Are Deep Squats Best for Vertical Jump & Sprints?

The current conventional wisdom among strength coaches seems to be that all clients and athletes should focus on a full range of motion (ROM) to promote superior strength and performance gains. While maintaining full ROM is obviously ideal, depending on the type of athlete you’re working with (and their specific goals), new research is shedding some light on how squat depth translates to performance gains.

A new study compared the effects of squat depth on vertical jump and sprint performance.(1) Twenty-eight college-aged male athletes were divided up and assigned to one of the three groups - full-squat, half squat and quarter squat - then performed a 16-week training protocol to assess the impacts on vertical jump and 40-yard sprint time. Interestingly, the greatest improvements in vertical jump and sprint time were found in the quarter-squat group (see Figure 1.0 and 2.0).

Figure 1.0 – Effect of Squat Depth on Vertical Jump

Figure 2.0 – Effect of Squat Depth on 40-Yard Sprint

                          

Researchers believe that joint-angle specific changes to neuromuscular control may be the root cause of the improvements. Studies have found superior improvements in EMG in trained movements, versus those that are untrained.(2) Of course, the first quarter of the squat most closely resembles the hip and knee flexion ranges seen during jumping or sprinting, which is not surprising for most strength coaches. However, it’s interesting that in highly trained athletes, the load in the full squat seems ineffective for promoting gains in the quarter squat. In short, if you’re not doing quarter squats with your athletes who need to jump higher and run faster, you may be missing out on a piece to promote superior adaptation and performance. (However, it should be noted quarter squats also elicit greater anterior shear force that could predispose athletes to overuse injuries, if they’re not periodized appropriately.[3])

Depending on your athlete’s sport, the findings in this new study may be very impactful. Athletes with poor movement patterns or taller ectomorph-type athletes (i.e. basketball, volleyball, etc.) may benefit greatly from periods of training with quarter squats. If you’re performing deep squats with a basketball player, and using their 1-RM to base their training intensity, the work they perform at the quarter squat level will likely not be sufficient enough to overload the athlete and create positive adaptations. This new perspective of joint-angle overload suggests it’s not enough to simply train at different joint angles, you must overload the specific angle that applies specifically to your athlete’s sport (i.e. sprinting, jumping, etc.).

At the end of the day, quarter squats and full squats are very different; your neuromuscular system assesses and adapts to the stresses of varying squat depths differently. Therefore, it would make sense to incorporate more varied squat depth in your training protocols, just like the use of a variety of exercise to promote the greatest gains in strength and performance.

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS

 

Check out more articles in the "STRENGTH" SERIES...

 

Single-Leg Vs. Back Squats To Improve Strength & Speed?

Back squats have long been considered an essential tool for making athletes bigger, stronger, and faster. By comparison, unilateral exercises like split squats have been relegated to the “assistance” exercise category, the inferior cousin of the almighty squat.

However, the tides might be changing. Recently, a groundbreaking new study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning demonstrated something that had never been shown before. Strength coaches in the United Kingdom examined the effects of unilateral squat training versus traditional back squats on strength, 40-meter sprint time and change of direction speed. The results were very interesting.

Eighteen rugby players were randomly assigned to two groups - rear-foot elevated split squat (RESS) or classic back squats - for five weeks of lower-body training (twice weekly) to put an old myth to test, are bilateral movements like the back squat truly the “king” of all exercises? The results showed, for the first time, that unilateral training could improve strength, 40-meter sprint time and change of direction to the same degree as back squats. That's right... split squats were JUST AS GOOD AS back squats!

Of course, if your squat movement pattern is very good, there maybe no need to modify your training. However, if you’re an athlete with poor ankle mobility or suffer from low back pain, the confirmation that unilateral exercises like RESS can provide the same benefits as bilateral staples like squats may come as a big relief.

For athletes who need to jump a lot in their sport (i.e. basketball or volleyball players), whose low back are exposed to high torque (i.e. golf and tennis players) or anyone who struggles to effectively load their spine effectively (i.e. ectomorphs) without pain throughout the entire squat movement, this could be a game changer. Unilateral split squats may allow these populations to load their spine more effectively, without pain, thus minimizing risk of injury and achieving a superior training outcomes.

If you feel more pain in your back or neck when squatting, rather than your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps, a shift to more and heavier unilateral training may be your solution for improved strength and speed.

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CSCS

Check out more articles in the "STRENGTH" SERIES...

Reference

1) Speirs, Derrick et al. Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. J. Strength Cond Res. Feb 2016. Vol. 30, Issue 2. p386-92.