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Mobility Exercise of the Week: Bowler Squat

Written on April 2, 2012 at 7:48 am, by Eric Cressey

I was introduced to the bowler squat originally by Dr. Stuart McGill at one of his seminars back around 2005.  Beyond the endorsement from one of the world’s premier spine experts, the fact that it’s been a mainstay in our strength and conditioning programs for about seven years should prove just how valuable I think this combination mobility/activation exercise is.

Before describing it, though, I should mention that the name is a bit misleading.  While it does look like a bowler’s motion, the truth is that it’s more of a “rotational deadlift” than it is a squat.  There is some knee flexion involved, but the shin remains essentially vertical, and most of the motion occurs at the hips – and that’s what makes it such a fantastic exercise.  Have a look:

We talk all the time about how important glute activation is, but most folks simply think that a few sets of supine bridges will get the job done. The problem is that this exercise occurs purely in the sagittal plane, while the glutes – as demonstrated by their line of pull – are also extremely active in the frontal and transverse planes.  The gluteus maximums isn’t just a hip extensor; it is also a hip abductor and external rotator.

As such, the gluteus maximus is essential to properly eccentrically controlling hip flexion, adduction, and internal rotation that occurs with every step, landing, lunge, and change-of-direction.  You can even think of it as an “anti-pronator.”

A bowler squat effectively challenges the glutes to both lengthen and activate in a weight-bearing position in all three planes.  And, for the tennis and baseball players out there, check out how closely the bowler squat replicates the finish position from a serve and pitch (I noted this in a recent article, Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length is and How to Improve It).

To perform the exercise, push the hips back as if attempting a 1-leg RDL, but reach across the body with the arm on the side of the non-support leg.  The “hips back” cue will get the sagittal plane, while the reach across will get the frontal and transverse plane. Make sure to keep the spine in neutral to ensure that the range of motion comes from the hips and not the lower back.  Keep the knee soft (not locked out), but not significantly flexed, either.  Be sure to get the hips all the way through at the top, finishing with a glute squeeze.

A few additional cues we may use are:

1. Tell the athlete to pretend like he/she is trying to pick up a basketball with the support foot; it can help those who keep tipping over.

2. Provide a target – a medicine ball or dumbbell – that the athlete should reach for in the bottom position (this keeps folks from cutting the movement short, or making it too sagittal plane dominant).

3. Encourage the athlete to keep the chin tucked (to keep the cervical spine in neutral).

4. Put your hand a few inches in front of the kneecap and tell the athlete not to touch your hand with the knee; this keeps an athlete from squatting too much when he/she should be hip-hinging.

Typically, we’ll perform this drill for one set of eight reps per side as part of the warm-up.  However, in a less experienced population – or one with very poor balance – this may serve as a great unloaded challenge that can be included as part of the actual strength training program.

Give it a shot!

For more exercises like this, be sure to check out Assess and Correct: Breaking Barries to Unlock Performance.

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  • kyle

    Is the non-working leg supposed come straight back or across with the arm?

  • Peter

    How different is that from a DB single leg romanian Deadlift? It looks pretty similar

  • tom

    thanks for the article Eric. As a competitive tennis player, i can really benefit by adding this.
    My question is, when i peform this move with my left leg as the support, my knee collapses inward.
    It also happens on pistol and single-leg squats.
    Doesn’t happen on my right side.
    I’m coming in Saturday, i’d like to have you evaluate. but any thoughts now?
    Tom

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Peter – more of an emphasis on the frontal and transverse planes.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Tom – could be a number of things, most likely some hip stiffness on the left side.

  • Ed Northcott

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing this one, Eric.

  • Tracy Ryckaert

    I have been utilizing this squat (but call it a posterior reach), for strengthening the glute and it is excellent. The only additional cue I recommend is really watch for hanging on the piriformis. If they have not established the correct feeling of the glute med engaging, they think the piriformis is glute activation. I have found cuing to pull the hip in vs the knee out to be more effective. Start them next to a wall so they can jut the hip out.

  • Chuck S

    Peter, I think RDL above stands for Romanian deadlift.

  • http://www.FlemingtonBootCamps.com Marie

    Thanks for the article. I have not be using this activation exercise – just RDL – and will start incorporating this immediately.

    I am curious about Tracy’s comment “to watch for hanging on the piriformis.” What does hanging on the piriformis look like?

  • Heath

    The balance alone makes this a nasty exercise – I like it!!!!

  • http://harshbatra.com Harsh

    I’ve been using the supine bridges for glute activation as warmups before any sort of activity. Eric is it safe to say that if I do these Bowler Squats I don’t need the supines anymore?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Harsh – I’d still do both.

  • Jody

    Eric, what about the 2 April clinics mentioned in your email?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Hi Jody,

    Sorry, that was an auto-correct by my Mac; doh! Didn’t mean to include that in the subject line, but you can learn more about my speaking schedule at:

    http://ericcressey.com/schedule

  • http://christhekiwi.com Chris

    Great article Eric! Love the bowler squats and have included them in all my programming (they replaced reverse spider lunges in the w/up).

    Harsh, good to see you over here mate, definitely leave the glute bridges in there. Eric is the MAN, and I hope you jump in and follow one of his programs (i would go with Show and Go) and follow it. You wo’t look back.

    C

  • http://codyrcamp.com Cody R Camp

    I am a huge fan of unilateral training in strength & conditioning programs. Single-leg deadlifts are fantastic for developing strength (I like to hold a kettlebell while I perform these), stability, and mobility. These types of movements easily translate into functional assets while in movement. Keep up the great work Eric!

    Cody
    codyrcamp.com

  • Dani

    The other day at work I picked up something from the floor with a bowler squat, and it made me think, it’s also excellent to mobilize the sciatic nerve as Shacklock shows it in his book on Clinical Neurodynamics: Flexion, internal rotation and adduction of the hip to go more specifically for the sciatic nerve! (http://www.neurodynamicsolutions.com/)

  • Goi

    Hi,

    I’ve a right glute/lower back injury that causes some glute pain during back squats(less on front squats), and especially deadlifts. Bowler squats on my right leg are significantly more challenging balance wise than on my left leg. I can bang them out rep after rep on my left, but doing them on my right leg feels like I’m on a bosu ball. In addition, I feel pain in my butt while doing it. Should I continue this and try to correct the imbalance, or is the pain a contraindication?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Goi – you should never train through pain. I’d encourage you to see a medical professional in your area.


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