More on squat programming

There are certain coaches out there (you know who you are) who can get downright dogmatic about their programming. You must have these exercises. They must be performed in this fashion. This is evident in fewer instances than squatting. Squatting is certainly popular these days, and after years (decades) of leg-presses and Smith machines dominating gyms, it's great to see more people returning to something as simple and effective as the deceptively challenging barbell squat. 

Let's not kid ourselves: squats are awesome. They're functional. They train the musculature of the whole lower body (though it's a mistake to think of them as adequate in isolation, rather than part of a complete lower-body program). But here's the issue: while squats are certainly valuable, it's still possible to have a great strength training program without them. For some people—be it hip/knee/ankle problems, a general lack of mobility, or their unique anthropometry—the time spent learning and optimizing the squat could be better spent elsewhere. 

Barbell back squats are only absolutely necessary for competitive powerlifters, CrossFitters, and possibly Olympic weightlifters. That's literally about it. No one else needs to do squats. The famous Bulgarian weightlifting team didn't even do barbell back squats at all. Squatting is effective, but when it comes to strengthening the lower body there are, as the saying goes, many way to skin a cat. The efficacy of barbell squats, and the style in which they're taught, needs to be balanced with the needs and interests of the client.

Most clients, for example, do not care about the absolute most amount of weight they can squat for an arbitrary number of repetitions. They want to be stronger, yes. They want to look and feel better. But they're not pining for a one- or three- or five-rep maximum. And why should they, unless they're participating in a sport which demands as much?

This means that when deciding whether to program squats and what style to teach, the individual client must be kept in mind. Generally here at Styrka, we begin by teach our clients the bodyweight squat, then the low-bar squat. These movements are relatively easy to learn and often present few mobility challenges for a client to attain the (arbitrary) depth of "just below parallel," in which the hip crease just below the level of the knee (this is the standard depth in powerlifting competitions). 

A full squat (i.e., a squat-sit) has a great deal of functional carryover, so it's definitely worth teaching. We like our clients to be able to high-bar squat as well, because that movement has better carryover in both strength and mobility demands than the low-bar version when it comes to overhead squats, front squats, pistol squats, and the Olympic lifts. But ultimately, a client may or may not ever need or want to do said variations. A client may have great lower-body mobility, but a shoulder injury or surgery may prevent them from attaining a safe overhead position. That means Olympic lifts and overhead squats are out. Okay, big deal. How many clients care about how much they can snatch? Hint: not many. Maybe a client doesn't care about their absolute maxes, but the low-bar variation is more natural for them. That's fine, too.

We've seen many circumstances in which our default to low-bar squats didn't pan out. Sometimes clients really struggle with the movement. We then show them the high-bar variation—generally considered more advanced due to greater mobility requirements—and they take to it easily. Theoretically, the leverage provided by a low-bar squat would allow the client to squat about 5%-10% more weight, all things being equal. Does the client care? Is that relevant to their goals at all? 

There are innumerable variations of closed-chain kinetic movements for the lower body that make viable substitutions for barbell squats. Bulgarian split squats, belt squats, split squats, lunges, step-ups, etc. etc. All of these are perfectly valid components of an effective program. Moreover, squats do not make a complete lower-body program. They're not as effective as hip thrusts for training the glutes, nor as effective as glute-ham raises for training the hamstrings, nor as effective as ab/adduction for training the ab/adductors. They're not very effective for training the hip flexors, either, which can be effectively trained with hanging knee raises or even leg extensions. Squats are famously called the "king of all exercises", but they're better thought of as just another tool in the chest.

The moral is this: squats are great, but for the overwhelming majority of clients—that is, those not training in a competitive sport—the idea that squats are necessary, and especially the idea that one particular style of squatting is necessary, is misguided. A good coach can guide a client through movements that frustrate them, but a better coach can make more prudent exercise selections based on the the needs and goals on the client. 

Learn more about our coaching here at Styrka:

Mike DoolittleStyrka