The Truth About the Back Squat
Are squats really the foundation to leg strength? Most will tell you that the back squat is the number one exercise you need to make your legs stronger, and make you more athletic. While doing a back squat will definitely make you stronger at doing more back squats, this article will explain why you shouldn't hold onto this exercise as the holy grail for movement.
A linear exercise for non-linear reality
What people want more than anything is simple solutions. Are bugs eating your crops? Simple solution: use more bug spray to kill more bugs. Do your knees hurt? Simple solution: Squats strengthen your legs, so do more squats to strengthen your knees. Rarely in life is anything so linear in terms to solving a problem. Additionally, what people rarely consider is the unintended consequences that come with linear solutions.
Sure, you may get rid of the bugs in the short term by spraying more bug spray. But what happens when the bugs become resistant to that insecticide? What happens after you keep increasing the strength of the bug spray over time, and they get more and more resistant? Can you increase the toxicity of bug spray forever into the future without any negative outcomes to the environment, to your crops, and to your health?
The same goes for most exercises, but especially the back squat. In the short term, you'll likely see much more positives than negatives. When you consider the probabilities, it's highly unlikely that you'll get an acute injury from doing a back squat. No doubt there are even small tidbits of functional things about the back squat!
But what happens when you do the back squat your whole life, doing more and more squats even when your body ages and compresses over time? The biggest problem with the back squat that nobody else will tell you is that it's nearly impossible NOT to fall into an asymmetrical shift or twist during squat. At some level, the more back squats you do, the more you lock in your body's dysfunctions.
Let's be honest here. There's not a single person who has completely codified and corrected their asymmetries at every level, and this simple fact alone exposes the truth about the limitations of a back squat.
The more you do repetitive motions that involve spinal compression, the more the asymmetries that are already present in your body are going to calcify over time. In other words, you get stronger but in the worst way possible. You get stronger legs, but also stronger ingrained asymmetries. And while the issue may not expose itself immediately, there's a higher likelihood for problems to present themselves at the most inopportune times that come as a result of the compromised joint positioning from back squats.
The common story from glute-centric exercise people is that they hurt themselves doing things completely unrelated to a back squat: picking up their keys from the ground, playing a game of pickup basketball at the park, or kicking a soccer ball around with their kids. Things like this happen because the adaptations you make when you train bilateral glute exercises don't actually translate that much to moving in space. This fundamental principle is called the SAID principle, which states that the training you do should prepare you for the demands that you'll encounter outside of the gym.
Moving Beyond the Back Squat
The human body evolved over millions of years as an environmental adaptation to become better at standing, walking, running, and throwing. These interrelated aspects of human movement are possibly the biggest driver towards the anatomy and efficiency of the human leg and the quality/ type of movements they are meant to do. One thing is clear from this analysis — doing a bilateral lift will only have limited application in relation to how the legs evolved to move in humans.
What a back squat, and similar exercises like it, hope to accomplish is to present a linear solution to a non-linear problem. However, this mismatch between the training and real life is a terrible strategy in the long term if your goal is to go get a strong and healthy body. In the world of problem solving, there is not just a simple quick pill solution. We have to look at the human movement blueprint to really know how to train people in ways that are actually productive and worthwhile.
While it would be great if it was as simple as piecing a bunch of different techniques together from other methods and YouTube channels, the inconvenient truth is that there is a code to crack if you want to address all the biomechanical problems a person has in one swipe.
Addressing biomechanics to the highest degree has been our primary aim at Functional Patterns, and it's why you see the results you do all over our pages. The only reason we've gotten this far correcting people's movement imbalances is because we have accepted that quick, linear solutions are not worth putting time into. Rather, it's the inconvenient truth that the long term path is ultimately the best. While it is a little more difficult and requires a bit more work required to solve, in the end it's the most rewarding path to take when you don't have to sacrifice one aspect of health for another.
Just as the saying goes, change is a process not an event. We strongly recommend that you don't sacrifice your future health for the short term gains of linear exercises like the back squat. Instead, do FP: you get all the gains with none of the pains, and you get results that will last. This is what training intentionally comes down.
With that said, this is Functional Patterns reminding you to Train Intentionally, Not Habitually.