The Squat Mythbusters: Debunking 5 Common Squat Fears and Concerns

Cathe Friedrich doing a squat


Squats. The mere mention of this exercise can strike fear into the hearts of people who have bad knees and those who aren’t comfortable with this functional exercise. Will they destroy my knees? Cause a herniated disc? If I do too many of them, will I end up crumpled on the floor, unable to walk?

It’s time to put these fears to rest. Let’s dive into the most pervasive squat myths and see what science says about how they affect knee and back health and myths about proper squat form.

Myth #1: Deep Squats are Bad for the Knees

You’ve heard you should avoid squats if you have achy knees. In fact, this is the granddaddy of all squat myths. How did it start? The thinking is that squatting below parallel places dangerous shearing forces on the knee joint, potentially causing injury. However, research has debunked this notion.

Studies show that forces on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the main stabilizing ligaments of the knee, are well within a safe range even at deep squat depths. According to biomechanical studies, when you squat deeper, compressive forces increase and this protects your knees against excessive shearing forces.

Olympic weightlifters routinely squat deeply, even using heavy loads, and have low rates of knee injuries. The key is to train progressively, gradually increasing the resistance, and through the full range of motion over time. Focus initially on form rather than how much weight you’re using.

The truth? Unless you have a pre-existing knee injury, squatting deep is safer than stopping short.

Myth #2: The Knees Should Never Go Past the Toes

“Don’t let your knees track past your toes!” You’ve probably heard this cue bandied about many a time. The truth is it’s impossible to avoid some forward movement of the knee and that’s okay.

Research shows that unrestricted knee movement during the squat helps you recruit the quadriceps muscles better without unduly stressing your knee joints. Artificially restricting your knees can have the opposite effect. It increases potentially harmful forces on the hips and lower back.

Olympic lifters, whose knees often travel well past the toes in the deep “catch” position of cleans and snatches, aren’t blowing out their knees left and right. If you squat in a controlled way and your knees track stay in line with your toes, you don’t have to worry if they move forward a bit. Listen to what your knees tell you when you squat. If you feel pain, stop, or modify. Also, research shows shear and compressive forces are highest during the first and last few reps. So, increase your squat volume gradually to reduce stress on your knees.

Myth #3: Squatting Will Damage Your Back

Another common misconception is that squatting, especially with heavy weights, is a surefire way to injure your back pain and end up injured. But once again, the research doesn’t support this fear. When you work your knees with proper form, squats strengthen the muscles that support and stabilize the spine. Powerlifters and weightlifters, who routinely squat heavily, have lower rates of back issues compared to the general population. .

The key to protecting your back is to maintain a neutral spine, brace your core, and avoid excessive rounding or arching of the back. Be sure to start with light weights or bodyweight squats until you master your form. Then add progressive overload over time.

Myth: Squats Will Make Your Legs Too Big

Should you be concerned about getting “big thighs” if you squat? Some women avoid doing squats or only do bodyweight squats because they fear they’ll get thick thighs. However, getting big, muscular legs requires a specific bodybuilding-style training program combined with a caloric surplus.

Doing squats, even with heavy weights, won’t automatically lead to huge legs, especially if you are training in lower rep ranges for strength rather than hypertrophy. Squats will give your legs more definition and a better shape rather than massive muscles. For this, you need targeted training and enough calories to add mass.

Myth #5: Squats Are Bad for Your Heart

Some people fear that the Valsalva maneuver (holding your breath to brace your core) during heavy squats can trigger dangerous blood pressure spikes and harm your heart. While blood pressure does temporarily rise during most weight training exercises, research shows no increased cardiovascular risk from resistance training in healthy individuals.

One way to avoid blood pressure spikes is to breathe properly when you squat. A common approach to breathing during a squat is to take a deep breath as you descend into the squat and exhale during the upward phase. The increase in intra-abdominal pressure helps with spinal support during a squat.

Another helpful approach is to work on diaphragmatic breathing before squatting. To do this, breathe deeply to maximize the movement of your diaphragm. This helps stimulate your parasympathetic or “rest and relax component of your nervous system for better blood pressure control. One study in the Journal of Hypertension found ‌walls squats can lower blood pressure if you hold for 2 minutes and repeat four times with 2 minutes rest between each repetition.

But if you have hypertension, avoid squatting with heavy loads without talking to your doctor. A higher load when you squat is more likely to cause acute blood pressure increases compared to light or moderate weights. Increase the weight and intensity over time as you build strength and skill with the movement.


The squat is a foundational human movement. You squat to sit, eat, go to the bathroom, and lift things off the ground for millennia. Barring pre-existing injuries or limitations, there’s no reason to fear squats.

Like any physical activity, there is a risk of squatting, especially if you have a preexisting knee, back injury, or use bad form. But with proper form, smart progression, and listening to your body’s feedback, you can minimize the risks and maximize the benefits. Don’t let fearmongering and myths hold you back from reaping the myriad benefits of this “king of exercises.”

Start with the basics, and gradually progress in weight and depth over time. Your knees and back will thank you, and you’ll develop the lower body strength, power, and resilience of our squatting ancestors. Happy squatting!


  • Davis N. If You Aren’t Breathing Like This, You’re Sabotaging Your Workout. Healthline. Published September 18, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2024. https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/when-to-inhale-and-exhale-during-exercise
  • Cohen DD, Aroca‐Martinez G, Carreño‐Robayo J, et al. Reductions in systolic blood pressure achieved by hypertensives with three isometric training sessions per week are maintained with a single session per week. ˜The œjournal of clinical hypertension. 2023;25(4):380-387. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jch.14621
  • ‌Schoenfeld BJ. Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and Their Application to Exercise Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010;24(12):3497-3506. doi:https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181bac2d7.
  • Hartmann H, Wirth K, Klusemann M. Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports Med. 2013 Oct;43(10):993-1008. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0073-6. PMID: 23821469.
  • Biomechanics Of the Back Squat – Part 2 | Functional Training Institute. Functional Training Institute. Published July 14, 2017. Accessed May 8, 2024. https://functionaltraininginstitute.com/biomechanics-back-squat-part-2/

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