I can say most people don’t know squat about squats because for some time I didn’t either! For many years I bought into the idea, that if you wanted to build muscle and great strength, you had to do some heavy back squats. How could you not? The weight on the back squat is greater than anything you could see in just about any other form of the squat. That was even with me having a long history of low back issues (that would often get flared up every time I would perform heavy back squats). I was literally living the definition of insanity.
Begrudgingly, I finally decided the pain and discomfort wasn’t worth it and was about to accept the fact that I would have to sacrifice some muscle and strength gains working my legs other ways. While that sounds reasonable, let’s face it, most of us aren’t really reasonable, especially when it comes to our fitness goals. I came to accept my new reality, but honestly, I wasn’t very happy about it. That is until I started to see if my own beliefs were based on outdated “gym science”. To my surprise, there wasn’t a lot of evidence that you had to back squat heavy to gain great strength or muscle and this actually was just an idea built in the gym.
What did I learn about squats that would change everything?
#1 Position Of Load Matters
For a long time I assumed the bigger weight on the back squat meant greater strength and muscle. What never occurred to me though that the reason the weight was always bigger was that it was in a more stable holding position. It would be like saying the leg press machine builds more muscle than the back squat because the weight on the leg press is more. Most would say they aren’t the same and they would be right!
However, if I were to tell you that a back and front squat can build the same strength and muscle you would probably say, but that IS the same movement how does that work? Changing the placement of load on the body during the squat changes the way the body perceives the weight and the movement. This famous 2009 study spells it out clearly…
“bar position did not influence muscle activity…The front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments. The results suggest that front squats may be advantageous compared with back squats for individuals with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health.”-A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals
So, the idea that loading the body in front didn’t build muscle or strength from squats is just an old time myth.
#2 Going Single Leg Can Actually Produce MORE Strength & Muscle
One of the most shocking ideas for people to hear is that single leg exercises can produce MORE strength and muscle than even bilateral exercises with more weight. The 2018 study below will probably really surprise a lot of people that being on single leg can produce MORE strength (higher peak ground forces) than being on two legs. That is probably partly due to the fact when you are single leg you can’t use your low back the same way to help you lift the weight from the squat.
If you think I’m cherry picking research study, here are a few more that show the muscle activity is the same if not greater in single leg than bilateral lifts.
Obviously the issue is how do we get people to perform more single leg movements because it can be very challenging to get people to perform single leg squats and other drills well. Progression is key and we can progress not only weight or reps, but how we position the body and the load when we perform specific exercises that are more single leg. A great place to start is using some of the drills below especially the Sprinter Stance and step-up progressions.
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You can see then how we combine these elements along with planes of motion to really enhance the effectiveness of single leg exercises while also making them more accessible to more people. You can gain great strength and muscle while keeping your body healthy and feeling good with these strategies!
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