We’re weightlifters. We squat. From the start of the lift to the recovery, leg and back strength are essential and so conventional wisdom has held that the more squatting a lifter can do, the better they’ll be. But what if more squats aren’t really what you need?
The weightlifting movements are almost completely bilateral (on two legs at once) and sagittal (front to back rather than side to side) plane exercises. That means one leg can easily cover for the weaknesses of the other and this creates vulnerability for both sides. Likewise the lifts themselves (once again with the noted exception of the split jerk) do little to train rotational stability, despite regularly challenging it (ever seen a lifter “helicopter” with a big weight overhead?).
This is in no way an attempt to diminish the squat; it has been shown time and again in multiple studies to have massive benefit to athletic movements, as well as functionality throughout life. It is a fundamental movement, we all stand up that way the first time and want to continue to be able to rise unassisted into old age. However below are a few times when more squats might not be what you need:
1. When it hurts. This might seem a bit of a no-brainer but honestly is still worth mentioning, unfortunately there are still a lot of people out there who are under the impression that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Unfortunately sometimes it just gives you patellar tendinopathy or disc irritation. Listen to your body, if something really hurts during or after your squatting, feels “wrong” or gets progressively worse rather than better, don’t keep going!
2. When there is a noticeable weight shift during bilateral movements. This frequently indicates a deficit in either mobility or stability from one side to the other. Research has shown that asymmetry is actually a bigger indicator of injury potential than overall weakness or stiffness, so it’s best not to load that asymmetry in strength movements until it’s been addressed and ideally resolved. This can be the time to work on single leg exercises which can help to address these issues and have also been shown to have a high carry over to sporting movements, stability, and indeed the squat itself.
3. When your squat is significantly bigger than your pull. Some people simplify this to ”back versus leg strength” but I think it is more complex than this. The Olympic lifts require a lot of dynamic strength but also a great deal of positional strength. That means you have to be strong enough to counter the force the bar exerts against you as you lift it. This is particularly difficult for longer bodied lifters and those who have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibres, for those people the effort of maintaining a relatively isometric position “over the bar” can be much more challenging. So for people who find themselves in this situation, I believe it is necessary to devote more time and energy to the pull and less to the squat, as well as to incorporate pulls from different positions, paused and tempo work to really address the issues (and also build some beast strength).
4. When your strength exercises far surpass your technical lifts. In the beginning most people with any kind of training background will be stronger than what they can snatch or Clean and jerk with good technique. That’s normal: it takes time to learn the lifts and for the movements to become consistent enough that a lifter can begin to test their true strength in those lifts. However for those who have been lifting for a few years and while technique is more ingrained, if you are still struggling to snatch up to 50% of your best back squat or clean and jerk 75% then it is quite possible that technical errors are not allowing you to express your strength in those lifts and so you’re energy may be better invested in examining and improving those backs rather than slavishly trying to increase your squat.
5. When you’re just tired. The squat is an incredible compound exercise, requiring movement about multiple joints and stability from most of the others, but this can make it not only physically taxing but also neurally draining. Whether from training, work, relationships, illness or just life we all can get tired sometimes and need to take a step back. Often when we can’t lift well frustration or lack of understanding make us think that we should hit the strength work harder, but sometimes “brute force and ignorance lifting” will only tire us and perpetuate the cycle. In these cases, keep it simple, and hit some curls!