Whether it’s getting ready for high school football or just wanting to look buff, teenagers have long been enamored with weight lifting and hitting the gym hard. And while exercising is generally a good thing, recent research by spine doctors urges teens to remove squat lifts from their weight training regimen.
Concerned by the number of young patients reporting spinal fractures as a result of doing squat lifts, researchers opted to investigate the weight training exercise. The resulting study, “The Effects of Two Different Types of Squat Exercises on Radiography of the Lumbar Spine,” looks at the effects of two common squat lift techniques on the lumbar spine.
“For years, coaches have blamed spinal fractures on kids’ poor weight-lifting techniques, so we wanted to put that theory to the test,” said John W. McClellan, MD, the study’s lead author and a pediatric and spine surgeon. “Even under the direct supervision of a trained physical therapist, a perfectly-executed squat lift with very little weight places the spine in a position that dramatically increases the risk of hard-to-heal stress fractures. The truth is no adolescent should be doing this particular exercise.”
Beginning from a standing position with a weighted barbell on the shoulders or above the head, a squat lift is done by bending the knees and hips to lower the torso and accompanying weight and then returning to the upright position. Weight lifters can do a front squat, where the weight is in front of their chest, or a back squat, where the weight is placed on the shoulders, behind the neck. But with so many other healthier exercise options available, spine doctors believe teens should avoid squat lifts all together.
In the study, 20 male volunteers had x-rays taken while doing front and back squats. When the researchers made specialized measurements and compared the squatting x-rays to the volunteers' normal standing x-rays, they found that performing squats puts the lower spine into a more horizontal posture. Back squats pushed the lower back more horizontal, or flatter, than front squats. This horizontal posture of the low back is a position that may be associated with stress fractures. The researchers concluded that the combination of heavy weights and this horizontal posture may increase the risk for stress fractures of the spine, particularly in adolescents.