Squatting With A Bar On Your Back Is The ONLY Way To Get Strong, Right?
Before the rise of the online fitness industry, things used to be simpler. Ah, the good ‘ole days! Back when the universal approach to getting bigger and stronger via strength training was extremely straight forward. If you wanted to get stronger, you lifted heavy weights with the big barbell lifts and focused on progressive overload. If you wanted to build muscle, you just did more sets and higher reps with the big barbell lifts to accrue more training volume and grow.
And if you wanted to develop a big, strong, functional lower body that looked as powerful as it performed, the barbell back squat was THE mandatory lower body exercise for achieving muscle, strength and performance gains.
For more than a century of strength training history, the barbell back squat has been the undisputed KING of the gym. Well, this held true until one of the most successful and decorated strength and conditioning coaches and the industry publicly challenged the status quo and changed the way the industry viewed barbell back squatting forever.
A decade ago, Mike Boyle shook the world of strength and conditioning straight down to the core by challenging one of the most beloved core beliefs in strength; the “fact” that to develop lower body strength, athletes MUST barbell back squat. When Boyle came out and stated that he had eliminated barbell back squats from his athlete’s programming, it was surprising, it was a bit scandalous, and for many, it was downright blasphemous.
But NOT barbell back squatting was just the start. Boyle went on to state that at his legendary facility Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning were replacing barbell back squatting with a focus on unilateral exercises, namely the Bulgarian split squat, also known as the rear-foot elevated split squat (RFESS) and its many derivatives, it sparked some of the greatest debates in fitness industry history that are still highly fiery today:
- Are Bulgarian split squats superior to barbell back squatting?
- Is the barbell back squat inherently dangerous?
- Are the bilateral barbell lifts functional for sport and life?
- Are Bulgarian split squats safer on the spine than barbell back squats?
And as we all know, the small details and minor minutia of this list could go on forever…
Boyle’s polarizing stance on barbell back squatting changed the industry (and the way coaches trained their athletes) forever.
Today, the “squat debate” has caused many coaches to choose sides. To hold their ground and decide what they believe in, Bulgarian split squats OR barbell back squatting. But even after 10 years of debating, there has yet to be an established best practice for strength coaches and personal trainers when it comes to whether or not to barbell back squat their clients, and more specifically, whether the split squat is a safer, more effective and sport specific alternative to the once nonnegotiable barbell back squat.
While some coaches vehemently agreed with Boyle’s points, having moved away from barbell back squatting with great amount of success for building muscle and strength while improving performance, there are still PLENTY of well-known and highly respected strength coaches who continue to implement barbell back squats into their athlete’s and client’s programs with great success.
Before you ditch the barbell and opt for the Bulgarian split squat instead, OR choose to chase the polar opposite end of the spectrum and exclusively back squat and excluding single leg work in training, there’s something that you NEED to realize… The power of programming (no matter your sport, discipline or focus) is rarely measured in absolute one size fits all options.
BUT in today’s fitness industry people want answers. That means someone has to be right, of course making someone else wrong. Here’s the truth behind the split squat vs. squat debate; the good, the bad and the downright ugly leading to poor muscle and strength results and even potential injury.
Team Split Squats vs. Team Squat: Who Is RIGHT?
So the question remains, should YOU be barbell back squatting? Should your clients be ditching the barbell and focusing on split squat work instead? Don’t make the mistake of falling for false factual absolutes in training, one of the single most subjective subjects on earth. The real answer falls somewhere in the middle. Hear me out, and try not to take sides, at least YET.
Although it may seem like the debate between ‘team split squat’ and ‘team squat’ has reached a stalemate, the opposite is (mostly) true. Amongst the industry’s top strength coaches, the differences in opinion aren’t always about the exercises in and of themselves, but rather dependent on the context and the individual(s).
For that reason, it’s crucial to look beyond the X’s and O’s of theoretical programming and instead, remember the most fundamental principle of intelligent training: minimizing risk while maximizing reward. Why? If your training leaves you beat up, broken down, and burnt out, it’s only a matter of time until you and your results take a major hit.
