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  • Jim Roncal

Why We Back Squat The Way We Back Squat

If asked what standard I coach when I ask an athlete to perform a back squat my answer is simple.  Bar across the shoulder girdle, grip a little wider than shoulder width apart, elbows under the bar, maintain an upright torso, neutral spine, belly breath, tight core, heels on the ground, squat below parallel, maintaining an upright torso, stand to full extension of the hips and knees.  But I've never been asked why I coach it that way.  I could easily say, "Because that's the way CrossFit tell me to."

But that wouldn't be accurate.  CrossFit and I differ on a couple of points.


Back squat is a powerlifting strength exercise used by just about every strength training program one can find.  It's also used in powerlifting competition.  The rules governing global powerlifting events are defined by the International Powerlifting Federation.

The way I coach the back squat has nothing to do with competition powerlifting.  Here's why. Take a look at the figure below.


Is there anything wrong with the back squat performed in this picture?  No.  It follows the standards of performance for a back squat.  This also happens to be the standard that the IPF dictates.  I would suggest a few modifications to this lift if it's being performed by a novice athlete for a couple of reasons though.  

NUMBER 1 and hands down the governing dynamic for everything I teach in strength and conditioning is safety.  My goal is to have an athlete go through training without injury.  This is practically impossible.  Any coach that says, "as long as you do what I tell you to do you'll never get an injury" is flat out lying to you.  Injuries are going to happen and, on a long enough time line, an athlete will get hurt.  All a responsible coach can do is offer a route that REDUCES the risk of injury.


Number 2 is overall consistency.  If I was an IPF competition coach then all I would worry about is Back Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift.  I am not an IPF competition coach.  My discipline is CrossFit.  "We define fitness as increased work capacity across broad time, modal and age domains." - Greg Glassman.  I coach metabolic conditioning, gymnastics and strength to my athletes and I program in such a manner that all three of those gross disciplines compliment one another. 


That said, let's break it down to it's simplest parts.


Reducing the risk of injury.


Back in January of 2011 the results of a study were published in the Portuguese Journal of Sports Sciences titled "A Biomechanical Analysis Of Front Versus Back Squat: Injury Implications".  The study was performed by The Biomechanical Research Unit of The University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.  After describing the methods used in the research, any strength coach would understand why the conclusion of the study was that Front Squat was safer.


"the greater [forward] trunk lean occurring throughout the performance of the back squat would exhibit greater shear lumbar loading", "an increase in shear force, under high loading conditions, may predispose an athlete to injury"


This is a direct quote from that study.  Let me be clear that I understand this is an argument against training to the IPF standard.  I totally get that there are millions of athletes and thousands of powerlifting competitors that demonstrate remarkable feats of strength using IPF standards.  I get it.  But I also happen to know, though injury rates during training are lower than other sports, the long term impact on the body is significant.  Travis Mash is a world class powerlifting champion and at 31 years old found out that training the way he did lead to significant lower back injury.  The kind that could paralyze you for life.  He immediately changed the way he trained and what's more important is that he uses that experience as an example of what not to do when he coaches.  


That ALL BY ITSELF is reason enough for me to coach back squat the way that I do.  

But Number 2


Consistency.  There's no question that back squat is one hell of a great way to get stronger.  But, in CrossFit, we also have Olympic Lifting. So training the body to perform a specific way while casting heavy weight vertically skyward in the hopes of standing up with that weight overhead is kind of important.


The key?  "Keep the torso vertical" - Coach Mike Burgener


If I want an athlete to not only get stronger in their squat but also get better at Olympic lifting then I want that athlete to perform loaded squats that mimic their strength needs in Olympic lifting.


So I want this:

instead of this:


because this:

Does that make sense?


Let me know if you have any questions and, as always, get the right fuel in your bodies, get plenty of rest and get your minds right.


Coach Jim

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