By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS
The squat exercise is probably the most popular exercise in the strength and conditioning toolbox. The development of lower body strength is dependent on high force production using this exercise, and many will argue that optimal strength levels will not be reached if consistent and progressive squatting is not included in the strength training program.
Once proper technique is learned and a base level of strength has been established, lower body strength and power development can be optimized by using variable resistance applications. Variable resistance involves some type of implement – cord, band or chain – attached to the frame of the rack and the bar that “varies” the load throughout the range of motion of the movement. Typically, the variability occurs as a decrease in load during the descent phase of the squat, and an increased loading during the ascent. This concept essentially increases the load as the mechanical advantage of the lower body improves. In other words, as the exercise gets easier the load gets heavier!
Key Advantages of Variable Loading the Squat
- Safety – The heavier loading occurs at the mechanically optimal position, i.e., upright position, which allows for not only learning technique through the descent, but also provides a stimulating load throughout the ascent. The safety issue also comes into play by not having as much ‘dead weight’ on the bar, which is better in an emergency and for the spotter.
- Stability – Younger athletes first learning the squat may have some balance and proprioception issues. The variable loading creates body awareness, at lighter loads, by recruiting more muscle fibers throughout the entire range of the lift. This neuromuscular learning enhances muscle coordination and can improve stability.
- Explosiveness at the end of the movement – With traditional weight-loaded squat movements, a deceleration occurs at the end-point of the range of motion due to the body’s anticipation of the end of the movement. By adding variable resistance to the movement, young athletes learn to push through that end range of motion, thus enhancing power at extension. This learning effect can carry over to vertical jumping and sprinting, mainly because the extension phases in these movements are so important for increasing height (VJ) and/or decreasing time (linear sprinting), but these movements also demand low levels of breaking forces, i.e., deceleration at peak extension, to optimize these characteristics.
Utilizing variable loading can provide key benefits not only for strength development, but also for coordination, power and stability. This change in stimulus will improve leg strength throughout the full range of motion, and promote greater strength gains.
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