With Squatober in full swing and debate raging within the strength and conditioning community about the merits, or otherwise, of such a programme (squat 6 days per week for the month of October maxing out at the end of the month), it seemed only fitting to write a blog post questioning whether we should even be squatting at all if our goal is to improve athletic performance.
The Argument Against Squatting
The biggest proponent of this argument is the legendary, and given this viewpoint unsurprisingly controversial, strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle who states:
‘The concept of relying primarily on unilateral training for the lower body is based on one simple thought (we run and jump on one leg most of the time) and one not-so simple thought, something known as the bilateral strength deficit’ 
The Bilateral Strength Deficit
Let’s explore this statement further by beginning with the not-so simple thought, that is, the existence of a bilateral strength deficit. So what exactly is the bilateral strength deficit?
‘The bilateral limb deficit (BLD) phenomenon is the difference in maximal or near maximal force generating capacity of muscles when they are contracted alone or in combination with the contralateral muscles. A deficit occurs when the summed unilateral force is greater than the bilateral force.’ 
In layman’s terms, this statement is telling us that an athlete can, on one leg, squat more than half of what they can squat on two legs. Coach Boyle’s athletes are testament to this fact – every athlete he trains can do a rear-foot elevated split squat with significantly more than half of what they can back squat .
The exact mechanisms behind the bilateral strength deficit remain unclear despite numerous studies: some contend that it is a neural phenomenon, some that it is a issue of stability and others that it is due to the addition of torque from body adjustments [3, 4]. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to explore these different hypotheses it seems safe to say that a bilateral strength deficit does exist.
Sport is Played on One Leg
Whilst the bilateral strength deficit remains somewhat contentious, the observation that sport is played primarily on one leg is rather less so. If this is true, according to the principle of specificity, is it not a better use of our time in the gym to focus on getting strong, and more powerful, on one leg than on two?
Reduced Injury Risk
Coach Boyle observed amongst his athletes a significant reduction in injuries once he began to employ a strength training programme that emphasised unilateral exercises over bilateral exercises. Prior to adopting such a programme, he had observed that most of his athletes’ back pain resulted from performing heavy squats . Looking at this objectively, this is not particularly surprising given the axial load placed on the spine under heavy squats. Indeed, whilst it can be unequivocally argued that the squat results in tremendous developments in lower body strength and power, the stresses placed on the musculoskeletal system during squatting, in particular the lumbar spine and surrounding soft tissue, are often overlooked. There is a trifecta of compression, torsion and shear forces acting on the spine during the squat .
The Argument For Squatting
Learn the Squat Pattern, not the Squat
If people actually took the time to read Functional Training for Sports by Mike Boyle, rather than simply dismissing his work because ‘he doesn’t believe in squats’ they would realise that every athlete that is coached within his facility learns a bodyweight squat as their baseline lower body exercise. This is because teaching an athlete a bodyweight squat reveals important information about their mobility and injury potential . He believes all athletes should learn the squat pattern as their first lower body exercise – but notice the distinction made between ‘squat pattern’ and ‘squat’.
Squats Make You Strong
‘Based on the extant literature, it appears that there may be no substitute for greater muscular strength’ 
Unequivocally, strength is required in all sports both for improving performance whilst at the same time reducing the risk of injury. Within strength and conditioning, strength must therefore be viewed as a lead quality – it is the foundation on which all other qualities that pertain to sport performance are built. Furthermore, studies have shown that maximal strength levels are a distinguishing trait between higher level and lower level athletes. Ultimately, stronger athletes progress further in their sport than weaker athletes .
We therefore want to make athletes stronger in as little time as possible. To do this, we need to apply the greatest stimulus we can to the athlete. Intensive and supramaximal squatting tick just this box for lower body strength gains and total body systemic stress.
Learning the squat pattern is very different to employing intensive squatting (lifting loads above 90% of 1RM) in your strength and conditioning programme. The main reason for utilising such heavy squats is the argument that this results in a level of total body systemic stress which cannot be obtained with lighter loads.
This level of systemic stress leads to neural adaptations involved in the expression of strength which lighter loads simply cannot replicate :
- Improvements in rate coding
- Recruitment of more motor units
- Recruitment of fastest motor units
- Boosts serum testosterone levels
Supramaximal (i.e. lifting loads greater than 100% of 1RM) squatting is an even more intense method through which to utilise squats in a strength and conditioning programme.
The theory behind the utilisation of supramaximal squatting is that it requires maximal muscular recruitment and so is extremely taxing on the Central Nervous System. This method is best implemented using a safety squat bar (which reduces axial loading – one of the key injury risks posed by squatting) and a hand supported position (eliminating the balance element involved meaning the exercise can be loaded more heavier).
In a recent article on Simplifaster discussing his utilisation of the Compressed Triphasic Model, William Wayland makes the very convincing point:
‘I hear the cliched statement in strength and conditioning about ‘all roads leading to Rome’ – to me this is relativistic tosh. Isn’t the best road the one that gets us there the fastest without the wheels falling off?’ 
In conclusion, compelling arguments exist both for and against including squats in a strength and conditioning programme to improve athletic performance. On the one hand, a case can be made that the risk of injury from heavy squats is simply too high to justify their inclusion; after all, in sport performance the biggest ability is availability. Not to mention the existence of a bilateral strength deficit. On the other hand, if programmed correctly, squatting undoubtedly results in improved lower body strength and, unquestionably, higher level athletes are stronger athletes than their weaker counterparts. On balance, it would seem that there is a time and place to include squats in an S&C programme to improve athletic performance but it should not be viewed as the be-all and end-all for lower body strength gains.
Reference M. Boyle, New Functional Training for Sports (2nd ed.), 2016.  U. Kuruganti, T. Murphy & T. Pardy, ‘Bilateral deficit phenomenon and the role of antagonist muscle activity during maximal isometric knee extensions in young, athletic men’, European Journal of Applied Physiology 111 (7), pp. 1533-9.  E. Simoneau-Buessinger et. al., ‘Bilateral strength deficit is not neural in origin; rather due to dynamometer mechanical configuration’, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684274/ (accessed 04/10/2018).  K. Neeld, ‘Understanding the Bilateral Deficit’, http://www.kevinneeld.com/understanding-the-bilateral-deficit (accessed 04/10/2018).  H. Orloff et. al. ‘Forces on the Lumbar Spine during the Parallel Squat’, https://ojs.ub.uni-konstanz.de/cpa/article/view/3648 (accessed 04/10/2018)  T. Suchomel et al., ‘The Importance of Muscular Strength: Training Considerations’, Sports Medicine 48 (10) January 2018.  W. Wayland, ‘Practitioner Reflections and Triphasic Training for S&C’, seminar attended 08/09/2018.  W. Wayland, ‘How to Train Intensive Squatting for all Sports’, https://simplifaster.com/articles/intensive-squats/ (accessed 04/10/2018).  W. Wayland, ‘Applying the Compressed Triphasic Model with MMA Fighters’, https://simplifaster.com/articles/compressed-triphasic-model-mma/ (accessed 04/10/2018).