Part 3: The comparison continued
In the previous articles we looked at the images of an athlete performing both the front and back squats and then broke down the movements of specific joints and body parts in each exercise.
In the discussion, we have now arrived at the bottom position of the squatting movement. It is obvious from the photos in the previous article that the front squat puts an athlete into a better end of range position in the squat movement. In our example, both unweighted and under the weight of 225lbs in a front squat, this athlete had the ability to easily attain a thighs parallel alignment in the bottom position.
However, place the load on the athlete's back and all of a sudden he cannot achieve the same parallel position at the bottom of this movement pattern. The athlete was five degrees short of parallel and yet described a real struggle in trying to sit into the bottom position of the back squat. Clearly, the difficulty comes from the placement of the load on the athlete and how this load positioning forces joints in the athlete to move differently in the squat motion.
The comparison here of the bottom position is a very typical profile that I see as athletes perform either lift. Most times an athlete can achieve the deep position quite easily in the front squat, even under significant load. For the back squat, many athletes struggle and fight to get to the bottom position. Athletes try to balance proper technique and body alignment against the goal of getting to parallel in the performance of the lift itself. That's not a good relationship in a lift, choosing either proper performance of the lift at the expense of technique or not performing the lift to its fullest range but staying safe with body alignment.
It is also evident from the numbers that the front squat end of range is a much safer position for the upper body to be in, given that in these photos the upper body is aligned 18° more vertical in a front loaded position than back loaded situation. The alignment allows the load to be transmitted down through the vertebrae resulting in more compressive forces. The back is much more tolerant of compressive than shear forces and a more vertical spine results in less shearing load absorbed at each anatomical level of the spine.
One thing that is very concerning for me is the loss of the lordotic posture of the low back and sacrum at the bottom portion of most back squat movements I see. Not only did we see it here at the very bottom position of the lift, the loss of lordotic curve happened in an advanced lifter.
Thousands of times this athlete has squatted, yet still the opportunity for a mistake in the lift did occur. That clearly should not happen. Think of how many clients you train who have an eight year training window to "clean that up"? Not many athletes fit that description and the chances of an error are still very much present even after all that time.
There have been hundreds of hours where I have been watching and correcting his movements, so the amount of coaching is not the answer. Don't blame the athlete, he can squat perfectly well under load in every other type of loading scenario. But the question still remains, why does the squat motion fall apart when the load is placed on the back?
Many will say that it's just this athlete, that he shouldn't back squat. They say he shouldn't, but others can perform the lift? Huh? I think something is missing with that statement.
I agree this athlete should not perform the back squat, no question. But I think we can all see, the errors are inherent in the lift. I think the errors we have seen in this athlete's performance of the back squat are typical errors, which occur due to the nature of the loading position. Some of these errors are out of the athlete's control, such as limb and torso length, but others just cannot be controlled.
It takes considerable ability and awareness of body position and motion by the athlete during the back squat to move into and out of the squat motion properly. It is my opinion that this ability and awareness is not present in most of the athletes I work with or that I see in our industry.
Remember, most of the athletes I work with have less than three years training experience, and I'm confident that a significant number of coaches who read this article will be in a similar situation at some point. These athletes are not adults who lift competitively and have a number of good years of experience in a weight room under a bar. So my focus with the athletes I deal with is to get them squatting safely and load them as quickly as possible within their off-season program, a time limited window of training each year. The front squat offers a very economical way to teach hip first movement into the squatting motion and allows our facility to make great gains in our athlete's strength levels without unnecessarily assuming too much risk.
Evaluating the Back Squat Support
I think there are a number of factors that have to be considered when evaluating the arguments supporting the performance of the back squat in a program that were brought forward in the discussion by some of the contributors:
• First, I think the sample size of athletes who actually back squat correctly is very small in comparison to the number of athletes who do back squat but with significant errors in their technique.
• Second, I think that most of the athletes who have the ability to back squat perfectly, have had a significant amount of time and practice with the lift. Good for them, but they are few in number.
• Third, I think the risk/reward ratio of teaching the back squat is very high, especially in group settings. Too high for my comfort level.
• Fourth, this isn't a right or wrong debate. "Married to the exercise" coaches need to take note; This is a best practice decision that strength coaches need to make.
• Fifth, don't believe the hype. I think too many coaches are "experts" in their own opinion, the result is they and their athletes can do no wrong. They see the back squat through rose coloured glasses. Instead, use your own critical thinking skills to evaluate the lift and it's place in your program.
I don't think the back squat is a bad exercise. The back squat is not bad for everyone, but it's too often a hard fit. I designate the back squat as a second degree exercise for our programming considerations. If we have a need and an ability to use this lift, I will include it with select athletes, but this opportunity does not present itself often.
Operating a facility where we see large numbers of athletes each day means I cannot take a chance with our exercise selection. I have to know that the majority of our clientele in any given age and ability category will be able to safely perform the lifts and movements my staff is asking for in our programming. These athletes need first degree designated exercises in their programs to safely achieve their training goals.
What I didn't post in this article is photos of real world experiences I see every day in our facility. Images that show the process of regular clients who are still learning how to squat. That's where you really see the errors in both lifts.
Areas of Concern: Hips and Low Back
In the beginning lifter, there usually is a significant difference in the strength and stiffness of an athlete's intrinsic hip musculature and the musculature of their low back. The intrinsic hip muscles, due to a relative weakness compared to the demands placed on them by the athlete's sport performance and growth, are short and stiff. The lower back muscles however, are lengthened and weak, a stark contrast to the lack of mobility within the hip complex below. Although not every athlete presents with both of these muscular qualities, I have found that this is a common norm amongst most of the athletes new to our program.
The contrast in stiffness and muscle length between the hip joint and low back structures contributes to the initial errors within the squat movement when the load applied overwhelms either area of the body. If the hip musculature is not strong enough to support the joint positioning of the lower portions of the squat movement, the intrinsic musculature restricts further movement of the hip joints themselves as a protective measure. If the squat movement continues, the flexed posture has to occur at other joints elsewhere in the body, it is not happening at the hip joint level.
In other instances, the load applied is too great for the low back musculature to buttress against and maintain a lordotic posture. So no matter how mobile the hip complex, the lack of stiffness or absolute strength within the low back musculature cannot overcome the horizontal shearing force of the load as the squat motion is performed. The resultant movement is flexion of the lumbar complex as the lumbar extensors lose their capacity to maintain the initial spinal positioning.
For most athletes in this situation, it is not an isolated problem of just the hip complex or low back musculature. It is usually a combination of both, with athlete's showing there is a susceptibility of the low back to flex during the squat motion that is inherent in the motion itself. So, as a strength and conditioning coach, my job then is to put the beginning lifter in a position to minimize the risk of assuming a faulty posture anywhere during the lift, and instead choose exercises which encourage proper technique.
The front loaded position does do that. The back squat doesn't.
Take home message: The front squat is easier and faster to teach and load aggressively and gives the beginning athlete a self-correcting lesson in basic squat mechanics. The back squat has more risk of falling into in poor squat posture than the front squat, uses higher loads and I have found less people get the correct technique within an adequate amount of time than with the front squat.
So it is an easy decision for me, I prefer our squats to be performed in a front loaded position.
In the fourth article of the series I will move the discussion towards reasons for the limitations seen in the back squat and present my theory on the progressive loading of athletes in bilateral stance exercises.