Squats: The King of All Exercises
If there is one exercise found in 99% of exercise programs, it is the squat. Squats have been labeled the “King of All Exercises,” and for good reason. They mimic one of the most natural movement patterns used in everyday life and are a multi joint exercise working almost every muscle in the body. They release large amounts of anabolic (muscle building) hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone, stimulate lean mass gain throughout the entire body, and have a large impact on cardiovascular development. Whether training for muscle gain, injury prevention/rehabilitation, weight loss, or sports performance, squats should be included. The Squat literally builds your body from the ground up, and I do not believe any exercise program is complete without them.
When performing any exercise, form must be mastered before weight should ever be increased. This is even more important when descending in to a squat with a loaded barbell on your back. Learning to squat properly will ensure recruitment of all muscles involved in the lift, leading to more strength and growth, and minimizing injury risk. Steps to performing a squat are as follows:
1.Position the bar on the squat rack at about mid chest level, and position the feet directly under the bar.
2. Grasp the barbell with hands equal distance apart, squat under the bar, and position yourself so that the bar is placed on the upper traps, or just below the top of your delts (shoulders) resting on the upper back. DO NOT PUT THE BAR ON YOUR SPINE!
3.Keep the chest up, squeeze the scapula together, grip the bar like you want to snap it in half, lift the bar off the rack, and take a step back.
4.Align feet with the heels about shoulder width apart, toes pointing slightly outward.
5.Create a block by filling the lungs with air and expanding the chest, contract the abdominal muscles, and slightly extend the lower back. This will stabilize the spine.
6.Shift your weight to your heels (Do not allow your heels to come off the ground at any point during the lift), push your hips back toward the wall behind you, push the knees out, and begin the descent.
7.Lower the weight until the upper thighs at the hips are below parallel.
8.Ascend back to the starting position by driving through the heels up toward the ceiling, continuing to push the knees out, exhaling, and squeezing the glutes at the top of the movement.
Partial Squats Do Not Exist
Before I cover squat depth, I want to provide my opinion on what others refer to as ”partial squats”. If you do not at least descend to parallel, I consider that a muscular twitch that is not worthy of being performed in a squat rack. The glutes and hamstrings, the extensors of the hip, are not engaged until the bottom of the squat. Performing half of the movement (and sometimes even less) focuses almost all of the work on the quadriceps, transforming a dynamic compound lift in to an isolation exercise. That is a big NO!!!! More muscles recruited during a lift correlates with a greater energy expenditure, cardiovascular response, more muscle fiber recruitment, more joint stability, more volume and intensity, an increase in strength, and an increase in size. Now there is also an old myth that squats are bad for your knees. That is false, unless you are not doing them correctly (partial squats). Every joint in the body has a specific range of motion. If squats are performed properly and each joint travels through their full range of motion, squats will increase the strength and stability of the knee joint. Slight leg twitches on the other hand force the joints to stop short of their full range of motion. This puts unnecessary stress on the knees and will lead to injury if performed on a regular basis. Adding more weight on the bar only adds insult to injury. If you are going to squat, perform the movement correctly.
Proper Squat Depth
There is a lot of controversy on whether or not people should squat at parallel, or below. According to USA Powerlifting, a full squat is one in which the lifter bends the knees and lowers the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint are lower than the top of the knees (2). In my opinion, I believe that everyone should squat through their full range of motion. That means below parallel for the majority of people, and parallel for those few whose range of motion will not allow it. A greater squat depth leads to more engagement of the glutes and hamstrings, creates a larger overload, and produces a greater stimulus for growth. However, limb length, flexibility, mobility, coordination, etc. all factor in to how deep someone will be able to squat before form breaks down. A shorter individual does not have much distance to travel to break parallel, and they find it much easier to maintain an upright position at the bottom of the squat. Someone who is taller has much more distance to travel during the lift, and their torso is forced to lean forward the farther down they go. Excessive leaning of the torso greatly increases the risk of a herniated disc, as the lower back must work harder to re-achieve a neutral spine. However, I am by no means saying that taller individuals should not strive for a squat that is below parallel. For most individuals, they have the necessary range of motion to achieve that depth. I am saying that they must be more careful, and make sure that their flexibility and mobility will allow them to reach that depth safely. That holds true for everyone. The majority of the time, the inability to achieve an optimal squat depth is due to lack of flexibility and mobility. A proper dynamic warm up, post workout stretching, and daily foam rolling will go a long way in boosting squat performance.
COMMON SQUAT VARIATIONS
Front Squats: A squat where the bar rests across the anterior deltoids. Front squats shift the center of gravity to the front of the body and place more emphasis on the quadriceps. This exercise requires tremendous core strength to keep the torso upright throughout the movement, allows a slightly deeper depth, and greatly reduces compressive spinal loading. Front squats are a great alternative for those with lower back issues. Both back and front squats should be included in an exercise program for optimal results.
Bulgarian Split Squats: A unilateral squat in which one leg is elevated on a bench or box to the rear of the body. This exercises works each leg independently, requiring less weight to achieve strength and hypertrophy (size) gains. There are countless benefits to this exercise, but a few of them are: A new stimulus that will help break through plateaus, increased flexibility of the hip flexors, increases stability and balance, and reduction in muscular imbalances between the two legs. They can be performed with a barbell, dumbbells, kettle bells, or body weight.
Box Squats: A squat in which a lifter squats down by sitting on a bench or box. Box squats ensure proper form as the lifter must begin the movement at the hips in order to sit down on the box, and the box is generally a height that causes the hips to break parallel. They greatly increase the power of the posterior chain, as the upward phase of the squat begins from a stopped position. Box squats are a safe and effective way to increase lower body performance, and directly correlate with a stronger back squat and deadlift.
TAKE HOME POINTS:
•Squats are the “king of all exercises” and should be a major part of any training program.
•Squats are a multi joint and compound exercise that works almost every muscle in the body.
•NEVER COMPROMISE FORM FOR WEIGHT!!!
•“Partial squats” do not exist.
•USA Powerlifting holds that a full squat is one in which the lifter bends the knees and lowers the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint are lower than the top of the knees (2).
•Squat to a depth that is optimal for YOU!! That is below parallel for the majority of individuals.
•Squatting properly will benefit the knees, squatting improperly will harm them.
•Perform a dynamic warm up before you squat, stretch post workout, and foam roll daily for improved flexibility, mobility, and to reduce the chance of injury.
•NEVER CURL IN THE SQUAT RACK!!!
•Some common squat variations are front squats, Bulgarian split squats, and box squats.
(1) Bryanton MA, Kennedy MD, Carey JP, and Chui LZ. “Effect of squat depth and barbell load on relative muscular effort in squatting.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 26 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
(2) Hanna, Wade. “USA Powerlifting Online Newsletter.” USA Powerlifting Online Newsletter. N.p., Mar. 2002. Web. 22 Dec. 2012.
ACE Certified Trainer, NASM Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Exercise Science Major, Hunt Fitness Client, Owner of Smoot Fitness