The Squat: Good Exercise Gone Bad?

Tags ,

A few weeks ago a video of strength coach Mike Boyle presenting at a seminar hit the Internet, and boy did it piss some people off. Why? Just take a look at this quote from Boyle:

"This is going to be the hardest thing for people to accept. The muscle-head crowd, the T-Muscle crowd...they're gonna be like, 'Mike you're saying don't do squats any more.' Yes, I'm saying don't do conventional squats any more."

I watched the clip again. No more squatting? But isn't it the king of lower body exercises? Just what the hell was going on?

The forums were already exploding with people agreeing and vehemently disagreeing with Boyle. I had to get to the bottom of it.

So I called Boyle to get his thoughts. Then, because I wanted to hear other points of view, I called Dave Tate, Christian Thibaudeau, and Eric Cressey.

I learned a ton about squats over the next few hours (more than I cared to know, honestly). But more importantly, I had the information to decide for myself if I'd continue to squat or not.

After reading this article, I hope you'll be comfortable making your own decision, too.

But don't take anything here as gospel; it's just four dudes who really know their stuff.

The Functional Strength Coach Mike Boyle

The Squat

The squat isn't a leg exercise.

I've watched over two million squats and have come to this conclusion: the squat is not a leg exercise; it's a low-back exercise.

The whole purpose of the conventional squat is to put a barbell on your shoulders and transfer power from there, through your body, and into your legs. But the weak link isn't your legs—it's your back. Watch someone squat and you'll see they rarely have trouble getting out of the hole. But nearly all of them will bend forward when they fail.

You have to see where I'm coming from.

My business isn't getting someone to squat a lot of weight or getting someone's legs big. It's developing the best performer and exposing that person to the lowest injury-rate possible. I have to look at everything from a risk to benefit ratio.

Here's what we found. 

We realized we could load the spine with fifty percent less weight, do a single-leg exercise, and quadruple the benefits. If one of our athletes could squat 400 pounds for one rep, we'd put 200 pounds on his back, and have him do a rear-leg elevated split squat (Bulgarian split squat). The average reps, we found, were 10 to 14 on each leg.

What that tells me is that if we split the load in half and do ten reps with what was half of our regular bilateral 1RM load, it makes it a superior exercise.

Why wouldn't you do this? It's like if I offered you the exact same car but sold it to you at half-price. "But, Mike, I've always paid full price."

What these guys are saying to me is, "Mike, I've always risked my spine and I'm going to keep doing that."

I say fine. Do what you want.

Bodybuilders have always wanted a way to get more out of their legs.

That's why they'd use the leg press or the leg extension machine. Because it "took their back" out of the exercise. Well, why not take less pressure off the back from the start, get more load on each leg, and fully reap the benefits? And why do bodybuilders really care about the squat? They just want big legs, right? There are other ways to get 'em.

I know what people are going to say.

Oh, Mike Boyle's a pussy and doesn't want to lay it on the line. He doesn't even look like he lifts. Whatever. It doesn't bother me.

I'll never have my athletes do a back squat again.

I'm not sure about the front squat; I may find we're not getting strong enough and put it back in, but I doubt it. When I've taken this much time to make a decision I've rarely gone back.

We still hammer our lower bodies. 

We do rear-elevated split squats, unsupported single-leg squats, trap bar deadlifts and single-leg straight-leg deadlifts. We hit it hard, so don't think we're slacking.

That video wasn't a knee-jerk reaction.

Look, we haven't done a back squat in over 10 years and we stopped doing front squats this summer. I didn't just want to create controversy on the Internet. My "negative" point of view on squats is the product of over 25 years of thinking about the best ways to get strong and stay injury free.

The Powerlifter Dave Tate

Dave Tate

There's no such thing as a bad exercise.

There's just bad application or bad programming. Is there something wrong with the squat? Yes and no. If the program is a disaster or the person isn't built for it, then yes, there is something wrong. If it's programmed well then I don't see any problem at all.

We don't just train the squat.

We train the movements that would make the squat better. From my experience, training the squat week in and week out without having a program to make the squat better is going to be a huge problem.

That's why we may use the cambered or safety squat bar. We may do box squats, belt squats, or squats against bands.

Let's put things in perspective.

First, it's an exercise that's part of a sport. The squat, bench press, deadlift, clean, jerk, and snatch all are part of sports and are pretty fucking important. I mean, they don't have a single-leg squat competition.

The squat was probably one of the first exercises ever done with a barbell. It's one of the few that has stood the test of time. How many other machines, products, or fads have come and gone?

If it were truly a bad exercise it would have faded out a long time ago.

You've got to have balls to do it.

I can't think of another exercise that builds more confidence. It takes persistence and straining to get better.

At what point did it become not functional?

We're going to sit down and pick up shit all our lives. Now all of a sudden these main lifts aren't functional? What's more functional than sitting down?

