Working in the fitness world for more than 30 years, I’ve seen more than my share of injured backs. Many of these injuries occurred from persons performing loaded squats (I don’t do them). The conventional notion is that everyone should squat “ass to ankles”. Wrong! Not everyone’s hip structure is the same. Squats can only be performed correctly is if you can keep the spine in neutral and maintain the natural arch in your low back. If you squat deeper than you should, your lower spine curves inward. If you’re doing that with loaded weights, you can cause injury to one or more vertebral discs. A deep bodyweight squat is actually good for you. How do you know how far to go down in a loaded squat? An article from perhaps the most knowledgeable back expert in the world, Dr. Stuart McGill, at the University of Waterloo in Canada is the man. If you’ve ever done a side plank, you’ve been influenced by his 30 years of innovative research as a professor of spine biomechanics.
Dr McGill has devised the hip rock-back test to determine how far you should go. To do this test, get down on hands and knees with your knees a few inches apart. Slowly push your hips back until you feel movement in your lower back; a sign that you’re losing that arch. Spread your knees wider and repeat. Keep going until you find the position that allows the deepest range of motion without any change in your lower back. Try it again with your feet angled out to see if you can go even deeper. Apply that position to your squat.
I choose not to do a loaded squat; for me, bodyweight squats are sufficient. Or I do a lunge. Or climb stairs. Or, push a sled. They all work the same muscle groups-and more functional. AND safer.
John R Blilie, MS, OSC