Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Barbell Back Squat: Putting the “Dis” in Dysfunctional

The barbell squat. Traditionally worshipped as the holiest of holies, while others reject it as second only to Satan himself. Now factor in a current national trend towards so-called “functional training”, wherein the barbell squat (and deadlift) are deemed sine qua non and what I'm saying, friend-o, is this: The barbell squat is a controversial exercise.

Over the years, I've had my own love/hate relationship with the barbell squat. At it's apex completing a set of 21 breathing squats with 320 lbs. I also broke the 500 lb. barrier as a college wrestler. So before I go into the problems of basing a program around barbell squats (and why the squat may not be as “functional” as most people think) I'd like to point out the benefits of barbell squatting, that is, what squats are good for.

Barbell squats are fantastic for increasing muscular size and weight gains. If I had a skinny kid looking to gain 20 lbs., I would immediately put him on a 20-rep squat routine. That's it. I use them for one thing and one thing only: putting on rapid mass.

In the past, I would have also put a football players or track and field athletes on barbell squats, but now I know too many other ways to build up leg power without compromising mobility.

Here's the heretical statement: I question the “function” of placing a heavily loaded barbell across the upper spinal vertebrae.

Placing a loaded bar upon the upper traps and shoulders creates a tremendous shearing force on the spine, as well as vertical compression of the spinal column. The body is constantly resisting the impulse to pitch forward--to correct itself--and this is what creates the shearing force. It's not good.

This same shearing force upon the spine in turn encourages partial range of motion--because you can't go deep into the squat without compromising the back.

People talk about knee safety in squats, but the real issue isn't the knees at all, it's the spine. There are a handful of elite Olympic weightlifters who can do full-range, butt-to-the-floor squats but they are the rare exceptions.

Your average trainee hasn't the mobility of the spine nor hips to safely perform full-range barbell squats. Thus trainees are instructed to go to parallel with the thighs and no deeper--but this type of squatting doesn't address the bottom range of the strength curve, the range that is so important in so many sports, specifically BJJ and MMA.

Combat sports in particular place a premium on full-range knee strength, especially the position with the heel of the foot near the glute. Other sports (off the top of my head) which prioritize this range are: gymnastics, rock climbing, dance, ice skating amd stand-up martial arts. But I tell you this: building strength in this particular range will enhance any sport wherein knee injuries are common. And conventional barbell squats can't possibly strengthen this vital range of motion.

Further, barbell squats are extremely metabolically demanding--especially if medium-to-high reps are performed. This is a negative when already training for a demanding sport or martial art. If you are forced to take prolonged recovery from what is supposed to be supplementary training, then your sports training isn't being optimized.

It always comes back to what it is you want to do...and be good at. You can achieve mediocrity in many activities, or specialize and (hopefully) attain mastery in one. Martial arts, like BJJ and MMA, are high-skill sports. While it's true that strength is a critical aspect, it's not the most critical aspect, as skill beats strength in these particular sports all the time.

Safe alternatives to barbell squatting that strengthen the full range of motion include:
  • Kettlebell and barbell front squat
  • Goblet squat
  • Lunges
  • Cossack squat
  • Squatting on the toes
  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Step-ups
  • Hammer Strength leg press

You want the ultimate in hip and thigh strengthening, refer to my previous blog on the pistol.

In Strength and Health!


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