Why raw, deep squats may be the best way to prevent injury

After watching me squat, a number of people have mentioned that I was “going to get hurt” or said that I was tempting fate due to the fact that I squat as deeply as my body possibly can and do so without the benefit of any supportive equipment (including belts). I always have to correct them and explain that according to biomechanics, the safest way to squat is likely to be exactly what I am doing; I squat deeply and without gear specifically to avoid injury. I realize that if you get your info from standard bodybuilding magazines or “bro-knowledge”, this may seem really backwards, so let me explain.
First, let’s talk about the biomechanics of the squat. When performed with proper form, the primary joints involved in the squat are the knees and hips. Similarly, the primary muscle groups involved are the quads, glutes, and adductors.
While the muscle groups most heavily taxed with the squat depends mostly on the style of squat (i.e. Olympic vs. Powerlifting), the joint pressures should be roughly equal regardless. And since joint problems (along with back problems) are the things most people think about when they think of injury, that’s where we should focus.
However, before discussing injury, we should be clear about the depths that we are discussing. You have four basic squat depths, as seen below:
  1. Quarter squat
  2. Half squat
  3. Parallel squat
  4. Full/Deep/ATG squat

So, now that we are clear on depth, let’s talk about the knees, as these are the joints everyone worries about (for good reason). Most people think that doing a full squat puts too much pressure on the knees. However, your knees, as joints, are strongest at their extents (fully extended or fully collapsed). And the greatest pressure applied during a lift is at the transition from the eccentric point of the movement (where the weight is being lowered) to the concentric point (where the weight is being raised). That brief period where you stop the downward movement of the weight and begin the upward movement imparts the greatest pressures on your body.
In the case of the knee joint during a squat, this point is even more critical. Let’s take, for example, the case of a full squat. During a full squat, you drop until you reach your body’s physical limit, which is typically at the point where your hamstrings are pressed against your calves. At this point, believe it or not, you can physically go lower (by bouncing, squashing your hams and calves together), but you shouldn’t, as it then puts a completely different kind of strain on your knees. In any event, at the bottom of the full squat, your knees are in their second strongest position, as they are at their extent . Furthermore, shear forces at the bottom are pretty low.

