Master the Basics

 

 

“Typically the worlds best athletes are minimalists when it comes to their training. They work hard and fast with few exercises. They master the fundamentals and work with them for years. This is the secret that no one wants to hear.”

Greg Glassman, Founder of CrossFit

 

When people apply themselves diligently to training with a focused intention they are able to make very significant changes in their overall strength, performance, work capacity, etc. This is the difference between training versus exercise. Exercise is good and all but, it is not the same as doing certain routines done in a deliberate manner to facilitate a particular adaptation. Everyone doing CrossFit should do various, multi-element metcons in varying time domains in a frequent enough manner to improve their work capacity aka fitness. However, if one has a deficiency in strength, running, mobility  or whichever skill/task that CrossFit, or your own life calls upon you are better off in my opinion to fix that deficiency as soon as possible. You can do this by prioritizing your training to bring up weak points in your fitness. Many people have taken a step back from the typical Crossfit  (constantly varied, functional movements at high intensity) programming to a more structured strength program that incorporates skill work and metcons in a manageable and deliberate frequency that helps the athlete improve for example strength while not losing any of their running or rowing ability. It of course depends on the athlete and how they respond/recover from training that will make certain routines a little nuanced and very particular for some individuals. I still feel that it is best for a majority of athletes/people to train to become proficient at squatting, pulling, pressing and learning the olympic lifts. One should also be skillful in basic gymanstics movements, strongman movements and monostructural events such as running, rowing, biking, etc. Skill work and scaling of various aspects of training are essential for some novices coming into an established program, however a large majority of people/athletes are still going to need to improve their squatting, pulling and pressing abilities. That and they are going to need to be able to move themselves around well such as running and gymanstics movements. Training is not just doing something in a disorganized fashion to chase down some effect such as breathing harder than you thought, some crazy muscle pump or accomplishing 30 mins of easy walking to hit the minimum daily recommendation. Training is about having a goal and doing the things one needs to do to accomplish that goal. A majority of the time it is not fancy and it is not fun, but if you focus your efforts toward your goal and you keep working at it you will get it.

Why Olympic Lifting? – The Outlaw Way

WHY OLYMPIC LIFTING?

THE IMPORTANCE OF OLYMPIC WEIGHTLIFTING FOR THE SPORT OF FITNESS – COLLECTION

 

1) General Introduction:

The mere practice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to apply large amounts of force. Part of the extraordinary abilities of an Olympic lifter arises out of his having learned how to effectively activate more of his muscle fibers more rapidly than others who aren’t trained to do so. This becomes extremely important for athletes who need to remain at lower body weights for athletic purposes but need to learn how to apply greater force.—Artie Dreschler

Mr. Dreschler literally wrote the book on weightlifting. Clearly he wasn’t writing for competitive exercisers, but his comment could not be any more appropriate in relation to our sport. I say this at every camp, and I’ll say it again here: Rich Froning has the highest WL total of any Games athlete—Rich Froning has won the Games twice.

The debate on the importance of weightlifting should stop with my last statement, but fools will continue to quarrel. So here’s a quote from “Were the Games Well Programmed?” on Anders Larson’s CFG Analysis site:

What is clear from this is that HQ puts a large value on the Olympic lifts. The clean and snatch were worth a total of 5.35 events on their own! Add in shoulder-to-overhead (0.67) and that’s more than 6 events worth of points based on the Olympic lifts. Although I am a big fan of the Olympic lifts myself, I do think the snatch in particular was over-valued. It was worth nearly 14% of all the available points, including 20% of the Open and 17% of the Regional.

These are actual numbers and facts, not opinions about what you “think” will be programmed. Larson also has added up the total point values for every movement tested during both the 2011 and 2012 Games seasons. The snatch and clean & jerk are worth 20 percent of the total point value. If you add accessories, you have 36 percent of the total point value—read that again, except in all caps: THIRTY-SIX PERCENT. I can and will talk about exactly how the lifts develop the athlete from an overall perspective, but strictly from a sporting perspective, that’s a lot of points.

