Updated: May 15, 2020
Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way from the jump, I’m nowhere near popular or important enough for this to shake anything up, meaning two things- 1.) I can write this candidly, and 2.) I have zero horses in this race. Although not popular or important enough bode true, I am somewhat qualified to speak on it, annnd I just so happen to be interested enough to do so. So, let’s throw some kerosene on this camp fire.
I’ll be damned if squat preference, or more specifically, the ever so impossible to evade unilateral vs. bilateral deliberation isn’t the hottest subject of contention over the last week in the Twittersphere. Well, at least in the S&C world that is. In case you did somehow happen to miss this, click that link and take a look at some of the twitter threads over the last several days centered around Mr. Boyle.
Spats, in civil fashion or otherwise, occur between strength coaches all the time. Considering the general demographic and character traits of our profession, this shouldn’t come as much surprise to anyone. Sprinkle a little egoism in the mix and it makes for a perfect recipe for feathers to get ruffled. These exchanges typically occur civilly with mutual respect for opinion, are logical discussions, and don’t involve “big name” coaches. Whether they don’t have the time or interest to get involved, or they don’t want to risk damaging their reputation, they normally don’t get involved. For those not familiar with this industry, consider the coaches in the above thread to be some of the all-stars in our field.
I have been dumbfounded by the depths this conversation has reached. There is simply no explanation as to why A.) such a simple topic of debate has generated this much steam or B.) people can’t accept or acknowledge their own biases. The “pro-bilateral” crowd almost inherently consists of coaches with a history of powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting, while the “pro-unilateral” crowd is almost inherently sport-based strength coaches. Some will suggest this divide is also a derivative of “old school vs. new school”, which I would say is true for the most part as well. But that aside, I’ve never understood the purpose in telling other coaches how they need to train their athletes. Not in this context, at least. Sometimes it makes for entertaining spectacle, other times, it just gets so exhaustive sifting through these exchanges.
Imagine going up to a polling booth unsure who you want to vote for. For the sake of this corny analogy, just assume you’re politically neutral. Two people approach you, one a democrat the other a republican. You ask each who the “best” candidate is to choose from, and lacking any ounce of surprise the republican proclaims his/her person is correct while the democrat proclaims his/her candidate is the right one to choose. Why in the hell would this be a conversation worth having?
Moving on from the enriching drama above, I wanted to see if I couldn’t at least find a way to capitalize and put my two cents in with timely fashion. More seriously though, I wanted to focus this article on why squat variation isn’t a lifetime commitment, why using a wide-spectrum of squatting variations is my personal approach, and why it can be naïve (particularly as a young coach) to follow suite on what these big-name coaches do/say/believe sometimes.
Let’s start by breaking down the major squat variations we most commonly see and use:
-Dumbbell goblet squat
-Barbell back squat
-Barbell front squat
-Barbell overhead squat
-Barbell split squat (all variations)
1.) DB Goblet Squat
Ok, so this one is kind of an outlier in that it wasn’t really a part of the previously detailed twitter spat. For the most part, coaches all agree on, and utilize the goblet squat for their athletes. Generally speaking, this is one of, if not the first squat variation most coaches introduce to their athletes. There isn’t much debate about safety, benefit, or use of goblet squatting.
2.) Barbell Back Squat
Reasons For: The back squat is one of the most primitive, foundational exercises in strength training. Most commonly, the back squat is found in the powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting realms, as this is an actual competitive lift in powerlifting and a cornerstone in developing the Olympic lifts. Bilateral lower-body strength is also paramount in athletic development, which shouldn’t come as breaking news to anyone. Many coaches, myself included, will use the back squat as a tool for developing lower-body, bilateral strength in athletic populations. It’s difficult to argue that back squats are among the most effective and efficient ways to increase general lower-body strength. Well, unless you’re asking Mike Boyle, I guess…
**DISCLAIMER: I've actually had the privilege to meet Mike (very briefly), I have nothing but the utmost respect for him as a coach, and he seems like a great person. Mike is one of my "Mt. Rushmore" S&C coaches and has played a substantial role in developing my career as a strength coach. As for Travis (Mash), I have never met him personally. I know he's a very prominent figure in the Oly world, and from what I've heard about him is a great coach/person, as well.
Reasons Against: There has been research conducted over the years that has suggested back squatting for (insert reason A, B, or C here) is potentially hazardous for the spine due to the loading mechanics of a back squat. Similar research studies have surmised that back squatting can be strenuous and damaging on the hips and knees as well. Additionally, certain coaches will argue that back squatting has a very low transferability to sport, most often citing that “sport is never (or rarely) played in a bilateral position.” There are also the small few who just simply suggest they get more out of split and/or unilateral squat patterns.