What about a parallel squat? Well, when you stop the squat at parallel, your knees are not at their extent, so they are in a comparatively weak position. Furthermore, there is more pressure in terms of shear forces on your knees, as the weight is much closer to 90 degrees in relationship to the joint. That being said, even parallel squats have relatively low shear forces when done properly. However, since you are not going as low, the lever arms of the muscles are significantly longer, which means they have more leverage, which ultimately means that you have to use more weight to stimulate your muscles to the same degree. This means, ultimately, that you are placing more compression forces on all of your joints (knee, hip, ankle, spine), which can lead to injuries as well.
All of these issues exacerbate the farther you go from the full squat position, but the lever arm issue may ultimately be the biggest culprit of all. Since you have to use more and more weight to properly stimulate the muscles the farther from a full squat you get, you end up compounding all of the other issues by stacking more weight on them. How much of a difference are we talking? Well, it depends on the person (as it largely depends on individual factors like femur length), but in my experience, for every 3 inches I can increase the weight by at least 15%.
So, for example, when I began doing squats, I was staying around parallel. At 405 x 5, I began having knee issues and decided to squat deeper. I dropped the pins one slot down (3 inches), and my 5 RM immediately went from 405 to 310. A few months later, I had worked my 5RM up to 360 and decided to squat even deeper. I dropped the pin one more slot down, and my 5RM dropped to 300. If you look at this objectively, the difference 6 inches makes is probably roughly 40%. And the difference is even greater the farther up you stop. So if you are doing quarter squats with 600 lbs, you will probably be lucky to get a 250 lb full squat.
Regarding back problems, these should not be an issue at all if you are using proper form with a reasonable weight. Back problems are generally going to occur when you lean to far forward or use a weight that is considerably too heavy for your back to support. If you lean to far forward, you instinctively want to overcompensate and “good morning” the weight back up, which, using the heavy weights for a squat, puts a dangerous amount of strain on your lower back. Using too much weight for your back to support tends to cause a lot of compression force, which can also lead to problems. So, in general, to avoid back problems always focus on using correct form and set PR’s in slow, steady increments instead of jamming another pair of 45’s on and going for broke.
So, all of this info was really just to explain why I chose to go full depth in squatting. Basically, once I started having knee pain, I did a lot of research on the physics of the movement along with the scientific data behind it and found that logically, a full squat should be less damaging to the knees. This was borne out by research that showed that Olympic lifters (who generally go deeper than anyone) have the lowest injury rate of all weightlifters. Finally, a year after making this change, I have yet to have any more knee problems.
However, none of this really explains why I choose to squat without any gear, so let me explain that. First and foremost, let’s define gear. There are really three pieces of equipment that I consider gear: Squat suit/Bench shirt, Knee wraps, and Lifting Belt. I don’t use any of these when I lift. Why? Mostly, I believe that, at best, I am cheating myself, and at worst, I am increasing my risk of long-term injury. Let me explain each point individually.
These aids all propose to do one thing: assist you in lifting the weight. Now, the only way that can possibly be true is if they either provide force (none do) or resist force. In the case of a properly fitted squat suit, there is no doubt that it resists force. Knee wraps can also resist force, but only if they are thick and tight enough. So, I don’t use either of these aids because I am trying to force my muscles to grow, and to use something that helps me lift the weight means that I am not getting the complete benefit of my workout.
A belt, however, does not resist force. So what does it do? Well, if you believe many of the scientific studies, nothing. It’s a security blanket. However, let’s say the studies are wrong, and it does provide some benefit. In this case, what benefit can it provide?
The only benefit a belt would be able to provide is the ability to increase Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP). IAP (and a belt’s role) is best explained here, but here’s a good excerpt:

When you bend forward your abdominal muscles contract, compressing the
internal organs, forcing them downward into the pelvic basin and upward
 into the diaphragm. Through this intra-abdominal pressure mechanism there is a decompression of the two lowest vertebral disks (L4/5 and L5/S1).
This decompression may be as great as 30 percent or as low as 6 percent. Regardless of the magnitude of the decompression, the important point to remember is that these two lumbar disks carry the greatest load of all spinal disks. If the intra-abdominal pressure mechanism is weakened or faulty, it will proportionally affect the other mechanisms, leaving the lower lumbar disks at a high risk for injury.

So, basically, IAP causes some disks to resist compression, which can help you avoid injury. So, if a belt increases IAP, it can only be a good thing, right? Not so fast. Your own muscles can increase IAP, it just requires that you learn how to do it and work them. How do you work the abdominal muscles and make sure they can increase IAP? Well, you can speculate that weighted crunches and so forth will help, but the best way to be sure of it would be to do the exercises you would use a belt on without a belt! Just like learning to squat deep, start with low weight and slowly work your way up. My theory is that if you build the muscles properly, you won’t have a deficiency that needs correcting with an external aid.
In the end, I don’t use a belt because I believe the research shows that, at best, it doesn’t help prevent injury, and at worst, it may actually make you more prone to injury. Just like I don’t want to waste any of my effort by using something that helps me lift the weight, I don’t want to use something that may potentially increase my chances of injury. And I’m not alone. This guy is deep squatting over 600 lbs without a belt:
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Now, I have also read this article on 70’s big about belts, along with a lot of what Rippetoe says about them, and these points are persuasive, even if the science doesn’t back them up. So, at some point in the future, I will perform some multi-month experiments with belts and see what conclusions I can reach (I am particularly intrigued with the statement that belts make you stronger even when you don’t use them).
But for now, based on the lack of solid research showing the usefulness of the belt and ample evidence that large weights can be moved safely without a belt, I’m going to stick with completely raw, ATG squatting.

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