Twitter is a dangerous place to be when you don’t retweet what the masses believe. It never fails; each time I type in my username and password, I find comments that raise my eyebrow, but I hesitate to chime in. There is a lot of toxicity among coaches who disagree in the field of sports performance. As we all know, Twitter has evolved into a dumping ground for people to leave their opinions—good or bad. I appreciate positive discourse as much as the next person, but personal growth rarely occurs on this particular social platform.
So, when I discovered dozens of tweets from GOOD strength coaches saying they didn’t want to bilateral back squat anymore, I genuinely had to reevaluate my stance (no pun intended). This wasn’t your standard lowbrow name-calling, but a series of points that made great sense.
So, I thought to myself, why DO we back squat bilaterally?
Out with the Old, In with the New?
Strength is very important. Years of research and anecdotes have proven that getting stronger yields great results, especially at first. Physics will even teach us that the ability to create force affects all movement. In 1969, the University of Nebraska saw the value of strength in sports and hired Boyd Epley as the first-ever strength and conditioning coach. While other teams were favoring calisthenics, Nebraska was bending bars and getting PRs. Nebraska won five national championships with the help of Boyd and his revolutionary weight training.1
Fast forward to today, and even the smallest of junior highs has some form of weight room access. The sporting world has come to realize that Strength is King! But this wasn’t the argument I was seeing on Twitter; it was about which strength actually mattered. The longer you are in this field, the more exercises you will see come and go—not because of their effectiveness but because of their popularity.
Video 1. An incoming eighth-grader squatting 300 pounds for 10 reps.
The bilateral squat is one of the most common exercises athletes do. Walk into an offseason program, and you will find some version of it being done: back, front, box, and in many high schools, the quarter. But on the “opposite” side of sports training, things look slightly different.We are slowly turning the bilateral back squat into the Batman of S&C. It came in to save us from small legs and slow sprints, and now we want nothing to do with it, says @endunamoo_sc. Click To Tweet
Therapists and athletic trainers spend most of their time developing single limb and unilateral squat strength and proprioception. Both seem to get results and make athletes feel and perform better. With squats being the breadwinner of the weight room for so many years, I wanted to know why many seasoned coaches were protesting the traditional bilateral version for the more “therapeutic” unilateral? We are slowly turning the bilateral back squat into the Batman of strength and conditioning. It came in to save us from small legs and slow sprints, but after years of being misunderstood, we want nothing to do with it. You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.
If Everyone Else Jumped Off a Bridge, Would You?
Whenever I saw the “squat” signal on Twitter, I peeked at the comments to see what most of the complaints were and found a lot of pros and cons to the arguments. Rather than Monday Morning Quarterbacking the discussion among my peers, I decided to step into the arena and give my two cents. For each argument, I wanted to share my own pro and con and cite my reasoning for either/or.
I don’t want to see new coaches look at the anti-squat movement and take it as gospel without hearing an argument from the pro side. But I also don’t think we should ignore the great points made for unilateral dominant lifting. If this happens, we might find a generation of athletes missing out on the fundamental advantages of either version. After hours of sleuthing, I determined these were the three primary conflicts to both argue against and defend.
1. Unilateral Squats Are More “Sport-Like”
This has to be the biggest and most common argument against traditional bilateral squatting. And I get it. Unilateral training is a critical component in building transferable performance.
There is a difference between saying you should squat unilaterally and saying you should only squat unilaterally. Read that again if you need to. I also need to express that unilateral is not the same as single leg. By splitting the stance, we can mimic the hip angles of sprinting. This is most likely why some research finds that unilateral strength training (even with less weight) can create nearly equal performance gains as bilateral strength training.2 If less weight can achieve almost identical gains in performance, this might be a low-cost way to improve performance in the weight room.There is a difference between saying you should squat unilaterally and saying you should ONLY squat unilaterally, says @endunamoo_sc. Click To Tweet
That being said, let’s not forget a primary reason we train hard in the weight room—to improve key performance indicators (KPIs). There will be many arguments about strength training, but ultimately, we spend hours in the weight room to maximize our muscles’ output. There are many arguments as to what a good KPI is but being able to produce more FORCE is not up for debate.
Newton’s laws show us that we cannot affect our surroundings or ourselves without force. So, if the goal is to produce more force, we want to be able to maximally recruit more muscles and generate a greater output when we train. The max voluntary contraction is when we can utilize more of our muscles’ force potential on and off the field.
When performing bilateral squats, we are in a balanced and controlled environment that allows for greater voluntary contraction, force, and power without worrying about BALANCE.3,4 The most significant drawback of unilateral training is the inhibitory component of finding your ground. If I pushed you while you stood on one leg or two, on which would you have better balance? Two legs, of course.
