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The 90-Degree-Knee Debate: How Low Should We Go?
The trainer explained that bending beyond 90 allows us to work the leg muscles through a wider range of motion, and this is helpful because there are many daily activities that require us to bend in this range -- like scooping a baby off the floor or picking up a bag of groceries. Bending lower while still showing excellent form will also help us build stronger quads and glutes. I wish I'd been able to take notes, but I was still holding the kettlebell, so I followed the trainer's orders and decided to look into this later.
Back at the office, I called the American Council on Exercise, the largest nonprofit organization to provide certification to personal trainers and group fitness instructors, to ask how they'd answer the 90 degree question. Turns out this is a common one. "Any time we post squat exercises online, it leads to a debate about how low to go," says Todd Galati, M.A., the director of certification and continuing ed for the A.C.E. The reason 90 has become contentious is because when we squat beyond that angle, especially while bearing extra weight, we increase the forces placed on the knee. That doesn't mean that squatting low will necessarily cause an injury, Galati says, but it can exacerbate existing knee issues.
Despite that, Galati points out that our knees are biomechanically designed to bend past this angle. "When you squat, look in a mirror and you'll see that it's actually pretty hard to keep the tibia perpendicular to the floor." He backs up my trainer's recommendation for me to go lower than 90 when doing weighted squats, given that I wasn't new to this exercise, don't have knee pain, and was showing proper form. He then added an important piece of advice.
Instead of fixating on 90, Galati says that the magic number for body weight squats is actually four. In a proper squat, he says, the shape of our bodies should make the figure 4, with our back and lower leg tilted forward (legs parallel to each other), rear end over our heels, and feet shoulder-width apart. This video from the A.C.E. shows how to squat properly, and how to use your arms to ensure correct form.
This all comes with a caveat. "Those who are brand-new to squats should start by bending the knees 45 degrees from the upright starting position, and then gradually progress over time from quarter squats to full squats, assuming there's no knee pain or soreness," says Galati. As for those with existing knee problems, their best bet is to have their knees evaluated by a physician to see if physical therapy is needed, or if they can start an exercise program under the supervision of a personal trainer.
More exercises you can do at home (no equipment necessary)
Another way to make squats work from you, from Bob Greene
A squat exercise you can do with a friend
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.