In the depths of a primitive powerlifting gym, the strongest men and women in the world performed displays of strength in the back squat that pushed we know as human limits. I was only in high school, so my exposure to strength training was just beginning. What amazed me the most about these men was not how much load they squatted with 100% of their max, but how fast and explosive they could lift 85%. It only made sense to me that this would translate over to my lacrosse game. If you’ve ever seen the physical stature of some elite middleweight powerlifters, one can only imagine the dominant physical beast they could be with the addition of lacrosse skills, speed, and agility. I had no reason not to perform such a lift in my training, and as a 16-year-old kid, could you blame me? I am about to provide you with a methodology we’ve adopted at Athletes Warehouse that will make you question back squatting with your youth athletes in the future.
The back squat has been a staple movement in strength and conditioning since athletes and coaches began utilizing the barbell during training. In all honesty, it’s a shame to see such an exercise so automatically prescribed by so many coaches. Just as most American strength coaches understand the potential dangers and technical skills it takes to safely and effectively complete a snatch or clean and jerk, we believe the same applies for the back squat. Here’s why:
- The body awareness one must possess to truly find a braced and neutral spine during a back squat is a technical barrier for a youth athlete to display strength. Very few of our youth athletes possess the experience under a barbell to brace their body in a manner that we would deem safe and beneficial to the long-term health of the athlete. The most common fault we see when youth athletes begin a back squat is overextension through the lumbar spine without having the extension capacity or development to handle these positions. Most commonly we find athletes reporting lumbar joint discomfort. EMG studies showed that even just a simple prone spine extension exercise (commonly referred to as a “Superman”) elicited 6000N (roughly 1300lbs) of compression to facet joints and spinous ligaments (1). With the amount of lumbar extension based injuries that we see occurring in youth sports today, it guides us to more extension sparing exercises that load the anterior side of the athlete such as the front squat, goblet squat, or even dual dumbbell or kettlebell front squat.
- With the number of overhead athletes in our building, one must consider the compromised position the back squat places on the shoulder and elbow joint. An overarching principle to our program design here at Athletes Warehouse is to remember that we do not train a tremendous amount of professional athletes. While our athletes may prioritize their sport over anything else, we must not neglect that they are kids. They have no other choice but to sit in a chair during school throughout the day, and we’re kidding ourselves if we believe kids are going to reduce their screen time because we tell them it will prevent them from developing a kyphotic upper back and forward rounded shoulder position. These chronic positions limit their shoulder external rotation and abduction; both positions which are critical in performing the back squat in a safe manner. We are in a constant battle with the athlete to correct these limitations and dysfunctions, as they are critical ranges of motion for their overhead sports. Therefore it is worrisome to believe that these athletes possess the capabilities to handle large loads in such limited ranges.
- Research fails to provide evidence that would cause us to declare the reward of the back squat to outweigh the risks involved. When comparing EMG studies on front and back squat variations, it has been found that there are no significant differences in activation of glute max, bicep femoris, or vastus lateralis (2). Research studies have highlighted the only consistently greater EMG activation is semitendinosus during the concentric phase of the back squat during near maximum loads. This, however, could be explained by the commonly increased forward torso angle the occurs during the back squat movement (3). Consequently, this forward torso angle can be incredibly dangerous in a young athlete who does not have the physical development or capacity to handle such forces to the lumbar spine. Regardless of the movement, there is an inherent risk to everything from a max effort back squat to even simply sitting up out of a chair. As professionals, we are constantly weighing risk:reward ratio of certain movements. It is our responsibility to prescribe appropriate exercises that both satisfy a fulfilling training program, but also maintain a safe long-term development of the athlete.
The back squat has been a utilized movement since the early days of strength and conditioning. Research has failed to provide any information that would prompt us to declare the reward of the back squat to outweigh the risks involved. There is no doubt that the back squat is a greater platform than the front squat to handle high loads. The back squat is a fantastic display of human capabilities, as men and women have trumped human limits by squatting multiple times their own body weights. I challenge the reader to question what weight room numbers mean to the transfer to sport. The overarching training goal of our program design is for our athletes to outperform the opposing player or team on the competition platform. This starts with a selection of exercises that will provide them with the greatest transfer to their sport, but also put them in the safest position for their long-term athletic development.
- McGill, S. (2017). Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. 6th ed. Ontario: Back Fit Pro, p.227
- Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., Schoenfeld, B. J., Beardsley, C., & Cronin, J. (2016). A comparison of gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, and vastus lateralis electromyography amplitude in the parallel, full, and front squat variations in resistance-trained females. Journal of applied biomechanics, 32(1), 16-22.
- Yavuz HU, Erdag D, Amca AM, Aritan S., (2014) Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. J Sports Sci. 2015;33(10):1058–1066.
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