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How Do I Determine a Weight for Squats That Won’t Destroy My Spine?

I enjoy all of my vertebrae exactly as they are, thank you very much

Asking how much you can squat and actually going through the process of determining how much you can squat are two very different things. 

If you go about it incorrectly, pushing your body to the full extent of its squatability is amongst the most dangerous physical tests you can attempt, regardless of your strength level. Bench press failure may have a stronger association with outright death, but the failure to successfully squat a weight can result in debilitating damage to the spine, hips and legs. There’s even at least one case of a man failing to squat a weight and experiencing a prolapsed rectum as a result that saw his intestines explode out of his backside and onto the floor as he collapsed. 

This isn’t an attempt at needless scaremongering, but it is a cautionary anecdote born out of a fervent desire to clarify where this question may ultimately lead you if you select a poor path for discovering an answer.

The question is nonetheless reasonable considering our present circumstances. The popularity of the squat has exploded over the last 20 years. With voluminous, shapely backsides growing in their aesthetic importance, exercises that rapidly boost gluteal muscle mass are greatly prized for the quick results they can produce. To that end, placing a pre-elevated, weighted bar across your shoulders enables you to execute weight-bearing, glute-focused leg exercises with greater weight than you could if you were required to first elevate that same poundage directly off of the floor. 

Aside from physical improvements, squats are also highly regarded as a natural testosterone booster, because they place the entire muscular system beneath a vast weight and force it to brace and struggle as it moves it through a vertical plane. In many cases, this has made leg training through heavy squats critical in generating sufficient testosterone to produce ancillary muscular gains in the upper extremities as well. 

So how much should I be able to squat?

That all depends on your present level of fitness.

The expectation is that a male who has never squatted before should be able to squat at least 60 percent of their bodyweight. If you weigh 200 pounds, this means you should be capable of squatting at least 120 pounds according to these guidelines. However, by the time you’ve graduated to an experienced state of lifting, you should be able to squat around 150 percent of your bodyweight. One of the reasons for this is because the muscles responsible for shouldering the squatting load are able to grow and adapt rapidly to the weight they are now being required to endure. Therefore, a person who trains diligently can expect to go from being able to squat the weight of Glass Joe to being able to squat Mr. Sandman in short order.

But what if I really want to push it?

Going for the King Hippo option, eh? Weren’t you paying attention when I talked about the guy who essentially blew his intestines out of his ass from trying to squat too much?

Hypothetically, an advanced 200-pound athlete should be able to squat more than 400 pounds. But unless you’re taking every precaution in the world, I strongly advise you not to attempt to squat weights registering into 400-pound territory, or even into 300-pound territory. Instead, there are much safer ways to get a sense of what the ceiling of your squatting strength is.

There are plenty of one-rep-max calculators floating around online, and these are far safer than actually loading up a bar, throwing caution to the wind, and permanently risking the stability of your vertebrae. If you weigh 200 pounds and can comfortably perform three sets of 10 or more squats, it’s reasonable to predict that you should be able to squat in the neighborhood of 300 pounds.

Also, please consider the structure of your body relative to your weight. If you have long legs, you’ll be required to move the bar further than a shorter person, which will certainly play a role in how much power those muscles can produce.

Don’t tell me you’ve never squatted for maximum weight!

I sure have! I’ve squatted significantly more than 400 pounds for one rep, and I have the herniated discs to prove it. This is one of the reasons I’m encouraging you to be better and smarter than I was. It’s an admirable thing that you’ve got tremendous guts, but squatting too heavily may result in you literally displaying them to your fellow gym-goers, and that’s a sight we’d all just as soon do without — you and your intestines especially.