The full squat influence in rowing performances

The squat is the main lift of lower limb musculation. Extremely rare are the confirmed sports(wo)men who have never put themselves under a barbel in order to squat. This multi-joint exercise can serve a wide range of performance building interests. But it can also be devastating for the back and knees if it is poorly performed. In this article we will recall some advanced technical principles and destroy some old myths that continue to spread in rowing clubs despite the lights of science …

I don’t think I need to explain why squatting is useful in building rowing performance. We will just skip to the part that explains how to maximize its benefits and avoid its dangers. To do this we will answer the following questions:

– What are the different possible range of motion of the squat as a lift?
– How to perform full squats without risk?
– What are the beliefs and legends to forget?
– Which range of motion is the most interesting for rowers? And why?

As always, I will share with you some references on this question. These references can be studies, articles from scientific journals, must-read books, etc …

I) What are the different range of motion of the squat as a lift ?

When we talk about squatting, nobody knows what we’re really talking about, nobody call the amplitudes the same way and it quickly becomes nonsense. Here is how the Powerlifting French federation say about the range required to validate a squat: “bending the knees to go down, until passing under the parallel to the ground in profile (the bend of the hip must be under the knee if we draw a straight line).”

I share that definition. We will therefore admit that when we say without specifying an amplitude, we are indeed talking about the one we have just described: femur parallel to the ground / hip at knee level. This is the default amplitude.

There are some others :

The half squat / squat square / squat at 90°: It corresponds to the amplitude at which the knee joint forms a 90 degree angle.

The full squat / deep squat: It designates a maximum range of motion. For fairly mobile and strong athletes, it is a complete flexion, in the low position the back of the thighs touch the calves. For others, it is the lowest possible position without a mobility problem.

This point makes a very good transition to our second question.

II) How to perform full squats without risk?

Like all strength training exercises, the squat, in all its realization ranges, is an exercise that requires learning. Take the time to learn how to do the squat technique properly with light loads or without loads. Then you can start to build up the weights little by little while remaining very careful to the technique.

1) The pelvis :

Due to lack of mobility in some places, not everyone can reach the full range of motion. When performing a squat, it is essential that the pelvis is in anterior tilt and that the lumbar curve is preserved in the neutral position. It is important to keep the lower back straight. As soon as the athlete is no longer able to keep his back straight, as soon as his pelvis slips under his body and begins to get in posterior tilt, he must stop going down. Retroversion of the pelvis is a point to be avoided when one has a load on the shoulders. The spine finds itself in an unnatural position, the vertebrae are no longer in their neutral position, which distributes the load on the intervertebral discs in a non-homogeneous way. This can lead to injuries of varying degrees of severity. Recurrent back pain or a disc herniation, for example. Generaly, we should always make sure that the spine retains its natural curve when we put a load on it.

2) The Knees :

As with intervertebral discs, the load must be well distributed over the tibial plateau. To do this, the knees must remain in line with the feet. Great care must be taken with the valgum. Knee valgum is when the knee goes inwards, it is very common for athletes to do this. It is important to pay attention to it and to correct it. Also, as always, be vigilant and progressive in your loading. The squatting position is a position of great tension for muscles, and all the tissue involve in joints. As always, it is necessary to go step by step, starting with light loads, an perfect technique and to listen to your body.

3) The coordination :

It is important to respect several technical basics and mostly the “distal phase shift”. During the triple extension, (hip-knee-ankle) occuring in the movement of the squat, there is a slight desynchronization to be respected. Once in the low position, when it is time to go up, to perform the triple extension, the hips must be the first joints to move, followed by the knees and finally the ankles. This desynchronization is barely visible with the eye. If the extensions are coordinated, it is not optimal but it is not dangerous. The movement that should absolutely be avoided is a desynchronization in the other direction. Knees and/or ankles must not start their extensions before the hip, otherwise the butt will rise, the shoulders will bend forward and the load will be badly distributed. This will lead to over-activation of the spinal erector which is not adapted to such loads. This will, sooner or later, cause injury or back strain. It is therefore important to pay attention to this technical aspect as well.

III) What are the beliefs and legends to forget?

1) “Full-squat is bad for your knees”

Full squat doesn’t hurt your knees any more than squatting. Squatting does not hurt the knees any more than bench pressing hurts the elbows. Yes, if it is badly done squatting can lead to injuries. Like all loaded lifts. The belief that the full squat is dangerous for the knees is partly due to a study (Escamilla & al 2001) which contraindicated bending over 90° if degenerative problems in the knee joint were already present. You can find this information on sci-sport.com. In their article “Le squat complet : amicalement votre ? “P. Debraux & A. Manolova explain to you in details why the full squat is good for the health of the knee contrary to what you might think.