My Stance: For my athletes (generally 15 or older) I will typically at least expose them to back squats. Depending on the specifics, I’ll vary the frequency, intensity, etc. However, I will say that over the last two years I have significantly reduced how often I implement back squats with my athletes. But, importantly, it is not because I’m someone who finds them “dangerous.” As with anything else a good squat pattern/technique, no matter the variation, is a safe squat; the only dangerous squat is one performed or coached poorly. My primary reason for inclusion is because personally I feel it’s among the most effective way of increasing general lower-body strength (WHEN performed correctly and athlete is capable). Secondly, is because I feel squats are one of the best lifts for being exposed to the true feeling of force transfer. My thinking is that especially because you can (eventually) load them up heavy, it’s a great way to experience what kinetic force transfer is by having to both drive the bar vertically while also maintaining an upright torso (anti-flexion). This is an extremely important trait for young athletes to be adept with sooner versus later as this is highly foundational in sport.
My basic leg strength continuum:
Learn to hip hinge -- develop bilateral strength -- load hip hinge -- re-develop bilateral strength
Be able to move your hips -- Get strong as shit on both legs -- Get strong on one leg
3.) Barbell Front Squat
Reasons For: Most of the points on front squats will go hand-in-hand with the notes on back squat outlined above. Front squats have been used for decades across all spectrum's of strength training. Probably the most common place you’ll see front squats being programmed is in an Olympic weightlifting realm, as they are the foundation for cleans. There are a number of coaches who, when comparing directly to back squats, will be in favor of using the front squat for their athletes because it’s a more “athletic-based” squat pattern. Personally, I feel that’s up for interpretation based on who the athletes are, what their individual mechanics look like and how the two squats are coached.
Reasons Against: Again, similar to back squat above, the big knock with conventional front squats is that they are performed in a bilateral stance. I will say that the front squat normally doesn’t take as much heat as the back squat, and I believe this is because there is commonly less risk association with front squats, at least when considering back injuries.
My Stance: I’m not a big fan of the front squat, which isn’t to say I don’t utilize it, but it’s pretty rare that I’ll program a conventional front squat for my athletes. The only time I’ll hammer front squats is in preparation for hang cleans, which I do program quite a bit. My issue with the front squat resides mostly in the mechanics involved in securing a proper front rack position. I feel that the front rack position itself is significantly more demanding than most give credit to, and it requires a lot of work to perfect it. In order to achieve a good front rack, we need the following: flexible lats/triceps, mobile thoracic spine, very strong anterior core, and adequate anterior deltoid development. If my goal is to use the front squat as a primary means for building leg strength, I just have several preferred ways of achieving that. If there is some ancillary reason as to why I need to program front squats (i.e. precursor to implementing hang cleans), then I’ll throw them in. I just feel this is a very low “bang for my buck” exercise, as it takes quite a while for athletes to get comfortable in a front rack.
4.) Barbell Overhead Squat
Reasons For: Mostly reserved for Olympic weightlifting, and I guess CrossFit, though I really don’t keep up with what CrossFit is about. This is an extremely demanding lift, but if the athlete checks all the boxes for what’s needed to perform an overhead squat, this is a hell of a total body movement. The overhead squat is a cornerstone in the Oly world because it is a precursor for the snatch, which is one of the two competitive lifts in the sport. You will also see the overhead squat in some collegiate/pro basketball S&C realms. Given the demands of the sport, overhead squatting makes sense for basketball and volleyball players.
Reasons Against: Again, the overhead squat is no joke, it is by far the most challenging variation included in this article. I don’t know that many coaches have a hardline on overhead squats like they do with bilateral vs. unilateral, but that could just be because it is not nearly as pervasive as the others mentioned. The issue with the overhead squat is that it’s just tough as hell to perform, fairly difficult to teach/coach, and requires so many mechanical abilities and technical proficiencies. The likelihood of any given athlete walking into your weight room being able to demonstrate functional overhead flexion, incredibly mobile thoracic spine, equally stable lumbar spine, mobile hips, and ability to dorsiflex at the ankle are rare. Thus, this just isn’t a prudent choice for most athletes, at least not without substantial work on each individual component that goes into performing an overhead squat.
My Stance: I have no beef with the overhead squat. In fact, I wish I could perform them in my own training. But at 6’4 with guitar chords for hamstrings and the general limberness of a fire hydrant, I have no business programming these for my lifts. I have had a few athletes work overhead squats at low intensities, and again- very seldom do I have an athlete who is a candidate for overhead squatting. I think it’s a tremendously difficult lift to perform correctly, making it very selective who I would have do these, but if they can, this is a great lift for a global squat pattern.
