Pic: Red Bull Photographer: Arturs Pavlovs
If I were to say to coaches that their sprint athletes shouldn’t squat, I’d probably be run out of town. However, I could (like many others) argue that squats are over-rated and their value to enhancing sprint speed, particularly for the training mature athlete (i.e. when an athlete has developed considerable ability to bend and extend their knees against resistance) is questionable.
But the squat mirrors sprinting…
OK the action of extension and flexion is fundamental to running and jumping. On foot-strike the knee will be flexed ready to absorb and transfer ground forces to propel the sprinter forwards by means of a rapid extension of the ankle, knee and hip. So that’s what happens in a squat, right? Well…
Sprinters often boast that they have “such and such” a squat best, yet many who can squat the entire weight of the England rugby pack, don’t run significantly faster. There are a number of potential reasons for this.
1. Sprinting is a unilateral activity, the normal squat bilateral.
2. A sprinter’s foot will only be in contact with the ground for 0.089 of a second or so when they are flat out. In the blink of an eye they have to impart and overcome force equal to three times plus their body weight. And they need to transfer the vertical absorption of force into a horizontal push, through optimum sprinting biomechanics, to get to the line as fast as possible.
3. Quad dominance, yes other muscles are involved in sprinting (!) and are as, if not more important, notably the hamstrings and the hip-flexors? Being a quadzilla might create biomechanical and structural issues that lead to poor mechanics and increased injury risk.
4. Relevance of muscular actions. Unless there is an attempt on the part of the sprinter to lower and drive up out of the squat as fast as possible, the stretch-shortening action of the quads (and hips) will not be tested in the same way that they are during sprinting, particularly at and near to max velocity (nor will maximum motor unit recruitment be delivered – the subject of another blog post I think).
5. Power to weight American sports scientists looked at the relationship between body weight, 1RM squat and 5, 10 and 40 yard times (1). Seventeen male US football players participated in the survey and they were divided into groups in relation to their 1RM squat and their body mass. Squats were tested to a degree of flexion of 70 degrees and power-to-weight ratio calculated. Sprint times were assessed using timing gates. Perhaps not surprisingly it was found that the athletes with the superior power-to-weight ratios had faster times at 10 and 40 yards.
6. Hormones. Following on from the previous point, It’s important to consider power-to-weight ratio in the light of ultimate sprint performance and squat training protocols. If an athlete regularly trains using a 4-6 set x 8-10 rep protocol, using weights in the 70-85% 1RM range, then the workout will elicit a significant androgen response. This will likely result in weight gain through muscle hypertrophy, due to the copious amounts of the stimulatory hormones produced - testosterone and growth hormone. Thus coach and athlete must be mindful of the squat protocols they employ (and for other similar exercises) and carefully evaluate body weight increases and its effects on power to weight ratio).
7. Genetics. The strength to weight issue also connects back to genetics and the specific propensity for one athlete to be able to “grow” bigger muscles in contrast to another – knowing your genetic blue-print can assist in understanding what the likely training response will be. Knowledge that can aid athlete and coach. Put simply some are more likely to balloon in size just by looking at weights compared to others who need to lift to a very high volume to gain size. (See previous post “Do you fit your genes”.)
There are more reasons and research that can be used to knock the squat – it’s too much to go into in detail in a short and hopefully interesting blog post! However, the take-home message is, watch out carefully for the effects your squats are having on speed, biomechanics, weight and potential for injury. One size does not fit all, one programme will not work optimally for every one and what works for X may not work for you….
1, J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1633-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b2b8aa