Science of Sports Performance

Considerations for Programming the Squat

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]The squat is considered the cornerstone of most training programs, and for good reason. Squatting involves simultaneous flexion and extension of the ankles, knees and hips, like almost every major sporting activity. It trains all the muscles of the lower body to be able to produce more power. It has been proven time and time again to increase vertical and broad jump, as well as speed and acceleration.

There are quite literally hundreds of variations of squats, with manipulations in range of motion, location of load, implement used, and stance width, and this is without getting into single leg variations. But how do these changes affect what the squat achieves? And will they help you get better at sports, or just get better at squatting? We have said it before, the purpose of weight training for athletes is not to get good at weight training, its to benefit from the physiological adaptation in which weight training causes. That physiological adaptation changes based on what you are doing and how you are doing it. Every type and variation of squat has a different response, and we will go over a few and the changes they cause.

The most basic squat is the back squat, and the one we will use as the “control” lift today. Traditionally done with the bar high on the back, feet outside hips and spine relatively neutral, it trains the lower body with relative uniformity, with equal emphasis on quads, glutes and hamstrings. However, by manipulating multiple variables such as:

  1. Bar Placement
  2. Stance Width
  3. Squat Depth
  4. Implements
  5. Speed

we can change the stimulus response greatly.[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Bar Placement” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]Every one change we make is going to have another corresponding change, and bar placement is no different. By making a small change such as moving the bar down the back roughly two inches, you will see greater flexion at the hips, which will shift the emphasis towards hamstrings and glutes (5). This is a popular choice among many athletes as these muscles are vital to running and jumping effectively. In addition, a low bar back squat allows you to use an increased amount of weight, as the load is located closed to the axis of rotation (picture pushing on a door, its harder to push it open from the hinges then the door handle, higher bar is like pushing from near the hinges). However the squatting position a low bar back squat puts you in does not closely translate to any specific action in sporting.

The front squat is also a variation on bar placement, where the bar lays across the delts in front of the body as opposed to on the back. The spine is held in a relatively upright position with more simultaneous flexion of knees and hips, forcing emphasis away from the glutes and hamstrings and towards the quads (unless you squat deep). This position is usually accompanied with a decrease in stance width to accommodate the upright spine position (wide stance and upright torso doesn’t work). The front squat is a difficult lift to master as it requires a large amount of ankle, hamstring and hip mobility.

Performing an overhead squat causes an entirely new set of challenges. Specific only to the Olympic weightlifting event the Snatch, it challenges the lower body mobility, and thoracic, scapular and shoulder mobility by maintaining the bar overhead during the duration of the lift.[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Stance Width” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]You can also increase the recruitment of the glutes, hamstrings and low back (posterior chain) by doing two things: widening your stance, or squatting lower than parallel. The low bar back squat is usually accompanied by a wide stance further recruiting the posterior chain to a greater degree (4). Deep squatting is great for building strength and mobility, and is specific to Olympic weightlifting. Most athletes never see a bi-lateral deep squat position in sports, making it another great candidate for general offseason foundation setting.

Conversely, you can decrease the recruitment of the posterior chain and shift emphasis to the quads by squatting with a narrower stance than base. This position is more usually more sport specific in that it mimics the spine angle and foot placement of most athletic sporting positions.(think linebacker stance, tennis player, basketball jump shot etc).[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Squat Depth” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]Squat depth is a giant factor and often times a cause for debate in the sporting industry. Squatting to parallel is the industry standard, which has its roots in powerlifting, and multiple studies support the use of deep squatting for its muscle recruitment in the lower body. It has been suggested that deep squats have a greater muscle activation than partial squats (6), however this doesn’t account for varying load potential at each depth. In addition, multiple studies show that squatting to parallel has a higher transfer to vertical jump and 40 than half squats (2). Now, these studies don’t take into account proper sequencing and periodization of training, and in very few sports beyond powerlifting and weightlifting do you see the athlete get into a deep squat position. The half squat has a higher ability to produce force, power and velocity than a parallel squat (3) based on being in a more biomechanically favorable position.

Based on the research and practical experience, depth squat changes based on the goal of the phase and time of year. Hypertrophy, maximal strength and restoration phases of training taking place in early offseason should employ lower squat depths and bigger ranges of motion for most exercises. During peak power, maximal speed and taper phases, shorter ranges of motion with appropriate loads would be more beneficial.[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Implements” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]There are also multiple bar types and other implements used for squatting. Safety Squat bars put handles in front of you rather than holding the bar on your back (great for shoulder injury athletes), however the weight actually shifts in front of you during the descent phase of the squat. These are extremely difficult squats to master and require extreme core and low back stability. Goblet squats are squats where you hold a dumbbell in front of you, however the end result is similar to an easier version of a front squat.

Box squats are a form of squatting where you sit back to a box, relax about 20% of your weight on the bottom, then stand back up again. During a box squat, the eccentric and concentric phases of the squat are separated by a pause, so it may not be the most applicable type of squatting for athletes beyond general preparatory. In athletic competition, with few exceptions, there is no pause between the eccentric load and the concentric muscle action. If you are in a concentric emphasis phase, true box squats with bands really touch to explode out of the bottom of the lift (especially from a higher than parallel position). Conversely, squatting to a box is where you squat until your butt hits a pad, then stand back up, which will ensure you squat deep enough, and is great for learning how to squat properly, but can hurt kinesthetic awareness.

