April 1 "Football features two of the worst aspects of American life, violence and committee meetings." -George Will
Many of the strength trainers we visited with at the 2002 National Strength & Science Seminar primarily used machines with their athletes. Including replacing the squat with a good quality leg press machine as well because of safety issues and efficiency. Many non-Olympic training approaches have done this but there are many non-Olympic teams as well that have kept the squat in their program.
StrongerAthletes.com believes the squat is safe and productive if coached to execute it correctly and to spot the exercise correctly. It was indicated by many coaches present that taller athletes should not squat because of safety issues. We agree, but still think the taller athlete can squat effectively with free weights.
We have found that the Smith machine works very well for some athletes as a squat alternative. One of the concerns by coaches at the seminar was the compression between vertebrae caused by the bar on the shoulders. However, at a booth next to ours at the seminar, a company was modeling a jump squat device and we believe, in regards to vertebre compression that there is a big difference between setting the bar on your shoulders to perform a squat and doing jump squats.
In order to implement an efficient program we would like to train as many muscles as possible in one exercise, (multi-joint movements), and the squat is one of them. We believe that this exercise also strengthens the spinal erectors. The leg press machines, despite being wonderful, well-build tools, will not do this.
Another reason why the squat is a safe and productive exercise is that is triggers overall body strength. Aaron Vitt, wrestling coach at Moberly High School, has found when the squat is taken out of his program it will affect the bench press and other lift's strength levels as well. We have found this to be the case too.
In order to make the squat productive, you must have a spotter that pays close attention to the lifter and the coach needs to make sure that the athlete is spotting correctly. If the coach chooses the athlete to go to failure then the rack needs to be set appropriately and the spotter is right with the lifter.
Coach John Thomas, Head Strength Coach at Penn State, allows his athletes to perform the free weight squat but only under his personal supervision (and not all athletes use this exercise). If your athletes do not have the confidence to spot correctly allowing the lifter to reach muscular failure than they must fall just short of failure and make sure that the lifter does a set of leg press or some other exercise that will stress the working muscles at momentary muscular failure to trigger the necessary strength and growth.