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What's wrong with the barbell squat?

? In your August (1998) column you mentioned several exercises your athletes do not perform. One of them is the barbell squat. Why did you eliminate this exercise from your program? What are the alternative exercises your athletes do in its place?

Coach Gene Simon, Redondo Union High School, Redondo Beach, CA

We are not telling you to eliminate the barbell squat from your program. (You may not have any alternatives.) What we are telling you is... athletes don't have to squat to stimulate maximum gains, and there are safer alternatives. If possible, we suggest you give your players an alternative.


Before the early 1970's, most coaches discouraged any lifting. Once they learned how valuable a strength program could be, they scrambled to find information. Few sources were available.

The primary source of information became the people who were most heavily involved with "weight-lifting" - the muscle magazines and the competitive power lifters, Olympic lifters, and bodybuilders.

The coaches had to turn to them for exercises and routines. And guess what happened? Their athletes grew stronger and the coaches became better informed! Coaches soon learned it wasn't all that difficult to figure out. You can increase strength by using more weight and/or doing more reps.

Since the three exercises being performed in competitive power lifting were the squat, deadlift, and bench press, these became the foundation of most strength programs.

The barbell squat, a multi-joint exercise, is a great movement that involves all of the major muscles that cross the hip, knee, and ankle joints. It actually was the only functional multi-joint exercise available in the '60s and early '70s, and it became the core lower-body exercise in all strength-training programs.


What we know now that we didn't know then is that the strength-training needs of our athletes are different from the needs of the power lifters, Olympic lifters, and bodybuilders. There are similarities, but also differences. For example, most weightlifters and bodybuilders ignore the muscles of the neck - which must be the No. 1 priority of most athletes. (See Photo 1.)

With the invention of the barbell in the early 1900's, the squat became a staple of the "weight-lifting" routine. There were no alternatives. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1970's that any significant improvements were made in equipment design.

Today, the equipment manufacturers are designing specific equipment that address the anatomical needs of a muscle or group of muscles. The safer and more productive equipment enables the athletes to perform the squatting action without having to place a barbell upon their shoulders.


Next time you see anyone perform a barbell squat, observe him from the hips down and then from the hips up. The flexion and extension of the hip joint, called the squatting motion, is a very productive part of the squat.

The activity from the hips up is not considered part of the squatting motion. (There are safer and better ways of exercising the muscles of the lower back and upper body.)


Since the hips and legs possess the biggest muscles of the body, a significant amount of weight is needed to adequately stress them. The barbell squatter must lift with the bar resting on his shoulders.

Result? He vertically loads the spine and compresses it with a heavy weight, which produces a risk. Our medical staff believes that this kind of loading should be avoided whenever possible.

You have to understand that the lower back muscles are the weak link in the barbell squat, limiting the potential strength development of the hips and legs. The squatter also has to move his knees ahead of his ankles, and the farther forward they move, the greater the stretch of the joint and the greater the shearing action.

Obviously, the taller the athlete, the greater the strain on the lower back and knees - and who knows how much structural damage can be caused by squatting over the years. It is not just by chance that most successful lifters are short.

Photo 2 shows the correct alignment of the knees and ankles to prevent the shearing action.


Equipment manufacturers have designed a multitude of exercises to substitute for the squatting motion. We offer our players six different exercises to choose from.

Photos 3 and 4 depict the starting and extended positions of one of our exercises.

Our athletes derive all of the benefits of the squatting motion without the limitations of the barbell squat.

As you can see, we have eliminated the vertical compression of the spine, thus enabling us to train the hips and legs intensely without risk of injury to the lower back or having the weaker lower back restrict the training of the hips and legs.

By stabilizing the athlete's feet, we can prevent the knees from moving ahead of the ankles in the squatting position.

Recap: For many years, the barbell squat was the only multi-joint lower-body exercise we used. We extolled its virtues and never thought of dropping it from our program.

When we finally did so, it didn't take long for our athletes to appreciate the benefits of the alternative exercise. We could now push our players harder without the risk of hurting the lower back or aggravating the knees.


Most of our athletes have performed the squat at one time or another. Some have been hurt and some say they refused squatting, even though it was part of the program. We know that specific adaptations have supposedly enhanced the barbell squat, but we do not believe that the adaptations are significant enough to warrant exposing our athletes to the short and long term hazards of the squat.

If you feel strongly about including squats in your program - or have athletes that prefer squatting - make sure you teach sound lifting and spotting techniques. Injuries in the weight room cannot be tolerated.

We would also suggest that you do your athletes a favor (unless they are competitive power lifters) by giving them an alternative for the barbell squat. You will not be blocking their physical development nor diminishing the potential success of their team.

Most important, when they become middle-aged adults, their spine, low back, and knees, will probably feel a heck of a lot better.

Next month we will take on the power clean and plyometrics. Meanwhile...

May the Power be with you.
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Author:Arapoff, Jason
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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