In addition, the use of bands and chains can increase the resistance at the top of the lift, where you are in a biomechanically more favorable position to lift heavier weights. By using accommodating resistance to match the force velocity curve of an exercise, you can perform more dynamic and explosive exercises by speeding through the range of motion, without the negative benefit of traditional speed work (slowing down at end range of motion). Bands tend to be more difficult and taxing on the CNS compared to chains as the resistance tends to exponentially grow, compared to chains, which tends to linearly increase due to the weight lifting off the floor as you lift.[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Speed” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]You can also manipulate the speed and which you lift. Going slow on the eccentric aspect of the squat helps with deceleration and being able to accept force more efficiently. Holding an isometric squat will greatly help you with both accepting of force as well as reducing the time between acceptance and reapplication of force during any ground-based movement. Speed squats at a relatively lower percentage of squatting will increase speed and power, essentially teaching the body to fire fully on all cylinders.

Speed and power squatting may have the most transfer of any type of squat, however the ability to produce a lot of force and speed is limited by maximal ability first. This is why maximal strength is the first and most important thing to develop in undertrained athletes (side note: building maximal strength does not mean you must use maximal weights). In trained athletes who already have a sufficient level of strength, further increases in this ability will no longer improve upon speed and rate of muscle contraction.

Barbell jump squats have seemed to fall out of favor in America, but may be one of the best and most useful speed and power exercises you can perform. No compensatory acceleration needed as you leave the ground during the exercise.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSEnnKVMchA”][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Programming Considerations” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]Programming Considerations:

There are multiple programming considerations that must also be taken into account when creating your athletes workout. Factors include:

Frequency of movement

Load (%)

Volume

These factors, combined with the various forms and adaptations you get from squatting, will be determined by your training cycle.  A great coach can match these various factors with the proper squat type to create the true adaptation needed to excel at the proper time of year.[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”Practical Application” heading_tag=”h3″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_column_text]All of these factors can be manipulated to change the desired adaptation from your athletes based on the time of year you are training and the readiness of your athletes. This list did not go into every single variation, as there are hundreds of combinations of exercises, bar placements, stance, depth and implements you can use. However by combing through this list you can combine the effects of various exercises to see what a different type will usually accomplish.

Which is most effective for you? Well, train what you need the most. If you have trouble decelerating during change of direction, quad focused exercises with an eccentric emphasis will be more beneficial. To train the muscles involved in extension (running/jumping), posterior chain based squatting will be more beneficial. For most athletes, using combinations of both throughout the year will have the greatest affect on your sporting ability.

 

Quick Review

Want to change direction (decelerate) more efficiently? Focus on quad based squatting, placing some emphasis part of the year on slow eccentrics and isometric pauses. Don’t neglect the role of the glutes and hamstrings in controlling a fast hip flexion, and for injury purposes.

Want to run faster and jump higher? Spend the first part of your training year getting stronger through full range of motion and various types of squats, then switch to partial, narrower squats at a relatively higher %. Various forms of jump squats should also be included.

Want to powerlift? Squat to parallel or more almost exclusively, with the exception of advanced level lifters working on sticking points.

Already have a high parallel squat, and looking to become more powerful? Partial squats at 75-85% for speed will do the track.[/vc_column_text][ultimate_heading main_heading=”References” heading_tag=”h5″ alignment=”center” spacer=”line_only” spacer_position=”bottom” spacer_img_width=”48″ line_style=”inset” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#333333″ icon_type=”selector” icon_size=”32″ icon_style=”none” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ img_width=”48″ line_icon_fixer=”10″][/ultimate_heading][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]

  1. Schoenfeld, Brad. “S QUATTING K INEMATICS AND K INETICS AND T HEIR A PPLICATION TO E XERCISE P ERFORMANCE.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research12 (2010): n. pag. Web.
  2. Hartmann, Hagen, Klaus Wirth, Markus Klusemann, Josip Dalic, Claus Matuschek, and Dietmar Schmidtbleicher. “Influence of Squatting Depth on Jumping Performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2012): 1. Web.
  3. Moore, Norman, Eric J. Drinkwater, and Stephen P. Bird. “Effects of Changing from Full Range of Motion to Partial Range of Motion on Squat Kinetics.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2012): 1. Web.
  4. Paoli, Antonio, Giuseppe Marcolin, and Nicola Petrone. “The Effect of Stance Width on the Electromyographical Activity of Eight Superficial Thigh Muscles During Back Squat With Different Bar Loads.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1 (2009): 246-50. Web.
  5. Wretenberg, Per, Yi Feng, and Ulf P. Arborelius. “High- and Low-bar Squatting Techniques during Weight-training.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise2 (1996): 218-24. Web.
  6. Caterisano, Anthony, Raymond E. Moss, Thomas K. Pellinger, Katherine Woodruff, Victor C. Lewis, Walter Booth, and Tarick Khadra. “The Effect of Back Squat Depth on the EMG Activity of 4 Superficial Hip and Thigh Muscles.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research3 (2002): 428-32. Web.
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Steve Olson

Steve Olson is a sports performance coach with a special interest in program design and periodization. He believes training is planning and tracking, and uses many different but effective methods of training for the short and long term development of athletes. He has trained Athletes from youth, high school, collegiate and professional, and utilizes different periodization models, training systems and modalities for each to maximize the athletic return from that athlete. He is also the owner and founder of Excel Training Designs, and can be reached at steveolson2202@gmail.com

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