Recently there’s been a debate among fitness professionals about whether or not back squatting is necessary. The “functional” people may have you believe only single leg work is necessary. The “old school” people or those with backgrounds in powerlifting and olympic lifting won’t listen to a word about cutting squats out of a program. Depending on the population, training goal, and health status of the individual, I’ve agreed with both populations.
Why the debate?
Orthopedically, there is sufficient research to suggest that heavy squatting over the LONG-TERM may lead to degeneration of the spine. Functionally, most sports and lifestyle activities aren’t performed on two legs. These are the two basic arguments thrown around for NOT squatting.
Naturally, there is an opposing side to these arguments. The main attraction to squats is that they can be loaded heavily. If performed correctly, they are a safe way to build a significant amount of muscle and strength in the hips and legs. The benefit to this should be obvious. Bill Hartman, a physical therapist and fitness professional working in the Indianapolis area, noted that the joint reaction forces are more similar to many athletic movements in squatting than single-leg movements. In other words, for some aspects of the body, squatting may be MORE functional than single-leg exercises. I have some questions about this concept. Bill is sometimes referred to as the smartest man in fitness and is highly respected around the country, so there’s probably something to what he’s saying. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder: if these high joint reaction forces are prevalent in athletic movements, wouldn’t they also be prevalent in jumping/sprinting? Would it still be necessary to squat someone to prepare them for these high forces if they’re experiencing them through other training modalities? Also, are these high forces something that we want to mimic through training? In football and hockey, it’s likely at some point that the athlete will get so hard that it feels like they hit a brick wall. Of course, we don’t prepare our athletes for these contacts by having them run into a brick wall. Yes, that’s a stupid analogy, but I think you get the concept. Just because athletes encounter something through competition doesn’t necessarily mean it should be mimicked through training. Again, this isn’t a knock on Bill; I’m just raising some issues to think about.
Yesterday I listened to an interview with Jeff Oliver, the head strength coach at Holy Cross. Jeff is both highly experienced and very intelligent. In the interview he mentioned that when an athletes hips tuck under at the bottom of a squat, it may not be due to tight hamstrings or a lack of hip mobility as commonly argued. Instead, he said it might be due to an anatomical limitation. In other words, you can’t improve it. Forcing athletes to squat through this range may lead to femoroacetabular impingement, which is linked with several other hip pathologies (hip labral tear, sports hernia, groin pain, etc.). The prevention of these injuries is of paramount importance, both in terms of optimal performance, and long-term health (FAI and hip labral tears are related to future osteoarthritis). He mentioned that he has stopped squatting individuals that he suspects have this anatomical structure and that these athletes report both feeling and performing better. When I spoke with Flyers Strength and Conditioning Coach Jim McCrossin, he mentioned that he doesn’t squat athletes he suspects of having similar injuries to parallel. This certainly contradicts the “squat to full depth no matter what” crowd.
As always, there are a few take home points from all of this:
1) Analyze the goals of the athlete/client to determine whether squatting is even necessary Athletes and general population clients will probably benefit from a greater proportion of single-leg work.
Athletes competing in powerlifting and Olympic lifting events will need to include the back squat in their programs. That’s a no brainer.
2) Analyze the performance of the athlete during the exercise
If athletes can squat to parallel (or below) with their feet flat on the ground and without their hips tucking or lower back rounding, squat them to parallel (or below).
If form starts to break down higher up, try spreading their feet slightly wider. If form still breaks down, don’t squat them to parallel.
3) Analyze how your athletes feel. This ties into the first point. If the goal is improved athletic performance, weight
training is a means to an end. If the exercise isn’t improving performance and your athletes feel like hell doing it, it might be time to try something new!
The most important point: Always learn from other professionals, but never be blinded by their words. Just because something works for them does not mean it will work for you. Be objective in the assessment of your own programs. Just because you think it will work doesn’t mean it will.
The best professionals in any field are those that are results-driven.
Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He is currently the Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins, where he oversees all aspects of designing and implementing the team’s performance training program, as well as monitoring the players’ performance, workload and recovery. Prior to Boston, Kevin spent 2 years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks after serving as the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ. He also spent 5 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, and has been an invited speaker at conferences hosted by the NHL, NSCA, and USA Hockey.