And the downside, quite simply, is the high risk of injury that is associated with barbell training.
Luckily, with some specific exercise selections, clever progressions, and precise technique, many of these downsides can be minimized, if not avoided all together. We must first realize that each barbell exercise has its own unique risks. Because of that, we will look at them individually.
Without question, there are countless exercises you can perform with a barbell. But when we are talking about barbell training, we are specifically referring to squats (and their variations), bench pressing, deadlifts (and their variations), overhead pressing and the Olympic lifts.
Lets break down each movement individually so we can become aware of the most common risks associated with each specific exercise and also learn how to minimize its potential dangers. In this post, we will focus on the squat
Squats are a killer exercise. In fact, there is no better movement for increasing size and strength. Unfortunately, there are risks associated with squatting. The most common risks include knee and lower back injuries.
Knee injuries- Torn meniscus, damaged ligaments and ruptured patella tendons are not the most common knee injuries associated with squatting, but they can absolutely occur inside the squat rack.
More common knee injuries include: chondromalacia, patella tendinitis, crepitus, and Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. Getting into each one of these conditions in depth is beyond the scope of this post.
Thus, if you suffer from chronic knee pain, get checked out by a qualified orthopedic practitioner before you even think about incorporating squats into your routine.
For those of you who have good basic knee health (and want to stay that way), Im going to give you practical guidelines that you MUST follow while squatting in order to maintain optimal knee health and reduce the risk of acquiring any of the injuries listed above.
1) Maintain proper knee alignment- Your knees must track in line with your toes. More specifically, your knees should track in line with your second toe. This puts all of the tissues in their anatomically correct position, which in turn will minimize any unnecessary compression or stress.
It is all too common to see a trainees knees collapse inward while squatting down. This faulty position will eventually lead to knee damage. To remedy the situation youll need to do the following:
a) Focus on pushing your knees out during squats. I like to give the cues, spread the floor with your feet and “squat in between your legs, not on top of them.
b) Stay on your heels. As youre squatting, be sure to sit back enough so that the majority of the weight is on your heels. In addition to saving your knees, this position also helps recruit more hamstring and glutes.
c) Wear proper footwear while squatting. If you’re not squatting a ton of weight and your arches are near perfect, you can feel free to squat with bare feet. In fact, barefoot training can actually be beneficial because it strengthens the muscles of your feet and ankles.
But if you are really pushing up the numbers or if your feet have a tendency to over pronate (collapse inward) during squats, good lifting shoes could be a knee saver.
There are certain criteria that shoes must meet in order to be considered appropriate for squatting. They should have incompressible soles, have a non-slip surface, and provide exceptional support. Which pair of shoes you should choose will depend on which type of squat you perform.
If you are using a low bar, powerlifting style squat, I would recommend you squat in a pair of Chuck Taylors.
On the other hand, if you are doing an Olympic style squat, I would recommend that you squat in a pair of Adidas Adistar Weightlifting shoes.
2) Prepare your legs to support your knees efficiently- Although squats are a primal movement pattern, many people have lost the ability to squat well. This problem usually stems from either weakness or loss of flexibility.
a) Improve strength with single leg exercises first. If a person is too weak to squat with good form, a phase or two of single leg exercises should be employed to better prepare the body for loaded squats.
b) Restore optimal flexibility first. In regards to knee health, you should have optimal flexibility to the quads, hams, glutes and IT band before squatting. A combination of stretching and soft tissue work (i.e. foam rolling) will do the trick here.
c) Achieve a balanced ratio of strength between your quads and hams. Although the quads are usually the first muscle to get blamed, it is often weak hamstrings that lead to knee injuries. Sports scientists usually promote a one-to-one strength ratio between the hams and quads.
However, the precise ratio is quite debatable, and due to the flawed testing methods used in most studies, Im not comfortable spewing out the well-accepted scientific answer. For our goals, just be sure you are doing a one-to-one ratio of quad and hamstring strength work.
d) Wear knee sleeves if the temperature is cold. Im not talking about knee wraps here. Instead, Im referring to the neoprene sleeves that essentially offer very little support. What they do well is hold in the heat and keep the knees warm.
Lower back injuries- Herniated, bulging and ruptured discs can all occur during a weighed squat. These injuries are serious and everything must be done in order to minimize the chance of injuring a disc. The good news is that this type of injury can usually be avoided. Heres how:
1) Maintain the arch in the lower back during squats- You must maintain a neutral position in your lumbar spine while squatting. If youre in a good position, your muscles will take the heat. But once you round your lower back (even a little), your spine will accept the load and become very vulnerable to serious injury.
a) Focus on flexibility/mobility. In order to maintain optimal lumbar spinal position, you must work to obtain adequate flexibility in the hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes and calves.
b) Strengthen your posterior chain. Your posterior chain primarily consists of your lower back, glutes and hamstrings. If any of the links of this chain are weak (especially the lower back), maintaining a good arch will be extremely difficult when faced with a heavy load or fatigue.
c) Develop the necessary awareness when you are squatting. This involves many things, but you should start by concentrating on lifting your chest and butt up during the actual movement.
d) Use an appropriate weight. Going too heavy too soon is another reason why people suffer avoidable back injuries. I dont care if you can get the weight up. If you cant get the weight up with picture-perfect form, the weight is too heavy — period!
To ensure that the weight is suitable, be sure that the last rep of a set looks just like the first.
So there you have it! Now that we have tackled the squat, we can move on to benching and overhead pressing. Both of these lifts will be covered in Part 3. Stay tuned
Dedicated to your success,