It's hard to sell a squat.

It just doesn't make you any money. Give me twenty bucks and I'll tell you the greatest exercise ever. You ready? The squat. No, you can't have your fucking money back.

From a powerlifting standpoint, it can be overused.

Anything can be over-trained. But if you've got a program that's producing a bunch of people who are squatting 275 pounds, your program sucks. We've got high school kids doing that after training for a month.

We don't use single-leg movements.

They just don't transfer over for powerlifters. If one leg is already stronger than the other, doing single-leg work doesn't balance anything out. It just makes it worse. We need our guys to be able to push evenly with both legs.

It all depends on what your goal is.

If it's to get bigger legs, break out a tape measure and calipers. If your legs are getting bigger, you're not getting fatter, and you're not squatting, then keep doing what you're doing.

The worst thing you can do is switch because someone told you to. If you're making progress with what you're doing, then stick to it.

The Bodybuilder Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau

I think the squat is a great exercise, but only if you're built for it.

Guys who have long legs compared to their torsos, like hockey players, would turn the back squat into a low-back exercise since their leverage is different. And if you worked primarily with those kinds of athletes, then I could definitely see why you may not think the squat is an optimal exercise. Still, it's great for the guys who have shorter legs and longer torsos.

Here's how to tell if you're a natural squatter.

Stand in front of a wall with your hands behind your head in a squatting stance. Your toes should be about six inches away from the wall. Do a regular squat. If your knees or face touch the wall you're not built for squatting. If they don't, you're fine. If you fall over backward then you need to lay off the booze.

If you're not built for squats, don't worry.

Just replace them with trap bar and snatch-grip deadlifts. You'll get some great quad development from those two exercises.

Even if you are built for squats, you still may "fall forward."

In this case the squat is showing you what you need to work on: your low-back and abs.

My training partner Nick has strong legs but always fell forward when he went above 365 pounds. His back was his weak link, so we dropped the squat for six weeks and worked on his low-back. When he came back to the squat it increased by 50 pounds.

You can find a justification to stop doing any exercise. It doesn't mean you should stop, though.

If I'm doing a bench press and I always fail at the mid-point, it doesn't mean the bench press is a bad exercise or will hurt my shoulders. It just means my shoulders are weak compared to my other pressing muscles. I'd be smart to take some time off of pressing and fix my shoulder weakness.

It's called the bilateral deficit.

If I do reps with both legs on the leg extension I may be able to do 200 pounds. But if I do each leg separately I may be able to do 120 pounds with each leg or 240 pounds total. How does that work?

Well, when you do a unilateral movement, the whole nervous impulse is sent to one side and allows you to focus more of your attention and muscle fibers on that single working limb.

That's one of the reasons people with long limbs will do better with single leg movements: they're able to recruit more muscle fibers.

But as that athlete becomes more and more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers, you'll see the deficit vanish and they'll be at the same strength. Then it's time to go back to bilateral movements.

When you switch back to the squat it may take two weeks for it to go up.

It's called delayed transmutation of gains. You're basically getting a new body. Let's say you're used to driving a Honda Civic but now you have a Lamborghini. Even though the Lamborghini is more powerful, it takes some time to learn how to handle it. It's the same thing with your body.

The Athlete-Creator Eric Cressey

I don't contraindicate exercises; I contraindicate people.

People may be skewed because they deal with different populations. Mike deals with mostly hockey players. For those guys, it's understood that you're going to play most of your career with a groin strain. It's a population where their hips are an absolute disaster. They have poor hip internal rotation and bad adductor tissue quality and length. And when those are your issues it makes it harder to squat deep safely.

I'm in the same boat, too.

I tend to be more cautious with upper body stuff since I deal with more baseball players. It's understandable. But a lot of our guys still squat. We do mainly front squats but we also do back squats with the cambered and safety squat bars. It all depends on if their flexibility is up to par.

I wonder if we're taking this stuff a little too far.

I don't know if anything is truly functional. The guys who walk through our door, their problems can be fixed with a little more strength and a better attitude.

I'm a huge single-leg fan.

But I think you're missing out if you drop squats altogether. Bilateral movements are still our bread and butter. I mean, you squat every time you take a shit.

It's not so cut and dry.

Some guys can't front squat because they have shoulder problems. Does that mean the front squat is a bad exercise? Nope, it just means guys with messed up shoulders shouldn't be doing them.

You want to be a better squatter?

Optimize your hip, thoracic-spine, and ankle mobility. Work on core stability and see what happens. If you fix all of that I don't know why you wouldn't squat. Athletes have been doing it forever; it's just a damn good exercise.

The T Nation Reader: You

Now that we've heard from four of the top guys in the fitness industry, we want to know your opinion. Will you still squat? Will you drop it in favor of single leg exercises? Will you take some time off? Let us know in the discussion forums!