Every good baseball training program is going to have a significant strength training component to it, particularly in the off-season. And that strength training program better include some variation of squats - otherwise it’s completely useless. There aren’t a lot of absolutes when it comes to training, but if you’re not squatting, you’re wasting your time. No, lunges are not a suitable replacement – and whatever you call the bastardized knee-bends in Smith machines don’t count either. By the way, those “squats” done in the Smith machine have 30-40% higher shear forces than any type of free weight squats (Andrews JG, Hay JG and Vaughan CL. Knee shear forces during a squat exercise using a barbell and a weight machine). In short: Don’t do Smith machine nonsense.
Now on to the main argument: Should baseball players (particularly pitchers) do front squats or back squats? Eric Cressey is famous for having his guys only doing front squats and other “safer” squat variations like the safety bar or giant cambered bar versions. In contrast, all of our pitchers do back squats.
Well, it’s not as simple as picking a winner. Eric is opposed to back squats for baseball pitchers because:
At last check, 74% of the Cressey Performance clientele is baseball players. The majority of these athletes have acquired actual structural changes to their shoulders that make the back squat set-up more of an at-risk position than in non-overhead-throwing athletes. To make a long story short, in this externally rotated, abducted position of the shoulder girdle, the biceps tendon pulls awkwardly on the superior labrum. This peel-back mechanism is exascerbated in the presence of a glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) and scapular instability – two features extremely common in baseball players. So, for these folks, the front squat is a much safer alternative. We also use giant cambered bar and safety squat bar squat and lunge variations.
I agree that this “peel-back mechanism” is contraindicated for baseball players. However, both Eric and I address the asymmetries of baseball pitchers’ GIRD issues and their scapular instability / weakness problems through corrective exercise and training. Pitchers that come to see me get a thorough initial evaluation to determine how screwed up their throwing shoulder is and get a full medical history on their previous injuries and exercise programs. If it’s truly bad, they won’t be back squatting right off the bat, but to completely omit the back squat removes a great training effect.
The front squat does not engage the posterior chain like the back squat does, and you can’t front squat as much as you can back squat due to the shortened hamstring position you are initially in, the upright torso, the lack of back extension in the movement, and the lever arm out front of the body. However, the front squat is “safer” because there is less torque on the back; it’s less likely you will injure yourself doing a front squat (you tend to just dump the bar in the front squat if you get too forward; in the back squat, you can get into lumbar flexion under load). This is truly the crux of the argument – risk vs. reward.
Risk vs. Reward – Aggressive Training vs. Managing Health
Eric trains primarily high-profile baseball athletes – many of them professional – while most of the athletes who train at Driveline Baseball are high school and college athletes trying to break out or make elite teams. This is an important distinction – the way we approach our clients is more aggressive because they can take a few more risks to get where they need to be, rather than managing their health so they can pitch on their professional squads.
However, at the end of the day, I think that using the back squat is important for baseball pitchers of all varieties, assuming that you can get their asymmetries under control. The back squat simply produces a superior training effect and combines it with outstanding training economy that you don’t get with the front squat and additional accessory exercises. The front squat being so quad-dominant scares me as well, considering most athletes come to see me having done so much long-distance running (much on treadmills) and quad-dominant work that just front squatting can exacerbate this asymmetry. So much of pitching and other athletic movements involves the glutes and hamstrings, and the back squat trains them much harder than the front squat (not to mention the higher amounts of weight you can move with the back squat).
Could the “Compromised” Forced Shoulder External Rotation Position Be a Good Thing?
Yes! I think the shoulder external rotator stretch you get with the back squat is actually rather beneficial for untrained and novice populations. Pitchers often have poor ER and MER in their deliveries, and tweaking their mechanics to produce higher values of MER over a short period of time without addressing static ER can lead to injury. There exists evidence that a larger gap between static ER and dynamically achieved MER in the pitching motion can lead to medial elbow injury. (“The role of shoulder maximum external rotation during throwing for elbow injury prevention in baseball players” by Miyashita et al.)
Back Squat Positioning: Low-Bar? High-Bar? Does it Matter?
While I use the low-bar squat (due to training as a powerlifter), the high-bar back squat is likely to be less annoying for baseball pitchers due to the more comfortable position for the shoulders when the bar is higher up on the traps. However, nothing’s free: Due to the more mechanically efficient position of the low-bar variant, you can squat more weight. Of course, this comes with a more “compromised” forced shoulder external rotation position and the increased risk of losing the bar forward if your squatting mechanics are not up to snuff, but these things are not a problem if managed correctly.
Conclusion: Back Squats are OK!
Back squats are preferable to front squats, so long as you carefully manage the population that you train! This means more internal rotation static stretching for the baseball players and soft tissue work for those with pre-existing conditions. It means limiting back squats for pitchers with gross asymmetries. However, in relatively healthy populations, put that bar on your back and get low!