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.