Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for the proclamation that form follows function. He was referring to architecture, but his words ring as true fur the human body. Your form in many exercises will determine the precise training effect you receive, and therefore the functional capacity and appearance of the affected muscles. The same holds true for squatting.
How you squat (reps, sets, speed, frequency, load, technique) will affect your legs in different but predictable ways. That the guesswork has been taken out of squatting technique isn’t generally known, considering the incredible array of squatting styles and beliefs that persist around the world of iron. Even many orthopedic specialists continue to insist that squatting is bad for your knees, back, hips or whatever. Their arguments are often very convincing, given the growing number of patients they see with bad knees from exercising improperly.
That’s the kicker: Squats, perhaps more than any other exercise, must be done properly. So much weight is used in the squat, and in such a precarious way (knees and spines are fragile), that injury often seems an inevitability of squat training. But injury need never occur if some simple rules are applied. Just as important, the benefits you’ll derive far outweigh the risk of injury.
In case you didn’t know it, there are at least 10 different methods of squatting, each with its own unique advantages. And, in the case of competitive powerlifting, so many squatting styles exist that it’s impossible to list them all. Each powerlifting technique is designed to maximize the user’s individual strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.
But before I begin to talk about each style, let’s look at the general benefits of squatting. Let’s also examine some of the pitfalls that can make your training agonizingly dangerous and counterproductive, and learn the ways to avoid them.
The nay-saying orthopedists and other folks who advise against squatting base their concerns upon gross misinformation. You see, most of them have either never been under heavy iron or never worked with well-trained athletes. Therefore they couldn’t possibly know how valuable squats can be. Their response to that statement is typically, “You don’t have to jump off a bridge to be able to predict accurately what’s going to happen to your body if you do.”
Extending their concern to squats, they point to all of the catastrophic knee, hip and soft-tissue injuries they see among weight trainees (most of whom are ignorant of sound training practice). They’ve apparently never looked at X-rays of athletes who have squatted properly for years, or dissected cadavers of former weight trainees, searching for signs of stress adaptation. Had they done so, it would have been clear that:
- Muscles are strengthened far beyond the norm, making injury far less likely, and performance increases more likely;
- Bones are strengthened, both in density as well as in improved strength of ligamentous and tendinous insertion points, making injury far less likely;
- Ligaments and tendons (connective tissue) are increased in thickness, viscoelasticity and tensile strength, making injury far less likely.
Some athletes (notably powerlifters and a few others) do heavy squats to develop great strength. These athletes gain the benefits listed above. But most competitive sports are inherently dangerous. You have to play all-out to win. And sometimes the nature of competition results in injury. Many power-lifters do in fact suffer from arthritis after their competitive careers end. And the cause is often too many heavy squats done during their competitive years.
For these indomitable souls, I make no apologies or excuses; they paid the price of athletic glory. Besides arthritis, bone spurs, calcium deposits, torn cartilage, bursitis and a host of other stress injuries often plague them long into retirement. That, unfortunately, is the nature of competitive sport, pushing your body to points beyond normal limits for the sake of a record performance. Most who suffer such post-career ailments would never have changed anything! They went into sport with open eyes, knowing the inherent dangers.
Even these competitors could have avoided most of their problems, however, with some proper guidance on both technique as well as on training methods. Such post career trauma (often of near-crippling intensity) can be avoided.
No, those who recommend against squatting never recognize the vast majority of bodybuilders and other weight trainees who have benefited greatly from squats. They see only those who come to their clinics with problems; the healthy people go unnoticed. Healthy athletes, you see, don’t go to the doctor much.
There are many different types of machines on the market today that minimize inherent dangers associated with putting a heavy chunk of iron on your back and descending into a full squat position. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask, ‘Why squat?”
Leg press machines, hack squat machines, leg curl machines, leg extension machines, in/out thigh machines (the list is long) all have their place in most bodybuilders’ training regimens. But none can replace the excellent intensity afforded by squats. This intensity is essential for complete development of the legs, for strength, power and endurance as well as appearance.
