The Relative Value of the Back Squat in the Training of Weightlifters
Andrew Charniga, Jr.
Do not reproduce or republish in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. © 2001
There is considerable literature devoted to the training of weightlifters with regards to planning the volume and intensity of loading, exercise selection, the role and place of assistance exercises. Ultimately, the goal of the authors and those engaged in research in this area is to provide coaches and athletes with a reasonable blue print to follow in order to obtain the best results from training.
The most commonly used assistance exercise is the squat (both front and back). However, the literature is vague as to the actual value the loading from these exercises will have on the long term improvement of the results in the snatch and the clean and jerk.
The relative value of these exercises to the training of weightlifters should be evaluated objectively based on how they can affect the lifter's results in the classic snatch and the classic clean and jerk.
For instance, how close are squats to the coordination structure to the classic exercises? Are the muscles most important to the successful execution of the classic exercises strengthened proportionally? Is the strength one develops from squatting specific to that strength which is most useful to the athlete? Do these exercises contribute to the formation of the correct motor habits or further the formation of these habits? Do they make a significant contribution to the improvement of results in the snatch and the clean and jerk over the long term of training?
The back Squat: Bulgaria Vs. the Soviet Union
The back squat is the main exercise employed by weightlifters to strengthen the legs. It has special significance for the clean and jerk because of the heavy reliance on leg strength for this exercise. However, some research in the late 70s from Bulgaria suggested that the back squat was an important assistance exercise for improvement of the snatch. Dobrev and Kolev (1) did a correlation analysis between results in the classic snatch, the power snatch, the snatch pull and the back squat. Their data indicated a high correlation between results in the back squat and the classic snatch.
Their conclusions: "A number of authors have pointed out that the back squat is the fundamental training exercise for the clean and jerk and that it should not be considered an assistance exercise for the snatch (N. A. Luchkin, A. I. Bozhko, Y. G. Kutsenkeno, R. A. Roman, A. N. Vorobeyev). Our research shows that there is a close dependence between achievements in the snatch and results in the back squat.
The significantly greater correlation between results in the snatch and the back squat than between the snatch pull and the snatch shows that the back squat is the fundamental training exercise for the snatch. This is indicative of its high significance for weightlifters to achieve high results" (1).
The authors' conclusions would seem to indicate that lifters should turn their attention to improving the back squat in order to achieve higher results in the snatch. Frolov et al (2) found a similar correlation between the squat and snatch results. However, they determined that improvement of the snatch is to a great extent determined by the speed with which the knees shift under the barbell during the "explosion" and the speed of the "explosion" phase as a whole (2).
The faster the "explosion" occurs and the faster the quadriceps muscles are stretched the more powerful the subsequent contraction (2,22). The tests of absolute strength, the back squat and the static pull, were found to have almost no correlation to snatch results. However, the tests of explosive strength such as the vertical jump and the standing long jump revealed a high correlation to results in the snatch. Furthermore, the stronger the hamstrings, the higher the test results in the aforementioned jumps.
Consequently, improvement of snatch results is not conditioned by improvement in the back squat but improvement in explosive strength and the relative strength of the muscles that flex the knees.
Frolov 's (2) findings are what one would anticipate considering the physiology involved. According to Lukashev (18), "One's results in the snatch depend to great extent on the speed of muscular contraction, the reactive abilities of the neuromuscular apparatus and the way these forces are applied".
A weightlifter simply does not have the time to realize his maximum strength for the snatch because the actual time the lifter has to produce muscular force is less than one second. It requires more time for a lifter to generate maximum muscular force than is available in an exercise like the snatch.
According to Deniskin (21), "One of the fundamental methods of developing the muscular strength of weightlifters is to employ weights in excess of the weights one can lift in the competition exercises in pulls (clean and snatch) and squats. However, these exercises contribute to the effective development of absolute strength, but they have little effect on the ability to generate explosive force" (A.N. Vorobeyev, 1977; A.S. Medvedyev, 1968; V.S. Avenesov, 1970).
So, even if a lifter continues to increase the absolute strength of the legs by lifting more weight in the back squat, he will never be able to fully utilize this increase in strength in the brief time available to execute the snatch. Over time, a lifter will reach a point of diminishing returns from this exercise, relative to its value as an assistance exercise for the snatch.
Furthermore, one has to be careful not to develop the strength of the quadriceps significantly out of proportion to that of the hamstrings, especially at the critical knee angles of the "explosion" phase. Conceivably this could have the opposite of the desired effect from training which would result in making the lifter slower in the "explosion" phase.
The back squat does not involve a rapid switching of tension from the muscles of the front of the thighs to those in the rear. So, this motor habit is not reinforced with squatting nor is there a concomitant development of the antagonist muscles in the front and rear of the thighs.
