Choosing the best squat variation
Through experience I have found it is better to not force an athlete into a particular type of squat. Instead think about the goal of squatting for an athlete. We are looking for a bilateral lower body pushing exercise, that targets the entire lower body in order to get them stronger, more resistant to injury and eventually faster and more powerful. We can easily get caught up in the differences in muscle activation between the types of squats, but this can paralyze us. I know this has happened for me. Especially when we need to provide good testing numbers to show progress and get buy in from your athletes and coaches. In my case I choose to test front squat as my test of lower body strength. I do this because I feel like it is a safer option that putting a bar on an athletes back with a 1RM load. So what happens for me is I tend to want to front squat more and force people into this type of squat because I know they will be testing it at some point. This makes the testing results comparable between athletes, so I can rank them, etc.
Instead of getting caught up in the numbers. The better option is to pick the type of squat (or not in some cases) that is the best fit for the athlete and gets the desired sporting result. If you are still concerned with how a particular squat effects muscle activation, just make it up in another way. In my case I do additional posterior chain work such as rack pulls, RDL’s, hip lifts, etc.
The video below sparked my thinking to write this blog post. It does an unbelievable job of demonstrating how different limb lengths and situations can affect how someone squats. If I had known this years ago I would have been a lot better off. Below the video I summarized the key takeaways and added some of my own thoughts. Enjoy!
- The knee and the hip have a forward/backward, “give and take” relationship. If the knee goes forward, the hip goes forward. If the knee goes back, the hip goes back.
- During front squats, the knees travel out over the toes more than back squats. This causes an increased load placed on the knee and the surrounding musculature, making it a more quad dominant variation of the squat.
- Back squats tend to cause you to lean forward more with the trunk, keep your shins vertical and cause your hips to go back more. This involves a greater load to be placed on the hip musculature, making back squats target the hip musculature (glute/hamstring) to a greater degree. Because your shins stay vertical it makes it a better option for those that don’t have adequate dorsiflexion.
- No two athletes are built the same:
- Two things can affect how far forward your knee goes in front of the toes.
Amount of dorsiflexion – If lacking this, the knee can’t travel forward. This will keep the hips back and tend to make an athlete’s chest fall forward and struggle to get full depth. If you have an athlete that struggles to keep their chest up during a squat, look at the ankle joint first!
- Distance from the floor to the knee – A long tibia (lower leg) or shoes with a heel lift will make the knee go over the toe, making the movement more quad dominant.
- Generalizations about athletes that may not be god squatters:
- Athletes with a short tibia – Knee will not travel forward, this keeps hips back and chest will need to fall forward more. May feel squats mostly in the low back.
Athletes with long femurs (upper leg) – Hard for them to reach full depth because the hips have to travel back so far due to the length of the femur, must lean forward to combat this, despite having adequate hip and ankle mobility.
- Athletes with a short trunk – Will have trouble reaching full depth and chest will lean forward. Will most likely feel a lot in the low back.
- “The perfect storm” – combine all 3 of these limb lengths above and you have someone who hates squatting and will always struggle! Short tibia + long femur + short trunk will never be a good squatter. Look for another means of developing lower body strength.
- Throw in bad dorsiflexion to any of the above and the problem get worse.