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A Poignant Comment On Squats

by Dr. Ken Leistner

March 18 I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter." –Blaise Pascal

Still want to train your athletes like powerlifters and have them do low reps with heavy weight? Doctor Ken was right then and is still right today. Read on.

I had a very enlightening conversation with the strength coach of one of the National Football League teams yesterday, one which further reinforced my belief that heavy squats utilizing maximum weight for one to five repetitions should remain the province of the powerlifter. In many previous issues of The Steel Tip, I’ve criticized the use of single-rep testing or training for football players, citing the fact that doing heavy, low repetition movements was an athletic skill in itself, one that was unnecessary for anyone but a competitive lifter, and one which placed the trainee at substantial risk for injury. Unfortunately, many of our college and high school strength training programs are based upon a competitive powerlifting cycle, leading the athlete to a maximum low rep lift, and just as often, leading him to serious injury. Two incidents, one which involved the NFL team I was in contact with, point out just how preposterous the situation is.

At the Collegiate National Powerlifting Championships, which were held March 23rd and 24th, Temple University entered a team which included two of their varsity football players. One, offensive lineman John Rienstra, is considered one of the best at his position in the east, if not the entire country. Another, Eric Coss, is described by one publication as “a three year regular.”

Obviously, these two athletes are important to the football program at Temple, and their loss from practice or games would be a detriment to Temple’s bid to become a dominant gridiron power. Yet, when Coss arrived at the site of the championships, he was suffering severe sciatic pain and low back spasm, severe enough to limit all lumbar ranges of motion and alter the muscular responses in his right lower extremity. This came as a result of an injury incurred while training for the Collegiate championships, during the squat or deadlift. As medical director for this meet, I informed him that he would be risking serious injury if he chose to compete, perhaps serious enough to prevent his participation in spring football practice which began four days after the lifting competition. Mr. Coss decided that he would represent his team, despite extreme discomfort, during the warmups. On his second squat attempt (he had missed his first when lumbar pain prevented him from achieving an acceptable depth) he fell to the platform in great pain, and was eventually removed, to a nearby hospital for treatment of extreme myospasm with indications of disc inflammation and sciatic neuritis and irritation. I don’t know if he was available for the start of spring football drills, but if I were Temple’s head coach Bruce Arians, I would have been miffed beyond words that one of my better players could have been lost to football indefinitely, especially when the same type of strength could have been developed, for the sport of football, without exposing Eric Coss to such risk. John Rienstra was not injured and, in fact, won the overall title in his weight class, but he too was at considerable risk in doing so.

While under the reign of a previous head coach, one National Football league team had a strength coach who was much enamored of the achievements of a powerlifter and self-styled strength training expert who lived in the southwest. Arrangements were made to fly all of the offensive and defensive linemen to his hometown, a total of thirteen or fourteen men, and have them spend one week training under this man’s supervision. This was done, and the football players, many of them standing over 6’3”, with terribly disadvantageous leverages for the competitive powerlifts, did these and other heavy quick lifts during that week of training. When the football players returned to their homes, they continued to do the squats, power cleans, deadlifts, power snatches, and other heavy quick lifts for multiple sets of one, two, three, and five repetitions. The strength training expert, of course, had had great success using these techniques, great success as a powerlifter, forgetting of course, that he also had very favorable leverages for the three competitive lifts. As a direct result of this training program, the current coach told me that three of the linemen needed corrective back surgery, and four others have chronic low back problems which necessitate the use of special supportive girdles while they’re on the field. At least two others were waived from the team because their low back problems made their play undependable and erratic.

Very recently, this same team had a young, strong player who had used a “typical” program of low rep squats and power cleans in college, and wanted to continue using them with his professional team. The head coach and the strength coach both felt that the squat was a productive exercise, but only if it was done in such a way that the player was not exposed to the unnecessary risk that maximal weights present. As a direct result of his weight room work, this young player injured his low back, seriously enough to jeapordize his ability to play, and he did this while doing heavy, low rep squats, while the strength coach was not present. The head coach was so outraged that he immediately ordered that the squat racks be removed from the weight room. As the coach told me, “Ken, keep in mind that I have nothing against squats. Like yo u, I realize that they can be extremely beneficial. However, when these players let their egos run wild and put tons of weight on the bar, or try to push their max singles up, it’s not necessarily beneficial to their ability to play football, and the risks are obvious. In our case, the safest thing to do was to just take the racks out so that there would be no risk of further injury.”

A few years ago, a similar series of incidents led to the removal of the racks from the Cincinnati Bengal weight room. Most of the players who did squats came from a powerlifting background where their college strength coach was an active or former lifter, and encouraged them to do heavy, low rep squats as “the only way” to increase lower body power for football. Their previous training or egos demanded that they squat only with the big belt, only with the knee wraps, and only if there was as much weight as possible on the bar. Doing fifteen or twenty repetitions with four hundred and fifty pounds wasn’t seen as being as “strength stimulating” as doing three reps with six hundred and fifty pounds, and many of the players had the low back injuries or chronic stiffness to prove the folly of this type of reasoning. When the injury rate became alarming, the racks were removed, and at least in the case of the Bengals, the players have improved significantly with the use of the Nautilus Duo Squat machine and the new Leverage Leg Press unit, both done for reps in the fifteen to twenty range.

Football is a sport requiring great lower body strength, as is powerlifting. The skills needed for one sport are very different from those of the other, as as long as college and professional football strength coaches confuse that fact, weight room injuries will abound.

***No Liability is assumed for any information written on the StrongerAthlete.com website. No medical advice is given on exercise. This advice should be obtained from a licensed health-care practitioner. Before anyone begins any exercise program, always consult your doctor. The articles are written by coaches that are giving advice on a safe, productive, and efficient method of strength training.***


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