a very important exercise if you don't have any other alternative to working your core.

    Deadlifts are another very good example of an exercise you shouldn't do unless you have proper supervision.

  12. Evolution makes us up right, but it seems evolution is a bit slow in getting our spine to catch up. It's true, humans stood up too soon. :)
    btw, another great post Scooby.


  13. This is the most important exercise because it will help with activity and ambulation in your golden years. I actually love them. Look forward to lowerbody workouts!

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