We are not programming for and coaching athletes to be Olympic weightlifters. Our athletes’ success in Olympic weightlifting is secondary to this fact: to be successful in the “sport of fitness,” they must be good weightlifters. Rich Froning’s 293kg Total (in f-ing Nanos) would have been good for third place at the 2012 American Open. Rich Froning is the two-time CrossFit Games champion.

2) Science:

> Rate of force development
> Kinetic chain synchronization
> Neural recruitment

These are just a few of the benefits of Olympic weightlifting. They are buzzwords that are sometimes thrown around without definition, and they are all paramount to athletic performance. Athletes who compete in “the sport of fitness” are no different from athletes in any other sport. They must develop the ability to apply force, in a synchronized manner, and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. The great difference is that our sport awards roughly 30 to 40 percent of its points based upon proficiency in the Olympic lifts, whereas athletes who compete in nonfitness-related sports use the Olympic lifts as strictly a training protocol to develop athletic potential.

All sports require different amounts of muscle synchronization, balance, flexibility, and coordination as well as strength, speed, power, and metabolic development. Olympic weightlifting provides development in all these areas. While training for maximal strength can have a positive effect on performance, it also can have a “negative effect on movement speed and the ability of a muscle to display explosive effort” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992). However, this does not mean that strength gains do not happen through training at high speeds. Wenzel and Perfetto characterized strength gains from high-speed training as adaptations “due to an increase in the number of fibers recruited or a more synchronous firing of motor neurons” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992).—Philip Sabatini, February 2011 interview with elitefts.net.

The single most important requirement for strength development is the ability to produce force. Force, in terms of strength training and athleticism, is the body’s ability to recruit and initiate muscular contraction. Greater ability to produce force means greater ability to act upon external load, greater ability to control/manipulate the body in space, and greater ability to maintain efficiency with higher-repetition sub-maximal endeavors. The single best tool to gain the ability to develop force is strength training. The strength training protocol used must involve movements performed at either maximal or near-maximal weight (90 percent plus), or lighter weight moved as quickly as possible (70 to 90 percent). The ability to produce force, sans coordination, is a quintessential component of athleticism.

The kinetic chain is simply defined as a “combination of several successively arranged joints constituting a complex motor unit” (Steindler). The greatest/safest open chain tools we have to develop the kinetic function of multiple motor units—in our sport and in our training—are the Olympic lifts. The wave of contraction that must be produced to perform a full barbell Snatch is unparalleled by any other gym-based movement. To get similar kinetic chain development, you would have to play an actual sport for some length of time, and it would have to be a sport requiring massive amounts of mobility and joint stabilization (such as gymnastics). In my years of coaching I have seen more than my share of athletes who simply cannot perform a full snatch or a comfortable jerk. This is a prime example of dysfunction, inhibition, or tightness at some point in the kinetic chain and is NOT indicative that the movement is too hard to master or not forcertain people. To the contrary; diagnosing these issues, taking steps to correct them, and continued practice of the lifts will allow for a greater overall development of the athlete’s kinetic chain, which will lead to the correction of a multitude of basic movement issues.

Hold on to your hats, boys and girls… I’m going to quote Coach (that’s Greg Glassman for those of you who have only been around a year or two):

The missing link in so much mainstream fitness programming, from bodybuilding to monostructural endeavors, is the neuromuscular piece—in particular, the development of coordination, accuracy, agility, and balance. We can sum these elements up as “technique.” Omitting them from one’s training necessarily results in only partial fitness, partial expression of one’s genetic potential, and a decreased threshold of maximal capacity. To increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains (the goal of CrossFit), technique is the crucial connection—whether your goal is to win the game, protect your life, complete the mission, or just be fit for the demands of everyday life at any age.—Greg Glassman