2) “Knees must not go beyond the toes

I often like to say that there is no such thing as bad training, there is only bad use. With advice it’s the same, and this technical advice does not apply to athletes who are looking for performance. It is for certain very sedentary people who can not move properly. There are some people who do bend without lowering their buttocks. They bend their knees and push them forward too much. They put themselves in danger, the forward imbalance is immediate. This advice is a way to get their buttocks down, that’s all.
It’s impossible to transport that advice into a performance setting. To get in squat or full squat it is necessary to have an ankle mobility that allows us to move the knees well beyond the tiptoe. Without this, we wouldn’t be able to balance well under the bar and we would go backwards.

3) “The core belt is a great tool, I can lift heavier with one on”

The very fundamental principle of conditioning is the transfer to the activity. The purpose of squats is to strengthen the lower limbs so that in a boat they produce more power. This power will then be transmitted to the blade via the core, the shoulder belt, the handle and then the oar. Putting on a belt is to offer the trunk an assistance that it will not have during the activity, so it is completely useless. It is not the power produced by the legs that will make the boat move forward, but the power that will end up in the blade. For this to happen, the core must be able to transmit the force and it cannot train to do so if you put an assistance that replaces its function.

4) “You must spread your feet as wide as your shoulder”

I don’t know where this myth comes from, but it is well established in the rowing world. Foot spacing is minimum shoulder width, you can spread your feet as much as you want to be comfortable. It’s easier to go down low with your feet wide apart, especially for women who have a wider pelvis. It is also possible to turn the toes a little outward. The knees should remain in the axis of the foot, but they can be turned outwards a little. The important thing is to be installed symmetrically, comfortable and sheathed and to respect the technical points of the previous section.

IV) Which range of motion is the most interesting for rowers? And why?

The answer to this question is very simple: the full range of motion. The deepest possible squat (within the limits of the athletes’ mobility) is beneficial for the rower on several levels :

On the front end, which is a critical point of the rowing stroke, the angle of the knees is often very low (30 to 60 degree). Photo Credit : Frank Leloire

1) The knees health : 

I refer you to the article “Le squat complet : amicalement votre ?” from the site : sci-sport.com. They explain in detail that the greater the flexion, the greater the contact surface between tendons and bone. This increase in the contact surface helps to distribute the load better and therefore reduces stress.

2) The back and the spine health : 

The greater the amplitude, the greater the intensity of quadriceps contraction. For a similar muscular stress, the load to be mobilized will therefore be less when a full squat is performed. Lower load on the barbell means less mechanical stress on the spine and back muscles, which reduces the risk of injury.

3) The specificity of the sport, the transfer to the activity : 

When you row in a boat or on an ergometer, how much bending of the knees do you do? It’s a full flexion, every stroke you do, your hamstring are touching your calves. I would go even further and ask you if that’s not precisely when you need to have the most power possible to reverse quickly and give the best drive to your rowing stroke. Isn’t that right?

So why not train your muscles to be powerful on that specific angle that is so important to the rower? …

Conclusion :

I think we have done a good job of figuring out the squat for the rower. I did not edit any e-guide this time but if you want to push the question a little further, or if you encounter some technical problems, I suggest you to follow Dr Aaron Horshig who is the absolute master of the question. He wrote the book “the squat bible”. On his socials you will find a huge amount of technical content and I bet you will find good tips to adjust the issues you are struggling with. On IG and Youtube you could find him under “Squat University” or “Squat U Club” accounts.

Feel free to ask your questions in comment, to share this article. If you want a personalized training program you know who to contact.


Jean Noury

Bibliography:

1) Brinckmann P, Biggemann M, Hilweg D. « Prediction of the compressive strength of human lumbar vertebrae » Clin Biochem Suppl.2:S1–27. 1989

2) Broussal-Derval A, Bolliet O, « La préparation physique moderne » 2nd edition 4 trainer edition p 117-121. 2012

3) Chandler TJ, Wilson GD, Stone MH « The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability » Med Sci Scports Exercise 21 p 299-303. 1989

4) Escamilla RF. «Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise.» Med Sci Sports Exerc.33:127–41. 2001.

5) Escamilla RF, Fleisig GS, Zheng N, et al. « Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press » Med Sci Sports Exerc.33:1552–66. 2001

6) Hartmann H, Wirth K and Klusemann M. « Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load » Sports Med. 43(10):993-1008. 2013.

7) Horshig A, Sonthana K, Neff T « The Squat Bible »  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2017

8) Manolova A, Debreaux P « Le squat complet : Amicalement votre ? » www.sci-sport.com 2014

9) Meyers EJ. « The effect of selected exercise variables on ligament stability of the knee. » Res Q.42:411–22. 1971