Therefore, greater voluntary contraction is possible in this position. It’s the same thing as lifting weights on imbalanced surfaces. If the ground under you is shaking, you produce less force as your body prioritizes not falling over. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strengthen our bodies unilaterally, but it does mean that max contraction, and possibly max force, is easier to train from a bilateral stance.
2. Bilateral Squats Are More Dangerous and Lead to Injuries
I was surprised when I saw this comment pop up more than once. I shrugged it off, assuming the injuries were most likely related to the knee—an old adage some coaches have against deep squats. However, to my surprise, the argument was that bilateral squats caused back injuries in athletes. As someone who powerlifted for his college and has a decade of competitive history, I took this one personally. It took years to convince people squatting wasn’t counterproductive for knees, and now we’ve demonized it for the back.
If you’ve ever worked with high-commodity athletes, you know what rule #1 is DON’T HURT THE ATHLETE. Working with someone who is or has the potential to “make it” is a curse and a blessing at the same time. So, when faced with exercise selection, you must choose what has the highest reward for the lowest risk.
If someone tells you that bilateral squatting has no risk, they are lying to you. Likewise, if someone says doing anything in the weight room has no risk, they’re also lying. For example, throwing a medball against a wall seems harmless…right? Unless that someone is a college pitcher, that ball bounced back faster than they expected, it jammed their finger, and they have games coming up. So, if we have someone in a competition phase or who has a nagging injury exacerbated by bilateral squatting, it might be best to utilize unilateral squats instead.
Like most people, I trained like I was invincible in my early competitive days. I thought I had all the techniques figured out, but in true Dunning-Kruger fashion, I had a lot to learn. As you can guess, my youth wore off, and I suffered a pretty frustrating back injury—not from squatting, but deadlifting. I let my ego determine how I lifted and not my actual physical preparedness.
Being in college and surrounded by people who really didn’t know how to help me, I had to go on a personal journey to fix my technique. At the end of this adventure, I concluded that these four minimum tenets, which have reduced (if not eliminated) back injuries from our program over the years, should take priority.
- Proper abdominal bracing (intra-abdominal pressure).
- Depth of movement over weight lifted.
- When range of motion (ROM) is affected, cue knees over toes, not chest down.
- DO NOT overarch the low back or shift the hips to get away from sticking points.
The first cue has to be the most critical yet under-taught component to lifting in most weight rooms. I have even found myself teaching bracing patterns to high school state powerlifting champs who regularly suffer back pain at school. Within weeks of rehab and technique corrections, they hit PRs and feel healthy again.I would compare athletes back squatting to my grandparents on the computer—the tool is as good as the person using it, says @endunamoo_sc. Click To Tweet
Teaching a young adult to curb their ego even when you’re not looking is easier said than done. If I had a dollar each time a kid broke one of these rules on their own to get an out of gym “PR,” I’d have enough money for a new truck. Bilateral squats don’t inherently have high risks when being implemented. I would compare athletes back squatting to my grandparents on the computer—the tool is as good as the person using it.
3. Back Squats Are for Squatty People, Not Athletes
Let’s be honest; the only sports requiring a perfect squat are weightlifting ones. I absolutely understand where this argument comes from, but if this is the case, NO athlete should lift any weight. Since we can agree that strength training has benefits, we need to decide if and when to change the type of lifting based on our athletes.
The number of elite powerlifters transferring into the NFL or MLB is equal to the number of people who can prove that the earth is flat—zero. However, many ex-college football players have found success in powerlifting after a subpar collegiate experience (yours truly included). If the list is so heavily stacked in one direction, we must ask, why is that?
The answer must be that back squats favor athletes who are not particularly, for lack of a better term, athletic. There are many ways to improve strength in athletes outside of the bilateral squat, and honestly, it’s a numbers game in the end.
This next story is an anecdote, but I bet many coaches have their own versions. I have an international basketball player who comes home with horrible knee pain every offseason. A combination of genetics, poor collegiate training, and the grind of being in another country causes his body to fall apart each season. Standing at 6 foot 6, he was never a good squatter, and most of his college coaches didn’t even train the lower body in the weight room. Once he is back, we are able to get his legs healthy and stronger, but the approach we take is not the old-school HEAVY WEIGHTS method. The majority of his strength program is unilateral, with some bilateral squat work. At most, he back squats 300 pounds for one rep without any discomfort.
That being said, we will perform sets of 5 and 10 doing split squats at 150-plus pounds. Simple math reveals that 150 pounds per leg equals 300 pounds total, but instead of one hard rep, we are accumulating much more volume. I’ll admit that my math is oversimplified since his other leg contributes, and range of motion might be a factor. However, ultimately, we are still developing strength at “similar” loads and higher volume.