The feet remain fixed in the squat, whereas, in the snatch, they are typically shifted in two planes (frontal and saggittal) simultaneously in the squat under phase. The athlete has to instantaneously switch directions (from up to down) and find a new base of support. Furthermore, at the same instant, the feet are actively thrust against the floor and assist the arms and shoulders in securing the barbell overhead. These elements of the snatch exercise are not found in the squat.
The back squat as the main assistance exercise for the Clean and Jerk
The clean and jerk is synonymous with leg strength. However, it is common knowledge that strength training is angle specific. Most, if not all of the real power generated in the pull phase of the clean (from the instant of barbell separation) is from a knee angle of 80 to 100, up to about 150 to160 degrees; and, then from about 115 to 165 or 170 degrees in the "explosion".
However, this straightening, bending and then straightening of the legs is not carried out solely by the quadriceps. The lifter quickly shifts the load back and forth between the extensors of the thighs to the extensors of the trunk and the flexors of the knees while proceeding from the starting position to the end of the pull phase.
The strength developed from the back squat would contribute to a certain extent to the lifter's ability to generate vertical force in the pull, but it would not be a major contribution because of the specificity of the way the legs generate vertical force during the pull phase of the lift.
It is obvious that the strength of the quadriceps is the single most important factor in the successful recovery from the clean. Consequently, squats are most effective for strengthening these muscles for this phase of the lift. However, the specificity of the muscular tension and biomechanics of the back squat are somewhat different from those of the recovery phase of the technically efficient clean.
The Specificity of the Muscular Tension and the Biomechanics of the Squat Under and Recovery Phase of the Clean
According to Livanov and Falameyev (4), the barbell descends a greater distance in the squat under phase of the clean than in the snatch. The athlete's natural reaction to the heavier barbell is to generate a larger force to cause it to travel further upward because of inertia. This, in turn, gives the athlete a greater distance to amortize the downward movement of the larger mass in the clean.
Consequently, the authors' assertion: "perfecting the technique of the squat under phase involves the acquisition of the ability to shorten the time required to stop the barbell's downward motion, especially in the clean. Here the yielding method of developing strength is appropriate because it enables one to execute the same muscular activity that is displayed in the amortization phase of the squat under. Consequently, the structure of the assistance exercise (the front squat) should be the same as that displayed in the amortization part of the squat under"(4).
It goes without saying that the biomechanics of the front squat are specific to the recovery phase of the clean. What is more, the eccentric front squat is an assistance exercise very close in structure to what is required in the recovery phase because of the specificity of the muscular tension involved in actively "braking" the barbell.
However, one should not conclude that use of eccentric front squats and the front squat are the only exercises needed to perfect the recovery phase of the clean.
The technically proficient athlete ceases his efforts to lift the barbell up and shifts his effort to descend under the barbell at the most appropriate instant of the pull phase of the clean and the snatch (3).
This shift of effort is just at the right time in order to begin the descent under the barbell at the appropriate instant which allows the lifter to prepare in advance to effectively execute the most complex and difficult phase of the clean: the squat under the barbell. Typically, the athlete rearranges the feet in two planes simultaneously (frontal and saggittal).
At virtually the same instant, the lifter energetically thrusts the feet into the floor in order to create additional tension in the muscles for "braking" the downward movement of the weight. And, in what feels like the same instant, the lifter secures the barbell on the chest.
This active pushing into the floor with the feet enhances the efficiency of the subsequent recovery. The technically proficient lifter coordinates the storage of elastic energy from the muscular tension of the descent with the additional elastic potential from the bending of the bar (when the downward descent of barbell and lifter reach the bottom of the squat) to reduce the effort and time needed to stand up with the weight. This "economy of effort" is essential for success in the jerk (16).
The additional muscular tension in the legs created by the instantaneous "braking" of the downward movement of the barbell is closer to plyometric tension than that displayed in an ordinary squat or even an eccentric squat.
So, the optimum technique of the clean involves a specific biomechanical and physiological display of leg strength to execute the recovery phase of the clean with sufficient economy of effort for the lifter to be able to jerk the barbell.
The Necessity for a Reserve Strength in the Legs
There is obvious need to continue to strengthen the leg muscles in training over the long term because these are the muscles with which the lifter can most effectively generate the vertical forces in the pull phase and likewise employ in the recovery phase of the lifts. However, there is a special need for a reserve of strength in the legs for the clean and jerk.
Ivanov (15) studied the connection between results in the clean and jerk and the back squat. The data showed that the squat results were typically 127 to 139% of the clean and jerk for top lifters. The squat results of the world record holders tended to be slightly higher. The difference in the squat to the clean and jerk found here point out the necessity of a reasonable reserve of leg strength for a successful clean and jerk.
