Contrary to popular belief, I am not anti-squat, I just maintain that people need to use common sense when deciding if squats are for them or not. Squats are a great compound exercise but they are not for everyone. The older you are, the more careful you need to be. Here are some things to evaluate before deciding if you should do squats:
- History of back problems
- Scoliosis or lordosis
- access to physical therapist
- access to squat cage with safety bars
Squat cage. Starting with the last. For safety reasons, in my opinion, nobody should ever do squats unless they are in a squat cage with the safety catch bars set so that the olympic bar touches the safety bars when the thighs are horizontal. Most people set the safety bars so low as to render them useless for safety. The idea is to keep you from getting injured and you cant do that if they are set at ankle height! If you don’t have a squat cage you need to limit yourself to safer versions of the basic squat like a box squat or dumbbell squats.
Physical Therapist. You can destroy your spine for the rest of your life with improper squatting technique. Every personal trainer claims to be an “expert” on squatting, don’t risk your life with them, pay for a few sessions with a medical expert – a physical therapist (physiotherapist). In the USA, most insurance doesn’t cover PT anyway so just call up a PT and ask if they have a non-insurance cash discount, many do. You will probably find that these highly trained medical professionals are not that much more expensive than “certified” personal trainers who just taken a mail-order class. Have them show you how to squat. The entire first session should be spent with an empty bar just getting the motion down. At first you will need to watch the mirror to do it. Repeat till you can use good form with your eyes closed (literally) and the physical therapist will watch you. Then they will have you start adding weight, its easy to lose form when adding weight and the PT will watch you to insure this does not happen. Have your physical therapist show you the basic squat, a front squat, a box squat, and dumbbell squats.
Osteoporosis. Weak bones mean weak spine. Definitely squats are out if you have this condition
Scoliosis or Lordosis. Anything that interferes with the backs natural strong shape will be a problem when doing squats. A straight drinking straw is strong and it can hold 1000x its weight but bend it slightly and it crumples when the slightest weight is applied to it. If you have scoliosis or lordosis you can cautiously do light squats but heavy squats are out.
History of back problems. Statistically speaking, if you have had back problems in the past you are likely to have them again. Squatting before you strengthen your core is asking for a crippling back problem. Squat advocates tout all the time how “good” squats are for strengthening the back to prevent lower back problems, kinda true. If you have a healthy back, squats do strengthen your spine extensors but if you have a bad back squats will cause your spine to ‘snap’ before you can strengthen anything. There are *much* better ways to strengthen the spine extensors than to squat. Strengthen your core and spine extensors till you have a steel-girdle, then you can start squatting.
Age. Squatting is not a good idea for the very young and the very old, how young and how old? Squatting does *not* stunt your growth, that is not the issue with squatting when you are too young. The issue is that young people are more likely to attempt squatting without proper instruction and are more likely to lift more than they should, both these factors will lead to serious injury. I have nothing against a 15 year old squatting IF they are under the constant and direct supervision of a powerlifting coach. How old is too old, you cant put a number on that as chronologic age is not as important as overall health. Some 70 year olds can squat but some 50 year olds shouldn’t. If you are over 40 and have no other red flags as discussed above, give squats a try. Start very light and ramp up over several months and listen to your body.