Nine Rules For Mastering The Squat For Leaner, Stronger Legs
The squat. That wondrous exercise that will make everything about your life better:
• Stronger, leaner legs
• Better movement patterns
• Chiseled, bulletproof abs
• Faster speed and greater jumping ability
• Better fitting clothes
• Less chance of knee and back pain or dysfunction
• Greater flexibility in the lower body
• Confidence in your physical capacities and a strong identity
Squats can serve as the “engine” for optimal health and peak performance. They can anchor or drive your training, and a good squat workout will keep you honest about your health and fitness.
You can’t cheat a heavy barbell squat, whether it’s a back squat in the rack, a squat with chains, or a front split squat! Squats, when done correctly, make you better every single day—even on the hard days when your numbers go down or you just can’t wait to rack the bar and walk away. Those hard days are the ones that make a difference.
Now, not to bore you, but technique is paramount when it comes to squats. A glance at the squat rack in any commercial gym shows that people are still confounded about how and why to squat. In this article, we blast through the lies and misconceptions to identify nine rules for mastering the squat.
#1: Don't Be Afraid of Squats: Everyone Should Do Some Form of Squats
If you think squatting is not for you, think again! The squat motion is a fundamental movement in human life that cannot be avoided if you are a free moving being. You squat many times a day even if you don’t train squats as an exercise: You squat when you sit down in a chair, when you pick stuff up of the ground, and when you get in and out of the car.
If you don’t perform this motion properly, you will put repetitive strain on your knees and back. In fact it’s a good bet that poor squatting technique and lack of posterior strength is a primary cause of the high rate of back and knee pain in the western world.
#2: There Is Not One Superior Form Of Squats
Just because everyone should squat, does not mean that one single kind of squat is superior. Sure, the barbell back squat is an excellent exercise, but it’s not the be-all end-all of squats. Split squats, Bulgarian split squats, single-leg squats, body weight squats, barbell front and back squats, jump squats, vibration squats—they’re all marvelous.
The key is to identify which type of squats is best for you to help you reach your goals. For example, split squats tend to be appropriate for most people starting to train because they build strength throughout the legs and core, while developing flexibility needed to progress to a bilateral squat down the road.
Front squats are ideal for athletes who need an impressive vertical jump, or simple need to accelerate vertically, as in the case of ski jumpers. Barbell back squats are a useful tool for every athlete because they increase rate of force development and power, but they aren’t necessarily the most worthwhile lift for folks who just want to look good and move with ease.
#3: Full Squats Are Essential—Stronger Knees & Back
Full squats in which you go all the way down below parallel are the way to go. This is the case for single and double let squats alike. A common and very unfortunate misconception is that full squats will hurt your knees or back. Not so!
Concern that squatting below parallel comes from the misperception that it is bad for the knee to travel over the toes. This supposedly puts excessive shear force on the knee—but it is not true.
In fact, your knee travels forward over the toes any time you walk up and down the stairs. Your musculature is extremely well designed to handle deep knee bends and the knee-over-the-toes motion if done correctly because the tendons and muscles strengthen and adapt with use. Note that our hunter-gatherer ancestors performed deep knee bends regularly in daily life and would even “sit” in a deep squat to rest since they did not have chairs.
In addition, movement analyses of cadavers shows that the greatest shear force on the knee is at the start of the squat when you initiate the bend of the knee. The force in the lowest quarter of a full squat places much less force on the knee, but maximally trains your glute muscles for better looking legs from behind.
Finally, a new review from Germany found that concerns about degenerative changes to the knee joint that are associated with a high risk of chondromalacia, osteoarthritis, and knee pain from deep squats are unfounded.
The authors write that heavy half and quarter squat training “will favor degenerative changes in the knee joints and spinal joints in the long term” because of incomplete loading through the full range-of-motion. They tell us to do heavy full squats instead.
#4: Do Squats For A Better Physique & Leaner Waist
Contrary to popular belief, squats will not widen the hips. Full squats do require a lot of effort that can help you burn fat for slimmer hips and a better physique, but they certainly will not make your hips wider. In fact, the squat works the gluteus maximus that grows back, not out when it develops because neither the insertion nor origin of this muscle attaches at the hips.
Wide hips no, a firm rounded booty? Yes!
#5: Don’t Let Lack of Flexibility Keep You From Squatting—Modify Your Squats
Good technique makes all the difference when it comes to squats. Proper form will allow you to do body weight squat movements with ease. Doubt me?
