Careful with those Back Squats

Daniel McQuaid Illinois HS Cross Country 0 Comments

Even though temperatures continue to reach the 50’s, I can tell that winter is upon us because our weight room is crowded with athletes participating in off-season lifting.

This is good news, as properly executed weight training can improve performance in just about every sport.

Unfortunately, in the rush to build strength it is not uncommon for athletes and their coaches to forgo sound technique. This is often the case with the back squat.

High school athletes love to back squat because it is a lift in which you can move a lot of weight. High school coaches tend to love back squats as well, because they like seeing their athletes move a lot of weight. Nothing better than walking into the fitness room and seeing a kid you have been counting on to perform well in the upcoming season loading up a bar with a bunch of plates.

It does the heart good.

I would recommend, though, that athletes and coaches take a second to consider the following points before getting too carried away in the squat rack.

 

  1. In order to squat safely, the lifter must maintain excellent posture. Their ability to do this should determine the weight with which they train. Take a look at this video I shot in the training hall at last year’s World Weightlifting Championships. These athletes can squat a ton of weight! And they perform a huge number of sets in the course of a year–many, many more than a typical high school athlete. How do they do that without getting injured? Take a look at their posture in both back and front squats.

 

 

Do you see how they remain upright (shoulders over hips) throughout each rep? This  puts the spine in the best possible position to bear weight.

Here is a vid published by USA Weightlifting that provides more illustrations of  sound squatting posture.

Unfortunately, you rarely see kids maintain healthy posture when squatting in high school weight rooms, and for one main reason: lack of patience.

Squatting safely requires coaches and athletes to let a kid’s ability to maintain sound technique determine the amount of weight lifted.

Let’s say an athlete can replicate the technique you saw in those vids while bearing nothing more than the weight of a PVC pipe on their back. Great, then let them try some reps using an unloaded bar. Do they still look like the athletes in those vids? If so, then let them try some reps with light weights. But, if you add weight and they all of sudden start looking like the guy in this  photo…

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…then it is time to take a step back because an athlete who squats with this kind of posture is putting his or her back under tremendous stress.

So, it is vital that we coaches tell kids to forget about how much their best friend says he squats, or how much they wish they could squat, or how much the school record board says somebody once squatted, and to let their ability to maintain a healthy posture dictate the amount of weight they put on the bar.

Because I’ve never seen anybody get stronger while immobilized in a back brace for a couple of months, have you?

But it takes patience to adhere to safe technique while gradually building strength.

I know that from personal experience. I myself was an impatient knuckleheaded athlete many years ago when weight lifting was just starting to become widely practiced in high school sports. I loved lifting from the first time I tried it, and by the winter of my sophomore year, I could back squat 375 pounds at a body weight of approximately 165 pounds.

At least that’s what I told everybody.

In reality, I could load 375 pounds on a bar, get under it, lift it off the pins, bend my knees a little bit, lurch forward like the guy in the photo, and then somehow get the  bar back on the pins without it crushing me. How  I did not crack every one of my vertebrae in the  process is a mystery.

Lucky for me, in the winter of my junior year I started training with a kid whose older brother was a serious student of lifting. He was in college at the time, but he lived at home and often gave us training advice. I admired him the way teenagers often admire college kids, I suppose because he was old enough to appear wise but young enough to seem much cooler than my parents or coaches.  So I took his advice and started squatting deeply with an upright posture even though it meant dialing back the weight I trained with to less than 100 pounds. Yep. One measly, twenty-five-pound plate on each side of the bar whereas before I’d loaded at least three forty-five-pound plates on each side. I felt like a complete pansy.

But, because I trusted my friend’s brother and wanted his approval I patiently adhered to sound technique while slowly adding weight.  By the time I graduated a year and a half later weighing 195 pounds (thanks, puberty!), I could finally squat that 375 deeply and with solid posture.

So, it can be done. It is entirely possible to have a weight room full of kids squatting with healthy technique–if we coaches constantly reinforce the necessity of letting each kid’s ability to maintain proper form dictate the weight they use.

2. There are kids who will never get comfortable back squatting.

Have you ever heard of Al Vermeil? He is a fantastic strength coach, now retired, but a longtime innovator in the field who trained the world champion San Francisco 49ers in the 1980’s and the world champion Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s. My friend Mike Gattone, himself a superb strength trainer, worked for Al in the early 2000’s. At that time, I had a fine shot putter–thickly built, powerful, a hard-worker in the weight room–who just could not get comfortable with back squats. His posture was not as bad as the guy in the picture, but once he hit the bottom of his squat he could not keep from hunching over a bit. Mike, a great guy and a big fan of the throwing events,  invited me to bring my athlete to the Berto Center so he could take a look at him. Al watched Mike tinker with the kid’s back squat technique for a while and then started firing questions at me. ”

“Can he do single leg squats?”

“Yes.”

“Can he front squat?”

“Yes.”

Can he overhead squat?”

“Yes. A hundred kilos for sets of three.”

“Then what in the hell difference does it make if he can back squat!?”

It was such a sensible question that even I got his point. I wasn’t training the kid to be the world back squat champion. I was trying to get him strong so that he could throw the shot put far. And there are many ways to do that, with or without back squats.

Think of it this way. In football, we work hard to teach our players proper tackling technique. Most pick it up, but some do not. If a kid seems incapable of tackling with safe form, a coach has to start thinking about putting him on offense because allowing him to continue putting himself at risk playing defense would be unethical. I’ll argue that the same goes for back squats. If you coach the heck out of an athlete and he or she just can’t maintain safe posture, it makes no sense to allow them to keep inviting injury. Especially when there are so many alternative ways to build lower body strength.

 

3. Yes, it is important to squat deeply. And I am going to define “deeply” as the depth shown in the illustrations in the USATF video.

I know, I know. Very few sports require athletes to explode out of a deep squat. So what is the point of having them sit low in the squat rack?

To me, it is a safety issue. As illustrated by the anecdote about my own high school lifting exploits, kids can load a ton of weight on their back if they are only going to perform a partial squat. Had I continued using lousy form, God only knows how much weight I’d have tried to lift. And you know how I’d have eventually realized it was too much? When I fractured a vertebrae or damaged a disc.

Squatting deeply with erect posture limits, in a healthy way, the amount of weight that an athlete can put on their back. And because adhering to strict form usually eliminates those miracle 100-pound-in-one-week increases, it gives the muscles that protect the spine a chance to adapt to gradually increasing loads.

Looking back, I owe my friend’s brother for saving me from my stupid self.

And we all owe it to our athletes to help them have a great experience in the weight room by training them to lift (back squat or whatever) safely.

 

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