As Dr. Rusin has said, “What’s the point of being big and strong if you’re always hurt and in pain?” The answer is a no-brainer: there isn’t one. Your deadlift numbers are meaningless if you throw out your back every time you sneeze, nor is your powerlifting total very impressive if you’re being spoon-fed applesauce at age 52.
At the end of the day, health and longevity reign supreme (yes, even for high level sports performance). While getting stronger should be a primary goal for all individuals, there’s no specific exercise or training modality that needs to be force-fed at the expense of short- or long-term health.
Keeping that in mind, it’s time to dive into the X’s and O’s. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What’s better, and what’s worse? Most importantly, what should you (or your clients/athletes) do? Per usual, the answer isn’t as black and white as it’s often made out to be, which makes asking (and answering) several essential questions a necessary first step to sift through the noise.
Should You Do Split Squats (and Other Unilateral Exercises)?
Short answer: Split squats are one of the best exercises in any training arsenal for building functional strength, packing on muscle, improving performance, and enhancing health and longevity.
Many people have been brainwashed into thinking that split squats and their derivatives should be pigeon holed into light weight, high rep schemes that serve little to no purpose for building muscle and strength. Make no mistake about it, when pushed to their absolute limits, split squats can hammer the entire lower body as hard (or harder) than any bilateral movement while reducing joint stress in the process. Here are 3 of the top reasons why split squats are so valuable:
#1 Split squats are arguably the most functional exercise that can be performed in the gym.
Very few activities in life are done with two feet on the ground, which makes sense considering that the hips function in a reciprocal manner during locomotion – AKA, the most fundamental movement pattern of all. In this respect, split squats are as truly “functional” as it gets as they train single-leg stability and balance, challenge many of the oft-neglected lower body stabilizers, and, most importantly, mimic the locomotive pattern. This is especially pertinent when talking about athletic performance, as virtually all athletic movements (sprinting, jumping and landing on one leg, changing direction, etc.) occur on one leg.
#2 Split squats are unparalleled in their ability to build functional strength and muscle while sparing the spine.
Split squats take advantage of the bilateral deficit phenomenon. The bilateral deficit refers to the fact that the body can produce more force unilaterally (per leg) than it can bilaterally (in total). For example, I’ve had athletes with a back squat 1-RM of 450 lbs. who can crank out 5 reps of split squats on each leg with two 100-lb. dumbbells and a 50-lb. weight vest (250 lbs. in total).
It may be an oversimplification, sure, but the sum of the latter (500 lbs. for 5 reps) greatly outweighs the former (450 lbs. for 1 rep). The argument is sometimes made that the rear leg assists in taking on some of the load, but that’s largely splitting hairs. What’s more important is that it’s helping with stabilization so that the working leg can push with significantly more force.
Split squats have three additional advantages from a hypertrophy standpoint which, in combination with the bilateral deficit, can spur lower body muscle growth in even the smallest of canaries.
- Whereas the limiting factor in a bilateral squat may be the lower back (during back squats) or the upper back (during front squats), split squats are essentially limitless in that they place a laser-like focus on the entire musculature of the working leg without any constraints.
- Research has shown that unilateral training can increase the number of muscle fibers that are recruited during an exercise, which typically leads to greater gains in strength and size (Pinto et al.). Other studies have shown that rear foot elevated split squat variation may elicit higher levels of glute and hamstring activity than bilateral squats (McCurdy et al.).
- Split squats are extremely versatile from a programming standpoint, which makes it easy to plug and play in order to tap into all three mechanisms of hypertrophy: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
The added kicker? Unlike heavily-loaded barbell squats, loading up split squats with kettlebells, dumbbells, and/or weight vests places virtually zero stress on the spine.
#3 Split squats can remedy dysfunction, strengthen weak links, and bulletproof the body against injury.
As Dr. Rusin has stated in the past, unilateral exercises are one of the most powerful orthopedic health indicators out there, as a lack of single-leg strength, stability, and/or balance is closely linked to lower back, hip, and knee pain. Whether it’s a strength discrepancy between sides, faulty movement mechanics, or specific weak links (among other red flags), split squats will provide immediate feedback and subsequently address any underlying issues contributing to pain and dysfunction.
