You're Probably Drastically Underestimating Your Strength in This Key Exercise. Here's Why

You can spend years in the weight room yet still underestimate your strength in this movement. Here's why it happens and why it must be addressed ASAP.

During the heat of competition, athletes do very little with both feet evenly spaced beneath them. 

"You run on one leg. You generally jump off one leg. There's very little bilateral exercise that goes on in most sports out there," says elite strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle, co-founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. "I always say the only sport where you really get bilateral exercise is rowing." 

So that whole idea that the Barbell Back Squat is the "king of all lifts"? In Boyle's mind, it couldn't be further from the truth. According to him, it's an exercise that doesn't translate well to sport, carries a high risk of injury (particularly in the low back), and is grossly inefficient for any athlete who doesn't fit into the narrow box of body dimensions required to be a "natural squatter."

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During the heat of competition, athletes do very little with both feet evenly spaced beneath them. 

"You run on one leg. You generally jump off one leg. There's very little bilateral exercise that goes on in most sports out there," says elite strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle, co-founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. "I always say the only sport where you really get bilateral exercise is rowing." 

So that whole idea that the Barbell Back Squat is the "king of all lifts"? In Boyle's mind, it couldn't be further from the truth. According to him, it's an exercise that doesn't translate well to sport, carries a high risk of injury (particularly in the low back), and is grossly inefficient for any athlete who doesn't fit into the narrow box of body dimensions required to be a "natural squatter."

"So many of us do it because somebody, at some point, told us it was a really important thing to do, and we've just never questioned whether or not that was actually true," says Boyle. But Boyle has questioned it, and Barbell Back Squats have not been a significant part of MBSC's programming for many, many years.

What's replaced it? Split Squats, mainly. To be more specific, Rear-Foot-Elevated (or RFE) Split Squats. Boyle says not only do they translate better to athletic actions, but they're also markedly safer. Failure in a Split Squat typically occurs because you hit a ceiling in lower-body muscle strength, while with a Barbell Back Squat, low-back strength is almost always the limiting factor.

"I think everybody should be able to squat. Don't get this part wrong," Boyle says in Functional Strength Coach 7, an online seminar in which he outlines the most impactful changes in his thinking after nearly 40 years in the industry. "I just don't think back squatting is a good idea…When you're looking at unilateral (squatting), the cost is so much less from an orthopedic standpoint. And the benefit is more."

One common criticism leveled at Boyle is that the loads utilized in unilateral squatting movements are so low compared to the bilateral versions that it's hard to imagine them really getting people much stronger. However, Boyle says this is woefully misguided. You can go heavy on Split Squats, and if you've never given that idea a fair shot, it's likely much heavier than you might think. So heavy, in fact, that when we do the math, unilateral squatting clearly allows for greater cumulative loads than bilateral squatting.

"One of the reasons I argue with people as vigorously as I do is that most people have never given (unilateral squatting) a fair chance. They've never really tried it, never said to their athletes, 'Hey, we're going to really hammer away at this and see what happens.' And we have," Boyle says.

Many people will include a form of Split Squat in their program as a sort of "accessory" lift without ever applying any method of progressive overload. But when you make it a priority and don't just mindlessly grab the same pair of dumbbells for every set, the result is often far beyond your pre-conceived limits.

One eye-opening experience for Boyle came when he instructed a group of elite hockey players, which included current Boston Bruins forward Charlie Coyle, to grab the pair of dumbbells they believed represented their five-rep max in the RFE Split Squat (this was before the move had become a major staple in MBSC's programming). He then told them to do as many reps as they could, only stopping at failure, or if they reached 20 reps on a side. He was flabbergasted when nearly every athlete hit or came close to that 20-rep limit. That day helped convince Boyle that unilateral squatting need not be inferior when it came to building strength.

"Almost everyone we see will drastically underestimate (their unilateral strength) at first. That's why for us, we're always saying, 'OK, every week, go up, go up, go up.' Especially in these exercises, where I don't think people have really explored the range," says Boyle. "I've had NFL guys come in and they're starting off using less load than my Olympic hockey girls."

"I have a video of one of our athletes, she's a 120-pound, 14-year-old girl, goblet split-squatting 90 for 5 reps. Seventy-five percent of her bodyweight at 14…That's why I say to people, the bilateral deficit thing is absolutely, positively real. We never see anyone where we're like, 'Oh, they can squat way more than they can split squat when you double it.' In most cases, it's actually the opposite. I would never think about having her try to front squat 180 pounds."

A bilateral deficit is present when the sum of the loads used on each side for a unilateral exercise is greater than the load used in the bilateral version of that same movement. So in Boyle's example, five reps with one 90-pound dumbbell in the Split Squat works out to an expected one-rep Split Squat max of about 101 pounds. Since that same girl cannot come close to a 200-pound bilateral Squat, a bilateral deficit is present. While the bilateral deficit rarely exists in certain movements in trained individuals (most notably the Bench Press), Boyle says it's crystal clear in moves like the RFE Split Squat and One-Leg Straight Leg Deadlift.

With the combination of a safety squat bar and a hands-supported position, multiple college hockey players at UMass Lowell have worked up to maxes in the RFE Split Squat in excess of 500 pounds. Considering the raw world record for the bilateral Back Squat is 1,080 pounds, you better believe there's some bilateral deficit there.

However, Boyle generally limits MBSC athletes to dumbbells or kettlebells on RFE Split Squats—either using one held in a goblet position or a pair held in a suitcase position—to keep things as safe as possible.

"If we get a guy to the point where he can handle our heaviest dumbbells—he can handle 120s for 10 reps in a (RFE) Split Squat—I'm almost like, 'Alright. We don't need much beyond this. We'll go do something else,'" Boyle says. Exercises like the Trap Bar Deadlift—one bilateral move Boyle fully endorses—can help continue to increase the load for this small percentage of highly-advanced athletes.

Boyle explains the preferred set-up MBSC uses for the RFE Split Squat in this video:

Dig it?

Functional Strength Coach 7 includes over seven hours of Boyle dropping knowledge, including how a small change in the way he approaches speed training has made all the difference in getting his athletes faster—and the fix was so simple, he can't believe he hadn't done it sooner. 

Photo Credit: Dziggyfoto/iStock

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Topics: SQUAT | BUILD MUSCLE | BACK PAIN | GETTING STRONGER | STRENGTH | UNILATERAL TRAINING | BILATERAL TRAINING