A few months back, Mike Boyle officially pronounced The Death of the Back Squat. Now, if you, me, or Joe P. Lifter did that, our buddies would laugh and ask what particular form of leaf we smoked this past weekend. But Boyle is a highly respected name in the world of strength and conditioning. He has decades of experience in the industry, has worked with hundreds of collegiate and professional athletes, and literally thousands of industry professionals look to him for cutting edge methods and strategies in training. If that weren't proof enough of his standing, try this: his website is even linked to the right under "Fitness Stuff I Read." So when Boyle spoke, people listened. Naturally, when a big name like Boyle disses "The King of Exercises," endless discussion will ensue in online forums everywhere.
My gut reaction in this case was to disagree with Boyle, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why. I commented on it on Joe Schafer's blog, but hadn't put my thoughts together yet. Now that a few months have passed, I can explain why I still disagree a little more clearly.
One thing before that though. If you're on of those "Wolf, who do you think you are to disagree with an industry giant like Boyle?" people, stop reading now. However, if, like Maimonides you can "...accept the truth from whatever source it comes..." then read on and evaluate the opinions on their own merits, not based on the relative famousness of who said them. (ps who said my 20 years of formal religious education are being wasted?!?)
Boyle's main argument is that in a test, his athletes could do a lot more than 1/2 their Back Squat (BS) weight for way more reps when they did a Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS) instead. Therefore, it must be the low back that is the limiting factor in BS strength, not the legs. Therefore, do RFESS instead.
The first reason I don't like this is that it is a balance dependent exercise. Boyle himself says it takes 4-6 weeks to learn to properly do this exercise, but even once mastered, it's still balance dependent. I don't like the thought of an exercise that is supposed to increase strength (not endurance, not balance, not agility etc... but STRENGTH) being dependent on balance. Now, you could argue back that based on the evidence Boyle presents, that may be true but the balance dependent factor is still less than the low back weakness factor. Fair enough, so let's get to that point.
Boyle might have tested on a wide variety of athletes and populations, but the only thing he offers in his video are high school athletes, seemingly from the same team. Is it possible that children of this age in general have better development in their legs than lower backs, and that test is invalid because that doesn't hold true for adults? Or that such a conditioning is a function of their sport-specific body imbalances, since they all seem to be on the same team? Or both? Or maybe it's a function of their training until this point, which did not adequtely develop low back strength? Boye has said himself in the past that he is not a fan of traditional deadlifts and doesn't include them in his programs (I heard him say that myself when I went to hear him speak for 8 hours back in November, 2007). Could that account for a lack of low back strength? I'm not saying definitively, but all of the above are other possible explanations that could account for the phenomenon Boyle noticed. I'm not sure why he chose to exclude them.
Another factor, and one that I think is a stronger point than the above questions, is a simple little insight I knew, but didn't know I knew until I read it in Dan John's Never Let Go. (As an aside, I have to thank my aforementioned friend "The Schafe" for turning me on to Dan John just a short time ago. Dan is simply awesome. His writing style really resonates and he's got a ton of personal experiences peppered with great stories in which to deliver top notch content. Highly recommend.) Mr. John is talking about training one side of the body at a time on a program he calls "One Exercise a Day, One Hand a Day," and he makes the point that most people can use 60-70% of their two-handed max using one hand. Why? "You still use both legs, your back, and stabilize like crazy with the off arm." I personally know this because I can press a 48kg (105.6 lb) kettlebell with relative ease - it requires a hard effort, but I can get it right up - whereas doing a BB Press with 211 lbs is a lot slower to go up and requires an effort closer to my max. Does this mean we should only do single arm presses, or that single arm presses work the delts better than the BB Press? Of course not, just that there are other systemic factors to take into account. Apply this to the Squat and hmmmmm....it's not necessarily that the single leg version (RFESS) works the leg any more than the traditional Back Squat; it's just that all the other body parts are still contributing their double share of effort (entire torso, upper back, back leg), picking up some of the slack for that single leg and helping it along. Especially the rear foot!
Additionally, traditional BB Back Squats are plain old harder than the single leg version. There's no argument about that. Because you can load so much more weight (even if Boyle is right about this point and you can't load double what you could in a single leg version, you can still load a LOT more total weight), the systemic response is that much greater. Many more muscles - namely, the ones on the other leg - must be recruited, which, along with the greater overal load that the body has to bear, should lead to a larger hormonal response as well as a greater cardiorespiratory effect. Since both sides are being used, and the overall load on the torso is much greater as well.
The mental toughness factor shouldn't be discounted, either. Rippetoe talks about this a lot in Starting Srength as well as Strong Enough? Many people avoid squatting simply because it's damn hard and there's no way to cheat (except not going as deep as you should, but if you're strict on depth, there's no way to get that bar up besides being strong enough to do so. You can bounce a bench press off your chest, you can swing a bicep curl till it almost becomes a crappy-form reverse grip clean, presses can easily become push presses - but you can't cheat a squat up). The heart pounding, oxygen deprived, why-the-hell-did-I-talk-myself-into-this-ness of the traditional BB Back Squat can't be replicated by the RFESS. Trust me, I tried. Fatigue in the working leg - check. Heart pounding, oxygen deprivation, total body meltdown - no check. The RFESS's are hard, to be sure, but not as hard.
Here I admit that I wander into the murkier realm of opinion but I think an athlete needs that mental toughness in the 4th quarter, the 3rd period, the sudden death overtime - as much as they need the theoretical bit extra leg strength (that again, may or may not actually be gained with the RFESS version). A parent needs that at 3am when their baby is crying, the dog just threw up all over the brand new leather sofa, and they have to be up at 5:30 am to be on a conference call with London about tomorrow's huge deal deadline. Probably more than they need any extra leg strength.
So even if low back/torso IS a limiting factor, Squats would still have a super important place in any total body strength program.
Also, there's this little doozy: simply no way an football player who has Boyle SS'd 250 for 5 sets of 5 (let's say) on each leg is as prepared and ready for a crushing hit from a linebacker as a football player who has BS'd 425 for 5x5. Again, I use those numbers because for the sake of argument to give him the benefit of the doubt that he's right in the first place about BS vs RFESS in leg strength. Again, this is still debatable. But in the video, Boyle says his main aim is always injury reduction. With all those Hockey and Football players he trains, I'd have thought this argument would be foremost on his mind. The torso and overall system will be so much better trained and able to receive and take a big hit from having 400 something pounds under load while squatting, than it will with 250, even if the legs get less direct development. This is not an argument against RFESS, but a definite argument in favor of keeping the BS in the program.
So, are we looking at The Death of the Squat. I quote: "So instead of trying to guess at what my logic is, check out this video where I explain exactly why I think you should cut squats from your strength training programs." Cut Squats??? The exercise that produces a superior hormonal response, coordinates more total body movement, requires a much stronger core (I hate that word, I'll post on that soon, but for now let's agree to use it for convenience) than the single leg version, even if you're right about the leg strength argument (which is debatable, as above)?!? You've gotta be kidding, Mr. Boyle!
Now, if you're a Personal Trainer who only gets two, maybe three hours per week with a client if you're lucky - not a strength coach working with athletes for many hours consistently every week - which one do you think is more time efficient, to work the most bodyparts, induce the greatest total systemic response, burn the most calories, etc... in the least amount of time. I think the answer is obvious.
So, despite my relative lack of fame in comparison to the great strength coach, Mike Boyle, and the fact that thousands of coaches and trainers don't pay to come hear me speak, I must respectfully disagree with him here. And I think I'm right.