There must be balance between the extent to which you isolate a muscle and the amount of intensity applied. Too much isolation and the muscle is placed at such a leverage disadvantage that little weight and therefore little stress is applied. Of course, this situation diminishes overall training effect. On the other hand, resorting to the use of compound exercises (exercises that involve several muscle groups) often robs the target muscle of needed stress because the stress is absorbed by the other muscle groups.
Squatting properly with upright torso, knees extending over the feet, and to a position near or below parallel, centralizes the majority of the stress in the quadriceps. The hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae receive some stress too, but not enough to rob the quads of major effect.
There’s nothing wrong with compound exercises — providing the target muscle is positioned to be the weakest link in the chain. You ensure this by adjusting your technique accordingly. Because the target muscle is the weakest muscle acting in the movement, it receives overload stress. The others receive less than overload stress and are relatively unaffected.
Squatting properly ensures that the quads will receive overload stress to an extent that no other exercise can afford.
HOW TO SQUAT
There are four essential reasons for squatting: muscular size, strength, power or endurance. Each requires a different approach, and an array of different squatting techniques.
Leg size:The Weider holistic bodybuilding approach to squatting is best applied for improved muscular size of the upper leg. Variation is the key. You should perform your squats with something close to the following approach:
1) Heavy weights (85% 1RM) for 4- 6 reps, 3-4 sets.
2) Moderate weights (75-80% 1RM) for 10-15 reps, 3-4 sets.
3) Light weights (50-60% 1RM) for up to 40 reps, 3-4 sets.
The heavy sets should be performed with compensatory acceleration, moving the weight out of the hole as fast as possible every inch of the way up, but “putting on the brakes” near the top of the movement to avoid throwing yourself off balance. This will ensure maximum effect upon the fast-twitch fibers, and also provide high quality overload for every rep, maximizing myofibrillar growth.
The moderate weights should be moved with both compensatory acceleration as well as with controlled, rhythmical cadence. One or two sets of each technique is recommended. This will help both red (slow-twitch) and white (fast-twitch) fibers achieve maximal myofibrillar growth as well as sarcoplasmic and mitochondrial proliferation.
The light weights should be handled with slow, continuous tension movements, never pausing at the top or bottom of the squat. The continuous tension provides improved capillarization to the muscle cells (bringing in more oxygenated blood), and maximum growth (in both size and number) of the mitochondria in the muscle cells.
Bodybuilders who try this approach consistently tell me that they feel like they’ve never really worked their legs before. The effect is that profound. Be prepared for the workout of your life.
Leg strength and power:Myofibrillar growth is the most important component in improving your leg strength, since it’s the myofibrils of your muscle cells that deliver the contractile force. But for power (the ability to deliver strength with explosive speed) you need more than just high-tension exercise. I’ve found that both can be achieved through the application of compensatory acceleration. Then, through a six-week peaking period, leg strength and power can be brought to a maximum and held for a short period (perhaps as long as one month). Your white (fast-twitch) fibers are the central target.
These are the keys to building leg strength and power:
1) Heavy weights (80-85% 1RM) for 5-8 reps, 4-5 sets using compensatory acceleration on every rep during off-season training.
2) Follow a six-week peaking program to maximize strength and power.
3) Agility, explosiveness and body control drills are imperative in any leg strength/power program, and should be done both off-season and preseason. Step three is important, and can aptly be illustrated with an analogy: What’s the sense of coming off the line like a shot from a cannon if the guy in front of you can simply sidestep out of harm’s way? Power isn’t enough in most sports. Agility and body control are also essential and require something more than squats can provide.
In powerlifting, however, strength and power suffice; the weight on your back isn’t going to play tricks on you. All you have to do to excel in power-lifting is to achieve massive strength and power.
Leg endurance. Many sports, including rowing, cycling and long-distance running, require high levels of muscular endurance in the legs. Bodybuilders, of course, require muscular endurance too, but more for the improved size and definition that aerobic exercise provides. For sheer endurance, the central cellular targets are the extensiveness of the blood supply (capillaries) and the efficiency of each cell’s oxygen uptake and utilization mechanisms, the mitochondria.
For leg endurance:
- Light weights (50-70% 1RM) for 20-40 reps, 3-4 sets using slow, continuous tension.
- Light weights (50-70% IRM) for 20-40 reps, 3-4 sets using high-speed compensatory acceleration movements.
