Anthony Donskov is the founder of DSC where he serves as the Director of Sport Performance. Donskov holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Science & is the author of Physical Preparation for Ice Hockey.
The Untouchables: The Evolution of the Squat Back Squat, Front Squat, and RFESS
There is an evolutionary process involved in most professions called learning that can change the way we view things. Alwyn Cosgrove or Michael Boyle might call these “Ah ha” moments. Moments that make you scratch your head and think aloud, moments that challenge the way we have done things in the past, moments that allow us to grow (many of us are reluctant to grow for fear or just plain stubbornness). It is in these moments that good coaches become great, or good coaches remain stagnant because they are stuck with “the way things used to be.” Alwyn Cosgrove said “If you put a group of the most successful strength coaches in one room and their students in another, the students wouldn’t agree on any training philosophy or principal, whereas the coaches would agree on almost everything.” Indeed it is my personal experience that there are far more similarities than differences between good strength coaches. Our job is to make athletes bigger, stronger and faster while reducing the chance of sport related injury.
I am a young, energetic coach looking to become great. I have a long way to go to reach this goal, but I am headstrong in my quest. I am not a former power lifter or bodybuilding champion, (I have had the opportunity to play sport at the Division I/professional level). Most importantly, however, is that I TRAIN athletes consistently and I CONTINUOUSLY invest my time and energy into learning and finding a better way of doing things. Learning from people at the top of the totem pole, or as Cosgrove would say “standing on the shoulder of giants.” Without a doubt, one of the biggest debates in today’s strength and conditioning field is the issue of squatting. Back squatting, front squatting and now the Single leg squat and the RFESS (rear foot elevated split squat).
As a coach, my job is to design strength and conditioning programs for my athletes that will build explosive power, speed, strength and anaerobic capacity for their respective sport. We are judged on this criteria as well as another often overlooked, but extremely important factor, games missed due to injury. In order to design an effective program one needs to understand the demands of the sport (Principal of Specificity). “Strength is both general and specific: general in that it is always good to be stronger, specific in that the strength should be acquired in a way that allows it to be applied to movement patterns used in the sport for which we are conditioning.” (Ripptoe, p49) Hockey, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, football (and the list goes on…) is NOT power lifting! These sports are single leg dominant in nature and need to be trained by applying these demands to the body. Although I am not 100% against squatting as a basic barbell exercise (front squatting), I personally don’t care that an athlete can squat 400 lbs if he can’t make it through a full hockey season due to a low back injury.
“The full squat is the preferred lower body exercise for safety as well as athletic strength. The squat, when preformed correctly, is not only the safest leg exercise for the knees, it produces a more stable knee than any other leg exercise.” (Ripptoe, 20) I would agree 100 percent with coach Mark Ripptoe (awesome strength coach), squatting when done correctly is actually an excellent exercise for the knees. Deep squatting attacks the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and adductor complex, a combination of anterior/posterior pull on the tibia (hamstring activation can act to aid the ACL in preventing anterior movement of the tibia relative to the femur).
The problem with back squats is not safety of the knees; it’s the integrity of the lumbar spine. Bar placement (long lever arm), and increased loading play a major role in both high torque and compression to this anatomical region. “If the spine is experiencing high angular velocity (actual spine bending) together with high bending torque, the risk of injury is high.” (McGill, p143). Coach Mike Boyle in his presentation “Death to Squatting” called the lumbar spine a “transducer” (an element or device that receives information in the form of one quantity and converts it to information in the form of the same or another quantity) or in the case of back squatting, the weakest point between the bar and the legs. During heavy loading, the back (transducer) is the first to fatigue, while the legs (engine) still have excess reserve. As we know athletes are not power lifters so the question remains, can we find a way around this “weakest link” to tax the legs?
(Photo: Starting Strength)
Bar placement, coupled with heavy loads, play a major factor in torque/compression of the lumbar spine. The longer the lever arm (distance between the weighted bar and hips), the greater torque produced on the lumber spine.
Heavy loads can cause tremendous amounts of toque/compression of the lumbar spine.
In order to tax the legs while avoiding excessive lumbar load/torque, many sports performance experts prefer the front squat. The difference in bar placement eliminates the issue of excessive torque, while still adding compression (although not nearly as much due to lighter loads used) to the lumbar spine.
(Photo: Starting Strength)
Additionally, to providing less torque to the low back, the front squat taxes the glutes as a prime hip extensor in this movement pattern. Due to an increased back angle, the hamstrings do not reach full stretch, so the glutes become primarily responsible for extending the hips. This may be good for many athletes, as a large percent of the athletic population have over active hamstrings and weak, neurally inhibited glutes. As Stuart McGill calls it: “gluteal amnesia!” Front squats are an excellent basic movement pattern aimed at building, strong foundational bi-lateral strength, while avoiding the high compression/torque of the traditional back squat.
