By Carl Valle
This is an article to promote bilateral squatting in its many forms. Squatting, especially with barbell options, is an exercise family that isn’t for everyone, but it’s still an option for many athletes. If you can coach it and know how to place it in a complete program, bilateral barbell squatting works and will always have a role. I use a dozen different lower body strength exercises and still use the barbell squats today.
I love front squats, splits squats, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, step-ups, cleans, snatches, reverse leg presses, and even calf raises. In this article, I make a case for keeping the squat in a training program, and if you are looking for a reminder why it’s used so frequently in sport, enough points are made to keep it there. I recognize that new exercises are invented every day, but the changes we see need to be improvements, not just trendy ideas.
Personally, I have no love or hate for any conventional exercise. It’s strange to get carried away with anything related to training, as I have never sustained an injury from training. Outside of a little elbow discomfort in college from dumbbell benching, I have never had an exercise betray my body.Barbell squatting is relevant, so if you can do it right then continue using this king of exercises. Click To Tweet
What concerns me is when suspect logic threatens timeless options, and it seems that the barbell bench, power clean, and bilateral squat are now endangered. Therefore, I make a case for barbell squatting with two legs as an option to consider. Barbell squatting is a relevant option, and if you can do it right then continue to use this king of exercises. In this article, I cover the following talking points in detail, as well as other thought-provoking topics.
- If squatting is working for you, continue to use it and work on doing it better every time you coach it.
- If barbell squatting in any form isn’t running smoothly, rethink why. Don’t give up on it too soon.
- If you are convinced that the exercise may not be a good fit for someone, remove it for a while and learn to use other options temporarily.
- If the barbell squat is a recurring problem, put it aside and don’t force it into a program because of peer pressure.
- If you plan to use squats, go as heavy as necessary. Don’t load arbitrarily high for ego purposes, as that has caused most of the problems in the past.
None of what I shared above is earth-shattering. Barbell squatting represents a tiny part of what I have done for years, and it has all types of options to overload the legs. I have added hand-supported split squats with an active foot, thanks to Devan McConnell and William Wayland, but I still front and back squat thanks to leading coaches like Bob Alejo and Alan Bishop. Plenty of great coaches still squat their athletes, but don’t just follow them because they are popular—learn from them as they have valid reasons to keep lifting.
Logic and Reasoning with Exercise Selection
Without oversimplifying the exercise, people want to know how effective or useful barbell squatting is and how potentially dangerous. When getting a return on investment, minimal risk and maximal gain is the typical goal of all training. Unnecessary risk occurs when other options are safer and just as effective. An example of risk to return can be seen with the choices of overhead athletes, like pitchers not Olympic lifting above their heads and javelin athletes jerking heavy weights.
With regard to barbell squatting, some coaches demand specific benchmarks from Bigger, Faster, Stronger when they post members of specific clubs on the wall. Others ban the exercise, recommend nothing but specific training, and forbid any type of weight room exercise. Some elect to do only single leg training because it’s functional, but most do a combination of options and make decisions on details based on the logical and individual athlete factors.
Video 1. The muse for this entire article was Coach Alan Bishop. He reminded me that you can squat tall athletes, specifically basketball players, with great technique if you work patiently.
Let’s start with safety. Loading the body increases stress and risk, but if it’s safe acutely, then the option should be a benefit to the athlete over the long run. Aging and general training load, be it practice or strength training, do wear down the athlete, but on average a good strength program extends the career of athletes. A concern over the barbell squat is that it hurt the knees in the past and is now a new villain to the human spine. With the addition of a barbell, whether to the shoulders or upper back, increased risk to an athlete’s back is a legitimate concern. The question I have is what exercise for the legs is an angel without baggage?
As a fan of split squats and other exercises, I know heavy loads that strain the body in any vector will create risk to the spine, so the only way to reduce the risk of back injuries is not to load the athlete at all. One leg, two legs, front, back, split, or staggered vertical squatting are all risky. The question is: How much risk is there, and how much is enough to benefit an athlete by predisposing them to risk later? Without a line in the sand (read: defined load), removing the squat is just premature.
