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Lower Body Strength and Athletic Performance

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“The legs feed the wolf.”

A strong and powerful lower body is vital for athletic performance. The lower body is the base for running, jumping, changing directions and it also serves as the engine in the kinetic chain as it generates the power that is transferred for upper body movements. 

Indeed, several research studies have shown that lower body strength, as often assessed by the 1RM or 3RM squat, is significantly related to acceleration, sprinting speed, change of direction, jumping ability and even throwing velocity and throwing distance.

Several strength & conditioning coaches can attest to this point as well. In fact, one elite NCAA basketball program has a sign in their weight room that says “Squat goes up, bounce goes up”.  Besides the performance gains, there is also an association between lower body strength and lower extremity (e.g., knee) injury prevention – and remember, the best ability of an athlete is availability! If an athlete is injured – they are unavailable.

The squat is considered the cornerstone exercise for developing lower body strength and it is commonly referred to as the “king of exercises”. However, before testing or training the squat, it is essential that the athlete is taught proper technique given the heavy loads that can be lifted during this exercise. Basically, from the fundamental athletic position the athlete is simply sitting in a chair and standing up!  There are several regressions that can be used if an athlete cannot perform a body weight squat with good technique. This may include using a chair or plyo box and actually performing a sit-to-stand, or using a post of the squat rack or TRX straps to hold onto while performing the squat. 

Many coaches will use the goblet squat to initially load the squat pattern. This exercise also helps with keeping the chest ‘high and proud’. From here, some coaches will utilise the front squat prior to progressing to the barbell back squat, whereas others will progress from goblet squat to barbell back squat.

This link provides a 10-item checklist for assessing upper and lower body position and movement mechanics during the back squat.

Beyond the squat, single leg variations, including the split leg squat and rear foot elevated squat, can be used to improve lower body strength. And, the vertical jump and broad jump which also involve the squat pattern can be used for plyometrics and lower body power development.

So again, the legs feed the wolf and the squat and its variations are key to developing lower body strength and power which are related to several key athletic performance capacities such as sprinting speed and jumping – and staying injury-free and on the field.

Click here to learn more on the benefits SPT can offer to athletes.