Single leg squat/RFESS
“Moreover, this style of squat (back squat) fails to adequately train any athlete who needs strength but also runs, jumps off one leg, and changes direction. These tasks require ultimate hip extensor, abduction/adduction, and flexion torque strength. Optimal leg strength requires the simultaneous training of balance, like single leg challenges with appropriate corresponding actions in the non-support leg, in a way that spares the back. For these reasons, one-legged squats are superior in many ways where the body weight is used as the primary resistance.” (McGill, p257)
Standing on one-leg changes everything! Most importantly it changes the muscle synergies used in movement. The Lateral Sub-System is comprised of the adductor complex, gluteus medius, and the contra lateral quadratus Lumborum. These muscle groups are all taxed during uni-lateral movement patterns, which is the essence of most all sporting activities.
Lateral Sub System
Athletes’ are not power lifters! We need to address the body according to function. Most sports require tremendous single leg strength.
Besides being the pillar of athletic movement, single leg training allows for lighter loads on the spine (decrease torque and compression) and more direct load applied to the legs. In essence, we are bypassing the back and attacking the legs. This is what coach Boyle calls a “bang for your buck” exercise. There is also a proprioceptive element involved in single leg movement that enhances stability, strength and motor unit recruitment.
Bi-Lateral deficit (BLD) also plays a role in single leg training. BLD is when the sum of force generated uni-laterally (left+right) is greater than the sum of force generated bi-laterally (both limbs together). The BLD can be attributed to local neural control mechanisms (Howard & Enoka 1991) and a decreased recruitment of high threshold motor units (Vandervoort et al. 1984). In other words, it may be harder for the body to recruit high threshold motor units during bi-lateral activity. “As an individual becomes better trained and more efficient at recruiting high threshold motor units (HTMU’s), the bi-lateral deficit will decrease as their capacity to recruit the HTMU’s during bi-lateral work will increase.” (Thibaudeau, p 49) Yet another reason uni-lateral training is important to the athletic population. High Threshold motor units equate to strong, explosive, powerful athletes.
I think we as coaches, need to address the NEEDS of our athletes much better, and not our own egos. The days of inflated bench press maxes, 40-yard dash times and squat poundage needs to stop. We need to ask ourselves, what is best for our athletes, their health, performance and specific needs. Survey any good hockey coach (fill in any other sport) and ask, would they rather have an athlete that can squat 400 lbs and play half the season, or an athlete that is completely healthy and can squat 300lbs? Better yet an athlete that has functional single leg strength. Again, we want our athletes to build strength in the most useful way as it pertains to their respective sport. It is our job to enhance performance, while reducing the likelihood of on-ice/field injury. I am not against squatting as a foundational basic barbell exercise (Front squats are currently in my program), but after reading the research, learning from the best (coaches with over 30 years of experience), and training in the trenches with my athletes, I believe that better alternatives exist. If we can tax the legs, bypass the lower back and enhance single leg strength in a single exercise, we as coaches need to seriously consider the effect of uni-lateral training in the immediate future. For it is in these moments that good coaches become great, or good coaches remain stagnant because they are stuck with “the way things used to be.”
(1) Boyle, Michael, Functional Strength Coach Vol. 3, A Joint by Joint Approach to Strength and Conditioning, 2009.
(2) Cosgrove A, Results Fitness Program Design Manual, 2nd Edition, 2009.
(3) Howard J D; Enoka R M Maximum Bilateral Contractions are Modified by Neurally Mediated Inter Limb Effects, Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md: 1985) 1991; 70(1):306-16.
(4) McGill, Stuart, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance-Third Edition, 2006, pgs. 143, 257.
(5) Ripptoe M, Kilgore L, Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training, 2nd Edition, 2007, pgs. 20, 49.
(6) Thibaudeau C, High-Threshold Muscle Building, 2007, pg 49.
(7) Vandervoort A, Sale D, Moroz, J, Strength-velocity relationship and Fatigability of unilateral versus bilateral arm extension, Journal of European Applied Physiology, March, 1987.
Anthony Donskov, MS, CSCS, PES, is a former collegiate and professional hockey player, founder of Donskov Strength and Conditioning Inc., (www.donskovsc.com) and Head Instructor/Director of Off-Ice Strength and Conditioning for Donskov Hockey Development (www.donskovhockey.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.