Are Back Squats REALLY Necessary? The Legs, Hips, and Ass Issue

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We’ve all heard that the back squat is the King of lifts.  It’s been at the bedrock of some of the most productive routines of the last 70 years.  So, what I’m about to say might sound sacrilegious, particularly here in the world of Olympic Weightlifting.  But, I’m going to say it anyway.  You don’t have to back squat – ever!

Don’t get too excited.  If you want to be a better weightlifter you do have to squat.  But, I’m going to argue in favor of swapping out the back squat for the Front Squat and a few other exercises.  I believe doing this makes more sense for the majority of recreational lifters, Masters lifters, and CrossFitters out there.  You will be less likely to get injured and your lifts will improve at a faster rate.  Crazy, I know.

I’m also going to say upfront that I am NOT against the back squat.  It is a good exercise, and I use it myself.  What I am against is the notion that you MUST back squat to be a good weightlifter.  That is patently false.

The Good Things The Back Squat Does For The Weightlifter

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The Back Squat isn’t all Bad and Ugly. There are good reasons why people Back Squat.  The most important is that it works! You can think of the Back Squat as the ultimate “Jack of all Trades” exercise. It hits the quads, the glutes, the hamstrings, the spinal erectors, the low back, and it even will develop your upper back, lats, shoulders, and arms if you squeeze them hard enough and put in enough work!

If you could only do one exercise, ever, the back squat is a decent choice. (The Clean and Jerk is better, but I suppose technically it’s two exercises combined.)

The Back Squat also develops these muscles in the right proportions that we are looking for in great athletes.  It is not just that we want athletes to have a strong posterior chain, we want it to be a well-balanced posterior chain.  If you back squat correctly – high bar, on the heels, deeper than parallel – then you will likely do this.

(If you just happen to have the anthropometry of many high level Oly lifters – short and “squatty” – then it will be even more likely that you’ll develop just right with only back squats.  However, I think long legged lifters are less likely to see the same results.) 

The Back Squat also has the advantage of being highly “loadable” – that is, you can add a lot of weight to it rather easily.  I’m wary as all Hell of using (as your mainstays) exercises that you can’t put much weight on.  The step up is great, but doing a 1 (or even 3) rep max is just not an option unless you are willing to crash and burn!  You need to make sure that the core exercises in your arsenal are things you can do a max set of 1 to 3 reps on without it getting too dangerous. 

The Downside of Back Squatting

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On the other hand, there is a downside to being a “Jack of all Trades” – you aren’t a master of anything. 

  • The Back Squat is a good quad builder, but not as good as the Front Squat.
  • The Back Squat is a good hamstring builder, but not as good as the Romanian Deadlift.
  • The Back Squat is a good glute builder, but not as good as the Hip Thrust.

I’m not a believer in trying to “isolate” muscles.  I want lifters to use functional movements.  (I’ve always loved that CrossFit sticks to about 10 or so basic functional multi-joint movements and works the crap out of them.  I can respect that.)  But, there is something to be said for using the right tool for the job: the tool that is best suited to that job.

One of the things that makes strength coaching hard is finding the right balance between using exercises that are general enough to hit the body as a unit and allow for proper loading, with exercises that attack a specific athletes weaknesses in a way that solves the problems at hand.  The Back Squat is plenty general, but it just isn’t very specific.

In addition to that, teaching the back squat properly is a pain in the ass!  Everyone wants to use too much weight, doesn’t get low enough, bends over too far forward, and turns the exercise into an ugly Good Morning.  With beginners, this means I spend my entire evening having to watch and correct guys (it’s usually men) squatting like morons rather than focusing my attention on the platforms where the truly hard technical work is being done on the snatch and clean. 

No thanks!!

I don’t let anyone Back Squat until they prove to me that they can Front Squat correctly, make it look pretty, and do so with some real weight – bodyweight or more.  That goes for the ladies, too!  My fiance was in a car wreck recently, and was unable to lift weights for nearly 7 months.  She is now back up to front squatting bodyweight multiple times a week.  She’s not a genetic freak.  She just likes to lift.  Anyone can Front Squat their bodyweight.  (Anyone with legs, that is!)

The New Triumvirate:  Front Squats, RDL’s, and Hip Thrusts

Now, if you were that hypothetical person who was only Back Squatting, then you won’t be able to just replace it with one exercise and call it good.  I think you’ll need three:  The Front Squat; Romanian Deadlift; and the Hip Thrust.

