Front Squats or Back Squats for Softball Players?

As has been shown over and over, strength is a big component for decreased risk of injury, a necessary base for power, and optimal sports performance (instead of citing studies here, a quick and easy search will give you study after study showing correlations).  So what better to strengthen the legs and core than squats, right?  Squats are an important foundational movement pattern that can be loaded with a solid amount of weight, but what type of squat is best for softball players?

First off, as I touched on briefly in my post about why I Don’t Olympic Lift with softball Players, shoulder instability issues are common, and some players may not even be symptomatic until later on in their careers.  Shoulder instability (especially scapular) coupled with the abduction and external rotation of the humerus on a back squat grip can be a messy combination for softball players.  This position is very similar to that of bringing a ball back in preparation to throw, and being excessively mobile at the shoulder joint (an acquisition softball players will naturally make over thousands of throws in their career) means much less stability.  As I’ve mentioned before, with all of the great tools in a training toolbox, why go with the ones that have some risk?  There are other ways to load a squat pattern besides a back squat grip.

Additionally, Mike Boyle makes a great point in his functional strength coach DVD on back squats.  What happens when an athlete is lowering themselves, and starts to struggle on the way up?  Inevitably they will try to lift their hips faster than their torso, lean forward and turn it into a variation of a good morning/back squat.

(A good morning with the weight of a heavy back squat = not a good combination for the back)

 

Now, imagine on the other hand that an athlete is holding the bar on the front of the shoulder girdle with a front squat grip.  If they start leaning forward too much as they come out of the hole (like the above picture- a common tendency on heavy back squats- though maybe not that exaggerated), they will simply lose the bar as it drops out in front of them on the ground.  This really forces athletes to keep their chest up and drive backwards, recruiting more of the hips and glutes-  important especially in quad dominant females.  However as I’ve also mentioned previously, I don’t always like placing a heavily loaded bar on the front of a softball player’s shoulder girdle (another reason I don’t do Olympic Lifting with them).  With unilateral lifts, such as step-ups, back foot elevated single leg squats (“Bulgarian”) where the athlete can’t load the bar with too much weight, a front squat grip seems perfectly fine, again assuming the load isn’t bothersome.  But what about heavily loading a squat pattern?  We all know the importance of heavy lifting for strength development.

 

ENTER THE GOBLET SQUAT

We’ve had players goblet squat to a box with up to 90 lb dumbbells, so they can definitely be used for a heavy load particularly when considering variations like slow eccentric lifts and isometric pauses.  Similar to a front squat, if an athlete leans forward too much, they will lose the dumbbell, however I have never really seen this happen.  What’s more likely to happen is that they become forced to “sit back” and use more hip and glute recruitment.

(The dumbbell goblet squat grip = great way to get the benefits of a front squat without placing a bar across the shoulder girdle.  Please keep shirt on when attempting! )

 

After nailing down the goblet squat, several variations can be used (single-leg to a box, back foot elevated, etc.) to progress this and keep the athlete’s squat pattern fine-tuned.  Finally, while this may sound like blasphemy, who says squats are vital to a program anyway?  Sure, a squat pattern is an important thing to keep, but it’s not the end of the world if you’re getting most of your lower body strength work through deadlifts and other hip dominant exercises.

So, to summarize:

–          Use front squats sparingly, or use lighter weight with tougher variations (e.g. single-leg back foot elevated) to alleviate some of the load on the anterior shoulder girdle

–          Use heavy goblet squats for your “heavy squat” exercise

–          Make hip dominant lifts like deadlifts and variations, romanian deadlifts, and goblet box squats your primary bilateral lower body strength exercises, especially with female athletes (who tend to be more quad dominant, which may be part of the explanation of their 4-6 fold increase in ACL tears over males).  Knock on wood, but we haven’t had one ACL tear in my time with the team so far.

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