If you're a strength and conditioning coach, you've probably heard the bilateral vs. unilateral squat arguments by now. I would also assume some are irritated at the frequency of these arguments in the strength coach Twitter world. The goal of this article is not to add to the monotony but simply to reduce the amount of noise produced by either side of this debate.

There seems to be a trend of coaches jumping on the bandwagon of not back squatting their athletes for various reasons. Some arguments include the risk:reward argument, the fact that "athletes aren't powerlifters," and even that athletes are never on two feet in sport. These arguments are, to some degree, valid in their thought processes, but I would be hesitant to abandon bilateral squatting completely. After all, the back squat was known for many years as the "king of all exercises."

For context, I should let it be known that as a strength coach, I favor performing both the bilateral and unilateral squats and do not sway one way or the other as I see value in both movements.

Recently, a well-known strength coach voiced his strong opinion on the back squat and how they aren't used in his program. Many impressionable coaches seem to be following suit. This coach voicing his assertive opinion sparked my motivation to write this article about why we should "cancel the anti-back squat culture."

Why We Should Cancel the Anti-Back Squat Culture

Progressions of the Bilateral Squat

I think any competent strength coach will progress and regress the squat as they see fit for each individual. Having worked in the collegiate setting for the last five years of my career (D2 & D3), I would never have any of my newer athletes (including both freshman and transfers) start with the barbell back squat. 

Through a dynamic warm-up, I assess the bodyweight squat and load that movement pattern. In a typical progression, I have them progress from a bodyweight squat to a goblet squat and assess that movement and progress as needed. If there are any corrections, adjustments, or cues that I need to give the athlete(s), I will make them before any additional movements are added. 

Most of the newer athletes would begin in a basic 1x20 system (created by Dr. Yessis). The athletes would then train using this simple but effective system for a block or two (sometimes even several blocks throughout the semester if I felt those athletes needed more time to physically develop). 

Once I felt they were developed enough to jump into the more advanced group, I would then progress them to the next program/block. 

Progressions should be from unloaded to loaded, partial ROM to full ROM, and basic to complex. Such progressions could include the bodyweight squat, box goblet squat, goblet squat, cyclist/Frankenstein squat, front squat, box squat to a free squat. While these progressions don't have to be absolute, what should be absolute is building the base before progressions, wherever that lies for the programming and the individual athlete.

Risk:Reward Rebuttal

Back squats have been labeled as "high-risk exercises" by some and the discussion starts to become what the risk:reward benefits are. I believe that all exercises have their risk:reward and that the back squat does not reach the extreme end of the spectrum. It all comes down to how the exercise is coached, implemented in a program, and executed by the athlete. 

In this case, the back squat can easily be poorly coached, implemented irresponsibly in strength programs, and executed poorly by the athlete. This, in turn, would make it a high-risk exercise. There have also been plenty of "good" or "low risk" exercises that have been irresponsibly implemented and/or executed. It speaks less to the nature of the exercise being inherently bad or "not worth the risk" and more to the competence of the coach programming it.

Looking at the benefits of bilateral squatting, I have seen plenty of reasons why the back squat could be and should be implemented. It's more than "making athletes faster" or adding another piece of data to a spreadsheet:


As a coach who's been under the bar, I understand how much confidence the back squat brings out in people including myself. Whether you've added 10 pounds to sets of submaximal weight or added 20 pounds to your 1RM, there's no better feeling than improvement. 

Many athletes I worked with did not have a high training age, so getting athletes to buy into the program and see their progressions throughout each program was awesome. One thing that was not quantifiable was confidence. 

Have you ever worked with female athletes and understood what squatting a plate (135 pounds) meant? It's a huge milestone for them, especially those with little training experience. The confidence boost these young athletes get after reaching these goals is hard to replicate through lighter weight unilateral movements, or other exercises.


Athletes learn to build physical and psychological resiliency, spending some time under the bar even at submaximal loads. Athletes learn to strain in a squat, building up their physical capabilities and preparing them for sport. Additionally, they could learn to be psychologically resilient and get through difficult situations when faced with

challenges. Again, not something that can be objectively measured, but a positive outcome of spending some time under the bar.

Reduced Injury Risk

As strength and conditioning professionals, we know that resistance training makes athletes stronger and perform better. Resistance training reduces the risk of injury by increasing the structural strength of ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and connective tissue within muscle, thereby increasing the safety factor before tissue limits are exceeded (Fleck, 1986).

Research has shown that collegiate male athletes with relative squat strength below 2.2 and female athletes with relative squat strength below 1.6 x bodyweight could be more susceptible to lower extremity injury over a season, specifically with football, volleyball, and softball athletes (Case, Knudson, and Downey, 2020). One could make a case for the importance of a high relative squat strength, especially in contact or field sports. While injuries can't ever be 100% prevented, the goal of a coach should be to help mitigate injuries in sport as much as possible.

Limiting Factors Rebuttal

There are many limiting factors as to why an athlete or even anyone, in general, should not start bilateral squatting on day one with a loaded barbell. Any competent strength coach should never put someone with a low training age under the bar. While this should be common sense, it is far too common. 

