Why you should not squat while balancing a 25-kilo plate and a volleyball on your head
by Charles Poliquin
A strength coach told me about a young man who visited his gym and kept pestering him for free advice. This coach spent a considerable amount of time patiently answering his questions about the basics of proper training and nutrition, but for several days in a row the kid kept asking what he was holding back. Finally, in frustration, the coach joked to him, “Orange peels! Mix them in a blender, two to three times a day.” Sure enough, a week later that kid’s mom came into the gym to chew out whoever had told her son to eat orange peels, which he had been doing faithfully for the past week and which had been upsetting his stomach!
The coach was honestly surprised that the kid had taken him seriously, and he apologized to the mother profusely (although he spent the rest of the day sharing this story with his colleagues. It became a running joke in the gym to ask other trainees if they’d had their morning protein/orange peel shake).
Speaking of goofy advice that anyone with a brain in their head should be able to see right through, would it surprise you to learn that two coaches with advanced academic degrees are recommending that athletes perform full squats while balancing a heavy weight plate and a volleyball on their head? And would it shock you to find an article about this ridiculous exercise published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal? I submit for your consideration – wait for it – the plate squat!
The article that discusses the plate squat was published in the April 2011 issue of the NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Journal. A lot of personal training organizations call themselves “journals,” but this is a legitimate publication with an editorial staff that includes a number of PhDs with backgrounds in exercise science. A common practice by the NSCA is to have three editors review each article they publish, but the names of the reviewers for a specific article are kept confidential. (However, the editors of the articles appear on the masthead of the journal.) And I would add that its sister publication, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, is an outstanding resource for personal trainers, strength coaches and athletic trainers.
The plate squat was presented as the first in a progressive exercise series that also includes the no-arms front squat, which is another candidate for my series on very dumb training recommendations. Usually the only time you see someone take their hands off a barbell during a squat is when they are dumping it behind them after a miss.
For the plate squat, the authors recommend the following technique: “To perform the plate squat, a weight plate is placed with the outer surface on the top center of the head and the opposite end held in the hands.” For comfort and to ensure a secure grip, a wide-diameter plate is recommended, and the appropriate starting weight would be 10 kilos, or 22 pounds. (For comfort? As opposed to resting a dumbbell on the top of your head instead of a weight plate?)
Holding the plate parallel to the ground, the trainee performs a full squat. As an option, to encourage optimal technique “a ball can be balanced in the center-hole of the plate.” Angling the plate downward would result in the ball falling off the plate. In the author’s example, a volleyball is used and is shown in the accompanying photo of the performance of the exercise. As the athlete progresses, the authors say, in a few weeks the trainee should be able to progress “to a 20-kg or 25-kg plate.” Twenty-five kilos is 55 pounds, which I’ve been told is the average weight of a 7-year-old boy or an adult baboon.
“Bahama Mama,” a disco hit that appeared on the album Oceans of Fantasy, might have served as the inspiration for the development of the plate squat.
Although it wasn’t stated in the article, obviously the appropriate music to accompany the performance of this exercise is “Bahama Mama,” a popular disco song by the German band Boney M. I say this because historically, Bahamian women carried large loads on their heads, and visitors to the Bahamas have been known to visit gift shops and purchase carved wooden statues called the Bahama Mama. Live performances of the group performing their 1970s hit are available on YouTube. The plate squat therefore has the distinction of being the first functional training exercise to have its very own theme song! I suggest you listen to it now to set the mood for reading the remainder of this article.
The rationale for using this exercise is that it limits the motion of the trunk and as such “allows flexibility or strength imbalances to be observed.” It also loads the cervical spine, which, note the authors, “results in reflexive activation of the spinal musculature to generate stability.” To paraphrase the words of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, “Allllll-righty then!”
First among my observations is that the exercise places high levels of compressive loading on the cervical spine. From a liability perspective alone, that’s a red flag. Further, the authors admit [and plaintiff attorneys would love this statement] that “the mechanics of the plate squat have not been studied in a laboratory.” Seriously, this is an exercise recommended for beginners, and you are going to place up to 55 pounds of compressive forces on the cervical spine and are guessing that doing so will be just fine? Think again.
Consider that many young people, thanks in part to a culture obsessed with video games, often display what in layman’s terms is known as a “forward head posture.” A forward head posture is an unnatural posture in which the head is displaced anteriorily, thus altering the natural curve of the cervical spine and encouraging the potential development of arthritis (Spine, 1986; 6:591-694). Let’s continue.
Generally, the head weighs about 6-7 percent of an individual’s bodyweight, which translates into about 10 pounds for the average male. [Precise measurement involves decapitation, which I do not recommend, but you can estimate the weight by the amount of displacement the head produces in water.] For every inch the head moves forward, this results in an increase of an average of 10 pounds (Physiology of Joints, Vol. 3). According to Rene Cailliet, MD, who has published extensively on the anatomy and biomechanics of the cervical and lumbar spine, a forward head posture that creates 30 pounds of leverage can pull the entire spine out of its optimal alignment [Cailliet, R., & Gross, L. (1987). Rejuvenation strategy.). New York, NY: Doubleday and Co.]. Let’s do some math.
If an individual has a 10-pound head and three inches of forward head posture, this person in effect is walking around with a 40-pound head. By itself, this posture can increase the risk of acute and chronic injury. When you add a 55-pound weight plate (let’s ignore the weight of the volleyball), now we’re talking about a 95-pound head, and this problem is compounded by the fact of this being a dynamic exercise performed throughout a large range of motion that causes the neck to move into extension. If you ask any surgeon who specializes in cervical injuries the value of subjecting the cervical vertebrae to such compressive loads in such a manner, the immediate response to such a question might be, “Excuse me?”
No-arms squats, which involve positions that usually occur briefly after one misses a heavy squat, are recommended only after mastering the plate squat.
One of the justifications of the exercise is that it allows the observation of flexibility or strength limitations, an assessment that I collectively refer to as structural imbalances. It follows that a program of corrective exercise would be prescribed based upon the results acquired from such observations, and would involve stretching those muscles that are tight and strengthening those muscles that are weak. I can assure you, whatever specific biomechanical faults that are observable in a squat that requires balancing a heavy weight and a volleyball on your head, I can easily determine through other, much safer, means. In fact, the PICP Level 2 certification teaches how to assess and correct structural imbalances that may show up in the squat.
I do not personally know the authors of this article, but one of them (not the one who claims responsibility for inventing what they refer to as a “novel variant” of the squat) recently published an excellent study on the mechanical properties of barbells. Why he would want his name associated with this article, I don’t know. Likewise, I have no idea how this article got through the impressively credentialed reviewers. As with the liberal addition of orange peels in your post-workout shakes, the plate squat is simply a bad idea.