If I were to say to football, rugby or athletics coaches that their athletes shouldn’t squat I’d probably be run out of town (as fast as my non-significantly squat trained legs would allow!). Let's take a look at why squatting (to a certain extent) can be overrated. The arguments for and against squatting for enhanced sports performance are outlined here.
The movement of bending and straightening the legs at the ankle, knee and hip joints (known as flexion and extension respectively) is a fundamental human movement. Hundreds of everyday movements require a squat; the most obvious being sitting and rising from a chair.
The resisted back squat (where the bar is supported across the rear of the shoulders) is a staple in the majority of athletes’ (of all sports) conditioning routines. These exercises are normally performed with a concentric muscular action emphasis. This means that the muscles of the ankle, knee and hip joints shorten under load to move the weight up (so when the squatter straightens their legs - this is also known as triple extension). However, many sports activities require a very powerful and absorbent, braking movement before the concentric action occurs in real sporting-world squat situations, for example, jumping for a ball in basketball.
In doing this the muscles of the ankles, knees, and hips go on stretch and perform what's known as an 'eccentric' muscular action - of which more later. And it should be noted that very few 'sports world squats' are performed from a balanced feet-a-stride, focussed and ready start position on a platform. The majority of these movements i.e. for footballers and rugby players involve jumping and a very powerful triple extension.
These movements also often take place off-balance, often from one leg or a staccato one foot to the other movement and from a softer, unstable surface (grass), and usually from speed (i.e. a footballer may have run into the six-yard box to make a header). And oh, they'll often be other players in the way when they go to make their squat-based jump. Yet, it's thought that squatting in the gym will improve a footballer's jumping ability... If you think about what's just been said then this is potentially flawed logic. It's possible to argue that there are more beneficial ways and exercises that will improve sports performance.
Standard barbell squats normally provide little eccentric emphasis and are concentric focussed (more effort is placed on pushing the bar up). As noted an eccentric muscular action is a lengthening one and a concentric one is a muscle shortening one. Think of stretching a rubber band and then letting it go, immense amounts of energy will be released when the band recoils. Now, this is akin to what happens when you jump or sprint in the muscles that surround your ankles, knees, and hips - the stretching of the band equates to the eccentric muscular action and the 'ping' the concentric one. Immense amounts of energy will be released as the band 'pings'. This is known as the 'stretch/reflex' and it's key to plyometric (jumping) exercises. Standard squats can't generate such a quick release of speed and reaction between stretch and reflex - again of which more later.
What could be better than a squat?
Eccentric exercises. It's possible to just train the eccentric portion of a movement. Being able to develop greater absorbent/braking eccentric strength can enhance the power produced by the subsequent concentric one (think back to the rubber band). To train eccentrically you can step off a platform about 1m high to land on two feet. On contact with the ground, the knees should only be slightly bent and it is the aim to stay in this knees-bent position and not jump or bounce back up. In doing so you are solely focussing on the eccentric muscular action. Research indicates that improved eccentric strength will improve concentric power.
Much also indicates that incredible amounts of force are overcome in the split-second that the eccentric action takes place - much much more than would be possible when squatting. Think of a volleyball player leaping upwards as they jump into a two-footed position and then power up to block or spike - you can readily appreciate the power of the eccentric action. (Look out for further information on how to specifically train eccentrically in future posts).
Speed of Movement
Speed of movement is a further potential limiting factor with squats. Even performed as fast as possible it will take about 0.5 secs to lower and lift when squatting. However, a sprinter's foot, for example, will only be in contact with the track for less than 0.9 of a second when sprinting flat out. Thus, the direct transference of the squat into an activity such as sprinting, which is crucial to so many sports, could be seen to be tenuous. And this is where the mismatch, in particular, can occur if the athlete's training programme is not designed to transfer any strength gained through squatting (and other weights exercises) into specific sports performance - more on this later.
What could be better than a squat?
Drop Jumps. A drop jump is performed by stepping off a platform to land on one or two feet and then immediately jumping upwards, forwards or sideways, one, two or multiple times. The height of the platform should be between 50cm and a 1m. The key element is the speed of reaction and not jump height or distance gained - although those good at drop jumps i.e. very powerful athletes will be able to get off the ground very very quickly and achieve great height and/or distance - it comes with the territory.
