Strength training has benefits for almost every aspect of your health, but that doesn't mean there are no risks. Does squatting make you shorter? Or is that another fitness myth?
The answer might surprise you - YES - squats can make you shorter! Albeit, the height difference is both small and temporary.
Despite the risks, squats are one of the most beneficial exercises you can do. They strengthen several important muscles such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors, core, and erector spinae.
Squats are a cornerstone exercise, and there is no need to remove them from your routine. Read on to find out how squats make you shorter and what you can do to prevent spinal shrinkage.
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How Do Squats Make You Shorter?
Yes, it's true; squats can take you shorter! But before you take them out of your exercise routine, you should know that any changes in height are minor, temporary, and reversible.
When you perform squats with weights, you increase axial loading. The term axial loading refers to force applied along an axis. When you squat, the axis is your spine.
The spine is comprised of 33 individual bones called vertebrae. The bottom two vertebrae (coccyx and sacrum) are fused and immovable, while the rest are moveable and separated by intervertebral disks. Intervertebral disks are fibrocartilaginous cushions that allow for movement and serve as shock absorbers and protect the vertebrae, brain, and nerves.
Spinal shrinkage occurs when heavy axial loading compresses the intervertebral disks, which results in a loss of height. However, this loss of height is temporary, and your disks will return to their usual thickness roughly an hour after your workout.
You might be wondering how much shorter you are after heavy squats? Is it a noticeable difference?
The truth is you probably won't notice the difference in your height. Research shows that spinal shrinkage compresses your spine by around 3-5mm, or a maximum of 3/16 of an inch. This slight reduction in height is invisible to the human eye, and because your disks quickly return to normal, it isn't something to be worried about.
So it's true, squats can make you shorter. However, the effect is unnoticeable and temporary.
And squats are not unique in their ability to cause spinal shrinkage. All axial loading exercises can compress your spine and make you shorter. This includes deadlifts, overhead presses, weighted lunges, and even bicep curls.
Almost any exercise involving handheld weights or weights on your shoulders will cause a small amount of disk compression. The degree of compression, and therefore spinal shrinkage, is a result of the amount of weight you are lifting.
How to Prevent Spinal Shrinkage
Although you shouldn't be worried about spinal shrinkage, you may want to know how you can minimize the effects of axial loading.
The most effective way to minimize spinal compression is bracing, which increases intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). IAP stabilizes and supports your spine and reduces the compression of your spine by up to 10%. Although, that only equates to around 0.5mm.
However, there are other more important reasons to practice bracing. It prevents injury and gives you more strength.
What is Bracing?
Bracing is the ability to keep tension throughout your torso so that your body stays strong during lifts. Bad form can lead to increased spinal shrinkage and potential injuries.
Imagine performing a push-up. If you don't have proper tension in your core, your body ends up dipping down or arching up, making your push up ineffective. For a proper push-up, you must engage your core to create stability and efficiency from your hands to your toes. Now imagine the importance of that stiffness when using weights.
It sounds simple enough, but many people have poor technique when it comes to bracing. Bracing does not mean squeezing your abs in or pushing your belly button into your spine.
Bracing should be more of a pushing action, expanding your rib cage and stomach while keeping the muscles in your core tight.
A good cue for this could be to tighten your stomach as if you are about to be punched. Cues are about fostering that mind-body connection, and the stronger the image, the more likely you are to respond appropriately.
If that cue doesn't work for you, try breathing into your stomach. Take a deep breath and fill your belly with air and then keep that tension in your core.
With proper practice, bracing should become automatic and will be as solid as you need it to be.
How to Reverse Spinal Shrinkage
Intervertebral disks are elastic in structure, which means that when they become compressed, they soon return to their pre-compressed state. Typically, this takes around an hour. However, you can speed up the process:
Simply laying down takes the weight off your spine. The sooner you de-load your spine, the faster your disks will return to their usual thickness.
Regardless of weight training, you are slightly shorter at the end of each day, compared to when you woke up, by as much as an inch!
As you go about your day, the water in the disks of the spine becomes compressed due to gravity, making you just a tiny bit shorter. Heavy squats compound this issue by increasing the compressive force on your disks.
Once you get a good night's rest and your body recovers, your intervertebral disks are completely unloaded and expand. By the morning, you will be standing tall again!
Hang From a Bar
One way that you can de-load your spine is by hanging from a pull-up bar for around a minute. The weight of your lower body gently pulls your vertebrae apart, which allows the intervertebral disks to expand.
Other options include using an inversion table or anti-gravity boots. You will able to do these more passive activities for longer, which will allow for a better effect. Many people use inversion therapy to reduce back pain caused by compressed or damaged disks.
Exercises to Increase Height
Squats make you shorter temporarily. Similarly, there are no exercises that will permanently make you taller. While decompressing your spine may add as much as an inch to your height, the gain is temporary. After a few hours of going about your daily activities like sitting and walking, gravity and the weight of your upper body will inevitably compress your intervertebral disks again.
Good posture can make you appear taller and is beneficial to spine health. So standing straight and fixing your slouch could be the most effective thing you can do.
You could also try foam rolling on your upper back. This releases tension and increases flexibility, and can make you feel taller. However, you should never use a foam roller on the lower back. The spine in the upper back is protected by the shoulder blades and muscles. However, there are no structures in the lower back to protect your spine from the pressure.
Do Squats Stunt Growth in Children?
One question that is often asked is whether squats and strength training, in general, can stunt growth in children. Some parents, coaches, teachers, and medical professionals are concerned that strength training can prevent children from growing normally.
It was once believed that strength training caused premature closure of growth plates in young people's bones. Growth plates are found in the ends of bones and are responsible for increasing their length.
However, when strength training is programmed correctly and supervised, it is suitable for most children and generally safer than many other sports. In fact, it is more likely that a child will be injured playing soccer than lifting weights, and growth plate fractures are more common in athletics and gymnastics.
Bone plates fuse towards the end of puberty, around age 19 for males and 16 for females. This is also when most people stop growing. Although heavy strength training can damage growth plates, if exercises are performed properly, it will not lead to permanent closure or stunted growth.
As with any sport, accidents can happen. But research tells us that the effects of strength training are largely positive and won't stunt a child's growth.
The fitness world is full of myths, some of which have been around for years and are pretty convincing. Although squats do make you shorter by comprising your spine, it is only by a few millimeters and only for approximately an hour.
Besides, many activities have a similar effect, including simply standing and sitting. In fact, exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are good for skeletal health. They can even protect you from age-related ailments such as osteopenia - which will make you shorter!