A Better Exercise Than the Squat? Well, It Depends!

“Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the truth of the matter.”

Ibn al-Arabi

It’s not often that I fully agree with strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle (here’s one example) — but then again, I don’t fully follow any single coach’s path, preferring, instead, to blaze my own n=1 trail.  On the subject of the back squat, however, I have to give the man his due; I believe he is spot on in his critique of the exercise and with his assertion that most trainees would be better off (subsequent to building a solid, base level of squatting strength)  migrating from the back squat to the various forms of split squats, especially the rear foot elevated split squat.  And I would add to this, variations of the high-box step-up.

A Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)…Huh?

Just so we’re all on the same page, here an example of the RFESS:

…and the step-up:

Why would I champion the idea of most trainees phasing out the back squat in preference to split squat variations and step-ups?  Well, a couple of reasons.  To begin with, most all athletic endeavors, as well as life itself, requires lower-body strength in a unilateral environment.  A second reason is that most trainees will fail in the squat, not due to leg failure, but due to lower back failure; quite simply, the lower back cannot support the load required to push the legs, in a bilateral environment, to failure.  Ah, you say — so would the leg press be a better option?  Well, in some trainees it might be, but for the most part I’d rather work in the real-world of an unstable environment.

Built for Traditional Squats?

Check out my little whiteboard sketch below.  Really, this is no more than a statement of the obvious — if a load is teetering on a narrow base, and if that load must be pushed a greater distance and if the load/lever combination is at a mechanical disadvantage with respect to gravity — well, you get the picture…What all this boils down to, in my experience and my empirical evidence, is a simple waist/inseam ratio.  The lesser the ratio, the lesser the benefit a trainee will realize from conventional back squatting, and the sooner in his lifting career he probably ought to transition to a unilateral environment.

whiteboard "wisdom"
whiteboard “wisdom”

Personally, I have a hell of a time trying to fully tax my legs in a full back squat with a 33-inch waist sitting high atop a 35-inch inseam.  But here are a couple of other interesting pieces of the puzzle that I’ve yet to get a handle on: (1) power generation out of the jump squat, and (2) glute/hamstring contribution, and how that figures into the mix.  Notice that at a 33-inch waist and 40-inches around the  hips, I do carry quite a bit of junk in the trunk.  Now follow me here just for a moment, while I “think” aloud: (1) When I fail in the squat, it’s never “in the hole”, where the glutes are fully engaged — it’s about midway up, where that lower back lever is at its worst mechanical advantage, and where glute activation has been (relatively) removed from the picture, (2) I can wreck my Dachshund-built, squatting-machine brethren in the high step up, which is mostly a glute-driven exercise (see this TMuscle article), and (3) I can’t prove this, but I would be willing to bet that I can also generate more power from (and posses a greater power/bw ratio) in the jump squat than my Dachshund-built, squatting-machine brethren.   My point with all of this?  The notion of  “training what you suck at” — which I agree with, to a point — must not be followed blindly, but must be leveraged against what stands to make the athlete a better athlete, or the mere mortal, better at life.

So that’s my take on the matter.  For what it’s worth, the vast majority of my bilateral squatting (which is pretty infrequent, when compared to my unilateral work) is done as a front squat — I’ve just always felt like I reaped more benefit out of this movement as compared to the back squat.   You can check out coach Boyle’s reasoning for moving away from the bilateral squat, in a pair of  TMuscle articles, this one from 2007, and most recently, here.  And you can see a clip of coach Boyle discussing the matter here, as a plug for his Functional Strength Coach 3.0 video series, and you can check out his blog posts on the subject, here.

And there’s plenty of ongoing discussion on the subject at this string, at the JP Fitness Forums site.

Remember, as always, the real answer to this question can only be answered by an objective survey of your own n=1 results as they relate to your goals.  Don’t be afraid, though, to test, tinker and adjust.  Remember, to, that there are no failures, only feedback.

In health,

Keith