Based on the research, common goals for squatting are about twice body weight, and that performance tends to show resilience to general injury. Sure, specific injuries such as groin and hamstring tears tend to require other interventions, but squatting or general leg training have relevance with both performance and injury reduction. An athlete with 180 kilograms on their spine, be it one leg or two, still has a heavy load. Chris Korfist had some great points regarding his love affair for the Bulgarian squat, and explained the complications of progressive overload on a human frame. Eventually, something has to give, and the question is where is the cutoff point?Common goals for squats are about 2x body weight, which tends to show resilience to general injury. Click To Tweet
If an athlete is split squatting or heavy lunging with 200 kilos, but can only front squat 250 kilos, they are placing twice the volume of weight on their spine to deliver the stress. Acute absolute load is a risk, but so is volume of maximal effort.
No analogy is perfect, but when walking with a heavy barbell, think about risk from a logical perspective. I don’t like max squat numbers past the theoretical reserve, as I treat the exercises as mere supportive roles to cleans and snatches, and nothing more. In my view, sprinting and plyometrics are more valuable because, for me, general strength training is either body mass work or structural balance efforts.
Screening with High Resolution
Pain is another taboo area, as pain science usually splits a room in half like politics or debates on religion. The biomechanics side creates an argument that physical stress is a risk, while the brain-centered side explains the biosocial elements. I think of back pain as a primitive early warning system, as a bout of the flu may make me feel like I’m doing a deadlift wrong but it has no connection outside of an ugly experience.
An athlete who experiences pain after squatting could be injured, or just someone that needs to wrap up rehabilitation. It’s hard to do plyos and sprinting with any vigor when massive ground reaction forces are moving up through the axial skeleton. Years ago, the fear of box squats—an exercise I have not prescribed for years—led to an attack by a few coaches who felt it compressed the spine like a vise, sandwiching an athlete’s vertebral column between a heavy bar above and an immovable box below.
It made sense to me and spooked me, but actively pausing with the legs could be made into a counterargument, as compression internally or externally is still compression. My point with this biomechanical free association is that screening is an attempt to get information before a team or coach throttles the work up, and if an athlete is in pain or discomfort doing an exercise, they should stop and fix the issue.
The functional movement screen was, and still is, a popular way to evaluate an athlete. When I got my hands on an early manual in 1998, it made sense to squat in training to screen out skill and past injury. Twenty years later, I still overhead squat, not because I am stubborn or afraid of change, but because it’s a good way to see what an athlete can do as far as exercise selection. I never thought it was an injury predictor as plenty of proponents claimed, but found the exercise more demanding with mobility requirements while being benign with load. Still, a body inherently starts responding when incremental load is placed on it, and a slow load (read barbell) is a good indicator of stress response.I still overhead squat as it’s a good way to see what athletes can do as far as exercise selection. Click To Tweet
You can tell a lot from a strength testing session, as an athlete will find a movement strategy to achieve the task, and with squatting a lot of bad things happen. Before a bad cut- and-paste and out-of-context point is made, I don’t advocate injury or increasing the risk of one, but you need to see how an athlete is at risk from eventual stress by letting water through the pipes. I am not attempting anything dangerous or injurious by adding moderate loads incrementally to the body, but when you see compensations and changes in strategy, that conservative sequence is information that can be used as a screen. Extrapolating to risk or protection isn’t really good science, but an athlete who isn’t trainable in strength training is a risk.
Athletes who avoid squatting because they experience pain have not quarantined an injury to one exercise, as dysfunction or poor preparation will roam and infect other areas of training. Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere. Yes, some athletes can get away with a lot because they are talented and blessed, including asymmetries and even injuries that need surgery, but eventually time catches up with them. Screen and learn why something is a problem and if you can’t solve it, don’t worry. No exercise is everything, but squatting up and down isn’t a luxury, it’s a life skill, so rethink its purpose and defend the health of a motion.
Barbell squats work and the research shows that adding them to a program improves performance. Research does support that if your barbell squat is higher, you will likely be a better performer in raw demonstrations of speed and power. Other exercises work as well, as various ballistic and strength exercises seem to warrant use. In my opinion, a mix of exercises improves the likelihood of an athlete responding well.
