While running my athletes through an interval training session on the track at military installation recently, I had the painstaking privilege of setting up shop with my stopwatch adjacent to a station within a physical training circuit that an Army unit was executing. Station #9 – The Air Squat.
Somebody. Please. Help. Me. Now.
Even in the days when I dabbled in poorly designed programs I never really understood this exercise or how it became so popular. I mean heck, even in my weakest, stupidest workout life of leg extensions and countless crunches I can remember my buddy Monkey and I closing out our back squat sets by seeing who could knock out more reps of 225#. In the first few weeks we might have hit the high teens and by the end of a month we were pushing 30+ reps a piece. As far as the competition, whoever went second always won. Here we were, a couple of kids who didn’t know what strong was, probably maxing at 315# unless you count the ego boosting 3/4 squats we “achieved” at higher weights and yet we could rep out 225# for an absurd amount to finish off a leg day. Why in the world would we even consider adding an AIR squat into the routine? I still detest the air squat and witnessing it in all its glory at 6 am reinforced my hatred for this exercise. However, as a performance professional I’d be remiss if I did not explain sound reasons why I choose not to air squat.
Why Not Air Squat?
1. Reinforcement of a Poor Movement Pattern
Many trainers will argue in favor of the air squat as a safe alternative to squatting under load. However, it’s likely not the weight that causes somebody to squat poorly. There are a host of other reasons such as poor mobility and stability and improper motor control. Rarely is lack of strength the culprit. Taking away additional load does not solve any of these issues. I’m willing to introduce another reason why body weight squatting often looks like garbage – a lack of acute consequence. Who cares how they squat when it seemingly won’t hurt them to squat poorly? Coaches should realize that the repeated microtrauma suffered during high volumes of poor movement still add up quietly until it sneakily manifests itself when someone throws his or her back out picking up an empty beer can. I like to think that I have a technically sound squat but if you asked me to knockout 50 air squats, or even 10, I can guarantee I’d quickly revert to the path of least resistance because there’s no fear of getting buried under a barbell or collapsing in pain to the sounds of my spine snapping like a twig.
2. Insufficient Load to Force Strength Adaptation
There are very few people so weak that squatting their own body weight provides sufficient resistance to stress the body to a point where it makes changes to overcome this stress in the future. Depending on training age and experience, driving strength adaptation requires lifting 70, 80, or even 90+% of your 1 rep maximum. If you encounter an athlete who appears too weak to squat their own body weight for fairly high reps, test their strength in an exercise with a lower skill component than squatting before making an assumption that this is truly a strength issue. We all have that buddy who can’t knock out 10 solid air squats but will easily load four times his body weight on the leg press and “do work.” Is he weak? No, he simply lacks the skill component of squatting. Teach him how to squat correctly then begin load him up so he can lift weights like a real athlete.
3. It’s a Gateway Exercise
I walked into the gym on a Monday about a month ago to find an athlete waiting on my arrival like a school kid on the front steps who’s excited to show his dad a report card filled with A’s. He wanted to brag his coach about this “functional” exercise he did in a circuit over the weekend. I won’t go into detail but I will say that it involved an inverted BOSU ball and you guessed it, the air squat… in sets of 10. WHAT?! Here is a 200+ pound former soldier with an affinity for bicep curls and a relatively weak lower body and he decides that he’s going to elevate his game by knocking out air squats on an inverted BOSU ball. How long until he moves on from the soft stuff and dabbles in a more dangerous exercise drug like this:
Friends don’t let friends back squat on stability balls and parents should really talk to their kids about this kind of thing. And remember, parents who do silly exercises have children who do silly exercises. In all seriousness, I’m obviously not the biggest proponent of using air squats in my programming. There are too many more effective alternatives that I prefer to use in getting an athlete’s performance from where it is to where it needs to be. That said, I’m not an absolutist. If it’s appropriate and performed correctly, even an air squat has value.
In my next post I’ll discuss air squatting alternatives that I use to develop strength, power, and movement quality in my athletes.