Guest Post: You Just Got Served by Bret Contreras

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Note from TG: Not surprisingly, my blog from Friday caused quite an uproar amongst a few friends of mine when I quoted an un-named local trainer here in Boston as saying, in not so many words:

squats are like dangerous, and they’ll hurt your knees and stuff. Also, they’ll cause your inner thighs to get flabby. Icky.

Moreover, after some clever internet stalking searching from other readers of this very blog, this same trainer – in defense of her stance on why people should avoid squats – was also quoted as saying that, and I’m paraphrasing here but you’ll get the full quote later on below:

We sit all day. Sitting = tight hip flexors. Tight hip flexors = pulls on our lumbar spine. Ergo, we shouldn’t squat.

Needless to say, since she was so adament on calling out those of us who are quote-on-quote “un-informed, my good buddy, Bret Contreras went out of his way to PWN her ass.

Take a seat, grab a bucket of popcorn or bag of beef jerky, and enjoy the ride.

Oh, Really!?!!?? – Bret Contreras

In Tony Gentilcore’s recent blog, he quotes a comment made by a female personal trainer who was voted one of the top trainers in Boston for 2010 by a popular Boston magazine. Here are the Cliff notes of her quote:

…your safety is your #1 priority, and definitely DO NOT be persuaded by advice from magazines and uninformed trainers to do squats that WE ALL KNOW make your thighs huge!This exercise over-develops the outer part of your quadriceps, and possibly will lead to an imbalance in your knees, and even worse – flabby inner thighs.

While Tony’s response was excellent and humorous as usual, I believe her comment warrants further attack. Let’s break down her argument…

1. Safety

Don’t people squat in every day life? Don’t people stand up from chairs and pick stuff up off the ground? Wouldn’t stronger squatting muscles better prepare individuals for squatting in every day life? Wouldn’t people be better prepared to squat if they learned proper form? Isn’t it important to teach people how to push through their heels, sit back, keep their knees out, and keep their chest up while they squat so they properly distribute forces through the lumbar, hip, and knee joints?

I would venture to say that teaching people to squat properly could “undo” a lot of the musculoskeletal damages that we currently see in America. A proper full squat demonstrates that the individual has proper ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, thoracic extension, and glute activation. Weak glutes alone are implicated in low back pain, anterior knee pain, anterior hip pain, hamstring strains, lumbar erector spinae strains, and groin strains.

Continuing on the same path, isn’t gravity-induced axial loading when upright prevalent in today’s world? Anytime we stand from a chair, carry stuff, pick stuff up off the ground, run, and jump, our bodies encounter vertical forces due to gravity.

Wouldn’t increased bone-density adaptations a la Wolff’s law of bone and increased soft-tissue strength a la Davis’s law be beneficial to people and decrease the likelihood of injury (thereby increasing “safety”)? Muscles can get stronger, but bone, ligaments, tendons, and fascia can reconfigure their architecture to better withstand particular loading patterns.

As a competent strength coach who witnesses the way that most personal trainers teach the squat and the way that most commercial gym-goers squat, I agree that the way that most individuals squat is not safe.

Simply put, people these days don’t know how to squat for shit. Their posterior chains are weak as hell so they can’t sit back and they can’t keep their knees out. The typical individual wants to shift forward too much, initiate the movement at the knees rather than the hips, valgus collapse at the hips, and push through their forefeet. This doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater; it means that you learn how to squat! Correcting these tendencies will do wonders in preventing future injury. Go read a fucking Dave Tate article!

TG Note: for those keeping score at home, that’s Bret Contreras: 1, Anonymous Trainer: 0

2. They Make Your Thighs Huge

An argument could be made that sedentarism and overeating is making women’s thighs huge, not squatting, but I digress. Go to any gym and you’ll see plenty of males who squat and still don’t have huge thighs despite the fact that they have ten times higher testosterone levels than women (depending on the source, normal levels for men range from 200-1,200 ng/dL, and normal levels for women range from 15-95 ng/dL; men make 6-8 mgs of testosterone per day whereas women make .5 mgs per day). So squatting doesn’t automatically equate to huge thighs.

I will confess that I have indeed seen some women get overly-muscular in the thighs, but only when women get really, really strong. Most women (and even men) will never, ever get to a point where they are strong enough at squatting to get “too big” in the thighs. Getting strong requires knowledge of proper form, patience, consistency, dedication, and knowledge of program design, progressive overload schemes, and periodization.

