Are squats functional? That was part of a bigger question I received on a recent IG Live interview (yea, I guess that’s a thing🤷♂️). The full question was, did I think squats and deadlifts were functional. A pretty interesting question because how do we answer it without first addressing what is functional training?
When I ask most people what functional training is I get something along the lines of “training that makes you better at life.” That’s okay, but what does that tell me about how I design my programs and workouts? The other one that is really popular is “training like we move in life.” Okay, there is some potential there, but we aren’t looking to replicate what we do in life as much as build up our functional capacity. Josh, what does THAT mean, you ask?
If you have followed us for any time you know I tend to lean towards spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill’s definition of functional training.
Sounds like A LOT, so what is it about the above definition I like? There are several things, but especially the part about “linkage”. What are we “linking”? That’s a good question and will help us answer the question about squats being functional or not. However, I also want to highlight the parts he speaks about complex motions and postures, and in an environment that perseveres balance and joint stability. There is A LOT to uncover here which is why I wanted to address squats first!
In order to discuss squats we have to break down the part about linkage, but I also want to share another definition that has quite a bit of similarities. Physical therapist, Gary Gray, is often seen as one fo the “fathers” of functional training. He has defined functional training as the following.
There is even more that Mr. Gray contributes to how we are going to think about bringing functional training to life to our squats and training overall. While we all know there is always gravity, I think we tend to not think about it much in regards to training. Why is navigating gravity important? I’ve never trained anyone that said their goal was to navigate gravity better, well not directly! What do I mean by directly?
When people say they want to have better “balance”, “agility”, even things like “coordination” and “real world strength” they may not know it, but they are talking about how we handle gravity impacting our movement. For one, the force we can express into the ground is VERY important! The reason athletes use drills like Olympic lifts is to improve the force production they create into the ground which is correlated to jumping higher and running faster.
The extension of the ankles, knees, and hips that Filip Tomaszewski achieves show that Ultimate Sandbag Training can definitely be a powerful way to develop this type of functional strength and power.
The point is that it isn’t so much the weight you are lifting up, but how much you are pushing into the ground that makes something like squats a valuable tool in building real world strength. That may take some a minute, but when you understand force always comes from the ground up, it starts to make more sense!
Why mention this? You can lift a lot of weight on squats, but you can do so largely with your low back. Sure, you get the weight up and you may even develop muscle on the lower body, however that transfer becomes more in question. That brings us to one of our first points, while there are many squats one can perform, not all squats are equal. So, first things first, we want to see our squats to reach as deep as our structure allows and to have as vertical of a torso as possible. This allows us to make sure we are loading the lower body and at the same time developing mobility in the ankles, knees, and hips where we see the best expression of power.
When we worked with the US Marines this was an important concept we shared with them because so many had either injuries that they had experienced during squats, or had injuries that limited their ability to perform squats. When we taught them how to do squats better they found no pain and their range of motion got so much better.
In DVRT we have different squats, but they don’t change the movement of squats. We always aim to go deep as possible and keep that vertical torso. What changing the load does is change the intensity of our squats or sometimes what we are trying to challenge in the movement pattern.
DVRT Master, Cory Cripe covers aspects of our Bear Hug Squats that many people tend to overlook in their use of these great squats.
The Bear Hug position as you see above is a great way to achieve that depth (going deeper allows us to use the glutes more as well) while also building strength in our squats. The key is how the weight becomes part of our body and the tension we create against it. That means we typically need BIGGER and HEAVIER Ultimate Sandbags to really benefit from them.
DVRT Master, James Newman helps explain how moving to our Front Loaded Squats makes the movement more challenging and we don’t even have to change the load!
Cory shows a MUCH more advanced form of squats in our Shoulder Squats which most don’t realize how much complexity there is in performing the movement well!
So Are Squats Functional?
What I tried to explain above is that we need to develop the right pattern first that connects the foot, knee, hip, core, and even lats! That is what Dr. McGill was referring to was the chains of the body! So, squats aren’t JUST a lower body exercise, they are dependent upon the trunk, especially the lats as well.
Once we solidify a good pattern that shows a strong connection of the chains and learn how MAINTAIN the pattern under different conditions like both Mr. Gray and Dr. McGill refer to, we like to focus more on single leg squats. I know, some people will roll their eyes because how could the load of a strong back squat compare to that of any single leg squat?
Well, my friend and research expert, Dr. Brain Schilling (who we have an upcoming interview with), did some really interesting research comparing back squats, rear foot elevated split squats (also known as Bulgarian), and split squats (you can read it HERE)
What is really interesting in this study is that most people would assume that back squats create more force and activate more muscles than the rear foot elevated or regular split squats. As you can see the rear foot was VERY similar to force production and muscle activity. When I asked Brian why split squats he thought were less, he told me people had a hard time balancing and some of the loading being in the back leg (reality of doing studies is if people can do the drills well!). Moral of the story, we can get very similar effects from our single leg exercises and we don’t HAVE to do tons of squats, especially back squats, in order to get strong and develop muscle.
This is HUGE because most people struggle to do back squats and feel worse than better. Plus, as Dr. McGill and Mr. Gray discuss there is more than JUST force production and muscle activity. One important note is how we move in different directions in our squats and develop strength that can carry over to more environments. Single leg squats can be challenging to people but one of my favorite is using lateral squats like Cory shows.
If we can’t go into some of these more complex squats that require more stability and mobility we can build bridges like DVRT UK master, Greg Perlaki shows with these Fist Loaded 1 1/4 squats. They help us build that stability and mobility we need while increasing incredible core strength (you will be surprised how these get you a stronger overhead press as well!)
At the end of the day, did I answer if squats are functional? If we agree that that the goal of squats is to improve the linkage of the chains of the body by keeping an upright torso and great mobility in the ankles, knees, and hips, then that’s a good start! If we work to more complex squats that require us to be strong and stable in different directions of movement, with various speeds, and loading challenges that require us to keep those connections, then even better! In order to answer the question you need to first know what we mean by functional training and all the qualities we are trying to develop.
Of course, you can just follow great ideas like what physical therapist, Jessica Bento, shares below in different squats that answer these questions for you. I think the more we understand functional training the more we will see there are BETTER ways to train!
Don’t forget, we have 25% off EVERYTHING at DVRT including our Ultimate Sandbags and Online education with code “save25” HERE
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