In recent years, there has been more conversations and raising concerns about the safety and long term efficacy of squats, such as the deep squat and namely the back squat which is executed with a barbell. However, the back squat is still a widely regarded exercise for gym-goers, and these concerns haven’t yet impacted mainstream routines used by the fitness industry. According to this studies review (1), sub-elite to elite lifters reported that 22-32% of their injuries were due to squatting, and keep in mind that they are not only experts in this field, they are also being coached by the best and most elite in the world, and still injuring themselves from this exercise. Looking at confounding variables of another study (2), in their conclusion not only do they recognize that deep squats are problematic to the knees, they recommend basic squats only for athletes with healthy knees. Most people who are recreationally working out:
- Are not athletes, and
- They are going into the gym to strengthen the body due to not being healthy to start with
As a result, people are looking to kettlebell squats, kettlebell deadlifts, and other forms of kettlebell training as a “safer” alternative. We will take a closer look at back squats and barbell training risks, as well as kettlebell training as a potential alternative.
Risks of Barbell Training
Traditional barbell training, specifically the deadlift and the back squat, certainly have their drawbacks. The three primary drawbacks of barbell exercises are: spinal compression, lack of transverse spine rotation, and lack of application to the gait cycle.
- When placed on the upper back, as in a squat, the barbell exerts downwards force on the spine creating significant spinal compression. Even when performed with good form and proper bracing, training the back squat can compress the vertebrae, causing maladaptation including, slipped discs, SI joint pain, and much more.
Lack of Transverse Rotation:
- While running or performing other athletic movements, the whole body including the hips, ribs, and limbs rotate. During a basic barbell squat on the other hand, the hips, ribs and limbs do not rotate at all. This lack of rotation will lead to pain and injury as the body becomes less integrated and less adapted to three dimensional movement.
Lack of Application to the Gait Cycle:
- Most anthropologists agree that humans primarily evolved to walk and run. Since our bodies have particularly adapted to walking and running, weight training should revolve around walking and running. Barbell training has little to no translation to running.
The barbell deadlift itself also comes with a number of drawbacks. Lifting hundreds of pounds in the palm of your hand is not conducive for joint health. The reason is because most heavy objects found in nature are very large in size, and are impossible to pick up with just the palms of your hands. This unnatural size to weight ratio alters one's weight distribution when performing a deadlift, putting excess pressure on the spine and various joints and ligaments. Performing a barbell deadlift places force vectors on the body that are not present while jumping, running, or even while lifting something heavy such as a sandbag or atlas stone.
Are You Already Primed for Pain-free Movement?
All humans have rotational asymmetries in their hips and ribs that are further engrained when performing bilateral movements such as the squat or deadlift. While the human spine can handle some amount of axial loading, the spine primarily evolved to walk and run. Human’s primary form of exercise should consist of training that improves the gait cycle rather than bilateral, sagittal plane exercises that prevent the ability to rotate the spine.
Kettlebell Training as an Alternative
So, should we do squats and deadlifts using a kettlebell instead? While a KB squat will not cause the same amount of spinal compression as a back squat, a KB squat is still a bilateral and sagittal plain exercise. In other words, when performing a squat, you simply go “up and down”. Your body does not engage in any rotation or contralateral reciprocation.
While kettlebells can be used to perform traditional lifts, a kettlebell offers much more versatility than a barbell. The kettlebell’s design allows users to load the weight in many different ways and also use the handle to generate momentum and incorporate pendulum motions in their training. FP style kettlebell training takes the user out of the sagittal plane, and incorporates the transverse and frontal plane as well.
Functional Patterns Kettlebell Exercises
At FP, we create kettlebell exercises that specifically relate to the gait cycle, athletic movements such as jumping and cutting, as well as sports such as wrestling, MMA, and even soccer or basketball.
Simply adding in rotational components to your kettlebell training and instead using momentum to lift the KB, will help preserve your joint health.
Here are some tutorial videos you can follow to get started with functional patterns style kettlebell training.
Kettlebells are a useful tool, but simply performing the same exercise with a different tool won’t inherently change the efficacy of the exercise, just as doing it ‘correctly’ or with ‘proper form’ won’t dictate whether you get injured or not. Just as kettlebells can be used to improve your movement and gait cycle, so can barbells. When it comes to training for optimal performance and joint health, the specificity of the exercise and how much the exercise relates to the gait cycle, matters much more than the tool itself. Feel free to check out the Functional Patterns YouTube page for more exercises. Always remember to train intentionally, not habitually.
Narrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadlift https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/4/1/e000382
Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11194098/