Squats and deadlifts are not worth the risk for middle age athletes
I am one of those persons who think that squats and dead lifts, two compound movements, should ideally be used as the foundation of any high-intensity resistance training program. Compound movements combine several large muscle groups as opposed to isolation movements (such as arm curls) which concentrate on a single muscle (or part thereof).
For those of you who are not familiar with these two very popular exercises, you can refer to these Wikipedia articles:
UNIQUE BENEFITS OF WEIGHT-BEARING EXERCISES
Many believe that the benefits of squats and dead lifts go beyond developing the muscle groups specifically targeted by these movements, i.e. quadriceps (front leg muscles), gluteus (buttock muscles) and hamstrings (back leg muscles). The theory is that because these movements are the most intense of all resistance training exercises they induce the most hormonal response from the body, especially in the form of increased production of growth hormone. I would add that such movements provide the most intense workout in the least time and can therefore be considered as the most efficient of all exercises.
Finally, movements that put direct downward pressure on the spine, such as squats and dead lifts, are proved to be effective in preventing osteoporosis. When pressured is consistently applied top down on a bone like the
femur, this bone will react by creating additional mass. By the same token, swimming and riding a bicycle, while excellent aerobic exercises are not weight-bearing activities (very little pressure is applied downwards on the spine) and thus are not efficient in preventing osteoporosis.
As an avid biker, I am very aware of this limitation and have thus included weight-bearing exercises (leg press, see below) in my weekly training routine.
In an ideal world then, everybody should include dead lifts and squats in their weekly resistance training routine. I WOULD HOWEVER RECOMMEND NOT TO USE SQUATS OR DEADLIFTS if you are a typical reader of fitandwise.
There are two reasons to this:
First and foremost, for even the youngest and most proficient resistance athlete these two movements are the most dangerous of any resistant training exercises I know. They demand an extreme degree of accuracy in their execution to avoid serious injury risk. I have stopped counting the number of times I have seen even experienced body-builders destroying their spine in front of my eyes by incorrectly executing these movements. They would typically bend too far over, creating a deadly (no pun intended) lever between their upper and lower body, thus exerting a huge pressure on their lumbar region.
Second, around the age of about 40, physiological changes appear that make conjunctive tissues more vulnerable to injuries. If you sprain your ankle in your 40's or 50's (which I did last year) your body will therefore take a longer time to heal and the healing may be less complete than when you were younger.
The only (relative) exception I can see to this recommendation of not using dead lifts and squats would be a life-long athlete (typically a competitive weight lifter) using a flawless technique who would still accept to reduce the weight lifted compared to when he was younger. I doubt this kind of person is a typical reader of fitandwise.
THE SENSIBLE ALTERNATIVE TO SQUATS AND DEAD LIFTS
So is there an alternative to these two sacrosanct movements for the over-40 crowd? Yes there is. Since the 1970's Fitness equipment manufacturers have developed machines that mimic the squat exercise while greatly reducing the risk. These are called leg presses of which there are several variants.
To be perfectly honest I do not believe that a leg press exercise is 100% as efficient as its equivalent using a barbell because it does not involve stabilizer muscles (also called "core" muscles). Having said that, the choice is a no-brainer for me: I much prefer getting 80% of the benefits of a squat movement with 10% of the risk. So I never squat. I use a bench press once a week (among other leg exercises).
If you start using a bench press, be very careful though in using good form as incorrect exercise technique may also lead to injury. Never use a leg press if you have existing back pain and always consult a physician first if you are over 45.