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"Squats hurt your knees" – myths every sport parent needs to know

A few years ago I was working in the strength and conditioning department of a secondary school.  We had a very strong male/female volleyball (Indoor and Beach) program which included many youth international players. As such, many of these players would go away with the national squads for training camps and competitions.

In one specific instance, we had a 14/15 year old female athlete come back from a national squad training camp to inform us that her coach had told her she “shouldn’t be doing squats, as they are bad for the knees…”

If you’re involved in any sort of formalized physical preparation for athletes, you’ll know this resulted in both myself and my colleague wanting to pull our hair out. Keep in mind that we had invested a lot of time getting the athletes on board with the benefits of what getting strong in the squat could mean for their force and power production and potentially their vertical jump (the holy grail in volleyball) and ultimately performance. Not to mention the benefits of being physically robust and the knock on effect in reducing injury risk (particularly upon landing).In addition, we had already spent considerable time coaching the squat correctly and progressing the athletes very slowly in an appropriate manner.

Unfortunately, despite the scientific evidence or rationale you might bring to the table, the opinion of national squad technical coach (however poorly informed) is likely to trump your argument. After all, they are the ones selecting the team. In this scenario I often like to point out that if the athlete wishes to avoid squatting they may need to reassess how they use a toilet!!
Myth 3 – “Squats/Deadlifts hurts your knees/spine”
This scenario highlights an issue that I regularly see and hear about in athletic development. This is not isolated to the squat and it isn’t isolated to volleyball. I’ve heard the same theme in football, basketball, athletics etc. You may also hear “deadlifts are bad for your back” or “you shouldn’t squat past parallel”. There are loads of harmful opinions by coaches/parents usually uninformed and without scientific rationale. There are a number of ways you could come at this argument to try and restore some logical thought about injury risk. Examine the movement patterns in the sport.
Here is an example in volleyball:

  1. Required movement

The dig is a fundamental part of the sport. It requires the player to drop to the required level under the ball at speed. Have a think about that. The sport itself requires an athlete to move into an extreme range of motion at speed. Maybe you want to get strong in that position? Or practice it at a controlled speed, before exposing your athletes to hundreds of repetitions at high speed in a competitive scenario?

2. Potential performance improvement
The spike/tip approach and landing is another key part of the game. The success of this is often dependant upon jump height. Analyse the picture below. In the 3rd and 4th phase you see the athlete dropping into a quarter squat to jump to meet the ball. In the takeoff, the squat is used to utilise the stretch reflex in the legs to gain greater jump height. This is an element that can be improved in training the squat.
3. Potential injury reduction
Fast forward to the last phase and you see the athlete landing in a quarter squat. In the landing, the squat is used to dissipate high levels of force evenly throughout the body in order to prevent injury. The more efficient the athlete is at dissipating force well, the lower the risk of injury. Ironically the area most often injured in landing is…you guessed it – the knee! Just have a look at the ACL injury rates in female jumping athletes.
Getting stronger in the squat may increase the potential jump height (thus improving performance), whilst also increasing the amount of force the athlete can absorb upon landing (thus decreasing injury potential).So here we have 3 potential benefits: getting stronger in the required extreme range of motion, increased force production in jumping phases, increasing force absorption in landing phases. However, the technical coach is prepared to overlook these to the detriment of their athletes and potential their team’s performance!
Why – we don’t know. It might just be a poorly formed opinion. Perhaps a friend of a friend injured their knee squatting badly. Perhaps there is a logical reason, however in these scenarios I am rarely given a fully informed and scientifically sound rationale. It’s important to note that if your knees hurt when squatting – that is a sign something is wrong….with your knees. It could be a sign of poor technique, overuse injury (tendinopathy) or a growth related issue (Osgood-Schlatters)… That’s a problem with YOUR knees and the way YOU squat, not the exercise itself. You need to address your the issue with your knees!

The same applied to deadlifts and spines!

So if you are a parent or coach, PLEASE do not:

  • throw the baby out with the bathwater
  • inform your athlete that a particular exercise is harmful to them
  • undo the good work an athletic development coach like myself may have been doing with them, with a uninformed throw away comment.

By all means inform them that:

  •  completing an exercise with poor technique is harmful
  • you may not be the most qualified on that particular area
  • they should see professional help if their knees hurt when they squat
  • they should seek out a professional athletic development/S&C coach

What myths about exercise have you heard? Please comment below on what you’ve heard!
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8 thoughts on “"Squats hurt your knees" – myths every sport parent needs to know

  1. The “don’t squat below parallel” thing gets me the most, what if you’re in a game and want to pass the next pass but that requires you to get really low in order to execute the skill properly. Do you stop and tell your coach that you couldn’t pass that ball because it required you to get your hips below the knees?

        1. To be honest this depends on the individual, training background, progression and timing within the competition calendar. However as a general rule, you should be doing both low weight/high speed to develop power output AND heavy weight/slower speed work to increase maximum strength. Force = mass x acceleration, so you need to work on both parts! Hope that makes sense?

    1. High weights is a relative term and depends on the athlete’s ability. However I would NOT recommended maximum strength training unless the athlete had a solid strength training base, good technique, mental maturity, a formalised strength program and proper supervision and monitoring by a professional coach. Are you currently working with a strength and conditioning coach?

      1. Yes , from personal experience I wouldn’t reccomend squating heavily without a strengh base that has been build for years! I have seen many athletes getting injuries such acl/miniscus torns and patella tenonditis etc. Did you see injuries like that?

        1. I’ve not seen those injuries in my programs but I have seen them result from excessive hours of technical training, or athletes presenting with them before we started strength training. I have to say my experience is actually injuries decreasing… We had two squads of male and female volleyball players and in 18 months we had 1 meniscus injury which was kind of pre existing. Other than that just tendinitis resulting from excessive training hours (usually those representing multiple teams eg,p. Club, county and national team simultaneously.)

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