Again, the snatch takes center stage for this discussion. As the most highly technical movement in our sport’s training lexicon, it takes the prize for greatest/easiest high-level neural developer. And yes, again, high-level gymnastics and other sports can elicit similar neural responses, but the length of learning curve for those sports is far greater and, honestly, in most instances their practice is harder to pull off. Weightlifting’s ability to manipulate neural recruitment and the central nervous system through myriad rep and load variations is essential to “the sport of fitness.” Sorry to use Rich again, but not only does he have a national-level snatch, his 1:20 Isabel at the 2012 Games may have been one of the most efficient and impressive performances I’ve seen in person. With a high level of neural development, the athlete can move through greater ranges of motion with less effort, therefore allowing for greater capacity and less central nervous system fatigue.

3) Technique:

Exhibit A-

This is the max snatch event from the 2009 Games. The only thing I can imagine that’s more embarrassing than this video would be walking in on your parents having sex and being forced to stand there—eyes wide open—for 3 minutes and 46 seconds. Considering that our sport is now full of national caliber lifters, this video is even more shocking. To imagine that these are the top women in 2009, less than four years ago, is mind-boggling.

Here are some numbers to drive the point home:

-Among the top ten women at the 2009 Games, the average snatch was 120#.
-Among the top ten women from the 2012 Games the average snatch is 163.6#.

Here’s one that I had to do the math on at least eight times to believe…

-The average snatch of the 69kg women at the 2012 American Open was 161.6#.

This is notoriously the most competitive weight class in American women’s weightlifting, and 69kg (151.8#) is actually more than 8 pounds heavier than the 143.1 pound average weight of the Games 2012 top ten. (You should probably ruminate on the numbers for a second.)

Technique-

Let’s hear from Mr. Dreschler again:

The mere practice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to apply large amounts of force.

We have, at times, been criticized for sticking to a lifting template throughout the season. The criticism apparently is that this much lifting will detract from the development of other skills. The reality is that the lifting we do is a developer of overall athleticism, which carries over to all of the skills of our greater sport. Ryan Sunshine has a 240# snatch @ 20 years-old—he just maxed out at 24 unbroken muscle-ups. Spencer Arnold has an American Open podium—he also has 24 unbroken muscle-ups. Camille Leblanc-Bazinet has a nearly double-bodyweight clean & jerk—she has…well, here:

What do we see in this video? Violent hip extension. She keeps the arms long and loose until the power is transferred vertically. Incredible speed and turnover with the elbows. What does all that sound like to you? I’m not trying to argue that if you can’t snatch, you can’t do muscle-ups, but—if adequate time is taken to develop both disciplines—it will never hurt.

We program, practice the technique of, and generally revere the lifts for the overall kinesthetic development they provide our athletes. Kinesthetic awareness is paramount in a sport that rewards efficiency over brute effort. We believe that even the accessory lifts have massive carryover for our athletes. Our best front squatters—who generally have the biggest cleans—have the easiest time with tasks such as wall ball and thrusters. These are things that can be developed by simple repetition, but if the practice of the lifts, and their accessories, can help develop them with less toil, then we have an obvious elixir that can improve athletes in a multifaceted and expedient manner.

Learning the technical aspects of weightlifting is not a one size fits all for athletes. Bob Takano writes:

My experience has been that teaching the snatch and clean & jerk to high-level gymnasts, divers and dancers is a piece of cake. I’ve done it with a couple of these types of athletes in about a half an hour… People lacking in motor learning skills, and that have never done anything to improve their kinesthesia are going to need a lot of coaching and a long time to learn the lifts, if they can learn them at all. June 11th article “How Much Time Does it Take To Learn Technique?

