Performance Training: The Squat

Proper Squatting Technique is Crucial to Preventing Injury

The sport of football requires the athlete to incorporate all aspects of fitness from speed and power to flexibility and coordination. In the off-season, football players must train for the demands the sports puts on their body. The most popular part of fitness football player’s focus on in the off-season is strength and power. The weight room is a place where kids can help themselves get better but it can also be a place where an athlete can end their season early through injury if the proper techniques and methods are not applied to meet the demands the sport puts on them.

There has been a great debate amongst performance enhancement coaches (notice I did not call them “strength coaches” since “strength” is only one aspect of fitness required of a successful athlete) on the proper way to train athletes.  I, personally, do not believe there is a “best” but many “different” ways to improve sports performance.  With that said, I believe there is a difference between the “wrong” way to train an athlete and a “different” way to train an athlete.  Many of these “different” vs. “wrong” arguments fall in the category of weight room technique.

Different Squat Techniques

Wide stance squat technique

One argument you will see much debate about is on proper squat technique.  A popular technique used in the sport of power-lifting (where the total weight a person can squat, bench and dead lift is added together to get their “total”) is the wide stance squat technique.  In this technique, the goal is not to be stronger but just squat more weight.  The bar is placed low on the rear deltoids, the feet are spread wide and the lift is started at the hips to focus on using the glutes, low back and hamstrings.  The arms are also spread wide on the bar usually due to dysfunctional and injury prone shoulders from over-abuse of the bench press.  This style squat is often trained using a box behind them to help them squat “back” and not “down”.  It must also be remembered that these squatters are using “squat suits” to help them assist in the lift by adding as much as 50% to their squat without the suit thus reinforcing that this is a “sport” within itself.

The good thing about these squats is that you must have great hip flexibility to perform this style.  I am also a fan of using the box as a “target” when teaching new squatters how to sit back at the beginning of the lift.  Many uneducated and misinformed coaches will overuse this technique which can lead to dysfunctional knees, low backs and hip injuries and will definitely not improve the over-all goal of improving sports performance.  You must also remember this technique is used to help these lifters compete in an event that requires their one-rep max.  If you are a coach or parent of young athletes (12-17 years old) you should not be 1-rep maxing out your athletes.  Squat quality should be more important than squat quantity.

Olympic Style Squat

Another school of thought is the “Olympic” style squat used by weightlifters (true “power lifters” since research has shown more power is produced in the Olympic snatch and clean and jerk than in the “power” lifter squat).  In this squat, the bar is placed higher on the shoulder, the trunk is more erect and the feet are placed relatively close to shoulder width.  This style squat is used by competitive weightlifter as an assistance lift to increase the weight lifted in a snatch and clean and jerk, which are also two great exercises but more often than not are taught and performed improperly.  (As a side note:  when taught correctly, exercises such as snatches and cleans develop explosive power but if taught incorrectly will be a waste of time or even worse cause injury.  If injuries occur when performing these techniques blame should be on the coach or trainer and not the actual lifts themselves, which pretty much goes for most functional exercises done in the weight room.)

Learning the Proper Squat Pattern

When teaching athletes how to squat you must first teach the proper pattern through body weight squatting exercises, shoulder mobility exercises and flexibility exercises such as the overhead squat to improve hip, shoulder and trunk function.  After the proper pattern is taught and a movement screen is used to make sure the athlete will not be improperly stressing the low back, hips and knees or any tendons or ligaments, we will use an “Olympic” style squat with a stool or box under their hips to give the athlete a goal to reach for and touch their butt and upper hamstrings on.  (A word of caution, improper and overuse of the box squat technique will increase compressive forces on the lumbar spine and can lead to low back pain and even injury.  How many low back fractures or injuries have you seen due to improper loading of the lumbar spine?)  Once the athlete is comfortable and has learned the proper squat pattern, we will remove the stool and begin proper, full range of motion squat with feet shoulder or just outside shoulder width and start to properly load them with the correct amount of weight which at times may just be the bar or a dowel rod.

Which is the preferred technique?

There are aspects of both techniques that we can use to teach the squat but you should ultimately progress to an “Olympic” style squat.  This style squat is more natural to the human body (just watch a toddler squat) and promotes proper loading of all 8 major joints.  Just test yourself.  Get into a position to perform a vertical leap (the ultimate test of power production) and look down at your feet.  Are your feet in a wide stance position?  Are they everted or duck-footed?  Hopefully not!  If so, good luck jumping or being able to move in a sport-specific manner.  Another reason to progress to the “Olympic” squat is its transfer to sport by assisting in the development of muscles and patterns used while sprinting, jumping, cutting and deceleration which will aid in injury prevention not just power production.

The squat exercise is often banished by many sports medicine professional due to the fact that many injuries come from poor technique as well as using too much weight too fast on young, developing athletes.  When taught properly, the squat is a great exercise to assist in improving not just the football player’s performance but all athletes as well. Students in our Sports Performance programs will learn the proper technique for the squat, among many other exercises.

updated 10/12/2022