Vail Daily column: Squat is great — for the right person

Ryan W. Richards
Make It Count

Ask the average trainer, high school coach or clinician which exercise is the supreme king of all. They will immediately praise the traditional squat as the bandwagon go-to. Most coaches applaud the squat for its unique advantages as an exercise that allows for a hefty amount of weight to be moved over a large range of motion. This invokes great strength gains, increased muscle mass and threatens the metabolic system, putting one into a supreme caloric deficit.

Before I get into the semantics of squatting, I first need to define what a traditional squat is. For simplicity’s sake, it’s the very movement we use to sit in a chair or on the toilet. In a gym environment, this means sitting a bit deeper with the addition of an external resistance. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the definition works for our conversation.


The squat is a great exercise indeed, but only for the right individual because it discriminates against a large number of trainees. The traditional squat is problematic for many folks because of the aggressive joint angles it creates at the ankle, knee and hip. For example, when an exerciser descends into a deep squat, the hip and knee angles can approach 45 degrees or less. This potentially causes the low back to rotate into flexion —a very risky endeavor under the circumstances of using an external weight such as a barbell.

How can this happen? Why do so many coaches insist that the traditional squat is so safe for spine health? First of all, I must warn you that my explanation is reasonably technical. I have tried to keep my following dissertation simple to adhere to the mindset of John Q. Public, so please bear with me.

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For the latter question, the answer seems obvious. The squat appears safe because it’s too easy to assume an upright torso position as the exerciser squats down. Most average coaches or fitness enthusiasts associate an upright posture with safe lifting for spine health. However, an upright torso during lifting movements doesn’t necessarily promote safety, and it certainly doesn’t always reinforce a healthy back.

Let’s examine and parallel the upper leg bone and hip to a nail in the wall and how this relates to squats and spine health. Imagine if you drove a relatively long nail only 1 inch into a wall. The nail will not apply enough leverage to the wall to promote any meaningful use; a long upper leg bone driven into a shallow hip socket won’t create any meaningful (dangerous) torque. What if we drove that nail 2 inches deeper into the wall? What if your hip socket was much larger than average, and your upper leg bone was attached deep within? Now we have a great deal of leverage and torque from the nail; we have great deal of exacerbating force created by legs acting upon rather large hip sockets.

If you have deep hip sockets, when you descend into a squat, your long upper leg bones will likely cause your hips to rotate because of the amount of leverage created. When your hips rotate, your low back will rotate in the opposite direction. This is a bad scenario under the duress of an external load such as a dumbbell or a barbell. If you are cursed with deep hip sockets, traditional squatting is going to beat you up. Yet we still insist that traditional squats are good for us because the lifter maintains an upright posture. How do we solve this problem?


You must test and observe how shallow or deep your hip sockets are. A great way to test for deep hip sockets is to have a friend watch you from the side as you squat down as low as possible. As you descend, have your friend watch your rear end. They need to watch and note if your hips shift or rotate from the original starting position. They won’t miss this observation if it’s present. If your hips twist and rotate backwards, you either have very deep hip sockets or a dysfunction with your pelvic floor.

If you can descend very deep until your upper legs are lower than parallel to the ground, and your hips remain in the same position as before you started the descent, you likely have shallow hip sockets and can greatly benefit from traditional squatting.

Listen, I can’t emphasis enough how individual differences in hip structure and anatomical features can make or break a trainee’s ability to squat well or ineffectively. Again, the squat is great for the right individual. The next question is obvious. What is the alternative for trainees who are ill advised to squat? Stay tuned. Next week I will breakdown the one and only king of lifts that is safe for all populations. Have a great week!

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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