Most sporting movements are unilateral - they are performed from one leg to the other - sprinting being the most obvious example. The standard barbell squat is a two-footed bilateral movement. As indicated it's a very stable movement too. A rugby player will need to produce single leg triple extensions as they sprint to the try-line, for example, and will be off-balance on many occasions. They'll be using many many stabilising muscles to coordinate their sprinting and the neuromuscular system will be firing on all cylinders to keep up. It's just not the same when squatting.
What could be better than a squat?
Drop jumps again, performed onto one leg at a time i.e. hops. From an in-the-weights-room perspective, single leg triple extension exercises could be a great option, so single leg squats and leg presses, for example. At least, particularly with the former exercise, more balance will be required and weakness between specific leg's strength addressed.
Creating Muscular Imbalances
Have you heard of the term 'quadziller'? It's an anecdote applied to athletes who have massive squats, often attributable to lots of gym squats. With this comes the potential for muscular imbalances which can lead to injury. Quad dominant athletes can be more prone to a hamstring injury, for example.
What could be better than a squat?
Well, in this instance it's creating a balanced training programme that ensures all leg muscles are given attention (and in ways that will actually boost performance). Athletes who are quad dominant need not continue to emphasis quad-centric exercises after they have reached this situation and should work on their posterior leg muscles more i.e. the glutes and hamstrings, using such exercises as deadlifts and hack squats.
Power to weight ratio
This is more of a general consideration but it applies to squats. Athletes in certain sports need to be particularly mindful of their weight. A good example is a high jumper who must be massively powerful but light too. Too much body weight will obviously be difficult to lift off the ground and over the bar. Muscle weighs much more than other body tissue, so it's crucial to keep muscle size gains in check if your sport is influenced by lightness of bodyweight. As squats target the largest muscle masses on your body (glutes, thighs, and calves) then gains in size here will affect power to weight ratio.
Squatting over multiple sets with medium rep ranges (for example, 4 x 8 reps at 70% of 1 repetition maximum - 1RM) will create a potentially high hormonal release. Hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone stimulate increased muscle size. Other weight training protocols - see motor unit recruitment and fast twitch muscle fibre recruitment below - will have less of a muscle building weight gaining hormonal response.
So why squat?
We've provided some pretty compelling reasons why the squat may not be the greatest of all exercises for enhancing sports performance. Now don't get us wrong the squat does have a value and a potentially significant one, it's just that over-emphasising it in your sports conditioning routines is unlikely to bring about actual improvements in your sports performance alone. The squat has a value and it can be argued that it's very much an underpinning one and not the main one. Here's why. Motor unit recruitment & fast twitch fibre activation
Heavy load 'fast' squatting offers the athlete perhaps the biggest potential payback on squat investment. This is due to the motor unit recruitment aspects of the exercise (and other weights exercises if performed the same way) which can enable the body to recruit more power producing fast twitch muscle fibre. (Motor units are bundles of muscle fibres. An electrical signal is sent to the motor unit from the brain which switches them on. Fast twitch muscle fibres produce speed and power). The more motor units that get in on the movement act and the more fast twitch muscle fibres that are recruited the greater the likelihood of enhanced speed and power resulting. Now, the transference from the exercise when performed with a heavy load and with the athlete attempting to move the load as fast as it possible is seen to be a neuromuscular one. Basically the athlete "learns" to recruit more motor units and in doing so enables their body to produce more power in other situations i.e. when sprinting (providing the training programme is designed to facilitate transference).
To derive the most benefit when squatting (or performing other exercises similarly) you need to be focussed and in the zone; the load on the bar as mentioned needs to be heavy (in excess of 80% of your 1RM); and you need to try to move the weight as quickly as possible (but safely). In terms of suitable workouts, you should keep reps low and recoveries full to enable this protocol to work. So, for example, you could perform 4 x 2 reps at 90% of 1RM or 3 x 3 reps at 85% of 1RM
Finally, and to reiterate, I am not saying that squats are of little value, they are for certain athletes and at certain times in an athlete's training programme and times in their athletic development, what we are hopefully getting across is that there could be better ways to derive enhanced sporting performance benefits and that the way squats (and other weights exercises) are performed and integrated into a sports specific training programme will have a huge effect on this.