I’m going to make a case for unilateral squats.
That may be surprising to many of you who have seen me debating bilateral vs unilateral squatting with Coach Mike Boyle. You’ve either seen me on Twitter, read my article, listened to my podcast, or you’ve seen the debate on Stronger Experts.
But make sure to read this article because I point out the positives of unilateral squatting. Once again, I want to be clear that I never said unilateral squats were bad. My whole point was bilateral squats are effective for improving athletic performance, and the research states they are relatively safe.
Getting Sore or Getting Hurt
When it comes to absolute strength and improving athletic performance, I believe bilateral squats taught correctly give you more bang for your buck when coaching athletes. The increased load is going to produce more hypertrophy, especially in areas that need it – like the legs, hips, and back.
Yes, I said back. I hate it when an athlete performs squats and goodmornings, wakes up sore, and then comes to a coach to say they’ve hurt their back. All good coaches understand this is soreness or muscle damage. It’s a necessary part of the strength and hypertrophy protocol. You break muscles down, and then you rebuild them stronger than ever. That’s the process of getting stronger.
I’ve never seen an athlete hurt their back while back squatting outside of powerlifting. Of course, in powerlifting you are pushing the biology of the back past its tipping point. That’s the name of the game for any sport. When people start squatting 3.5 to 4 times their body weight in the back squat, they are at that tipping point. It’s only a matter of time. However, in athletic performance we are asking the athletes for 2 to 2.5 times their body weight. This is hardly the biological tipping point.
When Back Squats Hurt
However, what happens when an athlete has a preexisting condition that irritates the back? We had a case of this during the last 13-week preparation for Junior Nationals and the Youth World Championships. Ryan Grimsland, a 67kg weightlifter, actually fractured his right hip when he was still competing in CrossFit. That injury causes his back to become irritated every so often.
Ryan’s back flared up about eight weeks ago. At first, we cut one of his squat days and added safety squat bar rear-leg elevated split squats on that day. We didn’t notice any change in leg strength or performance during the first two to three weeks. However, his back kept getting worse. We were in the middle of competition preparation and going quite heavy quite often. After talking to Dr. Lawrence Gray, Ryan’s chiropractor and my long-time chiropractor, we decided to make a few changes:
- Turn two of the three squat days into unilateral squat days.
- Make the third bilateral squat day optional, allowing the athlete to unilaterally squat instead.
- Trim the intensity of the competition lifts – except for Max Out Friday.
The plan worked really well for Junior Nationals. Ryan didn’t perform any bilateral squats during the final three weeks before Junior Nationals. His leg strength didn’t increase, but he maintained his strength really well. He also set personal records in the snatch, clean and jerk, and total – and he increased his lead as the number one youth weightlifter in the country.
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Obviously by now you all know that we killed it, but here’s one more highlight video because I freaking love this team. 1 overall Gold @ryangrimsland (also second to CJ Cummings for best lifter), 2 Silver @mad_lifts_15 and @reagan.henryyyyy , @hannah_dunnjoy PRed everything @nathan_clifton set PRs after a deathly illness, and @meredithalwine hit PR in the Snatch and Total and she was going lift for lift in the most epic battle in American Female history. Side note, we left with two boys on the Junior Pan Am Team and one on the Junior World Team all Youth age. We also left with two girls sitting pretty for Youth Pan Ams. I’ll take it! =================== www.mashelite.com <link in bio> for: . -Online Video Seminar . – Mash Mafia Online Team . Feats of Strength Online Meet (proceeds benefit 501c3 Mash Weightlifting Team . -Hundreds of Free Articles & Workouts . -Donate to the 501c3 nonprofit team . – 21 Awesome E-Books . -Seminars . -FREE “Mash Method” E-Book . -FREE “The Barbell Life Podcast” . . @intekstrength #intekstrength @athleteps @harbingerfitness #harbingerfitness @tfox66 #nikeweightlifting #athleteps @mg12power #mg12thepowerofmagnesium #wodfitters @wodfitters @strongerexperts #strongerexperts @leanfitnesssystems #LEANFit
Before the Youth World Championships, which were three weeks after Junior Nationals, we added in one front squat day to each week of the final three weeks. At this point, his leg strength was finally starting to decrease. However, Ryan pulled off a competition PR clean and jerk at the Youth World Championships to take the bronze medal. He clean and jerked 148 kilograms at Youth Worlds, but his legs barely stood the weight up. He clean and jerked 150 kilograms in practice about nine weeks ago, and he stood it up with ease. He cleaned 155 kilograms as well during this training cycle about eight weeks out, but there is no way he could clean that weight right now.
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16-year-old @ryangrimsland with a competition PR Clean & Jerk of 147kg/324lb to secure Bronze at the Youth World Championships. Ryan is the third male in American history to medal at the Youth World Championships. =================== www.mashelite.com <link in bio> for: . -Online Video Seminar . – Mash Mafia Online Team . Feats of Strength Online Meet (proceeds benefit 501c3 Mash Weightlifting Team . -Hundreds of Free Articles & Workouts . -Donate to the 501c3 nonprofit team . – 21 Awesome E-Books . -Seminars . -FREE “Mash Method” E-Book . -FREE “The Barbell Life Podcast” . . @intekstrength #intekstrength @athleteps @harbingerfitness #harbingerfitness @tfox66 #nikeweightlifting #athleteps @mg12power #mg12thepowerofmagnesium #wodfitters @wodfitters @strongerexperts #strongerexperts @leanfitnesssystems #LEANFit
Unilateral squatting got us through the Youth World Championships. It also helped Ryan eliminate the pain he was experiencing. My theory is that weightlifters spend the majority of their training time squatting and extending our hips with both legs in flexion. Over time, the overuse of hip flexion can put a lot of stress on the low back. The major hip flexor is the psoas, which originates in the bottom of the thoracic spine (T12) and lumbar spine (L1-L5). When the psoas shortens, it starts to put pressure on the low back. I think cutting the load on the spine and pelvis along with the rehabilitative properties of the unilateral squatting helped to strengthen the back and pelvis in a healthier way.
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We will continue to use unilateral squats at least once per week. We also use the “McGill Big Three” (developed by Dr. Stuart McGill) as a warm up and to encourage stiffening of the muscles which support the low back and hips. Proximal stiffness leads to a safer way to produce distal power and more power as well.
The McGill Big Three are as follows:
- Bird Dogs
- Side Planks
- McGill Curl Up
Dr. Gray at Gray Chiropractic and Sports Associates was a big help with keeping Ryan healthy. Not only did Dr. Gray adjust Ryan’s spine, but also he added a new machine to his care, the AllCore 360 (which trains the core). Now, fancy machines or gadgets never fool me. I am only impressed by results, and that’s exactly what Ryan got – results. I remember the day I was sold on that piece of equipment. Ryan snatched 110 kilograms like a twig one day, just like he had on countless occasions. However, there was something different about the catch phase. It was more stable than I had ever seen it. He went on to snatch 125 kilograms that day for a 5-kilogram personal record. I attribute a big portion of that PR to Ryan’s core protocol at Dr. Gray’s.
Unilateral squats are amazing for keeping athletes healthy. They are also very specific for sport athletes, so I think everyone should use them as a part of their program. However, if you have an athlete with back issues irritated by back squats and front squats, unilateral squats are a great way to continue training without major leg weakness. They will keep you strong for standing weight up. They will strengthen you in other ways that bilateral squatting won’t. If you are a sport athlete like football, soccer, and lacrosse players, you will want to use unilateral squats simply because of specificity. You might not agree with Coach Boyle, but let’s not make the same mistake as him. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water!
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