The Squat, the infamous test of your mettle, the exercise that separates the men from the boys, builder of legs and toner of the lower body.
The back squat has a few major benefits
- It’s a very effective exercise for building strength and muscle in the legs and hips
- It’s probably the most time efficient way to get a good leg workout
- It strengthens the core to a great degree
- It has carryover to lots of different athletic and everyday movements
These benefits aren’t unique to the back squat but squats in general; the front squat is a powerful alternative with many of the same benefits.
The squat is now, quite rightly, seen as a way for women to achieve a shapely behind. Squats combined with a hip extension exercise such as the deadlift help to achieve the toned look to which many women aspire.
Fair warning, the squat is tough. Not everyone is able to squat or built to squat (my sympathies to our long-femured friends) but if you are, I encourage you to include squats into your routine and reap the many benefits.
Keys To A Good Squat
There are a few keys to squatting that you should know before you start.
Always squat in a rack
Unless you’re a seasoned lifter, comfortable with throwing hundreds of kilograms off of your shoulders and onto the floor behind you (and you have a floor that won’t be destroyed by such an occurrence) then you should squat in a rack.
- You could get pinned under a heavy weight
- You could injure yourself, pass out or even drop the bar onto yourself causing serious and perhaps permanent damage.
Yes I’ve done it, I’ve been pinned under heavy barbells and had to throw them off. While a little exhilarating, it is dangerous and unnecessary.
Wear Suitable Shoes
The shoes you wear when you squat are important. You can wear flat shoes or shoes with a slight heel (as seen with many weightlifting shoes) but they must be solid. You should not squat in running shoes, you’ll lift less, be more likely to injure yourself and almost certainly ruin your shoes.
The squat is a powerful exercise but that power acts as a double-edged sword. You need to work on your flexibility with light weights first before you graduate to heavier weights. When you do go heavy, keep the reps low and your efforts focused.
How To Perform The Back Squat
Low Bar v.s High Bar
Low bar or high bar refers to the position of the bar on the back. High bar sits across the top of the traps and low backs sits across the rear delts. High bar is the harder of the two, for that reason I encourage you to use it most of the time. A low bar squat is the more powerful version of the high bar squat, it provides better leverage and therefore you can lift more but it often a bit harder to hit depth with and puts more emphasis on your lower back.
The squat begins in a standing position, the bar is taken from the rack by extending your legs then a step back is taken. Take just a step back and then bring your other foot in line. Too much adjusting of the feet will tire you before you get to squatting. Over time you’ll get your squat set up down to two or three steps. Focus on keeping your set up short and near-identical each time.
Keep your weight on your heels, never should they come up. You should have your chest up and your abs tight. This will give you a neutral spine and keep the muscles surrounding the spine tight and rigid.
From a standing position, descend into the squat. If you’re squatting high bar then imagine you’re sitting between your legs. If you’re squatting low bar then you’ll push your butt right back. Keep your chest up, and your knees in line with your toes.
Descend until the crease of your hip is just below the top of your knees. This is known as ‘below parallel’ and it is the standard for a legitimate squat in powerlifting federations and any reputable gym.
Drive up by pushing your feet through the floor and your traps into the bar. Once you are comfortably above parallel keep your chest up and bring your hips forward. This is a little different for low bar and high bar versions, you’ll have to experience each for yourself but you will feel the difference and find the right time for each phase quite quickly. Below is a video briefly demonstrating high bar squats.
Getting out of the hole
If you fail in a squat, it is most likely that you either at the bottom of the movement or just above parallel on the way back up where you have the least leverage. This is known as getting stuck in the hole.
As the weights become heavier, the main challenge is getting out of the hole. You need to hit parallel or just below and then quickly extend your knees before bringing your hips forward into a more favourable position.
The key to getting big squats not to slow down too much as you approach parallel, it’s almost instinct to tighten up and resist the weight but it causes all momentum to dissipate leaving you stuck at the bottom of the lift unable to muster the strength to get back up. You want to go down under control but fast enough to take control of the stretch reflex.
Racking The Bar
Once you’ve finished the squat you should be stood up with your hips and knees extended in what is almost a normal standing posture. Pause for a moment (good practice for if you ever decide to compete) and then walk into the rack until you hear the bar hit the back of the rack, then lower the bar onto the pins.
Lower yourself into the squat under control and tension but also at a reasonable speed, this allows a bounce at the bottom of the squat which will take you below parallel and back up just above it, at this point you have to give everything you’ve got. The momentum generated allows you to get weights that would have pinned you if you’d gone slowly.
Squat shoes are used in weightlifting more than powerlifting but many associated with powerlifting who squat with a narrower stance make use of them too. I own a pair of Adidas Power Perfect 2’s for olympic weightlifting but I’ve never been able to get along with them as well as I’d like for heavy squats as the heel is a bit high for me, I am much more comfortable squatting in flat shoes or my old pair of dress shoes which have a slight heel. These aren’t mandatory, records are set by people wearing squats shoes and flat shoes, it’s pretty much personal preference.
You can get powerlifting belts and weightlifting belts, the former are a lot tougher but also more restrictive. I think a powerlifting belt is generally the better choice unless your training involves a lot of olympic lifting. You can pay a lot for a belt or get them cheap, the best ones are typically the most expensive but there is a point of diminishing returns. Mine must have cost me about twenty quid several years ago (cheap) but I definitely feel more supported in an Inzer (~£100), if I was to use the low bar position more often I’d definitely look at a tougher belt but for high bar squats I don’t feel much need for it.
Programming the Squat
For Strength (Powerlifting/Olympic Lifting
In my experience, if you want to squat well then you need to squat properly and regularly. I squat three times a week at the time of writing but my fastest progress was made when I was doing some form of squat five times per week.
That sort of routine involves too much commitment for your average gym goer but those involved in powerlifting and weightlifting will be well served by it. There will be some who say that this is overtraining or only for lifters taking steroids, to those people I can only say, try it for yourselves.
Squatting frequently will add muscle to your legs quickly but those squatting solely for muscle gain will do well squatting two to three times per week. This isn’t to say that more isn’t better, only that you need enough energy to give to each muscle group.
For General Fitness and Appearance
If you just want to tone up your legs then you’re looking for the minimum dose needed get you to your goal. Training with heavy weights a few times per week works well for this. Three sets of three performed three times per week takes up very little time and will produce the desired effect.
Squats can be added to improve performance in a number of sports. Strength programming can add power and stability to track and field athletes, footballers and other athletes. Front squats are more appropriate for most athletes.
Assistance Exercises for the Squat
The best way to squat well is to squat properly and regularly but there are a few helpful exercises too.
In my opinion, the very best exercise for bringing up your back squat. Second only to the back squat itself. I’ve added thirty kilograms to my back squat in the past by not back squatting for months and it was front squats that did it.
Pause squats are tough but effective for building strength out of the hole. Your pause should either be rock bottom in your squat or an inch above parallel for best results. Pause for three seconds.
Continuous Squat (Squat with Bounce)
To be used carefully, this squat variation teaches you how to use the stretch reflex to get over the movements sticking points and achieve higher numbers.