Subsequent research by Ivanov (16) of the optimum time spent after recovery from the clean to prepare for the jerk showed that although it is imperative that the athlete take sufficient time to assume the proper starting position, the time required to recover from the squat had a greater affect on the outcome of the lift.
Therefore, an energy efficient recovery from the clean is an integral part of a successful clean and jerk because the lifter needs to have sufficient energy left after the recovery in order to be able to make the effort required for a successful jerk. But this is not directly connected to results in the back squat because of the biomechanical and physiological specifics of an energy efficient clean.
Ivanov (15) pointed out that squat results which are 127 + - 5.2% of the clean and jerk or a clean and jerk to squat ratio of 79% would be sufficient leg strength for athletes with good technique in the clean.
This brings us back to the issue as to how much the back squat contributes to one's results in the snatch and the clean and jerk over the long term of training. The biomechanics of the back squat are markedly different than the clean; the muscular tension involved in the recovery phase of the clean is closer to a plyometric than muscular tension of the back squat.
So,does one squat more to clean and jerk more weight? Or, what is more likely, does one clean and jerk more weight to squat more weight, to clean and jerk more weight?
Trufanov (19) studied the training loads of high class heavyweights during the competition period. With regards to the loading in squats he found: "Athletes who possess good technique in the clean and jerk and consistently attain high results in this exercise in competition, employ 12 to 21% of the general volume of the loading in squats. The intensity of these squats is rather low (61 to 69%). Lifters who execute a substantial volume of jerk exercises, by way of squat cleans and the classic clean and jerk, do fewer squats than other athletes (14 to 15% of the general volume of all exercises).
When the volume of squats reached 27 to 34%, the athletes were not very successful in the clean and jerk in competitions. Nevertheless, athletes who are good in the clean and jerk have rather high results in the squats".
According to this study, good results in the clean and jerk were obtained with a relatively small volume of squats in general and that the specific loading on the legs from squat cleans and clean and jerks combined effectively with smaller loads in squats.
There does not appear to be any scientific support in the literature for the notion that a "squat routine" (a specific loading in squats for the purpose of achieving higher results in this exercise) would be integral part of the training of weightlifters.
Consequently, the myth that specialized training in squats to improve the results of weightlifters over the long term of training is puzzling. One logical reason for this would be in no small measure because of the false assumption that performing the competition exercises with correct technique and in sufficient volume would not have an appreciable effect on the strength of the legs. Consequently, if one believed this to be true, a specialized loading in squats would be needed. On the contrary, the literature and practical experience supports the opposite.
Practice of the competition exercises with correct technique strengthens the muscles of the lower extremities specific to their relative contribution to the execution of the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Furthermore, the strength developed is specific to the crucial joint angles for the optimum performance of the snatch and the clean and jerk and, likewise, the specific strength required relative to the time available to execute the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Although the back squat is undoubtedly the most universally applied assistance exercise in the training of weightlifters, it should not be considered "the fundamental training exercise for the snatch." Significant differences in the biomechanics of the two exercises as well as the coordination structure and the specifics of the strength required for the snatch preclude such a conclusion.
Although the back squat is by far more of an assistance exercise for the clean and jerk, one should consider the following exercises in order of importance for strengthening the legs for the clean and jerk: classic clean and jerk, squat clean, front squat, eccentric front squat (if the lifter has difficulty in the recovery phase) and back squat.
When one takes into consideration how the muscles of the lower extremities are utilized most effectively in the execution of the classic snatch and the clean and jerk, then, over the long term of training, the back squat should be considered one of the exercises, not "the exercise" that the athlete should utilize to develop and maintain a "reserve" strength in the legs for the recovery phase of the clean.
"Dangerous and Non - Productive" (20)
The main purpose of this article has been to make an objective assessment of the back squat, with respect to the results one could realistically expect from this exercise in weightlifting training over the long term. It is our opinion that part of the problem associated with a purely objective assessment of this exercise is the fact that it may fly in the face of contemporary thinking about the back squat. In actuality, the value of this exercise to the training of weightlifters has been exaggerated to mythical proportions in the USA.
According to John Fair (23), authors such as J.C. Hise, Mark Berry, John McCallum and others promoted specialized leg work to develop muscular bulk and power. However, the writings of McCallum, where the author advocates squatting for five sets of five repetitions with the heaviest weight one can handle for the final three sets (25, 26), have erroneously been applied to the training of weightlifters over the years.
These articles appeared in Strength and Health magazine, side by side with the weightlifting literature. Since weightlifters do squats and bodybuilders do squats, confusion as to the proper application of squats for weightlifting was bound to occur. Action pictures of famous weightlifters appeared in some of these articles (24) touting the extraordinary benefits of squats.