Plus, improving lower body function isn’t just about minimizing injury risk. As a matter of fact, many common issues that split squats address are the same issues that bottleneck many lifters’ strength numbers. This is one of the main reasons why Dr. Rusin includes so much single-leg work into his Functional Power Training and Functional Hypertrophy Training; beyond promoting pain-free training, split squats have a tremendous carryover to overall strength.
Should YOU Squat? The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Short answer: it’s not a question of ‘if’ you should squat, but rather ‘how’ you should squat.
Does that mean that squatting is bad? Absolutely not! As is the case with split squat, it’s hard to argue against the functionality of the squat pattern (key word: pattern) as it’s one of the most fundamental movement requirements of daily living. At the very least, everyone should be able to execute a technically sound squat without collapsing into a pile of Jenga blocks.
Going back to Boyle, the assumption is often made that he’s against bilateral squatting, although that misinterpretation couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, he (as well as the guys at MBSC Thrive) programs goblet squats for both their athletes and their adults on a weekly basis. The difference lies in the method of loading – not in the execution of the pattern itself.
In other words, it’s not a question of if you should squat, but rather how you should squat. Given its wide range of benefits for all things strength, muscle, performance, and function, the squat pattern should be a staple in every capable individual’s training program. There are 3 primary reasons why bilateral barbell back squatting can be VERY good:
#1 The squat pattern can work wonders for enhancing lower body function and improving performance.
When performed properly, the squat pattern increases functional mobility in the hip flexors, adductors, and ankles, improves motor control and coordination, teaches tension throughout the entire pillar complex, and ingrains authentic movement under load. From a performance standpoint, the squat can be a game changer for improving force absorption, grooving triple flexion at the hips, knees, and ankles, and teaching individuals to manage their center of gravity.
#2 The squat pattern has a number of unparalleled muscle-building benefits.
Split squats have their fair share of muscle-building advantages, but that’s not to say that the squat pattern doesn’t have its own unique set of benefits. For starters, while the inherent need for stability and balance during split squat is a plus from a functional standpoint, it can be a potential downside when hypertrophy is the primary goal.
In this regard, the goblet squat is especially valuable for muscle-building purposes as it minimizes the inherent risks that accompany barbell squats, ensures good technique, removes otherwise limiting factors, and allows you to scale up the reps in order to absolutely tax the entire lower half (as anyone who has completed Dr. Rusin’s goblet squat challenge knows).
Plus, bilateral squats involve a much bigger range of motion than split squats, which allows for more overall “work” (force x distance) to be performed. Since more work and a greater range of motion are typically associated with more muscle, bilateral squats may be a better bang-for-your-buck option for putting on muscle.
#3 Squatting is the best way to build absolute strength in the bilateral pattern and boost squat numbers.
For powerlifters and gym-goers who are looking to beef up their strength numbers, it goes without saying that handling heavier loads with barbell squats will lead to the greatest gains in absolute strength. In particular, barbell squats produce a powerful strength-based neurological response, groove technical competency, and challenge a lifter’s ability to maintain a strong brace under load unlike anything else. While split squats (especially rear foot elevated variations) may build more functional strength relative to life and/or athletic performance, barbell squats will have a greater carryover to absolute strength in the bilateral pattern.
The Bad with Barbell Back Squats: Dogmatic One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Here’s the caveat: not all squats are created equal. While the squat pattern itself is mandatory, the back squat – or any other particular variation – is not. The problem is that squatting is almost always associated with back squatting, despite the fact that the back squat is arguably the most complex and demanding exercise that can be performed in the gym.Still, many gym-goers walk into the gym on day one and immediately throw a barbell onto their back (AKA, the apex of all loading tools) before preceding to pull off a max-effort good morning that’s all but guaranteed to disintegrate their spine into an atrophied pile of dust. That’s why, in the words of Joe Kenn, “The days of blindly throwing a barbell on [someone’s] back on day one are long gone.”
