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3 Alternatives to Squats

  • Author:
    By Dr. T.J. Allan, Pharm.D, performance specialist
  • Date:
    May 27, 2015

More than 99 percent of vertical jump training programs include the squat as its primary bilateral leg strength exercise. It's commonly referred to as the "king of leg exercises." A strong squat usually equals a big vertical jump.

While I necessarily don't disagree with any of the above statements, I do tend to have a problem with the bilateral stance squat for basketball players. In fact, I disagree so much that I only use it for about 10 percent of my basketball players. Why?


Long Levers, Ineffective Loading

Most basketball players' frames aren't built for the squat. You won't see too many 6-foot-6 power lifters. Long levers are great for producing power, but are extremely inefficient for gaining strength. Just take a look at a tall player's femur, and imagine the range of motion he goes through from the top of the squat to a femur parallel bottom position. That's a lot of work. It's tough to effectively load someone that tall and expect them to hit full range of motion (ROM).

Poor Hip and Ankle Mobility = Bad Back and Shoulders

This is my number one concern. Rarely will I see a basketball player, especially a male, have enough hip and ankle mobility to squat. If they don't have enough mobility in the hip or ankle, they'll either get it from another joint, which the large majority of time is the lower back, or their range of motion will suffer. It's not uncommon to hear a taller athlete after squats complain about how sore his back is, and never mention his hamstrings or glutes. A sore lower back results in a slow, less agile athlete who can't jump.

Ego = Lack of ROM

This is typically seen only in males. In their mind, technique is afterthought. All they care about is squatting (if you can call it that) three wheels. About 99 percent of the time it looks more like a calf raise than a squat. If they don't go through the whole ROM, which they won't, they'll completely negate the biggest benefits of squats for the vertical jump: hamstring and glute strength. As the athlete descends lower and lower, the hamstrings and glutes become more involved. Those two muscles are the power muscles. Those are the muscles we need to train.

Consistency (Depth)

Even if you are constantly hammering a femur-parallel depth, it'll be inconsistent at best. As soon as you add weight, the next rep will be a little higher, and then a little higher until it turns into a calf raise.

Bilateral Stance

I'm not against bilateral strength exercises. In fact, I think every program needs at least one. However, the large majority of programs contain only bilateral strength exercises: squats, deadlifts, good mornings, RDLs, leg curls, leg extensions, etc. Single-leg work is completely neglected. Sports ARE single leg activities, especially basketball. When you go from two legs to one leg, a lot changes. You have to have single-leg training in your program.

What Do We Use Instead of the Squat?

Trap Bar Deadlift: Improves consistency, and has a smaller ROM for taller athletes who lack ankle and hip mobility. Plus, it teaches the hip hinge a little better than the squat. You still have the ego problem though.

Front Squat with Theraband Tubing Around the Knees: Guys become a lot less egotistical when the weight moves from the back to the front. Now all of a sudden, technique becomes king, and loading becomes an afterthought. You'll still have problems with athletes who have terrible ankle and hip mobility, but you'll find the athlete will sit a little deeper in the front squat than the back squat. The weight moving to the front creates an anterior shift allowing the athlete to sit back a little easier. Plus the added theraband tubing around the knees creates an abducting pull at the knees which turns on the glutes to create a greater abduction. One word of warning: The athlete has to have a pretty strong core to come out of the bottom of a front squat. If not, you'll see the athlete's hip rise faster than his/her torso, resulting in the bar rolling off the shoulders.

Single-Leg Split Squat (eventually a rear foot elevated split squat): It puts the ego in check, improves consistency if you have them squat to an airex pad, and is easier for athletes that have poor hip and ankle mobility. Plus, it adds single leg training to your program.

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