I have stated in the past that I place a much larger emphasis on keeping athletes safe versus most training facilities. When most athletes lift, they think about how can they improve their athletic capabilities first and foremost. Though this is an extremely important variable in training, it by no means should be the initial focus. We put the initial focus on keeping our athletes as safe as possible in the training process. This means choosing methods that present minimal risk. As the saying goes, no ones gets better on the training table because they’re injured. We like to think we do a better job than most in terms of athlete’s safety.
When we say “no more squats”, what this means is that we must spare the spinal load more appropriately for that athlete. I am not saying don’t squat. We squat every day with our athletes, but the method is much different than most. The issue I have is in terms of load placement and overall load.
We are totally against back squatting, and becoming more and more against the front squat everyday. I think the front squat is a decent exercise to improve leg strength if the athlete has enough mobility in their hips and thoracic spine. However, we find there are more superior methods to loading the legs that present less chance of injury to the lumbar spine.
So when I say we don’t squat anymore, what I am really saying is that we don’t squat as traditionally thought. We are not huge fans of bilateral leg movements. This means we generally do none to little double leg movements. The main reason behind that is due to safety, but also performance variables. Most people generally don’t squat well; their pelvis tucks under, which puts significant stress on the lower back. We try to minimize stress to the lower back whenever possible. We are all about loading the legs, and sparing the spine.
Currently, the only bilateral movement we use consistently is the trap bar deadlift because it is hard to do wrong and thus hard to be injured, and it spares the spine from any direct compression and loading. Looking specifically at load placement is the key here. Though the trap bar deadlift may look similar to the squat, it is nowhere close. In the trap bar deadlift, the load is in the athlete’s hands. In the squat, the load is on the athlete’s shoulders. Most athletes’ lack of shoulder external rotation leads to compensation shown as lumbar spine (lower back) extension. With heavy loads on the shoulders, there is a large amount of spinal compression, which is a clear negative in the world of smart strength training. In terms of overall safety, think of the consequences. With the deadlift, if the athlete cannot complete the rep, they simply drop the bar to the floor. There is a very little chance of injury. However, if the squat goes wrong, the athlete is compressed under the bar, which could result in disc injuries. This is enough to make me a much larger deadlift fan.
Having said that, before any athlete squats with external load at ASP, they must first learn the motor pattern and be mobile enough in their hips and thoracic spine to gain the necessary depth on the squat with an unloaded bar on two legs before focusing the rest of their training on one leg. Physical therapist Gray Cook has constantly said that if we just add external load to the bar, we are just ‘adding strength to dysfunction’. In other words, if you can’t properly bodyweight squat, you have no business squatting in another variation such as a single-leg exercise such as the split squat.
The question then becomes if you don’t back squat, how do you squat? Simply, we squat on one leg. This engages three muscles that aren’t used in bilateral squatting; muscles of the lateral subsystem (glute med, adductors, and quadratus lumborum). As I have written in the past articles (Unilateral Training) I am a big believer in loading one leg because in single-leg exercises, we are engaging these muscles in their normal role as stabilizers. In bilateral squatting, we strengthen the prime movers (quads, etc) but neglect the stabilizers. Oddly enough, physical therapists report that the main source of injury is a pelvic stabilizer, not a prime mover. The reason behind that is simple. Everything changes on one leg. Muscles have different actions in single- leg stance versus double leg strength. Thus, if you train one two legs, and then play sport (which is almost always on one leg), you haven’t prepared your body properly, so of course injury shouldn’t be unexpected. Training on one leg is the best way to prevent knee injuries and work around bad backs because of the minimal spinal loading that takes place.
So the take home should be to keep the barbell off your back and away from compressing your spine, get off training on two legs, and start incorporating single-leg training. Your joints will thank you for it, along with your performance in sport.