Without taking into account the context and the individual, force-feeding back squats into a training program can be especially risky for 3 primary reasons:
- The limiting factor is the low back, which can be problematic if/when technique breaks down. When someone fails on a back squat, they almost always tip forward as their lumbar extensors lose their capacity to maintain a stable spinal position. As if a major hit to the ego isn’t enough, this dramatically increases the shear forces of the load, which occurs with excess forward lean. Since the spine can only handle up to 1,800-2,800N of pressure in shear force as opposed to 12,000-15,000N in compression, pairing ugly squats with a heavily-loaded barbell is an orthopedic roll of the dice.
- The back squat can be a silent shoulder killer. Back squats place the shoulder into maximal external rotation and abduction, which – when combined with heavy loads – can potentially create or exacerbate pre-existing shoulder issues. Since most individuals have poor scapular stability and insufficient upper body mobility in the first place, this extreme position can increase the likelihood of rotator cuff/shoulder impingement, among other issues.
- The stronger the lifter, the greater the compressive forces on the spine will be. While the spine can handle compressive forces relatively well, there’s no denying that the stronger the lifter, the greater the compressive forces will be. One particular study (Cappozzo et al.) found that squatting to parallel with 1.6 times bodyweight led to compressive loads of ten times bodyweight at the L3-L4, while another (Cholewicki et al.) found that, during competitive weightlifting, L4-L5 compressive loads were greater than 17,000N.
To Back Squat or NOT: Deciphering Between Individual & Coach
Short answer: it comes down to risk vs. reward, which is largely dependent on the context and the individual.
Are you training yourself, or are you training others?
While there’s no denying that the back squat can be detrimental when applied blindly, the truth is that it’s notan inherently bad exercise. Once an individual has earned the right to throw a bar onto their back by fulfilling the mandatory pre-requisites (and assuming they can perform it properly and in a pain-free manner), the back squat can be performed with minimal risk.
The problem is that, in the real world, that’s hardly ever the case. For that reason, the most important factor to consider when deciding whether or not to back squat is the risk-to-reward ratio, which is dependent on the context and the individual.
One of the variables that seems to slip under the radar during the squat vs split squat debate is the fact that some individuals (like Boyle) are speaking from a coach’s perspective, whereas others who train alone in their basement have no one to worry about besides themselves. That means that if you’re an individual training yourself, deciding whether or not to back squat should be based on a vastly different criterion than that of a coach. Taking that into account, it’s crucial to differentiate between both perspectives in order to decide where the back squat falls on the risk vs. reward spectrum.
Should YOU (Yourself) Back Squat?
As an individual, the decision of whether or not you should back squat depends on three things:if you’ve earned the right to do so, if you can perform it properly and in a pain-free manner, and if you want to.
#1 Have you earned the right?
When I asked Tony Gentilcore for his thoughts on the topic, he said the following: “My take is that no one has to back squat to get stronger, but so long as there’s no significant injury history involved, it matches one’s goals, and they want to do it, why not? The caveat, however, is ensuring that the joints that are involved with the squat are doing the bulk of the work and not the lower back.”
In other words, it’s not always the back squat that’s to blame, but rather the laundry list of pre-requisites that needs to be dialed in beforehand. Much like you wouldn’t give an advanced algebra problem to a student who hasn’t completed basic math, nor should you back squat without first earning the right to do so.
Here’s what a good squat requires:
- Core stability. Back pain has three root causes as it relates to lifting: torque (forward lean), compression (spinal loading), and flexion. This makes the ability to generate stiffness in the spine absolutely pivotal, as a strong brace can offset compressive forces (at least to some degree), minimize forward lean, and reduce the likelihood of falling into lumbar flexion. In fact, multiple studies have shown that increasing intra-abdominal pressure during the squat can significantly reduce lumbar load (McGill et al.), decrease flexion moments in the lumbar spine, and improve spinal stabilization (Vakos et al.).
- Adequate hip and ankle mobility. Tight hips and poor ankle mobility create a tendency to lean forward, which shifts the center of gravity anteriorly. This not only increases the amount of shear force placed on the spine, but also causes adjacent areas like the knees and lumbar spine to fill in to adjust for that lack of mobility – two areas that are meant to be stable, not mobile.