Former athletes, especially from “body control” sports, will have an easier time adapting to the lifts. Athletes or people in general who have done less to “improve their kinesthesia,” as Mr. Takano writes, will have a much harder time. This, however, does not mean that the improvements and adaptations gained from this learning will not have just as much, if not more, carryover for those who have less general body awareness. In fact, I would challenge those of you who have a “high motor” to take the time to fully delve into the learning and perfection of the lifts. Motor is always easier to develop than skill, and once the skill is attained, the motor is just a few grueling weeks from being right back where it was (and likely much improved). The caveat? If you don’t ever take the time to become a barbell virtuoso, no matter how many times you do “Cindy” and “Helen,” you will still be the first person out of the snatch ladder at Regionals.

4) Loading:

One of the biggest misconceptions about The Outlaw Way program is that we have taken a full Weightlifting template, meant to develop both national and world champion level lifters, and inexplicably laid it over a “sport of fitness” full metabolic conditioning template. This notion is both laughable, and glaringly illustrates how little understanding many people have about what “real” Weightlifters actually do. After Elisabeth’s recent trip to train with Team MDUSA, and Coach Pendlay, I asked her what she felt was the biggest difference between the lifting we do, and the lifting that the team was doing. Here’s what she said…

I’m in awe of the volume of heavy, HEAVY work. Their ability to maintain focus and intensity over multiple long training sessions six days a week is almost more than I can imagine. They must start to feel like the BB is an extension of their arms. No lie, after just two days I got on the plane exhausted and immediately fell asleep and started dreaming about lifting. It’s a completely different kind of intensity.

At their AM session on Monday, the team took roughly 8-10 attempts to work to a max Snatch, then another 8-10 attempts to a max Clean & Jerk. After that they did 20 or 30 reps of accessories, then they worked up to a 5RM Back Squat.

Then, in the PM session, they worked up to another near, or in some cases full max Snatch and Clean & Jerk, then did at least five doubles of a Snatch deadlift plus a floor level hang Snatch (far more grueling than a full Snatch IMO), and then repeated the same sequence for the Clean & Jerk. I’ll try to list as close to accurate numbers as I can figure out for the team’s total reps of each movement and overall total:

*Individual Movements

>5 to 10 Max Snatches
>5 to 10 Max Clean & Jerks
>15 to 20 Sub-Maximal Snatches
>15 to 20 Sub-Maximal Clean & Jerks
>20 to 30 Various Accessories
>10 to 15 Snatch Deadlifts
>10 to 15 Clean Deadlifts
>10 to 15 Partial Snatches (hang to 2″ from the floor)
>10 to 15 Partial Clean & Jerks (hang to 2″ from the floor)

And to top it all off…

>15 to 20 Near Maximal Back Squats (working to a 5RM)
>5 to 10 Max Back Squats (attempting or performing a 5RM)

*Total Lifts (using median numbers)

>40 Snatches – between 80% and a training 100%
>40 Clean & Jerks – between 80% and a training 100%
>50 Accessories – all as heavy as technique allowed (including SN & CL Deadlifts)
>25 Back Squats – all roughly between 85% and 105% of 5RM

I know, you want the grand total so you can get down on your knees and thank the Bearded Baby Lord Jesus that you just get to dabble in Weightlifting, and don’t have to fully commit like the crazies down at MDUSA. Here you go…

150 reps at 80% or above.

Lemme reiterate. On Monday, which was a completely normal training day, Team MDUSA (and Elisabeth) performed somewhere close to ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY REPS of a combination of Snatches, Clean & Jerks, back squats, and accessory lifts–almost ALL above 80% of max, and many at max.

On Monday we did less than 40 total lifts, and none were above 85%.

Rehabilitation by Mark Rippetoe

Rehabilitation

by Mark Rippetoe | July 05, 2017

shoulder rehab

Shoulder rehab after rotator cuff repair.

All athletes who train hard enough to compete will get injured. This is the sorry truth of the matter, and anyone dissuaded from competition by this fact would not have made a good competitor anyway. Progress involves hard training, and hard training involves pushing past previous barriers to new levels of performance. To the extent that this can cause injury, successful competitive athletics is dangerous. It is a danger that can and must be managed, but it is important to recognize the fact that athletes get hurt. If they want to continue to be athletes afterwards, it is equally important to understand how to manage and rehabilitate injuries successfully so that they don’t end a career. Also, accidents happen, both related and unrelated to training.