Each of these combined will cover your bases (the Front Squat being the most important), and they will do so better than the Back Squat did by itself.  They are also all harder to cheat – you are less likely to put more weight on the bar than you can honestly do.  For those of you who are self-coached, that is a BIG deal.  Doing exercises wrong is not going to do you any good.  It is going to get you injured. 

These three exercises are ones I think you can figure out how to do well on your own (with ample help from Youtube!), and that will go a long way toward making you a better weightlifter.

Front Squats

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The Front Squat is my all time favorite exercise.   It affords you most of the best things the Back Squat gives you, but without its biggest downsides.  

[Read the study “A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals” by Gullett, et al. Here’s a quote: “The front squat was shown to be just as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces on the knee.]

The most important downsides that the front squat avoids (at least better than a back squat does) are shear forces at the low back, and compressive forces at the knee.  Now, I’m not a believer that you should go out of your way to avoid these “negative” forces completely!  When you walk, run, jump, and do other normal human things, your body is dealing with all kinds of forces and you need to make sure you are training in such a way that you are able to deal with these forces appropriately.

But … we need to be realistic.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  (Unless we’re talking about Mochas, of course!)  Once you get to the point where you are Back Squatting well over double bodyweight, the stress on the body is getting a bit ridiculous.  If I can get the same benefits to the athlete with a Front Squat, and reduce some of the beating on the body, I’ll take it.

(Never forget that the best strength athletes all have one thing in common: big bones.  They have a thicker bone structure for their height than other people of the same height – check out their heads, they’re huge!  Along with these big bones comes thicker ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissues.  They are BORN to lift heavy stuff and not get hurt doing it.  You may or may not be in this group.  If I were you, I’d err on the side of safety.)

As I mentioned above, from a coaching perspective, I find the Front Squat to be an easier exercise to teach than the Back Squat.  I can get someone to squat deep, with an upright spine, much faster than I can get them to do this with a Back Squat.  It is nearly impossible to cheat a Front Squat.  If you start to lean too far forward, you will drop it. 

People are also more likely to get into the deep bottom position in a Front Squat easier than they are with a Back Squat.  Cutting depth is a big problem.  The glutes get worked the most in the deepest portion of the squat, the part that is well below parallel.  But, depth-cutting happens ALL the time when people back squat.  Switch them to a front squat and they magically get a few inches lower! 

Romanian Deadlifts

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For the most part, the Front Squats will cover your bases in the same way that the back squat does.  But, to be fair, it isn’t the ideal hamstring builder.  We need a specialist.  My favorite lift for the hammies is the Romanian Deadlift (RDL, pronounced “Err-Duhls” in my club). 

Since the motion is almost exclusively a hinge at the hip, the hamstrings are taking the biggest beating during this lift.  I also like that it is a functional movement:  we all find ourselves in situations when we are bent way over and have to pick stuff up – a lot.  Getting good at it isn’t a bad idea.

The RDL hits the hamstring hard, but it also builds up some necessary strength in other areas relevant to the Olympic lifts: the spinal erectors and low back; the traps and upper back; and your confidence with heavy weights in a precarious position.

However there are a few downsides to be aware of with this lift if you are an Olympic weightlifter.  Unlike the Front Squat, the RDL is a killer on the nervous system.  Working up really heavy can fry your nervous system, make your hamstrings extremely sore, and make your snatch and clean weights drop for a few days. 

Generally I have my Olympic lifters do RDL’s only once a week, most often on Saturdays.  We’ll alternate working up to 1 heavy set of 5 for a few weeks, then switch to something heavier like 3’s.  And, once in blue moon, I’ll have them turn it into a deadlift and go up to a heavy single (no more than 3 or 4 times a year).  Only doing 1 heavy set of 5, once a week might sound like it isn’t enough work.  But, don’t forget that we squat and do the Oly lifts every day.

Now, if you are a CrossFitter in my club, I’ll almost never have you do these.  CrossFit workouts are all over the map and CNS intensive.  I don’t want to tax a CrossFitter any more than I have to when that energy can be spent on the Olympic lifts and front squats.  Metcons are a killer.  CrossFitters are doing them up to 4 or even 6 times a week!  I can’t pile more CNS destruction on top of that.