- The accent should be on forcing yourself past the ‘ pain’ barrier that is felt with extreme fatigue, and on maintaining a high heart rate (generally above 60% of your maximum heart rate, which is computed by subtracting your age from 220 and then multiplying that number by .6).
MUSCLES & EXERCISES FOR SQUATTING
|MUSCLE EXERCISE OF PREFERENCE|
|Gluteus Maximus (PM)||Supine Leg Presses, Deep Squats*|
|Gluteus Medius (AM)||Supine Leg Presses, Deep Squats*|
|Leg Curls, Supine Leg Presses, Deep Squats*|
|Supine Leg Presses, Deep Squats*, Leg Extensions
|Erector Spinae Group (PM)||Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Bench Extensions, Good Mornings|
|*Deep Squats are done with bar high on trapezius and feet shoulder width; torso must remain erect!
PM – Prime Mover
A FEW HELPFUL HINTS
Foot Spacing: A myth persists that wide-stance squats develop the inner thighs (vastus medialis), while close stance squats develop the outer thigh (vastus lateralis). Well, “myth” may be a bit strong, but in all my years of training, I have never seen this happen to any noticeable degree. The quadriceps share a common tendon of insertion at the knee joint, making differential contracture from foot spacing either unlikely or minuscule in effect. My opinion is that you’ll do as well with a foot position that you’re comfortable with in squatting. Then you can apply a variety of squatting techniques to supplement your squats. Greater all-around leg development will result.
Type of bar: For the average fitness buff or bodybuilder, the kind of bar you use for squats will make little difference, so long as it’s sturdy and fitted with safety collars. However, for the behemoths among you, the bodybuilders, athletes and powerlifters who are using tonnage only dreamed of back when Olympic weightlifting was the only game in town, you’ll have to be a bit more careful about the bar you use. Your bar should not whip up and down excessively, as this can cause muscle tears or spinal injury from your being thrown off balance when stepping backward with the bar. Choose a sturdy bar, preferably one measuring at least 29 millimeters in diameter, and with center knurling to prevent the bar from slipping on your shoulders. The plates should fit on the bar loosely, and the collars should not clamp the plates tightly against the inside collars. Tight-fitting plates cause the bar to absorb the kinetic energy generated by walking backward, and it whips more. With loose-fitting plates, the rattling absorbs the energy, thereby preventing dangerous whipping.
Spotters: When I walk into a gym to get in a squat workout, most of the guys know what’s going to happen. “Oh, no! Hatfield’s here! He’s going to ask me to spot him!”
Well, they’re the breaks in the game, fellow iron heads. Gym etiquette dictates it, and I’d do the same for you. I can’t help it if it takes five of you. It’s amazing how many bad backs or torn muscles show up when I ask for assistance. Be a nice guy, won’t you? Help your gym partners when they need spotting assistance. It could be you who gets hurt from lack of adequate spotting.
Miscellaneous: You may find that wrist wraps help in holding the bar firmly on your back or shoulders. Weak wrists can cause the bar to slip. Also, heavy squatting can injure your wrists over a period of time by disrupting the carpal tunnel, the passage through the small wrist bones through which your hand’s nerves pass.
Your shoes should have strong lateral support to prevent rolling outward on your feet. Old, worn sneakers or bare feet are definitely not recommended when you’re squatting. They are, in fact, dangerous.
Maintain a clean, litter-free area for both yourself and your spotters. If you get in trouble, you want both you and your spotters to have a clear trackback to the rack.
Don’t wear belts, wraps or super suits when squatting with under 80% of your max. Doing so robs your support muscles and legs of needed stress that will force them to adapt. Personally, I don’t wear any supportive garb until I’m over 85% of my max. The whole point of training is to deliver adaptive stress to your body so it’ll get stronger, bigger or more enduring. Absorbing the stress with supportive garb is silly.
Once you get super heavy and that shouldn’t happen any more than 1-3 weeks before the end of a cycle you can don your support clothes. It’s safe to do so at that point. But not before.
As I mentioned earlier, there are several different methods of squatting. While regular, upright back squats should predominate — they deliver the best blend of intensity and isolation for maximum growth and development —there will be times that you’ll want to use other techniques.