Think of little kids playing. They are some of the best squatters—imagine a 3-year-old bending down to look at a bug. A kid won’t hinge at the hip in a good morning motion or just go part way down in a half squat. They go all the way down into a full squat with their torso upright and rear down near their socks. How do they do it?
Flexibility. Lack of hip flexibility is a primary cause of unsightly squat form, but lack of ankle motion is just as common and problematic. For example, a recent study showed that when skilled trainees who had proper squat form did a body weight squat on a wedge board (the slant faced towards the subject) that restricted their ankle range-of-motion by 12 degrees, their technique fell apart. Their knees caved in by an average of 16 percent, and quad muscle activity decreased significantly.
These findings demonstrate how tight calves or ankle inflexibility cause squat technique problems that put you at risk of injury. Such impediments will alter everyday movement like walking up and down the stairs since tight calves cause the shin to stay closer to vertical as you go up and down. This decreases the ability of the lower limb to track properly.
Solve these issues with a few modifications:
• Do front foot-elevated split squats to increase the range-of-motion (ROM) and promote balance through the lower body musculature.
• Do bilateral squats standing on a wedge board with the slant facing away from you in order to plantarflex the ankle, increasing the ROM for better technique.
• Try foam rolling and mobility exercises for tight joints—this was effective to increase ROM in the exercise intervention described in #6.
#6: Do A Variety of Squats to Prevent Knee Pain & ACL Tears
A new study shows that squat training as part of an exercise intervention can help prevent knee pain in everyday folks and decrease risk of ACL tears in athletes. Researchers found that a 10-session squat training program improved knee motion, allowing for less “caving inward” during a bilateral squat test.
In addition to unilateral and bilateral squats, the intervention used foam rolling, hamstring curls, heel raises, and exercises for the tibialis muscles. Ankle ROM improved and strengthened the hip musculature, resulting in a 5 degree reduction in knee valgus (the caving in motion) that equaled a 64 percent improvement.
#7: Varied Squats Give You Stronger, Leaner Legs
By now, you know full squats are essential, whether the goal is strength, hypertrophy, leanness, or performance. However, if you’re advanced and you want to focus on muscle growth and maximal strength, adding partial squats to your training can allow you to handle much heavier loads. For instance, an illuminating new study from Norway compared the effect of 12 weeks of deep squats to 120 degrees with partial squats trained to 60 degrees of knee flexion.
Results showed interesting outcomes: The full squats led to a 20 percent increase in maximal strength in both squat ranges compared to the partial squats that increased strength by 9 percent for a full squat and 36 percent in the partial motion. The full squat group increased muscle mass in the legs by 2 percent compared to 1.5 percent increase in the partial squat group.
Measurements of muscle cross-sectional area showed that because partial squats allowed trainees to lift much higher loads, partial may be useful for growing the adductor muscles. Full squats are best for growing the quads since there were significant gains in the front thigh musculature in the study.
Bottom Line: Deep squats are a tried and true lift that everyone should strive to train. They are a super bang for your buck exercise that will build strength and size. Partials and other variations, such as one-and-a-quarter squats, can cause even greater muscle and strength gains for the experienced lifter—use ‘em wisely.
#8: Use Full Squats For Greater Jump Height & Speed
Full squats are critical for basic athletic skills: In the Norwegian study mentioned in #7, vertical jump height increased by 13 percent in the deep squat group compared to 7 percent in the partial squat group. A second study from Germany showed that a 10-week deep back squat program led to an 8 percent increase in vertical jump compared to a quarter squat training group that experienced no increase in jump height.
A noteworthy outcome of this study was that participants in the quarter-squat group were at risk of collapsing at the thoracic spine before the strength in the quadriceps could become a limiting factor. Of course, intelligent real-life training would target weaknesses in the upper back, while including full squats as a staple lift, adding partials and advanced techniques when appropriate.
#9: Full Squats Make You Super Human: Full-Range Best For PAP
An exciting new study shows full squats increase post-activation potential (PAP) more than partials. For instance, PAP, which is when an athlete does a near-maximal effort exercise to “prime” the muscles for enhanced performance, is best achieved with full-range lifts.
Researchers had professional rugby players do a 3 RM squat (either full or partial), and then 5 minutes later they a countermovement vertical jump. The full squat group increased jump height significantly more than the partial squat group, gaining 4.6 cm in jump height compared to 3.5 cm. Peak power, flight time, and impulse were all greater in the full squat group.
Researchers explain that the full squat increases the hip joint angle, resulting in a more stretched gluteus maximus, and recruiting more motor units. This increases the stimulus (excitation potential) for greater force and power output. Try using PAP for true super human performance.