Some of my clients have to worry about developing too large of thighs because I’m a kickass trainer and I get them strong as hell. This is one of the reasons why I’m a huge advocate of the hip thrust for women as it acts more on the hip musculature than the squat. Clearly your clients have no need to worry as based on your comment I doubt you know how to make women strong while keeping good form.

Regardless, most of the “bulky thigh” appearance is due to excessive fat storage. Get lean and the thighs aren’t “too big.” Women with naturally skinny legs look better when they squat. The sexy appearance of their legs is actually directly proportional to the amount of weight they can squat. I’ve gotten some skinnier types to work their way up to full squatting 135 lbs for 10-20 reps over the course of a solid year of training and guys were drooling over them. Several of these girls would be told quite frequently by men that they have the nicest legs they’d ever seen.

As for the vast minority of women who have a propensity for bulky quads, this doesn’t mean that they can never squat. It just means that as a trainer you don’t focus on progressive overload and you prescribe a much greater proportion of hip dominant exercises to quad dominant exercises.

However, as previously stated, when most girls get lean they find that their quads are not “too big.” Most figure models who are lean and don’t use anabolic agents have slender legs despite the fact that their legs are very strong. Give your clients some fucking nutritional tips and squats will rarely pose a problem!

Zuzana squats and she’s still sexy as all hell!

3. They Over-Develop the Outer Thigh and Lead to Imbalanced Knees

If squats were indeed capable of developing the outer quadriceps in greater proportion to the inner quadriceps, there would have to be evidence that shows that the squat leads to high levels of vastus lateralis activation with simultaneous and disproportionately low levels of vastus medialis activation.

This is an area that has been studied quite heavily, due to the fact that many researchers and therapists believe that vastus lateralis dominance (over the vastus medialis) leads to improper knee tracking and patellofemoral pain. Although much more journal and anecdotal evidence shows that the problem is more closely associated with gluteus medius/hip abduction weakness as well as improper gluteus maximus firing (in other words, an imbalance at the hip is creating a problem at the knee), there is some evidence that supports the notion that improper knee tracking could lead to knee pain as many knee pain sufferers show a delayed onset in VMO activation relative to VL activation.

Here is a review paper involving 20 papers and 387 participants that states that the research is inconclusive regarding preferential activation of the vasti muscles. In other words, it does not appear possible to target one of the vasti muscles much more than the other two. The vastis seem to contract together in unison, especially when the knee tracks correctly over the feet.

This 2001 study concluded that even when adding an isometric hip adduction component to a mini-squat, there was no increase in VMO:VL ratio. There are a couple of studies that lend credence to “preferential vasti recruitment” but these studies usually show increases of at most an 18-20% VMO:VL ratio. These percentages are not sufficient enough to make much of an impact in terms of hypertrophy differences between the vasti muscles.

TG Note: I lost count, but Bret is winning.

4. They Lead to Flabby Thighs

This one is so fucking stupid I can’t believe it came out of a human being’s mouth, let alone the mouth of a personal trainer. The only way something could “lead” to flabby inner thighs would be if that something added adipose tissue directly to the inner thigh region.

Just like we know that spot reduction is largely a myth, “spot increase” is a myth too. It’s so absurd that I had to make up the phrase as until now I’ve never heard someone assume that an exercise could place fat on a specific area of the body.

I’m willing to entertain the fact that certain activities can indeed lead to flabby inner thighs, as some women do in fact tend to store fat in that area. Eating too many potato chips while lying around on the couch all day would be something that could lead to flabby inner thighs, not squatting!

Performing resistance training would help reduce fat on the inner thighs. If there was such a thing as spot reduction (which there really isn’t), then squats would reduce flab on the inner thighs as the adductors are activated in the squat exercise.

Specifically, the hamstring part of the adductor magnus is a very powerful hip extensor which has a strong moment arm throughout the hip extension cycle. When the hip is flexed forward markedly as in the case of a full squat, many of the primary and secondary adductor muscles produce a hip extension torque, thereby aiding the primary hip extensors (namely the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and hamstring part of the adductor magnus) in bottom position squat performance.