If you’ve ever been in a college weight room, you know you will find plenty of individuals opposed to bilateral squatting—most of them being “dramatic” athletes. I have seen guys who made it to the NFL do anything and everything they can to not squat.
“It’s my back.”
“My leg is sore from practice.”
“I have a headache.”
Once I sifted through the excuses, I learned it had little to do with the exercise itself and everything to do with how weak they are at it. Plenty of professional athletes never had to back squat as they dominated their sports. Lebron James hasn’t done a squat yet (even though his trainer thinks he did). These are top-tier athletes who don’t enjoy being bad at something, and since they are not built squatty, they want nothing to do with it. The solution is not to convince them they will be a state champion powerlifter but to explain the many benefits of getting stronger in the deep squat. Squatting should have little to do with how much they lift and more with how much more they can correctly do than when they started.Squatting should have little to do with how much they lift and more with how much more they can correctly do than when they started, says @endunamoo_sc. Click To Tweet
If I had to give a quick list of reasons bilateral squats are beneficial, I’d tell them:
- Deep back squats are correlated with the improved thickness of the ACL and connective tissues within the knee. Whether or not you can squat a lot, performing regular deep squats through adolescence seems to grow this essential tissue.5
- Improving the squat is associated with increased vertical and improved sprint times. You don’t have to lift a house to see benefits from getting stronger.6 Likewise, bilateral training might impact things that require more strength, such as change of direction and deceleration.7
- Bilateral performance training seems to have a greater magnitude for performance increases with a longer impact duration. While research shows unilateral training has rapid, short-term gains (less than six weeks), bilateral development has a slower but greater and longer-lasting process (12+ weeks).8
Should I Do Bilateral or Unilateral Squats?
It’s the great debate. Bilateral squats were once a hero to the people, saving the town. But now the crowd is divided on whether we need this “vigilante” in our weight rooms anymore. Post a video of a heavy back squat on Twitter, and one group will praise the performance while another will call for your head. After hours of deliberation and study, I knew there had to be more to the story.Many papers show that unilateral training and bilateral training improve performance, but the combination of the two ultimately creates the BEST results, says @endunamoo_sc. Click To Tweet
When you research bilateral versus unilateral training, you will begin to see a trend. Many papers show that unilateral training and bilateral training improve performance, but the combination of the two ultimately creates the best results.9In a world of black and white, Republican and Democrat, Apple and Android, it might be best to fall in between somewhere. Based on my exploration of social media strength coaches, I believe following these rules should create the safest and most productive program:
- Perform bilateral squats within the capacity of the user at a minimum effective volume.
- DO NOT treat unilateral training like an afterthought but program the intensity to match the rest of your program.
- If bilateral squat training creates a recurring problem for an individual, remove that risk factor
- Pairing bilateral and unilateral training seems to produce the best long-term results. There can be more than one hero in this movie.
So, the next time someone asks whether they should do unilateral squats or bilateral squats, I’m going to say YES.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
1. Shurley JP and Todd JS. “The Strength of Nebraska.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26(12):3177–3188.
2. Speirs DE, Bennett MA, Finn CV, and Turner AP. “Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016;30(2):386–392. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001096. PMID: 26200193.
3. Eliassen W, Saeterbakken AH, and van den Tillaar R. “Comparison of Bilateral and Unilateral Squat Exercises on Barbell Kinematics and Muscle Activation.” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2018;13(5):871–881.
4. Núñez FJ, Santalla A, Carrasquila I, Asian JA, Reina JI, and Suarez-Arrones LJ “The effects of unilateral and bilateral eccentric overload training on hypertrophy, muscle power and cod performance, and its determinants, in team sport players.” PLOS ONE. 2018;13(3):e0193841.
5. Grzelak P, Podgorski M, Stefanczyk L, Krochmalski M, and Domzalski M. “Hypertrophied cruciate ligament in high performance weightlifters observed in magnetic resonance imaging.” International Orthopaedics. 2012:36(8):1715–1719.
6. Wisløff U, Castagna C, Helgerud J, et al. “Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players.” British Journal of Sports Medicine.2004;38:285–288.
7. Appleby BB, Cormack SJ, and Newton RU. “Unilateral and bilateral lower-body resistance training does not transfer equally to sprint and change of direction performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2020;34(1):54–64.
8. Makaruk H, Winchester J, Sadowski J, Czaplicki A, and Sacewicz T. “Effects of Unilateral and Bilateral Plyometric Training on Power and Jumping Ability in Women.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011;25(12): 3311–3318. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318215fa33.
9. Ramírez-Campillo R, Burgos CH, Henríquez-Olguín C, et al. “Effect of Unilateral, Bilateral, and Combined Plyometric Training on Explosive and Endurance Performance of Young Soccer Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2015; 29(5):1317–1328. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000762