5.) Barbell Split Squats (anterior and posterior hold)
Reasons For: Now the fun starts… Split squats are a modified squat variation from the aforementioned bilateral back/front squats. Conventional wisdom, simply by looking at a still image of a split squat next to a back squat would suggest that this is more conducive to how most sports are played. The most basic way to illuminate this is to then look at a still frame of someone sprinting… yea, much more closely related to the split squat. Hard to argue that. With the split squat, we are also getting some different firing patterns in the lower-body, changing the vectors (or, “lines of pull”) for both the quads and hamstrings. I would also argue that by going into a split stance we are also adding in a slight bit of anti-rotational component at the core region as well. Most will suggest that split squats are advantageous when compared to the back/front squat because we are getting the athlete in a more favorable position to optimize leg strength that will translate to sport.
Reasons Against: I honestly can’t think of why someone would have a hard stance opposing split squats, at least as it pertains to the nature of this article. My feeling is that powerlifting coaches just don’t find my value in them as they wouldn’t directly translate to their sport. As for sport-based S&C coaches, I sure as hell hope there aren’t any out there that have a zero-tolerance split squat policy. And if they do, my suggestion would be to find a different coach.
My Stance: I mentioned earlier that I have been programming bilateral squats less and less over the last two years. The short answer as to why is quite simple- I do feel that the split squat is a more athletic-specific squat pattern when compared to bilateral variations. Moreover, and this is the part that I feel gets completely overlooked in the unilateral vs. bilateral debates, I think that split squats are favorable for most when we consider how the hips are moving. To keep this simple, the hip joint, a ball & socket joint, is a remarkably complex joint. Just take my word when I say there’s a lot of shit going on at the hip during any squat, and we cannot undermine this. When mobility is compromised at the hip, we will create a compensation pattern to bypass the hip limitation- whatever it may be. The primary compensation pattern we use is by relying on the sacroiliac joint (SI Joint) to provide mobility, but this is not a fundamental responsibility of the SI joint. Conversely, the SI joint is meant to provide stability and congruency between the lower back and hips, as well as play a key role in absorbing external force. Therefore, at the precipice of executing a proper bilateral squat, we are relying on hips that are mobile enough to get into deep flexion angles (which would mean that we have no bony blocks or restrictions, no soft tissue ailments, and generally have enough laxity to move in this path of motion). In addition to that, bilateral squat patterns are often limited by ankles that lack the ability to dorsiflex under load, which again is something that most don’t consider enough.
Taking all of that into consideration, I just feel that the split squat is more conducive with a wider spectrum of human biomechanics, anatomy, and ability. And yes, I do feel they offer a more favorable position with regard to “sport specificity” and transferability. In my opinion, at our root we are fundamentally unilateral organisms. Damn near everything we do is through a unilateral pattern, and I think it’s more intuitive for most individuals to be proficient with a split squat pattern as compared to a bilateral. The other advantage we get with split vs. bilateral squat is what occurs at the foot and ankle. In the split stance, we are isometrically loading the ankle in a dorsiflexed position, and also loading the big toe while in toe extension. Not only are these key for a variety of reasons, but I’ve also noticed this is something a lot of people have a great degree of difficulty executing correctly.
I should also note here, aka provide my “cover your ass” statement, that the population I work with is almost inherently injured and quite extensively at that. Most of my athletes have a history of severe spinal damage, very poor/limited hip mobility, and generally have no business doing bilateral squat work beyond them simply having a penchant for doing so. I don’t know if that comes off as a cop-out, but that’s how I see it.
Bringing it All Together:
My overarching philosophy as a strength coach is to fit the needs of the athlete at hand with the knowledge, tools, and methods I possess and never the other way around. As this applies specifically to squat variations, I’ve found success and shortcomings with each. Therefore, assuming the technique is proficient, and the coach is able to instruct the athlete on the movement, I don’t think there’s a good or bad squat, just better or worse depending on the population/athlete. It’s baffling to me how we become glued to certain movements or training beliefs as if they are an extension of our identity. It’s just so unnecessary, and frankly, selfish on the coach to operate in such a manner. If a coach is a “bilateral squat” guy, and they spend weeks on end forcing a kid to improve his back squat, but the kid mechanically is not a good candidate for back squats, well then that’s just shitty coaching. Again, it’s our responsibility to bring the best tools, methods, protocols to the athletes that walk through our doors. Not force every single one of those athletes to “meet our preferences.”
Assuming all things being equal, my personal approach to squat progression, or I guess lower-body strength development in general is as follows:
Note: Preceding all of what’s to follow, is a heavy emphasis on developing core strength, introducing hinge patterns, introduction to basic unilateral patterns, a fair amount of hip mobility/stability work, and technique development across an array of movement patterns not specific to squats.
