Squat & Deadlift
Training equipment is being utilized more than ever by athletes looking to get the edge on better performance. Weight lifting shoes, Chuck Taylors, elastic bands, and chains have found their way into the free weight section with the squat & deadlift, but why? Do these items really help according to claims such as improved ankle mobility, squat depth, lifting heavier, and breaking PRs? This article will look at some of the evidence regarding these claims, and will shed some light on squat variations using movement analysis technology.
The Squat Debate – Weight Lifting Shoes vs. Chuck Taylors
Weight lifting shoes do not magically create more dorsiflexion, instead they put the ankles in more of a resting plantarflexed position. This makes an athlete feel like they have more ankle mobility, but in fact their ankles are likely not moving further towards end-range dorsiflexion.
Weightlifting shoes have an average 2.5 cm of heel lift. This amount of heel lift adds on approximately 3.5-5˚ of ankle plantarflexion. That may not seem like much, but 3.5-5˚ of plantarflexion equates to approximately only 18-25% of “normal” dorsiflexion (20˚). Despite the decrease in “normal” dorsiflexion, weightlifting shoes’ hard soles are beneficial in ground reaction force production.
Sato et al (2012) compared the biomechanics of the back squat with training shoes vs. weightlifting shoes. They found that there was no difference in thigh angle (how low someone can squat), decreased dorsiflexion, and a more upright torso with weightlifting shoes on.
Whitting et al (2015) found the same results at 50%, 70%, and 90% 1-RM. Whitting et al also looked at the center of balance between the shoes via force plate. They found that weightlifting shoes did not offer more stability in all planes, even with straps. Both studies observed more forward knees in relationship to the toes with weightlifting shoes on, but did not show more dorsiflexion since the foot is already starting in more plantarflexion compared to flat training shoes. This is consistent with prior studies showing higher EMG of the quadriceps due to the longer moment arm from the knees to the bar path.
Even though you may be able to squat low with weightlifting shoes on, make sure you work up to “normal” dorsiflexion for activities where you don’t wear weightlifting shoes. Check out these videos on how to assess ankle mobility specific to squatting, how to improve your ankle mobility, and how to stretch both calf muscles.
Squat Variations – But Why?
The high bar back squat (most common), low bar back squat, front squat, and goblet squat all have their place for different reasons that we will review. The blue and green lines that you see in the graphic above are the hip and knee extensor lever arms respectively. The graphic allows us to appreciate that one type of squat will alter the hip and knee lever arms compared to another. A longer lever arm is advantageous for more potential muscle force production. So depending on the training goal this graphic can help with choosing the best squat variation! So what about targeting specific muscle groups better, lifting the heaviest weight, or choosing the right squat variation to practice technique?
Comparing Squat Variations
Let’s compare the low bar back squat to the high bar back squat. The low bar back squat has a larger hip extensor lever arm compared to the knee. The low bar back squat can get a lot of force production from the gluteus maximus, which is one of largest and most powerful muscles in the human body. Typically athletes can squat more weight with the low bar back squat, thus it is a popular variation amongst power lifters.
The high bar back squat is more balanced when you compare the hip and knee extensor lever arms. The torso is more upright, and the quadriceps muscle group can produce more force in the high bar variation as compared to the low bar variation. The high bar back squat is typically easier to perform and taught first to the beginner lifter. This variation is also easier on the shoulders requiring less range of motion when compared to the low bar back squat. The back squat in general may be challenging for individuals lacking shoulder range of motion, especially extension and external rotation!
Now lets compare the subtle differences between the kettlebell goblet and the sandbag front squat. Note: these differences may not apply to everyone as there are other factors (anatomy, injury history, strength, and motor control) that influence how an individual is able to perform these two squat variations. That also goes for the back squat variations!
For Craig, the goblet squat loaded his hips more than the front squat did. The kettlebell is also more anterior to his body (further away in front of him) compared to the sandbag, allowing him to ‘sit back’ more. As we would expect, the front squat had a large lever arm at the knee. We can also appreciate this by comparing the location of the knees in relation to the toes. The knees are beyond the toes in the front squat while the knees are almost directly over the toes in the goblet squat.
The goblet squat is an excellent exercise and it has many [p]rehab purposes. The goblet squat is typically easier to perform than barbell squats, and it requires less shoulder mobility than the back or front barbell squat variations. The goblet squat can be performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell, but the one limiting factor is typically the amount of weight you can perform it with!
The Front squat variation is excellent for developing the quadriceps muscle group. It has also been shown in research to improve vertical jump height in athletes that performed this exercise in a six-week training program (3). The main limitations to the front squat are the mobility requirements at the ankles, wrists, elbows, and shoulders! Learn here how to improve your front rack mobility.