- External rotation and thoracic extension. A lack of external rotation and thoracic extension can cause the bar to roll forward, which inevitably causes excess forward lean. More forward lean equates to more shear stress, which further increases the risk of dumping into lumbar flexion under compressive load.
- No significant asymmetries/imbalances. Pairing compression with lumbar flexion is already playing with fire, which makes throwing in an element of rotation on par with jumping into a furnace doused in gasoline. Since rotating at the lumbar spine typically occurs when there are discrepancies in mobility and/or strength between sides, the elimination of significant asymmetries/imbalances is a must.
- Mastery of the progression-regression continuum. Most importantly, mastering the less advanced squat variations – bodyweight, goblet, front-racked, and every variation in between – is paramount. Try throwing a bar onto the back of someone who can’t perform a proper goblet squat, and things can get ugly pretty quickly.
#2 Are you able to perform it properly and in a pain-free manner?
In reference to the back squat, Dr. Joel Seedman‘s take is that “as long as you can perform it pain-free and with proper form, I do recommend the back squat as it has tremendous benefits. Is it absolutely essential? No! But very effective? Yes! Just remember that if something causes pain, it’s likely not the exercise but more of a form and technique issue … Work on form and mechanics and you’ll likely be able to perform a majority of traditional movements without significant issues.”
Joel brings up a good point. As it the case with any exercise, proper execution almost always reigns supreme. While there’s no denying that the back squat is contraindicated in some cases, most of the problems that occur can be traced back to underlying issues that cause poor execution. That means that, assuming you’ve earned the right and have good technique, back squats don’t have to be an automatic death wish. The reality is that the body has an incredible ability to adapt to protect itself, and can become increasingly resilient by developing strength and mastering technique. For the most part, almost any exercise can be beneficial when performed properly and in a pain-free manner, and back squats are no exception.
#3 Do you want to?
There’s no such thing as a mandatory exercise, especially when talking about highly technical lifts like the back squat. If you don’t want to throw a bar onto your back for whatever reason whether it be pain, discomfort, anthropometrics, etc., there’s no need. As long as the squat pattern is being trained in some way, shape, or form, there are a handful of alternatives that can get the job done. If you want to back squat, however, and you’ve earned the right to do so while being able to perform it properly and in a pain-free manner, go for it!
Should Your Clients/Athletes Barbell Back Squat?
If you’re a coach, the question of whether or not to back squat your clients/athletes is far more complex. While the previous three factors still apply, it’s imperative to consider some additional variables that are dependent on the context and the individual(s) being trained. Ipso facto, before jumping the gun and throwing a barbell onto the back of Grandma Betty, answering the following questions is pivotal.
What’s the risk-to-reward ratio?
Joe Defranco has said that he’s a fan of barbell squatting, which makes his perspective on its risk vs. reward especially relevant. When talking about back squats vs. split squat, he said the following: “If I had to sum up my thoughts on the topic, it would come down to risk vs. reward! If I had to choose between bilateral squats and split squats, I’m choosing split squats because they are much less technical and way easier to teach, especially to large groups. This enables me to get a training effect from the exercise much quicker, and with less potential for injury. Note: it’s a myth that you can’t get strong with unilateral exercises … Remember, we’re not training powerlifters so there’s no rule telling us that barbell squats have to be our primary lower body strength exercise. Unilateral exercises are generally better for developing mobility and overcoming imbalances between limbs, so they’re tailor-made for athletes.”
What’s the context?
Going back to Boyle, what’s often overlooked is that his facility trains their athletes in groups, which makes for a number of completely different challenges: not as much time for detailed feedback, the “monkey see, monkey do” mentality of younger athletes, balancing training with practice and competition, etc. His initial decision to eliminate back squats was, in his words, based on “psychology and group think” more than anything else. And, as he put it, “Barbell squatting might be fine if you only did personal training and no one ever saw anyone else train. However, I’m not sure how realistic that is.”