Severely damaged tissue cannot be repaired through rehabilitation. Rather, the surrounding healthy tissue is strengthened in order to take over the load once carried by the now non-functional tissue. If someone has a survivable heart attack, such as a myocardial infarction, part of the heart muscle dies. The dead tissue no longer contributes to the contraction of the heart, but the heart continues to beat and deliver blood. Immediately after the infarction, the efficiency with which the heart delivers blood is low, but without missing a beat, the remaining healthy, functional heart muscle begins to adapt because it continues to be loaded, provided that you fail to die.

In order to adapt to the missing force generation capacity of the damaged tissue, the remaining muscle contracts more forcefully and rapidly increases in mass for weeks and months until the force of contraction is counterbalanced by the tensile strength of the collagen scar, completing the remodeling process. The end result is the recovery of the heart’s ability to generate contractile force even having lost some of its original muscle irrecoverably. The change in contractile geometry of the ventricle will not actually allow the return to 100% of normal function. This altered geometry, even with thicker walls after hypertrophy, is inherently less efficient than the original ventricle, but it functions well enough that normal activities can eventually be resumed. And in fact, the resumption of normal activities is what drives the ability to resume normal activities.

Severe muscle damage in other parts of the body constitutes a similar but less dire situation. If a muscle is severely damaged to the point of necrosis, not only will the remaining tissue adapt to the loss of function of the damaged tissue by increasing its functional capacity, but the surrounding muscles that normally aid the damaged muscle in its biomechanical role will assume part of the workload. This is classically illustrated in the scientific and medical literature in “ablation” experiments, where the gastrocnemius muscle (major calf muscle) is removed (usually in frogs, not people) and the underlying soleus and plantaris muscles rapidly adapt and assume the load once carried by the gastrocnemius. It is well documented that these newly stressed muscles change dramatically, both chemically and structurally, after ablation in order to return the whole mechanical system to “normal” function. The recovered structures are not as good as the original equipment, but they function at a high percentage of the original capacity.

In both the previous scenarios, recovery of function occurred after only a short period of reduced loading, essentially the duration of time needed for the resolution of inflammation and any other blatant pathology. A rapid return to an increasing functional load is required to induce adaptation and recovery. Even in the infarcted heart, a return to normal load represents a functional overload of the remaining tissue: the same amount of force must initially be generated by a smaller muscle mass, so it is under a higher relative load. The adaptation that facilitates the return to normal function is a response to the stress to the system produced by the injured area’s decrease in function. The injury that necessitates the compensation is the source of the stress to the surrounding tissues, and they respond by adapting to the new demands placed on them. Without the injury, the adaptation would not occur, just as no adaptation ever occurs in the absence of stress.

While caution is necessary to avoid further injury, the belief that rehabilitation can occur in the absence of overload represents a failure to comprehend the basic tenets of the physiology and mechanics of the living human body. Again, we have evolved over time to be able to remodel damaged tissue while it is being utilized – heart, liver, kidney, bone, and muscle are necessary for sustained existence, and had we not been able to heal it without bed rest, hospitals, and doctors, we would have been eaten by the hyenas a long time ago.

Most injuries experienced in the weight room, on the field, and in daily life do not rise to the severity of necrosis. They are inconvenient, painful, aggravating, and potentially expensive to deal with, but they do not alter the quality of life for a significant period of time. But the same principles apply to healing them that apply to more severe injuries, because the mechanisms that cause them to heal are the same.

The concept of “letting” an injury heal beyond an initial few days reflects a lack of understanding of the actual processes that cause the return to function. A less severe injury that does not involve tissue necrosis nonetheless involves an overload of the immediate ability of the compromised tissue, thus stimulating the processes that cause repair. In this particular instance, care must be taken to ensure that the structure that is healing receives its normal proportion of the load, because the object is to return this particular structure to full function, not to allow the adjacent structures to assume the load and thus preventing the injured tissue from healing fully. This is accomplished by the enforcement of very strict technique during exercise of the injured area. It hurts more this way, but the long-term return to full function depends on the correct amount of stress to the injured area.

