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Using Variable Resistance for the Squat Exercise in Young Athletes

By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS

The squat exercise is probably the most popular exercise in the strength and conditioning field.  The optimal 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 involved in the strength training program.  When looking at young athlete development, most sports require an element of power – linear, lateral, or vertical.  The squat exercise is generally seen as the ‘all-purpose’ strengthening tool to optimize lower body power, typically being done with low loads at high velocities.  Another method that often gets overlooked, especially with young athletes, is using variable resistance applications to not only develop strength, but also to improve power.  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.   Another words, as the exercise gets easier the load gets heavier!

Using variable loading with young athletes doesn’t traditionally occur, mainly because of the technique learning curve that may be longer with younger lifters.  But, once the technique is sufficient and traditional weight is assumed to be added, the coach should consider a variable application.  Light to moderate loads should be used initially, and can be quantified as 10-20% of bodyweight since a repetition maximum (RM) has not been established.  Some key advantages are bulleted below.  The variable resistance mechanism in this article will be a strategically designed squat cord with quantified loops for an easy determination of load during the squat exercise.

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 with young athletes during early stage squat exercise, 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 faster strength gains as they progress through the early phases of weight lifting.

 

References:

Ebben, W.P. and Jensen, R.L.  Electromyographic and Kinetic Analysis of Traditional, Chain, and Elastic Band Squats.  JSCR, 16(4): 547-550.  2002.

Joy, J.M., Lowery, R.P., de Souza, E.O., and Wilson, J.M.  Elastic Bands as a Component of Periodized Resistance Training.  JSCR, 30(8): 2100-2106.  2016.

Hutchison, D.  (2015). Perform-X Training Systems Education Manual.

Wallace, B.J., Winchester, J.B. and McGuigan, M.R.  Effects of Elastic Bands on Force and Power Characteristics during the Back Squat Exercise.  JSCR, 20(2): 268-272.  2006.

 

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