I have a confession to make: I haven’t done a back squat in at least two years. I also haven’t recommended anyone do them unless they absolutely needed to do them (e.g., he or she is a powerlifter, is required to do it for team testing, etc). It’s not because I have an injury that prevents me from doing them, that I don’t train my lower body (I want to make a joke about how important lower body strength is for my main “sport” of Ultimate Frisbee, although I wouldn’t be entirely joking), or that I joined a cult that eschews the back squat. Instead, my cumulative experience and observations have led me to believe there may be better exercises to accomplish the same goals that people try to achieve with the back squat. In other words, the back squat might be a sub-optimal exercise.
First, let’s consider what someone would be trying to accomplish with the back squat. The chief reason, as I understand it (people may believe there are other reasons), is that the person is trying to improve the strength of the lower body pushing muscles (e.g., quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings), as well as other stabilizing muscles (e.g., lumbar erectors). Whether or not the back squat is a good way of accomplishing that goal, however, is debated.
In 2009, renowned strength coach Mike Boyle publicized that he considered the back squat to be more of a lower back exercise than a lower body exercise. Boyle had observed that when people squatted with relatively heavy weights or at relatively high intensities, their technique often worsened in a predictable pattern: as they ascended from the bottom of the squat, their torsos would lean forward because their spines couldn’t control the weight as well when their hips got low. As a result of this forward torso lean, the extensors in the lower back had to work harder to both prevent the spine from crumpling forward and to raise the weight. Bret Contreras coined this phenomenon as the “squat-morning”, meaning that the back squat technique becomes an undesirable hybrid of a back squat and a good morning. In short, the leg muscles often aren’t the body part to fatigue first in a back squat. Rather, the low back tends to give out before the legs. Thus, Boyle realized the amount of weight someone could squat or the number of reps they could perform wasn’t limited by the strength of their legs, but rather the strength of their lower backs. Put another way, the proverbial weak link in the chain for the back squat was the lower back, not the legs. It is important to note, however that some people might be better suited to back squat than others due to their relative limb lengths, but Boyle’s observation seems to be accurate for much of the population.
Boyle’s resolution was to use the rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS, otherwise known as a Bulgarian split squat) instead of the back squat. Since you’re only training one leg at a time, you’re using considerably less total weight than you would be if you were training both legs at the same time. Because you’re using a lighter load, there’s less weight on the spine and thus the lower back won’t fatigue as quickly. As a result, the lower back isn’t the limiting factor in the RFESS. Anecdotally speaking from my experience and the experience of many other people, the RFESS allows you to exhaust your legs without exhausting your lower back. For that reason and other reasons, I really like the RFESS–I both use it my own training and program it frequently for others.
One shortcoming that the RFESS may have, however, is actually due to part of what makes it great: it’s a single-leg exercise, which means that it increases stability demands as compared to a bilateral exercise (e.g., a back squat). The increased stability demands can be beneficial in many situations, but they can be detrimental if you’re trying to produce as much force as possible. Simply put, you can’t be as strong as you possibly can be if you’re unstable. This is not to say that people can’t use a lot of weight in the RFESS—I’ve seen people perform five reps on each leg with 315 pounds on their back. But there’s a reason why during my internship at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning the clients never performed sets of fewer than five reps with the RFESS, whereas they did sets of as few as three reps with the trap bar deadlift and other bilateral exercises: the inherent instability of unilateral exercises makes them a poor fit for high intensity sets (i.e., fewer than five reps per set). I’m all for doing sets of RFESS of five reps or higher, but I don’t recommend them for sets of three, two or one.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
For those who are still reading, here’s the summary of what preceded: I’m not a huge fan of the back squat because the lower back often fatigues before the legs, and I like the RFESS for everything except high intensity sets because the exercise’s inherent instability limits force production. If I did nothing else, then I’d have a serious problem: I wouldn’t have any way of training the lower body at high intensities. Thankfully, I’ve been able to find a solution that seems to meet all objections I’ve considered to this point: the reverse-band back squat. In part 2 of this series, I’ll explain what the reverse-band back squat is and why it might be a useful lower body exercise to add to your arsenal.