Deadlift Supplements – What & Why
In 2011, 58% of powerlifters and 38% of strongman athletes reported using chains. The idea behind using chains is that as you lift the bar higher off the ground, the more chains get lifted, and the heavier the bar becomes. Many use chains if a person’s bottom position is limiting, but they want to train their top ROM for the day. Benefits and uses have been largely anecdotal.
Nijem et al (2016) looked at EMG, rate of force development (RFD), and ground reaction force (GRF) of quads, glutes, and back extensors. One group performed deadlifts at 85% 1-RM without chains and another group used chains contributing to 20% of their 85% 1-RM at top position. There was less GRF produced using chains since the average weight was lower. RFD was the same. The chains group showed less EMG of glute max and no significant change in vastus lateralis activation. Regardless of position, back extensor (erector spinae) EMG was highest at the bottom in both groups due to the moment arm .
This study shows that chains may not be optimal for strength or power training compared to traditional loading due to decreased GRF with no difference in RFD and EMGs. It may be used for variety or deloading to avoid burnouts. Future studies can experiment with chain % contribution to the overall weight and implementation of chains in rehab for acute low back strains.
The traditional deadlift using free weights and a barbell is considered an isotonic (constant external resistance) exercise. Due to the properties of elastic bands, supplementing them with a free weight exercise adds variable resistance. Prior research of variable resistance combining free weights and resistance bands has shown short term power and strength gains in the bench press and back squat (6).
According to Galpin et al (2008), “this variable resistance (i.e., bands) strategy should therefore address the limitations of isotonic exercise by allowing greater loading at body positions of greater mechanical advantage.” What this means is that supplementing the deadlift with bands challenges the finish position (hips fully extended) more than the traditional free-weight deadlift without bands. The further the bands stretch, the greater the external resistance!
The study by Galpin et al (2008) looked at the effects of combined elastic bands and free-weight resistance during a conventional deadlift at moderate (60%) and high (85%) intensities.
- Regardless of lifting intensity, the amount of force produced decreased as the total amount of tension from the bands increased
- Velocity increased as the amount of elastic band resistance increased
- Overall power increased as the amount of elastic band resistance increased
The practical application of this study depends on the training session and/or athlete’s goal. If you want to maximize power, you should implement heavy bands. If you want to maximize force, you want to use free-weights with little to no elastic bands. One limitation to this study is that these rules may not apply to inexperienced weight lifters as the study subjects had at least six months of experience performing dead lifts with elastic bands. The supplementation of elastic bands increases the amount of technical proficiency needed to perform the lift.
As stated earlier, there will always be exceptions to these rules due to other factors that influence how an individual performs a squat & deadlift. However, more often than not, these rules will apply! So the next time you’re choosing a squat & deadlift training variation for your workout or program, be sure to give this article a quick review and choose appropriately!
A big thank you to @MovementF1rst for letting us film at their facility using @SimiTechnology to get live GRF vectors to educate the masses!
About The Co-Author
@howfitworks is run by Vien Vu (CSCS, XPS, USAW, FMS), a DPT student finishing his last 9 weeks of DPT school on a clinical at EXOS in San Diego. Vien’s areas of research are combat sports and population health with 2 publications on the way. He is a contributor to the APTA Sport Section’s journal review on their members-only forum.
- Sato, K., Fortenbaugh, D., and Hydock, D.S. (2012). Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. J of Strength and Cond Research. 26(1): 28-33
- Whitting, J.W., Meir, R.A., Crowley-McHattan, Z.L., Holding, R.C. (2015). Influence of footwear type on barbell back squat using 50, 70, and 90% of one repetition maximum: a biomechanical analysis. J of Strength and Cond Research.
- Contreras et al. (2017). Effects of a Six-Week Hip Thrust vs. Front Squat Resistance Training Program on Performance in Adolescent Males: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J of Strength Cond Research https://doi.org/10. 1519/JSC.0000000000001510
- Nijem et al. (2016). Electromyographic and Force Plate Analysis of the Deadlift Performed With and Without Chains. J of Strength Cond Research. 30(5).
- Swinton et al. (2011). Kinematic and kinetic analysis of maximal velocity deadlifts performed with and without the inclusion of chain resistance. J Strength Cond Research. 25(3)
- Winwood et al (2011). The strength and Conditioning practices of Strongman Competitors. The J of Strength and Cond Research. 25(11)
- Anderson, CE, Sforza, GA, and Sigg, JA (2008). The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in athletes. J Strength Cond Res 22: 567–574