As a coach who trains athletes primarily in groups, I can attest to his rationale. There are far too many variables and hardly any athletes who can squat well on day one, which makes the risk-to-reward ratio especially unfavorable. For that reason, we don’t back squat our groups of athletes, either. Instead, we stick to trap bar deadlifts, heavy unilateral work, and front/goblet squat variations. Still, we’ve had 13-year old males trap bar deadlift 375-lbs, 16-year old females rep out rear foot elevated split squats with 1.25x their bodyweight, and a handful of athletes who can push over 1,000-lbs. on a sled.
What are the contraindications?
Eric Cressey works primarily with baseball players who have acquired structural changes to their shoulders, which makes the setup of the back squat more of an at-risk position. In its place, they perform front and safety squat bar squats to go along with plenty of heavy unilateral work. That being said, Cressey has said that he’s a fan of back squatting if an individual has sufficient hip, ankle, and upper body mobility. In other words, his decision to stay away from back squatting with his athletes isn’t due to the exercise itself, but rather based on the context and the population he’s working with. Other anthropometric factors like height and femur length should be taken into account, as a 6’7 basketball player, for example, will have a much tougher time back squatting than a 5’5 wrestler.
What’s the goal?
As Dan John has said, “the goal is to keep the goal, the goal.” Powerlifters aside, training is typically a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. Elite athletes don’t get paid to set weight room PRs; they get paid to perform. Middle-aged moms don’t train to back squat twice their bodyweight; they train because they want to look, feel, and move better in order to improve their quality of life. As is the case with any exercise, the back squat is far from essential for any particular fitness goal, which makes force-feeding it a short-sighted and potentially harmful approach. Above all else, the measuring stick of a program’s success should be based on the results relative to an individual’s goals, not the poundage lifted in any particular exercise.
Should You or Your Clients/Athletes Back Squat? Putting It All Together
Barbell Back Squats vs. Split Squats: What’s The Consensus?
Short answer: While both patterns have their individual advantages, the ideal approach is to do both! The focus, however, should be placed on the movement patterns rather than specific exercises.
Like Dr. Rusin always says, no program is complete without the six fundamental movement patterns, and the squat and lunge (single-leg) patterns are no exception. The key is to choose the “best” exercises withinthose patterns based on the individual as opposed to dogmatically jamming square pegs into round holes. Still, the question remains: which pattern (or exercise) is better?
What’s better for strength?
Generally speaking, the split squat and its derivatives are better for building strength from a performance and/or functional standpoint as they mimic the locomotive pattern and allow for heavier loading per leg (individually). The squat pattern, on the other hand, is superior for absolute bilateral strength since it allows for the use of heavier loads in total and elicits a powerful strength-based neurological response. That being said, combining the two patterns is the most optimal approach for strength gains as both movements complement and build off of one another.
What’s better for muscle?
From a hypertrophy standpoint, both movements have their own advantages. Squats have a greater range of motion, allow for heavier loads to be used in total, involve more overall work by definition, and take balance and single-leg stability out of the equation. On the other hand, split squat have the advantage of the bilateral deficit, target each leg individually, place an increased emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings (McCurdy et al.), and may recruit more muscle fibers than squats (Pinto et al.). While an argument could be made on behalf of either, the best approach for maximal muscle growth is a synergistic combination of the two within varying set-and-rep schemes.
What’s better for function, health, and longevity?
Both! The squat and lunge patterns are both fundamental movement requirements that have a direct carryover to essentially all life and athletic endeavors. While you may never have to squat with 400-lbs. on your back or lunge with two 100-lb. DBs on a day-to-day basis, both patterns should be trained consistently for adequate strength and function.
The Final Word on Squats and Split Squats
While the squat and lunge patterns should be a staple in every training program, neither back squats – nor RFESS, for that matter – are absolutely mandatory. Putting specific exercises aside, essentially any fitness goal can be accomplished as long as an individual trains in a pain-free manner, stays healthy long-term, and chooses exercises within the squat and lunge patterns based on what works best for them. At the end of the day, training programs should be tailored to the individual – not the other way around.
Charley Gould, CSCS, PPSC, CFSC, USAW
Charley is a former professional baseball player, current strength-and-conditioning coach, and writer for T-Nation and Bodybuilding.com. He specializes in helping individuals look, feel, and perform like elite athletes. Gould is the head of sports performance at Universal Athletic Club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.