Single leg squats are, in my mind, a moderately loaded exercise, so I don’t do one repetition work and artificially load it. We front and back squat to help cleans and snatches, but cap the load when ratios hit acceptable limits, near 1.8-2.0 times body weight. I have never injured an athlete from squatting in any form, period. Coaches with more skill and who have been strength coaches for large schools have had similar experiences where they are either insanely lucky or the injury fears are grossly exaggerated. Those who get hurt in training are likely chasing numbers or rushing through the process, and not monitoring.
The best example of long-term development and the squat is probably the work of Jerome Simian and his patience helping the world record holder in the decathlon, Kevin Mayer. For an in-depth explanation of his craftsmanship, I recommend reading the guest blog on his training.
No exercise alone will do everything a coach needs, but I like squatting because it does train the back to keep the torso erect. Think about the exercises that erect the spine for a moment. The glutes and spinal erectors are what make humans special, and we need to embrace all movements that help a body get tall. The point is not to go crazy, and therefore I only squat as heavy as I need to support a heavy clean or a fast snatch. Honestly, speed work on a track or on turf drives the squat up more than any of my periodization schemes, so it’s not about getting an athlete stronger now, it’s managing how all the pieces fit smarter.I like squatting because it trains the back to keep the torso erect. Click To Tweet
What about trap bar movements, you ask? I am not a fan for several reasons, and I have mentioned why in great detail in my article on the hexagonal barbell. We do use them from time to time with jump testing, but I like straight barbells or cambered ones. One way to help manage potential stress on the spine is with bands so the top of the movement is overloaded, rather than the deep part of the lift where stress is higher. Band and chains are popular for good reason: They allow overload to be safer at points that are mechanically advantageous and unload areas that may be prone to more risk. When the loads get higher, the case for bands and chains becomes stronger.
Rehabilitation and Return to Play
The inconvenient irony is that squatting is a very effective rehabilitation exercise. Early in a program, squatting is fine because it’s an elegant feedback system, provided it doesn’t interfere with recovery from patella issues. An athlete may look graceful with two legs, but squatting or just balancing on one often looks terrible. How does this example support the use of bilateral squatting? Simple: No coach worth their salt limits the inclusion of other exercises—they just may prefer and use a few in the weight room.
Eventually, if an athlete is injured they need to get back to what prepared them, but only to a point. Most of the time when I see a joint or muscle injury, sprinting and lifting were compromised so much the program was overly conservative. We squat to reduce injuries to the knee, reverse leg press and Romanian deadlifts for hamstring and glute preparation, and do an array of exercises like modified Copenhagen movements to diminish groin injuries.
I use both single and double leg exercises personally, but I like bilateral squats to groove confidence on the injured side or joint system because many coaches know that you load unilaterally as well. Squatting with restored function is both a screening process and way to see how other functions are performing. For example, if an athlete had the shoulder mobility to back squat with external rotation, you can see it right away when it’s lost. Maybe you never bring up the squat total with a professional athlete, but if they are unable to come close to previous loads, that is not a great sign.
If you’re fluent in many exercises then giving up a back or front squat shouldn’t be an issue. Click To Tweet
A binary choice must be made with squats—if the mechanical factors don’t allow it, then don’t fight it. If you are fluent in many exercises then giving up a back or front squat shouldn’t be an issue. It also means those using a loaded barbell split squat should not squat either; if you blame an exercise then you should not employ those that are similar. You can’t have it both ways.
One argument I do agree with is torso lean, as a barbell squat, whether front or back, has more strain than a goblet-style split version, generally speaking. When the bar starts to get heavy, watch the lean and view it from the side as it happens with nearly all lifts. Even walking a bar out is far from perfect, as small flexion motions occur even with textbook form.
Teaching and Preparation
To me, squatting in different ways is the ultimate teaching tool. Think about dynamic balance, subtle weight shifts, posture changes, specialized depths, and even rhythms and speeds. Teaching an athlete to manipulate foot positioning and other subtle adjustments under load has value outside of just the exercise; it feeds the beast in other areas.
