For many people who are new to strength training, the mere sound of squatting may make them cringe. It looks hard, painful, and do legs really matter? Why would anyone use a squat rack for squatting, when it could be used for bicep curls?
Well, for anyone who has had more experience squatting understands just how important this exercise is for any individual with interest in boosting their overall fitness and/or athleticism. The squat is considered one of the most effective movement for building power, athleticism, and overall strength. Although many lifters consider the squat to be a leg exercise, it is important understand that this is a full body lift that has many benefits on the body.
Why you should squat
Throughout the fitness world, it has been widely accepted that the squat is considered the king of all exercises. These points explain why:
1. One of the Best full body exercise
This may be the most convincing reason to incorporate squats into your training program. Quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes are the most visible muscle groups strengthened by squats; however, this full body exercise helps to strengthen many different muscles in the body. This movement will aid you in finding muscular weaknesses and help you eliminate them. Squats are very effective for building a strong core which will aid in overall performance.
2. Increases power and overall athleticism
Lower body strength and a strong core are both very important for any athlete looking to improve performance and power. All variations of athletes incorporate squats into their programs to better their sport performance. Squats increase speed, explosive power, and vertical leaping ability which are all keys to bettering sporting performance. To increase an athlete’s vertical jump, deep squats will give the best results as compared to quarter squats.
3. Improves mobility as well as flexibility
In order to perform a squat with proper form, you are required to be relatively flexible. Your flexibility can be improved by simply squatting with correct form and conducting squat assistance movements that will aid your squatting form. Having strong legs and a solid core will improve mobility and overall balance increasing performance all together. Improving mobility and flexibility also translates to improving other compound lifts.
4. Improves health of knees, joints, and Bones
Squatting with proper technique can improve the strength of joints and increase the density of bones leading to prevention of injuries. This lift will be able to increase the strength in muscles around the knees, hips, and all over the body strengthening the joints. It is recommended to incorporate multi-joint exercises into your routine to improve performance and functional abilities.
Why proper form matters and how to better yours
There is a population of people who do their best to keep people from squatting arguing that the movement is unsafe and damaging to the knees and causes lower back pain. Well, this is only true if the movement is done with improper form. Improper form can lead to injuries, joint and knee problems, pains, and lack of results. I have seen far too many people put their egos ahead of their goals bypassing proper technique leading to zero gains and a lot of pains.
Tips to improve your squat
1. Comfortable stance with toes slightly pointed outward
Before you unrack the weight, be sure to have your feet solidly planted at a about shoulder width depending on your comfort and squat style. Although it is debated, most lifters perform their squats with their toes pointed slightly outward in order to reach proper depth and keep their knees from caving inward.
2. Keep back tight and chest up; proper hand position
The weight of the bar will feel a lot more comfortable if you squeeze your shoulder blades and upper back as hard as you can. This will pop out your trapezius and upper back muscles giving the bar a cushion to rest on. This also keeps your chest up and out which is important for proper squat position. To help you achieve this position, it may be helpful to bring your hands closer together on the bar forcing your shoulder blades together.
3. Sit back, and keep weight in heels
Many people who first start squatting (including myself) physically cannot sit back properly into a squatting position. This primarily is due to weak glutes, hamstrings, and posterior chain which are common today due to the lack of physical movement and activation of this muscle group. People who perform partial or quarter squats are primarily using their quadriceps and very little hamstrings and glutes. When performing deeper squats, there is equal activation of quadriceps and glutes and hamstrings. This is important for health of knees, performance, and injury prevention.
If you are unable to sit back into a full squatting position, exercises such as glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, and Romanian deadlifts will strengthen and develop your glutes, hamstrings, and posterior chain. Another exercise to improve your squatting form is box-squats. This variation of squatting is very effective for developing your posterior chain and bettering your squatting technique.
4. Keep knees out
When you squat, it is important to force your knees outward. This allows you to access more muscles to strengthen your lower body and lift more weight. Keeping your knees out is also a safer movement on your knees and joints evening the forces put on them. If this is difficult for you to do, it is most likely due to your toe position or weak adductors and glutes.
5. Don’t look up…Or down
Although it may seem accurate to look up while squatting, it’s not, and can be dangerous and restricting. People tend to either look up at the sky or down to at the ground. When you look up at the sky, it can cause your hips to rise making it difficult to break parallel; it also causes unneeded strains on your upper back and neck. If you look down toward the ground, your back and chest can cave over causing your form to break. It is recommended to pick a spot on the wall or mirror in front of you and focus on that for the whole movement.
6. Keep core tight throughout movement
By taking a large breath before you squat and keep all of your abdominal and oblique muscles tight, you will help to stabilize your spine then thus lift more weight.
If you were planning to, or already squat and strength train in your standard style of running shoes, you should stop. These shoes with cushion and gel filling to reduce impact during running are unstable and result in a loss of power when squatting. The unstableness of the cushioned shoes can result in injury and improper technique. Shoes to squat in may depend on your style of squatting. For low bar squats (leaning more forward, lower bar placement), use flat shoes such as Chuck Taylor’s or Vibram FiveFingers. These shoes allow for better stability, technique, and safety. For high bar or Olympic squats (torso higher, higher bar placement), shoes with lifted heels are recommended. These shoes such as the Adidas Adistar make it easier for the lifter to achieve more depth.
Squatting is an exercise that cannot be “replaced”. Squatting is one of the most effective movements for building strength and power that simply cannot be attained by leg presses and leg curls. Squats are easy to build into your current program either on a leg day, push day, or squat day.
Most people who begin squatting wish only to increase to higher weights as they slowly sacrifice their form. This is a bad idea. If you decide to go this route of jumping up weight as fast as you can, you will either plateau in weight, get injured, or make little gains in strength and size. The most efficient way to squat as a beginner is to slowly progress in weight while focusing on keeping perfect form. Personally, I worked for months building up my squat, adding only about 5 to 15 pounds each week. This worked effectively for me and brought me success as I began lifting.