We all want a stronger Back Squat, don’t we? Most of us, even without any physiological understanding of the human body, know that a stronger Back Squat correlates significantly to improvements in all other areas of athletic performance. Training your Back Squat will improve your Deadlift, your Front Squat, your Clean, and your Snatch, but training those respective movements may not necessarily improve your Back Squat. Additionally, the versatility of the Back Squat allows a Coach to program specifically for certain adaptations, which can be crucial for many specific aspects of sporting performance.
The successful athlete in our sport is strong, fast, and powerful, and if you compare the average 1RM Back Squat among the top-, middle-, and bottom-5 performing male athletes from the 2014 Australian Regionals, you’ll see a clear difference (188kg, 180kg, and 155kg, respectively). What this tells me is that the better you can Squat, the better – in general – you’ll be able to perform across the broad spectrum that is functional fitness. So how can we use the Back Squat to develop strength, speed, and power? Let’s dig a little deeper...
In the world of Strength and Conditioning, a baseline strong athlete has a minimum 1RM Back Squat of 2x bodyweight. That means the average 85kg athlete should be able to Squat 170kg. There are more Squat programs around these days than you can poke a barbell at, all aiming to add numbers to your Squat and all claiming to be the best. However, if you examine the programming closely, they all follow classic periodization programming with a very common theme - Squat frequently and Squat heavy!
A good Squat strength program will have you Squatting multiple times per week. For example, Hatch and Smolov will have you Squatting 2x and 3x per week, respectively, with a couple of days rest between each session to allow full recovery. Additionally, you’ll usually be Squatting with loads above 80-85% of your 1RM for up to 6 reps. Heavy Squats make you stronger by recruiting more motor units (think the brains connection to the muscle), increasing the frequency with which the motor units can fire, and synchronising the firing of those units. Most of the scientific research shows that a well programmed strength cycle can increase your Back Squat anywhere from 10-20% in as little as 12- weeks. But in our sport, it isn’t all about being strong, and we need to use our Back Squat to improve other qualities.
A strong Back Squat will make you a faster runner.
Sounds weird, hey? But, I want you to consider that your Squat numbers show an almost perfect correlation with your ability to run fast. A study performed in 2012 on elite Rugby players found that 8-weeks of strength training improved Back Squat 1RM by an average of 17.7%. What was interesting is that this occurred in conjunction with a 7.6, 7.3, and 5.9% improvement in sprint performance over 5m, 10m, and 20m, respectively, without any form of sprint training or conditioning in the program. (Comfort, Haigh & Matthews 2012, p 776) Studies like this are plentiful in the literature, and all show very similar results.
So how does this all work? Well, it just so happens that the ability to sprint is related to the exact same factors of strength – increased motor unit recruitment, firing frequency, and synchronisation. This means that when we Squat heavy, we’re teaching our body to exert huge amounts of force against the ground, allowing us to move with more speed. So we’ve now established that we want to be fast and strong, and if we mix these two qualities together we get the third and arguably the single most important indicator of successful athletic performance.
Power, the product of strength and speed, occurs when a large force (strength) is moved at a high velocity (speed). Classically, it’s the Olympic Lifts - the Snatch and Clean & Jerk – that are considered our power generating movements, and you’d be right. In fact, the highest power outputs are recorded in the second pull of the Snatch. However, our ability to perform the Olympic Lifts is severely limited by our Squat, specifically the Back Squat. Additionally, the Back Squat can be trained in such a way that it still allows for the development of huge power outputs without the need to perform Olympic Lifts, but it requires a slightly different programming approach.
Think about those really heavy Squat sets... you know, those sets where you grind through each and every rep. You’re not moving very fast are you? Remember that strength is only one part of the equation, and we need each Squat rep to be completed with speed to truly develop power. Somewhere along the continuum of speed and strength is the optimal compromise, and in the Back Squat it’s found at around 50% of 1RM values, but this can range between 40-70% of 1RM. Also important to consider is your rep range – we’re talking 3-4 high quality, high speed reps here. Keeping the rep range low is essential, we want to avoid fatigue as it is accompanied by slowed movement and ultimately reduced power output.
Properly trained powerful athletes will exhibit similar physiological traits as the strength or speed athlete - increased motor unit recruitment, firing frequency, and synchronisation.
A better Back Squat will not only improve power output in your Olympic Lifts, but it can also improve your vertical jump.
Even up to 3.3cm in as little as 6-weeks of Squat training alone. Remember again, that the single most important quality of a successful athlete in any sport is to exert large forces fast.
If there was only one exercise that could be performed within a program to forge elite athletes, the Back Squat stands head and shoulders above all other movements as the number one choice. We’ve established that strong athletes are determined not by their Bench Press or their Deadlift, but by their ability to Back Squat a minimum of 2x bodyweight. Additionally, a strong Back Squat has been shown to develop speed capacity within individuals independent of any specific sprint/running work. Finally, an athlete can improve peak power generating capacity by using the Back Squat at lighter loads and faster movements without needing to complete any specific Olympic Lifting work. It truly has proven itself to be the go-to exercise in any Strength and Conditioning program, making its rightful claim as “The King” of athletic performance.
**Comfort, P., Haigh, A., & Matthews, M. Are changes in maximal squat strength during preseason training reflected in changes in sprint performance in rugby league players? J Strength Cond Res. 26: 772-776. 2012.