“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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sz7D44aAPKk&feature=related]

…and the step-up:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UpTqZNrpbA&feature=related]

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

19 COMMENTS

    • I think coach Boyle called this one right. I could live without all the hyperbole, though. I know he’s got to make a living in an inundated/saturated field, but still… And I don’t mean to sound like he’s the only S&C coach that trumpets the sensationalist line, because he’s certainly not. Anyway, like I said — kudos to coach Boyle, he called this one spot-on.

    • This is absolute drivel. I’m shocked. First, I am 76 inches. I graduated basic training 16 years ago at 155 lbs. I am now 243 lbs. I am 8 percent body fat at age 33. I owe 90% of this success to squats. I do both front and back squats. The trick is actually doing the exercise. I do half the weight of what i see these scrawny guys doing. They don’t go down below 90 degrees! Friends don’t let friends squat high. I have an average inseam 33 but i wear 34s. I obviously have a very long back. i have never had my back falter doing up to 350 lbs. Never look for the easy way out, it doesn’t work. Bye the way. I love front squats and I love it when people say isn’t that uncomfortable. Yes. You have to like the way it sucks!

      • I’m not at all saying not to do (front or back) squats, just that there are other alternatives to the squat. In your case, there seems to be no reason to mess with what’s working.

  1. I love this, Keith:

    “Don’t be afraid, though, to test, tinker and adjust. Remember, too, that there are no failures, only feedback.”

    That’s a my-thology to live by. Great frame.

    Nullius in Verba,

    Brent

  2. Keith,

    Every post you write on this stuff is great. Without doing statistics, I know the next one will be great too! Thanks

    I definitely know what you mean with lower back failure, I feel it right this moment from yesterdays workout (just normal post-workout muscle soreness, nothing bad).

    I agree that the leg press is probably not the best option to bypass this. Most leg press machines do not allow enough hip extension, bypassing an important part of the inner range glut-work.

    Unilateral recrutes more glutes, especially gluteus medius and minimus, because of the work in the frontal plane.

    By the way, MetCon idea involving a lot of glutes: uphill sprints and downhill lunges!

    cheers,

    Pieter

    • Thanks for the good words, pierter. Another problem I have with the leg press is that it puts the lumbar zone in a peculiar flex at the bottom of the lift. This wouldn’t be such a big deal at lighter weights — but then again, who hits the leg press with light loads? I really don’t even care much for the unilateral version — same lower back flexation problem exists.

      I like your MetCon recommendation, and I incorporate a similar idea when I combine stadium step sprints with lunges down the stadium ramps. Good quad/glute-ham tie-in workout for sure.

  3. Keith,

    Can you think of any reason to not use dumbells or a Hammer lunge machine for the RFESS? I’ve been using the Hammer lunge machine for them and as long as I don’t lean forward there’s no strain on my lower back. The advantage as I see it is that I can just drop the weight if I get in trouble.

    Thanks,

    David

    • I prefer a barbell, but that’s just for practicality reasons, as big dbs tend to be unwieldy. The only knock I’d throw against using the Hammer lunge is that you somewhat loose the stabilization component of the exercise. Of course, it can be argued that the prime movers are worked harder due to the fact that you don’t have to be concerned with “wrecking”. Maybe alternate between methods each time out?

  4. Bulgarian Split Squats (I prefer Country-based ridiculous names) are certainly a killer that are included in my routine. I’ve found, having a 32″ waist and a 36″ inseam, that Safety Bar Box Squats allow me to squat to parallel without any (negative) back engagement. Another option if your gym has such a beast.

    Best,
    Skyler

  5. I don’t argue that the low back is usually the limiting factor for most in the back squat (I gleaned this from my own experience), but what if one of the primary goals is to increase back strength? DLs, Zercher/back/front squats, and glute bridges/hip thrusts are my staples. I want to focus on developing my posterior chain, especially my spinal erectors. Wouldn’t this be a perfect reason to prefer back squats over split squat variants?

    • It could be argued that way, certainly. My thoughts are, though, that if you want to specifically work your legs (and not be held back by your lower back/spinal errectors), then unilaterals are a good choice — not the only choice, of course — but a good choice. I can work bilateral deadlifts on another day, which will specifically target my back/spinal errectors. And if I so wish, I can come back after a few months of this targeted work, and attack back squats again, at which point I’ll (more than likely) be able to handle more weight. We also need to consider the trainee’s goals as well. In my experience, and in most instances, a 2xBW squat is usually enough strength, and the athlete at that point needs to increase the all elusive power/bw ratio, along with speed, agility and quickness. Powerlifting and strongman, of course, is a different animal altogether, and one in which I don’t feel qualified to give advice.

  6. Keith, you are certainly correct with the n=1 philosopy. Personally, I enjoy back squats (done properly) and have seen great gains for my ectomorphic frame from them. What I think does it for my is that it is encouraging to see gains and the recruitment of the large muscle groups makes me feel it for several days afterwards. Again, this is my own n=1 experience. But I wonder if a day will come when my own biometrics may work against me as the reading suggests.

    • Yes, if you want to continue to increase leg strength, and you’ve got the low waist/inseam ratio, at some point your lower back will not be able to support the load required to tax your legs sufficiently. Your goals, however, may be such that this never becomes an issue, and in this instance, unilaterals become just a good way to “mix it up” and stay fresh. I do think though, that people training specifically for athletic endeavors ought to incorporate more (notice I didn’t say “exclusively”) unilateral than bilateral work, if for no other reason than to reap the benefits of the increased stabilizer work unilaterals impart.

  7. Hey Keith,

    I’ve been working on the RFESS and have a quick question about form. I know when doing lunges and/or back squats you do not want your knee to go past your toes, but rather create a right angle with your leg (please correct me if I’m wrong), but I’m having a lot of trouble doing this with the RFESS. Unless in a really far-out position it seems my knee always protrudes over my foot. Could this be cause for concern?

    • For most people it’s anatomically difficult, at best (ok, next to impossible) for the knee not to travel past the toes on any form of squat. Someone with exceedingly short legs, and following proper powerlifting technique (wide stance, butt back, etc.) can pull this off, but not many others can. The key here is to minimize, as much as practical, the travel of the knee over the toes. Load up the bar, and rock on.

  8. Hey Keith, love the website and am a frequent reader…I usually DL in lieu of squats, but have been back squatting recently as a means to more fully engage the quads…that said been having some issues with hip flexibility given my own long legs…what are your thoughts on using 5lb plates under the heels to assist in this endeavor until my hip flexibility is where it needs to be?

    • Putting a “shim” under your heels is the last thing you’d want to do, IMHO. Work goblet squats and RFESS, and work hard on getting your hip flexibility up to snuff. It’ll take some time, but it will come around. The shim might help in the immediate, but over the long run, your underlying condition (inflexible hips) will remain. Fix the problem, don’t mask it.

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