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Tag Archives: back squat

There’s been a debate for a number of years, largely driven by marketing and hype, about training volume. There is a “less is better” school of thought, i.e. do one set to failure and that’s all you need to make massive gains from training. Over the years, a number of studies have shown that this is a fine approach for the untrained (i.e. absolute beginners), but may not be appropriate for highly trained athletes.

In the December issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology, Marshall et al look at the impact of training volume on lower body strength and performance measures. The authors designed a really interesting 12 week training study. During this study, all subjects had the same two-week initial period (to wash out the effects of any previous training), then the six week study period (detailed below), then four weeks of “peaking” where all subjects did the same training program basically focusing on power training.

During the six week study period, all subjects did a split so that 2x per week the subjects trained chest/shoulders/arms and 2x per week the subjects trained back and back squats. The authors divided their subjects into three groups; one did one set on the squat, one did four sets on the squat, one did eight sets on the squat. Every group did the same training protocol on all the other exercises.

Testing was performed after the two week washout period, three weeks into the study period, after the study period, and after the peaking period. Testing consisted of 1-RM on the back squat, isokinetic strength testing, and isometric strength testing (all of the knee extensors).

During the course of the study, the authors found a number of interesting things:
• Total training volume (setsxrepsxweight) was very different between the three groups, with the four set group having a training volume more than 200% greater than the one set group and the eight set group having a training volume more than 460% greater than the one set group.
• Between the baseline testing after the washout period and the end of the six week intervention, the 1 set group improved their back squat strength by 10%. The four set group improved by 14%. The 8 set group improved by 19%.
• The authors also noted the existence of high, medium, and low responders. The high responders increased their squat strength by almost 30%, the medium by almost 15%, the low by about 3%.
• According to the authors, 11/13 low responders were in the one and four-set groups.

Over a six week training intervention, performing eight sets of squats produced superior gains to one set. Although, six weeks of one-set training increased squat strength by 10%. Having said that, there are some qualifications that need to be kept in mind. First, at baseline testing all the groups were squatting around 185-190% of bodyweight. So there is some training experience but these are not “strong” lifters. This suggests that almost any training program will still produce gains for these subjects. Second, the low/medium/high responder information is very interesting and I’m grateful that the authors looked at this. It also significantly complicates the results. If there were fewer low responders in the one- and four-set groups, those groups might have experienced better gains in the squat and the differences between the groups might not be as stark.

What causes someone to be a high, medium, or low responder?  This actually isn’t the first study I’ve seen suggesting this exists.    Petrella et al (2008) looked at how people respond to 16 weeks of strength training and found that those that increased their population of satellite cells the most during training had the most significant hypertrophy gains.  Satellite cells exist in between the inner and outer membranes of the muscle fibers and are thought to provide the material for muscle hypertrophy.  However, some of us have many and some of us don’t – in other words this seems to bea  genetic limitation to training.

This was a really interesting study, but it shows a need for us to start looking at training gains in terms of whether people are responders to training.

Marshall, P.W.M., McEwen, M., and Robbins, D.W. (2011). Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111: 3007-3016.


Petrella, J.K., Kim, J-S., Mayhew, D.L., Cross, J.M., and Bamman, M.M.  (2008).  Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: a cluster analysis.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 104: 1736-1742.



Andrews et al, in the September issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, investigate complex training and whether the speed of the strength training exercise impacts the effectiveness of complex training. The idea being that by pairing a heavy strength training exercise with a plyometric exercise, the strength training will create something called “post activation potentiation (PAP)” which will enhance performance on the plyometric exercise. I have blogged about post activation potentiation and complex training ( elsewhere because the results are pretty mixed on this. The reality is that the effectiveness of complex training may depend upon the type of plyometric being employed and on the level of the athlete.

The authors studied 19 Division I and II collegiate athletes with a mean back squat of almost 150% of bodyweight and a mean hang clean of more than bodyweight. The study was organized around having the subjects perform several sets of counter-movement jumps (CMJs), having them perform 3x3x75% back squats paired with CMJs, and having them perform 3x3x60% hang power cleans paired with CMJs (each in a pairing in a different session). The idea was to see which had the greatest impact on the height of the CMJs.

The results show that fatigue impacts vertical jumping height. After the first set of exercise, the athletes were only able to CMJ at 96-99% of their best CMJ. From the first set to the third, the CMJ-only group and the back squat complex group both lost about 4% of their CMJ height. In contrast, the hang clean complex group only lost .5% of their CMJ height from the first set to the third.

The results suggest that if the desire is to minimize the effects of fatigue on CMJ height during complex training, the hang clean (i.e. a fast strength training exercise) may be more effective than performing the CMJ alone or pairing it with the back squat.

There are a number of limitations with this study. First, the results may be population specific. Second, it’s possible that the resistance employed was insufficient to generate a PAP effect. Third, there is not a real smoking gun in this study demonstrating that any protocol is more effective at increasing CMJ height. It needs to be kept in mind that this study is looking at the acute response to narrowly defined training stimuli and does not demonstrate long-term adaptations from this type of training.