For example, when I get stale from doing regular squats, or when my progress seems to wane, I change to front squats or heavy lunges. You may want to try other variations — the choice is largely personal rather than based on any precise criteria. There are, however, times when certain techniques are recommended over others, the most noteworthy being during injury. The accompanying photos show your options.
1. Power Squats: The object in competitive powerlifting is to lift as much weight as you can. When squatting, this is done by sharing the weight being hoisted with several muscle groups so that no single muscle ends up a weak link, thereby limiting your performance. The body position in powerlifting squats spreads the force to four major muscle groups: the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals and erector spinae. The erectors act primarily as torso stabilizers rather than important prime movers, whereas the glutes act only at the bottom of the squat, ending their function beyond the sticking point (roughly 30 degrees flexion). The hams and quads work throughout the squat.
2. High Bar Squats: The chief function of high bar squats is to affect the quadriceps, with less emphasis upon the glutes, hams and erectors. Thus, an upright torso and acute knee angle are called for.
3. Sissy Squats: The chief advantage of sissy squats is to get almost 100% isolation on the quads. Proponents of this method claim that they’re far more effective than leg extensions in providing a proper balance of isolation and intensity to the quads, although not as effective as high bar squats. Since little stress is placed on other muscles, sissy squats are an excellent alternative to regular squats if you have a back injury or other problems keeping you from squatting normally.
4. Jefferson Squats: All but forgotten, Jefferson squats remain a great alternative to regular squats when you have back, knee, hip or shoulder injuries that can detract from your leg training. The key is to keep an erect torso and to alternate the forward leg on subsequent sets.
5. Hack Squats: Like the sissy squats and Jefferson squats, hack squats are an excellent alternative to regular squats during times of injury. The great isolation provided the quads can be adjusted by foot placement (if a hack squat machine is used) or by knee/hip angles (if a barbell is used).
6. Front Squats: Front squats are a holdover from the old days when the Olympic weightlifters exerted their influence upon training techniques for bodybuilders. We’re talking 1930s and ’40s. It remains an excellent quad isolator, with reasonably good intensity to boot. A conventional Olympic grip or the cross-handed grip (depicted here) can be used.
7. Partial Squats: Partial squats require that extremely heavyweights he used because of the leverage advantage gained in the upper ranges of the squat movement. Thus, a belt is mandatory (to help stabilize the lumbar spine), and the exercise should be done inside a power rack for safety. Despite these important advantages, some strength coaches who are afraid of their athletes hurting their knees on deep squats still insist on partial movements. For the bodybuilder, partial squats should be used only sparingly. Probably during times of glute, hip or knee injury. For athletes, they afford little in the way of advantage, and much in the way of disadvantage owing to the inherent dangers. To make them truly effective, loads heavier than the spine can safely bear must be used. Still, they can be used, as with bodybuilders, as an alternative to regular squats during glute, hip or knee injury and rehabilitation. Just he extremely careful.
8. Front Lunges: When you think about it, front lunges are no different than regular squats, except that the emphasis is placed on one leg at a time: the front leg. The advantage is that groin flexibility is achieved at the same time front leg strength is being developed, and that’s good. The disadvantage, however, is that explosive movements (compensatory acceleration) cannot be safely exercised because of the precariousness of the position. The groin muscles are too easily pulled with explosive movements out of a split squat position.
9. Side Lunges: I’m surprised that more bodybuilders and other athletes don’t do side lunges. It’s probably because of lack of groin flexibility and the fact that side lunges require a hit more care in balance than do regular squats or lunges. Notwithstanding the caution required, side lunges exercise each leg separately, a practice that offers many of the same benefits that dumbbell training has over barbell training. Exercising one limb at a time allows you to exercise greater strength output by that limb than when both limbs operate at the same time. Therefore, overload is improved and thus training effect is also improved. Again, side lunges are more precarious than front lunges and make compensatory acceleration movements extremely difficult if not dangerous. Still, overall, side lunges are more effective than front lunges because the weight is centered directly over the leg. In front lunges, the front leg is in front of the weight source, and the force in standing back up is directed backward rather than straight up. This tends to minimize the adaptive stress being delivered to the quadriceps.