So I know a lot of you are shaking your heads at this point because the back squat is a staple in all strength and conditioning programs. Yes, I would agree with that, but humor me here for a bit. I love the squat. I love all variations of the squat. With that being said, I would admit that I'm an awful squatter. I have been since I started performing the exercise in 8th grade. I didn't understand why I was bad at it though. My coaches always told me to just get my butt down as far as I could. I did what I was told. Over the years, not only did this result in many injuries in the elbow, shoulder, back, and hip, but it also made me a worse quarterback. Let's talk about this vicious cycle of why the squat can be very detrimental to quarterbacks specifically and also give some variations of other exercises that can be performed instead of the back squat!
Theres some big problems that we run into into the culture of football strength and conditioning when learning how to lift. Kids are usually thrown into the mix in 8th grade when they are taught the compound movements that every program does in the back squat, bench press, power clean, and deadlift. What we fail to realize is that there are "pre-requisites" that need to be attained before even thinking about loading these movements with load, velocity, or fatigue. The pre-requisites for the back squat are as followed:
- Full ankle dorsiflexion range of motion
- Full hip internal and external rotation
- Trunk stability (lumbar)
- Full thoracic extension range of motion
- Shoulder external rotation
- Motor Control Pattern of squat
What we tend to see is that most kids have about 2 of the 6 pre-requisites when they show up that first day to learn how to lift in 8th grade. These means a lot of injury for that athlete as they start to participate in that program. Of all the impairments that young athletes tend to present with, there's one that I want to exploit that nearly all football players tend to present with because of the culture of the game. This is decreased range of motion at the ankle.
Ankle Range of Motion
When going into a full squat with a bar on the back, the whole goal is to maintain the weight of the center of mass as they weight descends so the body can control the weight to the bottom of the movement, and then drive the weight back up fully into the starting position. Sounds easy right? Well, this gets really tricky when the ankle range of motion is not there. Full ankle dorsiflexion range of motion is twenty degrees. This doesn't sound like a lot. It's a TON when you think about the culture of the game of football. As football players, what do we love to do? We love to wear ankle braces, get taped, and get spatted. This is usually for absolutely NO REASON! When the ankle is restricted in that manner, what do you think happens to the range of motion at the ankle? We start to lose it greatly! So how does this affect the back squat? Well, let's check out the pictures below.
Please notice this picture. The ankle is determining the position of the rest of the body if the ankle doesn't compensate and work around the range of motion restriction that it has. Once the quarterback slams into the wall at the ankle when trying to descend into a good squat, something has to happen in order to try and descend further into a "squat." What usually happens is the butt starts to get pushed back really far and the trunk comes really far forward. The athlete is continue to descend until the back starts to round at the bottom position. This is a recipe for disaster! The low back muscles (lumbar extensors) start to work on over time which will cause a lot of muscle strain, the spine starts to take a beating because of the sheering force being put on it during movement of the spine under load, and the athlete starts to develop a very faulty movement pattern. This is all due to the ankle. Guess what? 80% of your quarterbacks will walk in and present this way! There's also another compensation that we need to be aware of. This is shown below!
The feet out compensation for decreased range of motion at the ankle is one that a lot of quarterbacks will perform as well. Instead of working "through" the joint, the player will work around the joint therefore, compromising the position of the hip. This will tension some of the musculature surrounding the hip too much, make the foot/ankle complex very unstable, and won't allow proper use of the muscles of the lower body. This is all due just because of the foot position. Also, do you remember when I listed the pre-requisites above on what is needed for the back squat? Well, when players squat this way, it starts to have a domino effect compromising other areas of the body as well. When the foot is turned out like it is shown above, players will start to develop more external rotation of the hip and less internal rotation of the hip. Why is this important? Well, quarterbacks need great internal rotation of the hips on both legs during their throwing motion in order to generate force into their throws, as well as decelerate well on their throws. So are you saying squatting like this can make me a worse player? I 100% am telling you that's exactly the case.
I have added a video below that talks about this exact problem which we are calling "Football Player Squat Syndrome!"
Trailing Leg Syndrome
For those of you who haven't heard us talk about trailing leg syndrome, this is an issue where the QB can't rotate his hips during the acceleration phase. This is due to a variety of issues such as decreased hip internal rotation, decreased hip extension, over striding because of an inability to access the glutes, or trunk instability. Let me break this down for you as far as connecting the dots of the point of what we are trying to get across.
The quarterback presents with decreased ankle range of motion because of prolonged periods of sitting and wearing ankle braces for years as a youth player in which the QB starts to learn how to squat in a compensated manner. The compensations that start to happen include increasing hip external rotation, increasing lumbar extension, and a collapsing of the foot which all mean bad news for quarterbacks during their throwing motion. This cycle goes on for years until quarterbacks start to have issues in the low back, hip, shoulder, and foot/ankle due to compensated squatting patterns and compensated throwing patterns. The quarterback automatically puts a ceiling on their ability to get better because of these issues. The quarterback doesn't reach his potential.
What to do instead?
Well there's a concept that I've grown to really like when it comes to developing lower body strength of quarterbacks. Physical therapist Gray Cook always says to "maintain" the squat and to "train" the deadlift. This is a great philosophy for quarterbacks that are going to present with decreased range of motion at the ankle. Quarterbacks need to start working on the flaws that they have in the kinetic chain while they still perform body weight squats, goblet squats, and cossack squats. They can then train hip hinging movements like the deadlift, RDL, rack pull, and kettlebell swing. This will maintain the integrity of the rest of the body. This means adequate range of motion at the hip, stability in the trunk, and taking stress off of the throwing shoulder. Below, we have provided an example of what a cossack squat is.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
We also love an exercise called the rear foot elevated split squat. This is one of the best exercises that any athlete can do, but especially a quarterback. The rear foot elevated split squat does a lot of awesome things for the athlete without all the compensations that the athlete will do on a back squat. The split squat puts the trail hip in full hip extension while maintaining trunk stability, challenges stability on the front leg while also strengthening at the same time, and also takes a lot of the load off of the spine because the total load is going to be a lot less in comparison to the back squat. This is a must perform exercise for all quarterbacks! Youtube it and get better!
Am I saying that the back squat is bad for all quarterbacks? Absolutely not! Am I saying that for 80% of the QB population that the back squat will make you a worse player? Yes, I'm definitely saying that. The back squat is used in every single program across the country. There needs to be more variations of the squat used that fit work around the individual impairments of that player. It shouldn't be a one size fits all, especially when thinking about the QB position. Learn. Apply. Get better. Hope y'all enjoy!
-Drew Kiel PT, DPT, CSCS