Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Do you need to squat?

More specifically do you need to back squat with a barbell on your back?

If you are competing in powerlifting, then the answer is yes.

If you are competing in weightlifting, the answer is probably yes.

For everyone else I'm not so sure.

The squat pattern is fundamental..

Now, don't get me wrong, I think the squat pattern is fundamental. Young babies do it naturally, and adults need it to get out of a chair.

In fact, one of the things I see with many back pain sufferers is they get out of a chair using their back, and spinal flexion, and don't use their hips or knees properly at all. It's the same with stroke patients I see, and some very elderly people, they can't get out a chair. This is sometimes because of weakness, but also an exacerbating factor is they normally have too narrow a stance, have valgus collapse and don't use any type of hip hinge at all. Many manage to get out a chair with some simple cues, without actually getting any stronger per se.

Recently, I haven't really programmed back squats for anyone.

It's not as if I never did them, I've done high rep squats in the past, 21 days of squats myself, squatted maximum, done high bar, low bar, safety bar, cambered bar, box squats. But now, if I do a squat it is invariably a front squat with a barbell or 2 kettlebells.

Squats ahoy.

There was a time when the back squat was rare. Now thanks to most gyms having power racks and the influence of a few key people, back squatting is very popular from young girls to rugby players and beyond.

Also increasingly popular is back squatting in Olympic weightlifting shoes. These allow people to go lower, in a sense give them false mobility. This has resulted in a rush of people complaining about their knees hurting squatting. The standard answer is the Dan John one, squats don't hurt your knees, what you are doing does...

However, I know from personal experience and from friends of mine continuous squatting in lifting shoes does hurt your knees and cause excruciating pain if you are squatting regularly. And as soon as you take the shoes off, the knee pain spontaneously resolves.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have lifting shoes, and for front squats, cleans and snatches I would use them if I was going heavy and really wanted focus on these moves and the sport. But as I generally don't, if I do a power clean or front squat I do them in my normal shoes I train in (inov8 F-lites).

Why are you back squatting?

There is the issue of why you are back squatting.

If you are doing it for leg development, I think there are better options. Front squats target the quads more and with less spinal loading and less chance of technique breakdown.

I know some people can't do the front squat grip, in which case I would do a goblet squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell rack squats. I am not a big fan of the classic bodybuilding front squat with the arms crossed over, it looks like an accident waiting to happen.

Alternatively, a Bulgarian split squat (rear foot elevated squat), or the leg press using one leg at a time (I prefer the one leg version as it's easier on the lower back, and stops the dominant leg taking over).

I know there is a school of thought that bilateral leg work, and specifically 5x5 on squats is all you really need to do. I respectfully disagree.

The hack squat seems to have become fashionable recently, possibly because it can be loaded up and is technically easier than a squat. To me it still seems to cause the same compression issues, and is overrated. It also seems to be exactly the same movement pattern as the Smith machine squat (legs forward, back vertical) that we used to do back in the day when gyms didn't have power racks.

For the posterior chain, take your pick from RDLs, single leg RDLs, hip thrusts, glute bridges, glute ham raise machine, Nordic hamstring curls, and various leg curl machines.

For most people I think there are better ways of targeting the legs.

For athletic purposes I think some unilateral leg work is a must, and something as simple as a bodyweight jump squat or lung jump (broad jump) would be more effective.

Athletically, I would say the prowler push and sled drag have more carry over to the field with less spine compression, less coaching and less risk of losing form and powering through anyway.

Technical breakdown.

Some of the issues with squatting I have are to do with trying to fit all people into the same box. Same stance, same depth.

If you have what Stuart McGill calls the 'Celtic hip', you are going to probably need a wider stance and squat above parallel - and no amount of mobility work is going to change this.

The shrill call of everyone having to go 'ass to grass' seems to have lessened recently.

If you have a much shallower hip socket, Eastern European hip, your squat will look text book. Very few people look like this in the gym. However, there is still no excuse to be bouncing out of the bottom with the sacrum tucking under unless there is a gold medal at stake.

Dave Draper squatting. If you look like this then carry on. Source: everyone on the Internet who thinks this is Tom Platz

If you have nice ovoid shape discs in your back (again see Stuart McGills work), you can probably take the compression in the spine. If you have a much more slender spine, there is more chance of buckling and an end plate fracture with continuous heavy loading (I'm not saying this will happen, but look at the risk reward).

Then we have too much lordosis, too much arch in the back, I see this with quite a few women squatting. They can be quite stiff in the hips and compensate with the back.

Then there are people with limited shoulder mobility, normally guys, and even getting the bar onto the back is problematic and causes shoulder issues before they even start.

Then there are the people who shift to one side under load, twisting and having one leg stronger than the other. These aren't  necessary bad things, its just the way this person is built. But I don't think bilateral back squatting is going to make there leg strength more equal or change their movement for the better.

To paraphrase Gray Cook, people are loading up their dysfunction for no other reason than they think they need to back squat. They then breakdown and they could have got the same results with a different exercise.

Now I know many of these issues can be fixed by coaching, cuing, using  a box, adjusting peoples stance and depth, using different bars on their back. However, most clients don't come to you to get better at back squatting, they come to you to lose weight, or get stronger or more toned. And in my experience for many of these people, save yourself time and do something else instead that gets them the results they want.

Squat patterns that I use.

Sit to stand to box or chair - the fundamental pattern for rehab clients.

TRX supported squat and deep squat for lats with exhale at the bottom - good for turning off the lats, breathing and giving people the confidence to squat lower.

Goblet squat - nearly every session I do includes this, use a dumbbell or kettlebell.

1 kettlebell rack squat - asymmetric loading for core and more.

2 kettlebell rack squat - one of my favourites for added anterior core activation and a great leg workout.

Barbell front squat if someone can get in this position, if they can't I wouldn't bother with various bodybuilding versions I would do kettlebell rack squats instead.

Bodyweight jump squat for athletic development if needed.


Is the barbell back squat bad? No. Do I use it with most of my clients anymore. No.

Let me know what you think.

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