1.) Develop bilateral strength
-Depending on the needs and starting point for the athlete, this phase could be anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. What I deem to be sufficient lower-body strength for athletes under 16 years old is to be mechanically sound in their technique and able to perform 3-5 quality reps under load (no specific number). As for athletes over ~16 years old, I like for them to be able to back squat their body weight. At the college level, I up that ratio to 2x body weight. Again, in my opinion, I feel reasonable bilateral strength must precede any advanced unilateral work. I don’t really have anything to justify as to why, I don’t know, in my mind that’s just intuitive and I feel it will make unilateral work much cleaner and easier to progress.
2.) Introduce loaded unilateral
-This phase includes movements like split squats, RFE and FFE (front foot-elevated) split squats, SL hinging with light load, and position-specific glute and hip flexor work. Nothing about this phase is exertional, rather, we’re more concentrated on general kinesthetic (or body) awareness, sequencing movement patterns such as reverse lunge-to-step ups and hammering the technical aspects of unilateral loading. Included, is ensuring the athlete understands how the demands of the core are altered in a unilateral stance. My goal is to help the athlete become better aware of how their body moves, orients, and coordinates in a unilateral stance before I concern myself with anything else. All weights/resistances in this phase are nominal, and very low on my list of priorities.
3.) Re-develop bilateral strength
-I’ll spare the technical talk on this, but what I mean by “re-develop” is that once we shift back to emphasizing bilateral strength, the athlete has sampled a reasonable amount of unilateral work. Fundamentally, they are now better equipped to tolerate higher intensity bilateral work. By higher intensity, it could simply mean heavier external loading, or it could mean introducing tempo work with bilateral squats (i.e. eccentric, isometric, or reactive emphasis), or positional squat work such as pulsing or cycle squats. In any event, this is where I feel “exercising” is behind us, and “training” really begins.
4.) Load unilateral patterns
-Now when we come back around to unilateral loading the second time, we don’t have the same long learning curve as before and we’ve done some serious work on bilateral leg strength. This is where things start to get a little kinky and intensity really manifests… and again, by “intensity” I could mean heavy RFE split squats with a barbell Zercher hold, or it could mean SL reactive plyos or anything in between. As always- it depends.
5.) Rinse, wash, repeat
-Once we’ve made it through stages 1-4, we deload for a week or two, and get right back to it starting from the top. Obviously, everything outlined is in a relative context, so when the athlete goes back around to the top we build from where they are now. Some minor adjustments I’ll make when I go back around with my athletes is changing the bar or equipment used, add band resistance or suspended loading, introduce unbalanced patterns (which I’m falling more and more in love with), and find unique ways to challenge the athlete specifically, such as positional squats.
The most simplistic yet effective way you can perceive all of this in my opinion is that unless the athlete is specifically required to perform X, Y, or Z in competition, then it doesn’t HAVE to be included in your training catalog. I’ll use high school football players as an example of what I consider a slight caveat to this. Football players obviously aren’t required to back squat on the gridiron on Friday nights. BUT, they are typically mandated to lift with the team, and whether this is fair or not, or the right or wrong way to go about it- your attendance and performance in the weight room will be inextricably linked to your playing time (unless you’re just a stud, in which more exceptions are made). So with my guys falling in this category I’ll squat them heavy when I work with them in the off-season, so when they roll in to team lifts they aren’t standing out in the wrong way.
Again, I can’t overstate this enough, there isn’t a right or wrong, there is what you are most effective with as a coach, what the athlete is capable of, and what equipment/time/space you have available to you. Every squat variation when performed correctly is effective. Moreover, when squatting is performed correctly and loaded appropriately, there is an extremely low risk for injury. If you’re a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter, you’re going to be in a bilateral squat 99% of the time because, well… it’s literally what you do in competition. If you’re any other athlete, we can go for hours on why this or that may be better or worse for you… but it’s not the squat variation that should be in question. It should be YOUR training and injury history, your individual anatomy and biomechanics, and the coach’s intuition from there.
What Does the Research Say:
I am far from a sport scientist or biomechanist. I believe that as a strength coach, I need to read, and interpret academic research as it applies to my environment, task, and responsibilities. What I mean by that is that I need to be aware of the shortcomings to outcomes that are heavily controlled, premeditated, and often biased or manipulated. Although, yes, the weight room is also very much a controlled setting, we are not constructing workouts in even remotely the same conditions nor with the same intent. By no means am I undermining the remarkable work our scholars perform, without research nothing would exist as we know it. But despite a great deal of cross-over, there are also many unbridgeable gaps.
To that end, I’ll leave you with some formal research along with some perspectives from the big name coaches I feel are reasonably well done and allow you all to interpret for yourselves. This is a medley of pro-back squat/bilateral, pro-unilateral and anti-back squat/bilateral research studies, and again, I feel each have merit in their own regard.
--> Mike Boyle describing his personal stance in more detail