There is one more downside to the RDL: It is really similar in execution to the part of the snatch/clean pull that goes from the knee to the hip – but … different. 

Similar but different is horrible when your goal is to dial in a very specific motor pattern on a particular movement!  I don’t want someone touching an RDL until they are quite consistent with the lifts AND I believe they will be able to do so without it screwing with the patterns I’m trying to dial in. 

So, while I think it is the best hamstring builder out there that you can easily do with a barbell (there is some argument for the glute-ham, but who has one?), if you want to get good at Olympic lifting, you should limit it to moderate weights done only once a week at most until you become more proficient at the Oly lifts. 

That said … there is one way that the RDL can help a lifters technique.  If a lifter is having a hard time at the Knee Position of the snatch or clean pull, where the bar is at the knee-cap, the shoulders are over the bar, the hips are high, and the weight is hard on the heels, then the RDL can be a good tool to get them used to it.  It is uncomfortable to hold that position, but that is the exact position of the RDL.   Since you can RDL so much more than you can snatch or clean, it can be helpful to “convince” a lifter that they can, indeed, hit that spot correctly with heavy weights – and, so doing so with lighter weights ain’t nothin’.

I guess what I’m saying is:  Use this exercise to build a strong pull, but be conscious about its possible negative effects on your pulling mechanics and your CNS. 

Hip Thrusts

(I’ve added a video at the end of this post by my friend Bret Contreras explaining how to do the Hip Thrust)

We’ve got our quad-focused exercise (Front Squat), we’ve got our Hamstring-focused exercise (RDL), but we need a Booty-focused exercise.  Enter the new kid on the block:  The Hip Thrust.

The Hip Thrust looks rather … odd, to say the least.  But, it doesn’t have any of the negatives associated with the RDL, and it has a number of big positives.

Because the performance of this lift is so far away from anything that looks like a snatch or clean, we have no fear that it will screw with our technical learning.  This is HUGE.  It means you can get as heavy as you want, do it as often as you want, and you won’t have some negative feedback loop in your brain moaning about how confused it is.

We’ve been playing with this exercise now (at PDX Weightlifting) for a few months, and we love it.  It took a while to get down the basic technique (again, see the video below).  But, once we did, we found out something remarkable.

The Hip Thrust is the best exercise I’ve ever come across for teaching a weightlifter (like YOU) how to extend at the hip and not the low back when finishing your pull on the snatch or clean – by maximally contracting your glutes. 

Your hip is able to hyperextend just a bit (you do it all the time when you walk).  This is exactly the motion you need to do to finish your pull.    But, when people are standing with a bar in their hand, and are asked to push their hips “through”, they will, at most, stand straight up.  Worse, some will mimic the look of that “arched” position they see many high level lifters doing by extending with the low back. 

Bad news!

That is only going to result in injury.  Being able to extend properly with the hips is an essential skill the weightlifter needs.  Given that I work primarily with adults, teaching this is a harder job for me than it would be if I was only teaching young kids who seem to learn everything 10 times as fast.  I haven’t yet put the hip thrust into my full rotation for new lifters, but I plan to – especially for those that have the hardest time using the hips in the pull.  I’ll keep you updated.

The last thing I noticed is that the lift isn’t very taxing, no matter how much weight you use.  Yes, the glutes will be sore if you’ve never done it.  But, you don’t have that, “Holy hell, I killed myself yesterday!” feeling that you get when you deadlift, for instance. 

I think one of the best places to put this exercises is as part of your warmup.  Just do 2 or 3 reps on each set.  Add weight slowly until it actually feels like work.  Then stop.  You’ve just primed your body to use the hips and you’ve warmed up a bit.  You are ready to snatch.  I’ve had a number of lifters set PR’s on the Olympic lifts after doing exactly this.  It works!

Conclusion

Let me be clear – again.  I am in no way telling you NOT to back squat.  If you love it, do it.  If your coach told you to do it, for God’s sake, do what she says!!  I have a number of athletes that back squat.  But, if you are doing your own thing (as most of you are), and you are wondering if you can do things differently, then I say, “Yes!  Yes you can.”

OK, here’s the Hip Thrust Technique video I promised you from my man Bret Contreras.  (Be smart, buy his eBook which explains in MASSIVE detail why the hip thrust should be included in your program.  If you can’t tell, I’m sold.)