Andrews, T.R., Mackey, T., Inkrott, T.A., Murray, S.R., Clark, I.E., and Pettitt, R.W. (2011). Effect of hang cleans or squats paired with countermovement vertical jumps on vertical displacement. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(9), 2448-2452.

Dr. Lawrence Judge et al published a study in the Winter 2011 issue of Track Coach looking at predictors of success with the hammer throw. This is a significant contribution to the literature for a number of reasons.

First, the hammer throw is a pretty esoteric event in the U.S. High schools do not contest the hammer throw, so most athletes pick it up in college. As I’ll talk about later, this influences success with the event.

Second, the article comes up with some aspects of training that help to direct the thrower’s training.

The authors mailed a survey out to 212 NCAA track and field programs across the U.S. and got an almost 35% return rate. Based upon the result, they developed a model that (in statistics terms) explained almost 65% of the variance in hammer performance. According to the authors, the following were important predictors of performance: number of throws per year, back squat 1-RM, hammer technique, years throwing the hammer, and NCAA Division (which was included in the model, but by itself was not statistically significant).

Most of these results are pretty self-explanatory. The more experience with the event, the better one is going to be at it – especially something as technical as the hammer. The number of throws per year is actually meant to make up for the lack of experience that most collegiate throwers have with the hammer.

The results note the importance of strength, but there is a qualifier here. Often strength can be used to overcome technique/experience deficiencies. According to the authors, almost have the respondents had suffered weightlifting-related injuries in an attempt to accomplish this. The authors found it interesting that back squat strength was a predictor of success, but the Olympic-style lifts were not.

After pointing this interesting result out, the authors tried to spend a lot of time explaining why the Olympic lifts and power training are important for the conditioning of throwers, but the results certainly raise the question of strength plus specific technique/conditioning would be more beneficial to the hammer throwing then a more generalized approach to strength training.

Judge, L.W., Bellar, D., McAtee, G., and Judge, M. (2011). “Predictors of personal best performance in the hammer throw for U.S. collegiate throwers.” Track Coach, 194, 6196-6203.

Stevenson and others (2010) published a study in the latest Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (November 2010 issue, pgs. 2944-2954) examining the effects of elastic bands on a number of kinematic and kinetic variables related to back squat performance.

They studied recreational weight trainers with self-reported familiarity with the back squat exercise.  The study was organized so that subjects first performed a 1-RM on the back squat.  Then on subsequent days they performed 3×3 on the back squat either with 55% of 1-RM (NB) or with 55% of 1-RM plus an additional 20% of the 1-RM added using elastic bands (the 20% is exerted in the standing position).

The idea was to determine what effects the bands had on a number of kinematic and kinetic variables.

In theory, elastic bands (or what the literature calls variable resistance training (VRT)), provides a number of benefits:

  • First, since a lifter can lower more than they can lift, the desire of the bands to shorten quickly after being stretched at the top of the lift requires the lifter to control the barbell during the descent, increasing strength.
  • Second, as we are stronger at the top of a lift than at the sticking point, the bands make the lift more challenging as they are stretched out at the top of the lift.  Again, this could lead to enhanced strength.

Bands have not been well researched in the literature to date, despite the multitude of coaching endorsements.  Anderson et al (2008) and Bellar et al (2010) both found that using bands enhanced bench press and squat strength over 7-13 weeks of training compared to not using bands.

Having said that, the Stevenson et al (2010) study did not find beneficial results from using bands.  According to their study, using the bands in conjunction with 55% of 1-RM on the back squat had the following results:

Ascent Descent
Peak Velocity -3.8% +2.9%
Mean Velocity -2.5% -1.3%
Rate of Force Development +.2% -1.5%

In addition, peak force increased by 1.1% from using bands and peak power increased by .8% from using bands.

Some of these results are expected when you consider what the bands do.  It makes sense that the velocity during the ascent would decrease as a result of the bands, after all they are meant to slow the lifter down.  It also makes sense that, since they are shortening rapidly, the bands would lead to an increase in velocity during the descent – although it is interesting that this is only the peak velocity and not the mean.

The impact of the bands on rate of force development is almost negligible during the ascent, which is concerning if these are being used to improve power production.

There are a number of shortcomings with this study.  First, the subjects are not athletes.  This makes it difficult to apply the results to an athletic population.  Second, the subjects have self-reported experience with the back squat, there’s no objective criteria of this.  From the information presented, we have no idea how familiar the subjects actually are with the squat (for example, how strong are they?).  This is problematic because stronger, more experienced squatters may perform very differently during this experiment.

Bands seem promising from the standpoint of increasing performance on the bench press or squat.  What is not clear is whether they are promising from a standpoint of improving athletic power.

Anderson, C.E., Sforzo, G.A. and Sigg, J.A. (2008). “The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in athletes.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(2): 567-574.

Bellar, D.M., Muller, M.D., Barkley, J.E., Kim, C-H., Ida, K., Ryan, E.J., Blis, M.V. and Glickman, E.L. (2010). “The effects of combined elastic- and free-weight tension versus free-weight tension on one-repetition maximum strength in the bench press.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24: xx-xx.

Stevenson, M.W., et al. (2010). “Acute effects of elastic bands during the free-weight barbell back squat exercise on velocity, power, and force production.”  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(11): 2944-2954.