Teaching an array of squats, including overhead versions, improves the ability to follow directions and polishes the craft. Coaching squats in many different ways is too valuable to ignore. I am a huge fan of tasks teaching an athlete more than a coach, but eventually instruction is going to help a professional think their way out of a problem. We shouldn’t overcoach, but the blend of teaching and challenging an athlete with tasks is an art worth exploring.Squatting in different ways is the ultimate teaching tool. Click To Tweet
A good bilateral squat helps prepare for the obvious need for front squatting a clean if you use the exercise. Back squatting helps split squatting as a skill as well. Heavy training is the ultimate teacher, as fatigue forces an athlete to decide to defy gravity or literally cave in. People forget that a solid squat is great for the knees and ankles.
While you can make an argument that squatting is good for injury reduction or specifically rehabilitation, having strong tendons and bones is too good to give up. Plyometrics with strength training is highly effective, and the right combination of both is just too advantageous to ignore. Squatting is analogous to a stem cell in both teaching and general training. Throwing medicine balls, sprinting, jumping, and even other weight training exercises benefit from a good bilateral barbell squat.
Testing with Speed and Force
The last part of this article is what usually causes the most problems—testing the squat family. I don’t care if it’s a heavy barbell back squat or a single leg squat with vests and dumbbells, an ego will poison any test if it’s left to its own device.
To safeguard against poor technique, you can isometrically squat or pull, or use a lighter load and lift with complete effort. I don’t advocate speed squats because I like the clear purposes of a strength lift, and I feel the exercise is designed for managing slower loads. I either jump with load or go heavy, as the middle speeds and loads don’t appeal to me; but that is only a preference, not evidence for everyone else. A lot of coaches do speed squats and if they succeed then good for them; I don’t lose sleep unless it’s ruining careers. Again, I like using other methods, as I generally favor snatches and cleans or unloaded plyometrics.
At times, a lightweight vest makes sense, but the majority of athletes would benefit from old-school progressive overload. Advanced athletes become neophytes when a schedule of training shrinks, so getting back to basics isn’t about teaching fundamentals, it’s just the need to recognize that overload matters at all levels.
I don’t do a conventional one rep maximum test anymore. I still do singles that could be counted as a one rep max, but with barbell velocity I like doing loads near all-out effort. Anything too slow, close to the thresholds of .2 to .3 meters per second with mean concentric velocity, I have learned to walk away from with that number on the bar. The added tea cup plate doesn’t mean much to me, as we need to pursue better numbers smarter because that’s the nature of the game; we just can’t chase them like zombies.
Squatting with any bar or any style needs an intelligent plan, and load-velocity relationships of squats should recognize that no estimate is perfect. It just needs to be individualized and helpful enough to use with confidence. I don’t like using light loads to estimate squat numbers, as the technical and mechanical details inflate numbers or sometimes underestimate the specificity of testing.
Testing the squat with force plates is great for several reasons: The most important is that it reminds the athlete the purpose of the exercise—putting more force down into the ground. I am a reverse leg press guy myself, and we now test maximally because it’s risk-free, but we have never let squats go away. We have plenty of single leg tests, including hops and training data from step-ups as well. Squatting enables an athlete to appreciate the value of bilateral facilitation, or when an athlete uses both legs at the same time. The use of both single and double leg lifts, along with lunges and split squats that utilize two legs to some degree, creates a wider profile of how an athlete’s nervous system develops and shapes over time.
Squat Wiser and Better
Don’t get me wrong: If you feel that squats don’t make sense, or if they are so valuable that other means never seem to fill the gap, then continue doing what you are doing. Eventually, time will tell what any exercise is worth. We have seen exercises come and go, but if they have been around for a century or more, think about why.Squat the way you want—not the way I or others do it. Click To Tweet
Squatting is tough; it’s hard work and it reveals a lot about a program. If you front, back, split, or just single leg squat that is fine, but know the reason that you believe in it. Don’t feel pressured to join the 500-pound club with any lift, or give up front squatting because everyone else is back squatting. Maybe this article encourages you to squat more, maybe it encourages you to squat lighter, but its goal was to make you squat the way you want, and not how I or others do it.