Likewise, this ridiculous advice from McCallum (28):
"Take three huge breaths. All the air you can cram into your lungs. Hold the third breath and squat. You've got to practically bleed on your squats."(28)
The best example as to how some of these articles could have contributed to this "confusion" is the following from Strength and Health: "The Case for Combining Bodybuilding and Weightlifting" and "Don't be a specialist - diversify and be amazed at the results." (29)
The reason for citing this literature is to offer a possible explanation as to why so many lifters and coaches in the USA, for so many years, have equated large results in the squat to big results in the snatch and the clean and jerk. To these coaches and athletes, the response "dangerous and non - productive" to the question as to why a world champion and world record holder in the clean and jerk like V. Klokov did not try to lift heavy weights in the back squat would seem strange.
- Dobrev, P., Kolev, K.: "Correlation Between Snatch Results and Training Exercises", Tyazhelaya Atletika Ezhegodnik, 1979, 40 - 42,
- Frolov, V.I.: "Interdependence of Results in the Snatch, Technical Mastery and Some Physical Qualities of Weightlifters", 1981 Weightlifting Yearbook, pp 83-87 Sportivny Press, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
- Zhekov, I. P.: Biomechanics of the Weightlifting Exercises, Sportivny Press. Pp -13 -14; 20; Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
- Livanov, O. I., Falameyev, A. I., "Some Biomechanical Characteristics of the Movement of the Barbell in the Snatch and the Clean", Tyazhelaya Atletika Ezhegodnik, 1979, pp 22 - 25
- Frolov, B. I., Levshunov, N. P., "Phasic Structure of the Jerk from the Chest", Tyazhelaya Atletika Ezhegodnik, 1979, pp 25 - 28.
- Roman, R.A., Shakirzyanov, M.S., The Snatch, The Clean and Jerk, pp3, Sportivny Press, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
- Charniga, A., "Concerning the Russian Squat Routine", Sportivny Press, 2001, www.dynamic-eleiko.com
- Lukashev, A., Personnel Communication
- Verkhoshansky, Y. V. Fundamentals of Special Strength Training in Sport,
- Barton, J., "Are There General Rules in Snatch Kinematics", Procedings of the Weightlifting Symposium 1997, Olympia, Greece, Published by the International Weightlifting Federation
- Zenalov, A.A., "Methods of Developing Leg Strength", Tyazhelaya Atletika, 29 - 31, 1976, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr., Sportivny Press www.dynamic-eleiko.com
- Roman, R.A., The Training of the Weightlifter Sportivny Press, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
- Roman, R. A., Personal Communication
- Ermakov, A.D., "The Training Load of Weightlifters in Pulls and Squats", 1980 Weightlifting Yearbook, p 34 - 38 Sportivny Press, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
- Ivanov, A. T., "Squat Results and Their Connection to Achievements in the Clean and Jerk", Tyazhelaya Atletika, p26 - 29, Fizkultura I Sport, Moscow 1976
- Ivanov, A. T., "The Time to Prepare for the Jerk from the Chest", Tyazhelaya Atletika, PP 55 - 57, Fizkultura I Sport, Moscow, 1977
- Medvedyev, A.S., A System of Multi - Year Training in Weightlifting, Sportivny Press, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
- Medvedyev, A. S., Methods of Teaching Weightlifting, Fizkultura I Sport, Moscow, 1986
- Trufanov, I.N., "Some Peculiarities of the Training Load of Heavyweights in the Competition Period", Tyazhelaya Atletika, 26 - 28:1977, Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers, Moscow
- Klokov, V. Personal communication.
- Deniskin, V. N., "Speed - Strength Preparation of Highly - Qualified Weightlifters in the Pre - Competition Stage", Teoriya I Metodika Fizicheskovo Vospitanya I Sportivnoi Fizkultury, #130004, 1981
- Medvedyev, A.S., Lukashev, A.A., "The Clean and Jerk Technique of World Record Holders V. Alexeyev and G. Bonk", Tyazhelaya Atletika , 60 - 62, 1977.
- Fair, J.D., Muscletown USA, The Pennsylvania State University Press, PP-212 - 213, 1990
- Liederman, E., "Benefits From Squats" Strength and Health Magazine, 33:1:40-41, 74-75, 1965 5 x 5 Picture of lifters
- McCallum, J., "Keys to Progress", Strength And Health Magazine, 34:1:68, 1966 (5 x 5)
- McCallum, J., "Keys to Progress", Strength and Health Magazine, 34:4:68, 1966 Mention Hepburn and Anderson
- McCallum, J., "Keys to Progress", Strength and Health Magazine, 34:8:72, 1966 (5 x 5)
- McCallum, J., "Keys to Progress", Strength and Health Magazine, 33:10:12-15
- Weaver, V., "The Case for Combining Bodybuilding and Weightlifting", 33:4:48 - 52; 62