During supervised rehabilitation, the workloads used should be light enough to allow recovery of function locally, within the injured tissue, but this load will not be stressful enough systemically to maintain advanced fitness levels. When the athlete is released to unrestricted activity, enough detraining has occurred that a change in programming will be required. Six to eight weeks in rehabilitation can result in the loss of enough overall performance to warrant return to a program of simple progression, even for an advanced athlete. Once pre-injury or pre-disease performance levels have been regained, a return to normal training at that level can follow. As discussed earlier, strength is a resilient quality, and strength lost through detraining can be recovered much more rapidly than it was initially gained.

Remember our definition of the stress/recovery/adaptation process: Stress is an event that produces a significant change in the environment of an organism, sufficient to disrupt the physiological state that exists within an organism in equilibrium with its current environmental conditions. Adaptation to the stress event is the organism’s modification of its physiology to compensate for the new environmental conditions as it recovers from the stress.

This definition provides an insight into effective rehab: it must be sufficiently stressful to cause an adaptation if it is to yield a return to a state that is better than before, the process of which facilitates a return to the previously high level of performance. The state of the injured athlete is lower than before he was injured, so the current/injured level of performance must be challenged if improvement upon it is to occur. This is the same training process that yielded the heightened performance before the injury, and it must be undertaken again, as unpleasant a prospect as that may be for the injured athlete.

The biggest mistake made by therapists is the incorrect application of this concept. Many of them seem to regard the injury itself as the stressor, and fail to realize that 1) the stress of injury has already been adapted to, that 2) the subsequent lack of training (detraining) stimulus is a stress that has likewise been adapted to, and 3) that the rehab they provide must be sufficiently intense to produce the stress/recovery/adaptation response that took the athlete to his previous level of performance.

“Rehab” – in the sense an athlete uses the term – cannot do its job unless it provides sufficient stress to cause the adaptation to that stress, just like it did the first time, and mistaking the stress of the injury that occurred days, weeks, or months in the past for something that must be allowed to rest more or heal a little bit longer is a failure to understand the fundamental processes that govern performance.

Excerpted from Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd ed.

Squats and Your Knees by Mark Rippetoe

 

full squat bottom position

The idea that below-parallel squats are bad for the knees is complete nonsense which, for some reason that escapes me, will not go away. This mythology is mindlessly repeated by orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, registered nurses, personal trainers, dieticians, sportscasters, librarians, lunch-room monitors, and many other people in positions of authority with no actual knowledge of the topic, and therefore no basis in fact for their opinion.

I have been teaching the below-parallel squat for 37 years, and have taught hundreds of thousands of people – in my gym, through my books and videos, and in my seminars – to safely perform the most important exercise in the entire catalog of resistance training. Yet here in 2014, well into the 21st Century, we still hear completely uninformed people – who, by the way, have had ample opportunity to educate themselves yet have failed to do so – advise against performing squats, under the assumption that they look scary or hard, and are therefore Bad. For the knees. Here are four reasons why this is not true, and why you should immediately start squatting correctly if you entertain the notion that you’d like to be stronger. 

1. The “deep” (hips below the level of the knees) squat is an anatomically normal position for the human body. It is used as a resting position for millions of people everywhere, and they squat into it and squat out of it every time. There is nothing harmful about either assuming a squatting position – whether sitting down in a chair or into an unsupported squat – or returning to a standing position afterward. If you look at the knees and hips for a second, you’ll notice that they seem suspiciously well-adapted to doing this very thing. Infants and children squat down below parallel all the time in the absence of pediatric medical intervention, and these things should indicate to the thinking person that there is nothing inherently harmful in assuming this anatomically-normal position. The fact that you haven’t been squatting is no reason to seek justification for not having done so.

