In the last couple of weeks I have been collecting information from my youth and collegiate athletes regarding their strength and conditioning programs. Knowing their current training plan at school, I can build the structure for their training plan while they are at CA over break. Talking with all these student athletes revealed a new trend in the world of exercise and fitness that I have to comment on, because it debunks one of my favorite exercises: The Back Squat. (Cue the epic drum roll… Dun, dun, dunnn)
It seems that the back squat has become a dirty word in some schools; it is essentially banned in many of my student-athletes’ training facilities. The front squat has become the go-to lift. When I interrogated them about this, none of them seemed to have an answer to my persistent “why?!”. (This made me rather aggravated, because whenever they train at CA they generally want to know the “why” for every exercise and ask a fantastically annoying amount of questions. <-This is a good thing!)
Is this the new fitness trend?
Is this the groundwork for a war with the back squat?
For the love of all ninjas, I seriously hope not.
::Now, dragging my jump box to the front of the lecture hall to stand on. (These boxes are heavy!)::
In Defense of the Back Squat
As a foundational movement of the body, the squat is one of the most basic components of most athletic weight training programs. Debate on effectiveness of squatting techniques and variability of muscular engagement is frequent (and heated) between those with the PhD’s and us, nuts and bolts guys (and gals).
When you look at the hard scientific numbers behind different squat techniques, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. These numbers are based on electromyography (or EMG) activity. Whether it is the front, back, wide, narrow, partial, or full squat, there is minimal change in the muscle groups engaged.
Change in gluteus maximus (butt muscle) engagement is really only effected by squatting depth and stance width. The hip adductor (muscles of the hip, crazy you have muscles there right?) and vastus intermedialis (middle muscle of the thigh, yup the front of your leg isn’t just one muscle) activity can be increased using half squats and a wide stance, but this change is minimal. Often, the front squat is given preference over the back squat in order to decrease compressive knee forces.
So, yes, definitely do front squats, for the love of all things, PROTECT YOUR KNEES! I partially agree with the highly paid professionals in our university systems. (Note: This is said tongue in cheek. Most of them are underpaid in my general opinion.) However, simply erasing the back squat isn’t the answer. Let’s break it down.
The Front Squat
Deep front squat, heels flat, knees pushed out over the toes, elbows in line with the shoulders. Still inside of the knees. As you can see, I prefer using clean grip. This forces the athlete to firmly rest the bar in the crux of the shoulder and helps build confidence in a deep squat position for the catch phase of a floor “power” clean. (I also see a lot of rotator cuff inflexibility, so they try to hold the bar instead of support it. That is for another post though.)
I prefer the knees to flair out so as to increase development of the vastus lateralis (inner quad) through the drive phase of the squat, and to counteract valgus collapse (knee falling in) for those that suffer from that very fixable and over looked issue.
By placing the barbell across the shoulders, you load the front part of the body and force the body to pull forward. This increases knee flexion as the athlete descends into the squat. This puts greater load on the quads rather than the glutes. In addition, this requires the lower back and spine to remain engaged to prevent the upper body from falling forward and dropping the weight. All of this means that front squats are great for working on deep squats, stability, and core development.
The Back Squat
Deep back squat, heels flat on the floor, knees pushed out over the toes. Glutes close to the ground. The bar sits directly over the ankles; and the line created from the knee to the ankle is parallel to the line created from the shoulder to the hip.
By placing the bar on your back you load up the posterior half of the body. This creates a compressive force that causes the hamstrings, hip abductors, and glutes to engage in order to protect the vertebrae of the spinal column. Many people argue that the back squat will lead to back issues later on because of this large load on the spine. However, the spine is a pretty amazing thing. It can actually take huge amounts of compressive force, as long as you don’t compromise it by flexing or rotating it under load.
The real issue is this: any exercise can cause trauma, if done incorrectly. By maintaining a strong upright torso and not collapsing during the drive phase (bottom to the top), you ultimately can lift heavier weight over time because the spine is such a strong support. The back squat will also develop a hugely under appreciated power source: your butt. As some of my youngest athletes like to say, “There is nothing wrong with a big dump truck!” (<- This means butt.)
Note: To be clear, we do a lot of body weight squats at CA. My deep-rooted belief is that until they can move themselves; there is no reason to add resistance. This rule applies to adult athletes as well.
When front squats are used exclusively, I often see underdeveloped glutes and hamstrings and over developed quads, generally vastus medialis (outer quad). In women, this imbalance is far more prevalent as all women are quad dominant. (It’s that whole making babies thing. Yay biology!)
In my youth athletes, I frequently see front squats that aren’t deep enough for increased range of motion as their ankle flexion is not nearly good enough to develop good lifting posture and depth. Their core strength is not well developed, so they tend to dip forward from the upper torso to “get deeper”. This sacrifices the whole getting stronger thing that they are trying to work on. This dip also comes from trying to lift too much weight.
The back squat is my go to lift at CA when it comes to lower body development for both the posterior and the anterior. It increases flexibility, without demanding it. It balances development between the quads and the glute/hamstring system. And finally, it supports large loads, without damaging the spine. This means faster, more powerful, and more explosive athletes. It may mean you have more developed glutes, but there is nothing wrong with a big dump truck, right?
So, Sir Mix-A-Lot had it right… long live the back squat.