As mentioned previously, athletes should progress to the barbell squat. While progressing the athlete to a barbell back squat, one should do everything to build a strong and robust back. Having a stronger back will likely reduce the risk of shoulder and lower back injuries. Saying athletes' weak backs are the limiting factor screams, "I'm too lazy to build their back strength up to be strong enough to load some weight on their back" in some form of variation. It's all about using your tools in the toolbox to build strong and robust athletes.

Specialty Bars

Specialty bars are king. More often than not, you're not going to be able to load them as much as a straight bar due to the learning curve, level of difficulty, and required skill. This is especially true for overhead athletes. There's no need to beat up the shoulders they already overuse in their sport with a heavy straight bar. With all this in mind, you can get an athlete brutally strong with specialty bars without having to load as much weight. 

Think about how much a 400-pound squatter can struggle with 300 pounds on an elitefts SS Yoke Bar. Biomechanically the weight is loaded differently throughout the movement, but going back to that risk:reward argument, you now don't have to load that bar as heavy as you would with a straight bar.

Athletes Are Not Powerlifters Rebuttal

We must understand that we are not trying to push the envelope with athletes in getting them to move as much weight as possible like a powerlifter. A powerlifter's goal is to increase the weight on the bar as it pertains to their sport, which does not apply to athletes. 

Recently we have debunked the 2x/BW squat translates to faster speed myth. It seems that this may not always be the case. However, to develop high force and power outputs, one must develop some baseline of strength to build on those neural adaptations (CNS). This is necessary if we want to increase the dynamic correspondence between running and sprinting. 

"Strength is the base of all performance-based athletic development programs. Strength is purely the ability to exert force. Power and speed are qualities that demand that strength be applied rapidly, as is the case in most organized sports. These qualities cannot be appropriately addressed without establishing a baseline of whole-body strength. Too many coaches spend their efforts attempting to develop power without first addressing strength. This is the wrong approach and will produce marginal benefits, if any" (3). 

Coaches Finding the Correlation Between the Squat and Power

Trying to develop power and speed without developing strength is like trying to speed up your car without increasing horsepower. Below are two examples of coaches finding a correlation between the back squat and the athlete's ability to produce power.

Matt Rhea

Matt Rhea, the Director of Sports Science with the New Orleans Saints and former Director of Sport Science for Football at the University of Alabama, provided some data showing improvements in strength up to 1.7x BW in the back squat, contributing to increased speed regardless of weight. 

For power in unloaded jumps, the same ratio applies to athletes <250 pounds. For those over 250 pounds, strength up to 1.9x BW contributes to increased power in unloaded jumps. Beyond that, increases in strength do not appear to contribute to increased power in unloaded jumps. 

The optimum profile for speed (considering only strength and power) appears to be: 

  • Full Back Squat > 1.7xBW 
  • Speed Squat* > 1900 watts (Back squat w/ bands, quarter depth .7-.9m/s)
  • Barbell Split Squat jump > 3000 watts 
  • Rear elevated squat power L/R ratio <7% asymmetry

Jared Bidne

Jared Bidne, the owner of Explosive Mechanics, provided some data on his athletes and the correlation of back squat speed to 40yd dash times (with a Brower Timing System). 

Generally speaking, he found that 1.45-1.49x/BW squat at .6m/s equates to a ~4.9s 40yd dash, and 1.6-1.73x/BW squat at .6m/s can equate to ~4.8s - 4.57s 40yd dash. The correlation is that the lower the bar weight relative to bodyweight moving at .6m/s, the slower the 40yd dash.

Per the data, bar speed and power outputs will have a higher dynamic correspondence to faster speeds. One would have to get these athletes stronger under the bar to achieve these bar speeds. It would be difficult for athletes to produce this kind of power output and bar speed without the use and development of the back squat.


Mark Rippetoe said it best, "There is simply no other exercise, and certainly, no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat."

With all this being said, I must reiterate that this is not a unilateral vs. bilateral article. Instead, it's why the back squat should be included in a sound S&C program. It's a tool in the toolbox that can allow for significant improvements in athletes when implemented and performed correctly. Coaches under the bar probably have a better grasp on this than those who shy away from being under heavy loads.


  1. Case, M. J., Knudson, D. V., & Downey, D. L. (2020). Barbell squat relative strength as an identifier for lower extremity injury in collegiate athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1249-1253.
  2. Fleck SJ and Falkel JE. Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries. Sports Med 3: 61-68, 1986.
  3. Parker, J. (2018). The system: Soviet periodization for the American strength coach.

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Guillermo Blanco has been a strength and conditioning coach for the last nine years working in various levels including the private sector, high school, and the collegiate level (D1, D2, and D3). He has spent the last five years at the collegiate level and has recently transitioned to the tactical setting as a strength and conditioning coach for the US Army's H2F Program. He has also competed in powerlifting for the last seven years starting as a raw lifter, and now competing as a multiply lifter in the 242-pound weight class. He earned his Master's Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Louisville in 2013, Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012, and is CSCS certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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