Furthermore, the world powerlifting record for the squat is over 1,000 pounds. My friend Ellen Stein has squatted 400 at the age of 60 at a bodyweight of 132 pounds. Everybody seems to be okay.

Yes friends, we’ve been squatting since we’ve had knees and hips, and the development of the toilet just reduced the range of motion a little. The comparatively recent innovation of gradually loading this natural movement with a barbell doesn’t mean that it will hurt you. If you do it correctly – you don’t get to do the squat incorrectly and then tell everybody that squatting hurt your knees. That would be wrong.

Disclaimer: This discussion refers specifically to the strength training version of the movement, the one designed to make you progressively stronger by lifting progressively heavier weights. If you are doing hundreds of reps of unweighted squats, your knees and everything else are going to be unavoidably and exquisitely sore. 

2. The correct squat is a hips-dependent movement, not a knees movement. The knees obviously have to bend if you squat down, but they are not loaded the same way the hips are. The hips absorb and redirect the majority of the stress if you do the movement correctly by pushing them back. The hip muscles consist of all of the glute muscles, all the internal hip muscles, the hamstrings, and the groin muscles (the adductors). This large muscle mass adapts to squatting just like all muscles adapt to exercise – they get stronger. The correct-performed squat shoves the knees out to the side and the hips back, placing most of the load on the hips and completely protecting the knees from whatever it is that everybody is afraid of.

This position also places the back at a more horizontal angle than is typically recognized as correct by most personal trainers. The squat is thus a back exercise. The hip-bone’s connected to the … back-bone, and if the hips are going to do the work, they have to be in a position that also loads the back. The squat is supposed to stress the back. It’s a back exercise. The back muscles get strong along with everything else as the weight goes up. If you don’t exercise the back muscles, they can’t get strong. Strong back muscles keep you from hurting your back, and the squat is a basic back exercise. 

3. The full squat is not only safe for the knees, it is the best exercise for knee health you can do. Squats are regarded as the basic lower body exercise by strength athletes because nothing else compares to its ability to strengthen the structure of the knee – the muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments that form the knee anatomy.

The muscles on the front of the thigh are the quadriceps. They attach below the knee to the “tibial tuberosity” – the bump at the top of the shin bone – just below the kneecap. When they pull this bone forward, the knee extends and the force at the tendon attachment is directed forward relative to the joint. In contrast, the hamstrings pull backwards on either side of the knee at their attachments, which balances the forward force from the quads. This happens in a correct squat when the hips move back and the torso leans forward. The balance of forces is optimum at a position just below parallel, and protects the joint so well that a correct squat can be safely performed even without an ACL – a person like me. 

4. Partial squats are performed with a more vertical back angle that does not permit the hamstrings to tighten and protect the knees. Partial squats usually leave the hamstrings out of the exercise, because they are usually thought of as an exercise for the “quads.” This is muscle-group thinking instead of movement-pattern thinking, and the beauty of the squat is that it works so much more than just one muscle group.

And since a partial squat doesn’t require you to move the load very far, or to use the hard part of the exercise’s range of motion, it allows the use of much heavier weights. Kids playing around in the gym will always squat this way, and it doesn’t help that most of the personal trainers in the gym think partial squats are not only okay, but correct.

Unfortunately, high school football players under the guidance of coaches motivated by the lust for a defensive line that “squats” 500 pounds are often subjected to more spinal loading than their young backs are prepared for. As a general rule, if the bar is so heavy that you cannot squat below parallel with it and stand back up, it’s too heavy to have on your back.

The below-parallel squat is unparalleled for the development of strength, balance, bone density, and health. It works all the muscles in the body at the same time, while allowing increasingly heavier loads to do the magic of progressive adaptation. If you are afraid of squats, you need to rethink the situation.

The original version of this article appeared on PJ Media on 2/21/14.