I Don't Think Back Squats Are Functional, But Here's Why I Still Do Them
Years ago, the term "functional movement" started getting thrown around like crazy. Popularized by CrossFit, the term set the fitness industry ablaze and people started doing more compound movements, barbell lifts, and of course: squatting.
When I first learned about functional movement, the squat was the first movement that was discussed. I think it had something to do with the synergistic way in which the hips, knees, and ankles have to work together to let our butts sit low. Though the common thought spread through gyms was that we "squat all the time in real life", even though I honestly don't remember the last time I did a squat without purposefully doing so. I would guess many people are in the same boat.
As I learned more, and listened to varying leaders in Strength and Fitness on the topic of functional movement, the less I started to see squatting as functional movements. I remember listening to Mike Boyle talk about why he doesn't back squat anyone, due to the stress it places on the spine. Boyle is known for his joint-by-joint approach to mobility, as well as promoting what he calls the Bilateral Deficit: where individuals squat less on two legs than they could the sum of weight they could handle on each leg individually (most people can single leg squat roughly 60% of their bilateral squat for 1 Rep).
This thought process then lead me to Dr's Jordan Shallow and Jordan Jiunta of Pre-Script, who approach chiropractic care and training through a proper programming structure and exercise prescription. One of the first things that really stood out to me was their discussions on the gait cycle (how we walk), and how true functional movement happens in the gait cycle due to the structure of the skeleton. Because of the structures of our body, we can do far more than most creatures can within the gait cycle, and building strength within it is what truly unlocks functional strength. In a podcast interview, Shallow (a powerlifter) went on to make a valid point that the Back Squat (or bilateral squat) is an expression of joint function within the gait cycle.
This lead to shifting how I program training, leading to more and more unilateral strength work for myself and my athletes. This lead to them getting stronger, faster, and less achy. I started to realize that the concept of functional looked more like single leg/arm work than primarily barbell work, and that the back squat and front squat aren't truly the most functional exercises.
But I still program back squats. Why?
This is multi-faceted, and it has to do with individual goals, cultural norms, and predictions for the future of myself and those I train. The goal is to help people create a stronger future, and in doing so we must account for these factors.
If you're a weightlifter or powerlifter, you need to back squat. It's part of your sport and part of developing strength on two legs. These are individual goals that we need to consider, and play an influence into programming for these athletes. When it comes to goal outcomes and of the sport, these movements have a more direct impact. Especially for powerlifting, because the back squat IS the sport. For weightlifting, the high bar back squat likely has the highest return and transfer for the clean and snatch.
Cultural norms and personal preferences also play a role in the programming of back squats in each person's program. Some people have had it ingrained in their minds that the back squat is the "King of the Lifts," and in the end it is usually not worth the battle of trying to change that opinion. Especially with individuals who are "married to the squat," meaning they have always done them and always want to do them, programming the back squat is often done in a manner that appeases that bias. Still, when they are programmed it is usually backed up by mostly unilateral accessories.
Predictions for the future is where many may get confused. I say predicting the future, especially in regards to my middle and high school athletes who are likely to have team workouts at their schools, most of which will include back squats. Admittedly, I teach and program back squats as a way to teach kids how to do the movement safely before a coach with less knowledge of the weight room loads them up to a one rep max weight prematurely. This is a consistent area of weakness in most public high schools, where legitimate strength and conditioning coaches are not present, though that is a blog for a different time completely. In this case, I program them as a teaching method, so they learn from someone who not only has competed in competitive lifting, but knows how to progress the movement in a way that prevents injury. These are also highly supplemented via unilateral variations as part of accessory work.
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think that back squats or front squats are inherently dangerous. I've seen this be stated and promoted by other coaches. If they are dangerous or cause harm to people you train, then it may be a reflection of the coach's ability to teach the movement. Do I think that they're the most functional exercise selection? No. But I'll still program them for specific individuals based on their goals, preconceptions, and the potential weight room future they may have.