The other day a friend of mine hurt herself. She tore her a ligament in her knee called the ACL. Tearing your ACL is an extremely serious injury, requires surgery, and it often takes up to a year to fully recover. Now, if I said that she had hurt herself doing heavy squats what would you conclude? That heavy squats are bad for the knees? I’ve certainly had a lot of people tell me they are. I’ve had several physios tell me that squatting below parallel is terrible for the knees and that I should stop doing them immediately. This is despite that fact that I have been squatting for ten years and my knees are 100% healthy. “It’s only a matter of time,” I was told.
Now, my friend didn’t hurt her knee squatting. She did it playing Netball, which is an extremely common occurrence. Netball players have serious knee injuries with depressing regularity; especially amongst women (women are 2-3 times more likely to tear an ACL during sport than men). The number of women who have permanent knee problems from Netball is astounding. The way the game is structured makes them inevitable.
The same goes for Soccer. There is a huge amount of force acting on the body during deceleration and rapid changes of direction. Most serious injuries during Soccer are non-contact injuries i.e. blowing out a knee or ankle whilst trying to change direction at high speeds.
I’ve never heard of a physio or doctor telling a healthy person not to play a team sport because of the risk of knee injuries, but they have no problem telling people to stay away from heavy weights. Not to mention the sheer look of horror on their face if you happen to suggest a kid could benefit from some properly structured barbell lifting. So everybody, especially Allied Health Professionals, seems to ‘know’ that heavy lifting is bad for you, but I’d like to know where this wisdom comes from? Because if we look at some basic stats, we can see where a lot of exercise and sport injuries are coming from. Hamill’s famous study1 published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared sports (including Weightlifting and weight training) by number of injuries per 100 hours of participation.
Schoolchild Soccer (it was a UK study) has one injury per 16 hours, while Weightlifting has one every 58 823 hours. That’s a big difference. Weight training was slightly higher (probably due to less supervision when training) but it was still at one injury per 28 571 hours.
Netball, by the way, is at 1.4/100, or slightly less than Rugby.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying that we should cancel all these sports, or that kids shouldn’t play them. I’m saying that we need to understand the facts, and not rely on what ‘everybody knows’. If I had a son who competed in MMA and a daughter who was a competitive cheerleader I’d be much more worried about my daughter getting hurt than my son. Cheer-leading is the most dangerous sport in American college. 70% of women’s injuries in college sport come from cheerleading (hyperlink). Once again, this is nothing against cheer-leading as a sport, I’m simply trying to make the point that what instinctively seems safe and unsafe is not always actually how it is.
Another point that is usually brushed over by squat-maligning physios is that there is a big difference between doing it right and doing it wrong. Squatting wrong is not great for your body, but so is driving a car wrong. If I drove to work on the wrong side of the road and got into an accident then the solution isn’t to stop driving. The solution is to drive correctly. Mark Rippetoe wrote a great article called ‘Squats Are Safe, But You’re Probably Doing Them Wrong’ where he covers a lot of the facts and myths surrounding this topic. (hyperlink)
The ironic thing about this whole topic is that the best thing to reduce the amount of injuries (and particularly knee injuries) in some of these sports is weight training. A lot of these injuries come from an athlete’s inability to control his or her body whilst playing. Watch someone in the NRL run, cut, and change direction during a game. At all times his body is under control, and his movements are tight and efficient. Now watch a twelve-year-old boy run down the field, dodging defenders. There is generally a lot of excess movement, with limbs flailing everywhere. He lacks the strength to fight against the forces acting on his body during the acceleration, deceleration, and changes of direction. He is sprinting at full speed, sees a gap he needs to head force, plants his foot to change his direction and pop! Torn ACL.
So if we’re not going to stop playing these sports any time soon, and we know how these injuries are happening, then what can we do about them? There are two main fixes. The first is working on the specific skill of sprinting and changing direction. I’m always surprised how many teams never teach their kids how to run, cut and jump. Secondly is to get stronger. Greater strength allows us to overcome the forces acting on the body, and will dramatically reduce these sorts of injuries.