Author’s note: This article is the second post in the series, “The Beauty of the Reverse-Band Back Squat.” You can find the series’ first installment here.
The reverse-band back squat might seem like a back squat with a hyphenated prefix, but it’s more than that. With the bands attached to the top of the squat rack and the barbell, the bands tighten as you descend into the squat, thereby providing you increasing amounts of assistance and thus decreasing the total load that you’re lifting the farther you descend. As you rise from the bottom of the squat, the tension on the bands decreases, thereby providing you decreasing amounts of assistance and thus increasing the the load that you’re lifting as you ascend. In other words, the weight you feel on your back is lightest when you’re at the bottom of the squat and heaviest when you’re standing. For example, I might have 405 pounds on the barbell while doing a reverse band back squat. If the bands have no tension at lockout, then I would be lifting all 405 pounds at lockout. As I descend, the bands increasingly tighten and increasingly assist. Thus, the actual load I’m lifting at the bottom of the squat might be 315 pounds, since the tension in the bands is effectively lifting 90 pounds of the loaded barbell for me.
People knowledgeable of strength training methods may recognize what I’m discussing as the notion of accommodating resistance. Accommodating resistance is the use of bands or chains to vary the external load during the movement so that you’re lifting more weight when you’re biomechanically stronger and vice versa. People often use this principle of accommodating resistance with exercises such as the bench press, push-ups and deadlift, though it seems that the primary reason people advocate using accommodating resistance is for improved power. (There’s lots of research demonstrating that accommodating resistance improves power output, too, and that’s something Peter and I plan to discuss in future posts.) But what many people seem to overlook is the benefit that accommodating resistance may have for technique and safety for many exercises, including not only the back squat, but also deadlift, bench press variations, and push-ups, to name only a few. However, many proponents of accommodating resistance suggest that only intermediate and advanced lifters (e.g., people who can squat twice their bodyweight, etc.) should use this method. Instead, it might be the case that accommodating resistance could make lifting safer and more effective for everyone. Indeed, one of the principles that people in the fitness industry have promoted in the last few years is the importance of maintaining a neutral spine while performing exercises. As I’ll explain, using accommodating resistance may allow you to better maintain a neutral spine as compared to conventionally-loaded methods.
In the case of the back squat, the movement itself might not be problematic or injurious. Instead, what might be problematic is how people load the movement. In a conventionally loaded back squat, the method of loading is such that, as Mike Boyle observed, the strength capacity of the lower back is often the limiting factor instead of the strength capacity of the lower body. The same 405 pounds that might feel easy to lock out feels almost overwhelming to squat out of the hole. As I discussed in the first post in this series, the lower you squat, the longer the moment arms at the knees and hips become and thus the higher the net joint moments at the knees and hips become (i.e., the more force your knee and hip extensors need to create). Your torso also becomes increasingly horizontal, so your spinal erectors must produce more force to prevent your spine from flexing (i.e., you face-planting). These biomechanics explain why the bottom of the squat is the hardest part of the lift. What Boyle realized is that often a person’s limiting capacity was their ability to extend their back (i.e., not face-plant), rather than their ability to extend their knees and hips. As you rise, the moment arms and subsequent net joint moments decrease, which explains why the same weight feels easier at the lockout than at the bottom of the squat, and hence why people can quarter squat much more weight than can squat to parallel. Expressed another way, a weight that you could perform half-reps might overwhelm you, particularly your back extensors, if you used a full range of motion.
Boyle’s solution to this biomechanical problem was to use unilateral exercises. The downside, as I wrote in part one, is that such exercises have the tradeoff of being inherently more unstable and thus may not be conducive to higher intensities. Using bands or chains might be another solution to the problem, since the weight you’re actually lifting will be lighter in your biomechanically weaker positions and heavier in your stronger positions. The logic is that you can minimize the external load when the spinal erectors are in a position in which they would have to work especially hard (i.e., when the torso is leaning forward) and increase the external load as the contribution of the spinal erectors decreases. As a result, the capacity of your spinal erectors is less of a limiting factor because the net joint moments at the bottom of the squat will be smaller. You also don’t stress your back extensors as much, which is especially valuable for people who already have overactive spinal erectors (i.e., PEC’s in PRI lingo). Because the back extensors don’t work as much, you can therefore engage your anterior core more and maintain a more neutral spinal alignment. Furthermore, whereas the lockout of a conventional back squat might feel easy compared to the reversing out of bottom of the squat, the lockout of a reverse banded back squat should feel about as difficult as reversing out of the hole. Thus, the lower body muscles are being intensely challenged throughout the duration of the range of motion, unlike in a conventional back squat.
I hope I’ve explained the rationale behind the reverse band back squat in this article. In the next posts in this series, I plan to discuss what you need to do a reverse band back squat (e.g., what bands to buy), how I recommend people use the reverse band back squat in their training, different variations of the exercise, and other instances in which this principle of accommodating resistance may improve the efficacy of training.