It’s also been suggested that the adductor magnus contracts in unison as a synergist with the gluteus maximus to counteract the mediolateral and torsional effects of gluteus maximus contraction on the thigh during hip extension.

The adductor activity seen during the squat exercise would at the very least provide a “toning” effect in that it would increase muscle tonus which would reduce a “flabby” appearance. In short, study up on your fucking physiology and biomechanics!

So properly performed squats work the outer and inner quad to the same degree in terms of activation. How the muscle parts respond in terms of hypertrophy is largely a factor of genetics. Stating that squats over-develop the outer thigh is misleading and inaccurate, as is stating that they lead to imbalanced knees. Most individuals will respond to proper squatting with balanced vasti development and healthy, strong knees. Do your fucking research before making bold claims!

Another Quote from the Same Trainer

Here’s another quote from this same trainer on why she doesn’t squat.

“The problem with our society today is that we spend most of our time sitting down. Whether it is in a car, an airplane, on a bike, at meals, at our computer, or even in fetal position while we sleep – our hip flexors are in a contracted, shortened position. When in this position for an extended period of time, our hip flexors want to stay this length, making it harder for them to return to their correct length. Since the hip flexors attach to the lumbar vertabrae, when they keep getting shorter and tighter, they pull on the lower back. Now, think back to the squats. If we spend the majority of our time in this shortened position – should we take the hour or less we actually spend moving around and working out repetitively reinforcing this position?”

I agree about the time spent sitting – it’s definitely plaguing our society. In fact, I wrote an entire blogpost about it here. Actually it’s more of a bible than a blogpost but I digress.

Saying that squatting mimics sitting is absurd as there’s no slouching (stretching of the spine), glute compression, or sustained hip flexion. When you ascend from a squat your hip flexors return to normal length.

When you regularly engage your gluteus maximus muscles you teach the hip flexors to “chill out” and relax, thereby reducing their hypertonicity…kind of like the chicken and the egg thing (which actually just got proven so I’m not sure if we’re allowed to use the saying anymore). In other words, tight hip flexors probably have just as much to do with weak glutes as they do shortened and/or stiff hip flexors, as there’s a reciprocal relationship between the two (hence the term reciprocal inhibition). So proper squatting would negate the deleterious effects of sitting in this regard.

Using your argument, any exercise that flexes the hip would reinforce the “sitting position.” You have to flex the hip in order to extend the hip. How else do you strengthen the glutes? Squats, deadlifts, lunges, hip thrusts, and back extensions all contain a hip flexion component. I guess you could train the glutes via solely hip hyperextension in a very shortened range or with standing abduction or external rotation movements but come on!

We need to go heavy, and the best way is to utilize hip extension movements (which require flexion). Now, my EMG research as well as the EMG research of lots of other studies indicate that deadlifting works more glute than squatting (and hip thrusts beat out both of them). But you don’t need to choose one or the other; you can do them all – especially considering the fact that you have your clients for around an hour probably several days per week. There is synergy between the various lifts so it’s wise to create programs that utilize a blend of knee dominant squat patterns, hip dominant hip hinge patterns, and hip dominant bridging patterns. Read up on your fucking program design and learn how to create optimal programs for your clients!

Conclusion

Good job! You just discouraged every woman who read your blogpost from performing squats and you probably planted fear in their brains regarding strength training in general. Had you possessed ample knowledge, you’d have known better and wouldn’t have uttered such a ridiculous statement. I’d be curious to know what alternatives you recommend as I could probably pick those suggestions apart as well. At any rate, you have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.

Furthermore, proper squatting (especially front squatting) strengthens the erector spinae which also prevents “negative posturing” incurred from sitting (kyphosis). I sit for many hours per day reading and writing and I keep waiting for these negative postural adaptations to kick in, but they never do. You know why? Because I squat, deadlift, and hip thrust super-heavy 2-3 times per week. This stimulus is so powerful that the 90 minutes or so I spend on heavy lower body work overrides the stimulus received from 60 hours per week of sitting.

  • Pingback: Scary Squats « Harold Gibbons

  • Kyle

    Um, you could have dismissed this trainer more quickly – of all the hip flexors, only the psoas attaches to the lumbar vertebrae. It’s okay for someone not to know much anatomy, but they probably shouldn’t quote anatomy in support of their arguments if they don’t know anything about it.

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