Which kind of squat is suitable for the fight athlete?

Macgregor McNair Training Methodologies 1 Comment

I have heard many convincing arguments over the years about who should be doing which kind of squat to which depth, with which degree of knee progression over the foot etc. The proponents of each kind of squat methodology can tend to fiercely defend their position, with little concern for alternative and sometimes more effective ways of doing things.

As you must know by now, I am all about simplifying the equation and focusing on getting the basics right first, so please allow me to simplify the two positions. Firstly, there are those who choose the powerlifting-style or “hip break” squat, and those who prefer the Olympic style of squat otherwise known as “ass-to-grass” or “knee break” squat.

Cooper Burnham performing the Olympic/Knee Break/Ass-to-grass Squat.


Brenton McKiterick back squat

Brenton McKiterick performing the high bar Powerlifting/Hip Break style Squat.

In the powerlifting squat or the “hip break” squat, the objective is to lift as much weight as possible. We must manipulate the mechanics of the lift to support the outcome of moving maximal load. We MUST maintain vertical bar path over the midfoot same as in the Olympic squat, but the sequence of movement is completely different from the Olympic squat. The power lifter pushes the hips back or away from the base of support to create the “bow and arrow” effect. Whereby increasing the moment arm increases torque and drive from the Hamstrings, Glutes, Adductor Magnus and surrounding musculature to create “horizontal hip drive” up and out of the bottom position.

In the Olympic or “knee break” squat the path of the bar MUST remain vertical over the mid foot through the ascending and descending portions of the lift. If the bar travels too far in front of the midfoot centre line, the lifter falls forward and loses balance. Similarly, if the bar travels too far behind the midfoot centreline, the lifter will lose balance falling backwards. This means a vertical hip-shoulder line must be achieved and maintained through the entire lift. For this to happen, the lifter must use a “knee break” strategy to ensure the knees travel beyond the toes and progress over the foot. This is so that the pelvis can drop below parallel into “the hole” position straight down towards the base of support, which allows an almost vertical hip shoulder line.

There is a laundry list of benefits for both styles of squatting for fight athletes, but at the same time there is a huge amount of risk if the athlete cannot meet the positional demands of each lift. Getting into the “hole” or the “ass-to-grass” position is great, it presents all the benefits of a full range of motion, fully lengthening the posterior chain musculature in hip flexion, and strengthening the lower body through the entire strength curve. But the sad truth is that not every athlete has the orthopaedic profile to get into that position. Some athletes need a whole lot of mobilisation work done before they can get down into the hole position, while others have structural anomalies and limitations which literally prevent them from getting down there.

Anthropometry and anatomy come into play here as well; if an athlete has a very long torso and very short femurs, they will have an easier time getting into the bottom position of an Olympic style squat due to their individual biomechanics. The longer the athlete’s femur in relation to the torso length, the more forward bend you are likely to see at the bottom position of their squat and the more trouble they will have getting all the way down into the ass-to-grass position - this is due to the increased moment arm between the hip joint and the center-line of gravity over which the bar must travel. See the diagram below for reference. The only mechanically viable way for this athlete to achieve the bottom position in a squat is to bend forward at the hip, making their squat resemble the ‘good morning’ exercise - this is a suboptimal squat scenario, and the athlete might consider widening their squat stance to decrease the moment arm at the hip joint and allow them to keep a slightly more upright torso. Alternatively, this athlete could slightly elevate their heels to decrease the relative femur length and increase ankle mobility.

For these athletes who cannot meet the positional demands of the knee break squat, I would recommend using the hip break squat method. It is a fairly safe bet that all fight athletes can meet the positional demands of the hip break squat, although there are exceptions. If the athlete cannot be qualified for either hip break or knee break squatting, stick to unilateral work. But for those athletes who cannot perform an Olympic squat safely, but can perform the powerlifting squat safely, this is still an incredibly beneficial method, and by no means a consolation prize. The athlete will learn to move heavy loads and to do so explosively, the squat is arguably the best ‘bang for buck’ exercise for athletic development, and to quote the great Charles. R. Poliquin it is “the king of lower body exercises”. However, any structural limitations must be respected and the technique must be modified to suit the athlete.

For those athletes who do meet the positional demands of the Olympic, knee break squat this is great! But it does not mean that the athlete is destined to squat ass-to-grass only. I would suggest that the two types of squat should be periodised to suit different training outcomes at different times throughout the year.

For example, during a maximal strength or speed block of training I would recommend using the hip break powerlifting style of squatting. Then when it comes time to train for functional hypertrophy or relative strength, utilise the Olympic knee break style squat. Then later in the year if and when it comes time to work towards maximal strength, get back into the powerlifting hip break style.

No two athletes are the same, and no two training cycles should be the same either. If an athlete can squat ass-to-grass, I recommend they be squatting using both styles for different outcomes.

If you are interested in knowing more about what we do at The Unknown, have any questions or feedback - please don’t hesitate to contact us at mac@theunknownstrength.com or leave a comment below.

Comments 1

  1. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who had been conducting a little research on this. And he actually ordered me lunch because I discovered it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to discuss this matter here on your website.

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