THE SQUAT EXPLAINED
I can safely say that anyone who goes to the gym or has followed some kind of health program, has either done, seen somebody do it, or at least heard of this exercise. Why is this exercise so popular? What are the real benefits of the squat? How do you perform a squat properly, what to avoid and what types of squat are there? I woud like to give you a comprehensive guide, tips and hopefully some new perspective on this exercise.
What is the squat.
The squat is a so called 'compound exercise' which is an exercise involving movement in more than one joint, in this case the hip joint, knees and ankles. Although it primarily targets the lower body consider this exercise to be a full body exercise because of the amount of muscle groups involved in the upper body aiding to be able to perform this exercise. It comes in many forms, but basically it is any exercise that involves 'squatting down'. Squatting is a functional exercise because it mimics movement you actually make in every day live and can benefit you in that manner as well as improving performance in other sports.
Muscles targeted by the squat.
Squatting really is a full body exercise Your lower body does most of the work to squat the weight. But your abs and lower back muscles must stabilize your torso while your upper-body balances the bars. Squats nearly work your whole body from head to toe. This is why squatting is very effective for gaining overall strength and muscle and has great potential as a fat burning exercise, you spend an enormous amount of energy when you squat.
-Legs and glutes(butt). Your legs bend when you squat. Everything straightens at the top, this works your quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors and glutes. The Squat is a great exercise to build strong, muscular legs and a firm butt.
-Calves. Your shins are incline at the bottom of your squat, they end up vertical at the top. This ankle movement works your main calf muscles: your gastrocnemius and soleus.
-Lower Back. Gravity pulls the bar down when you squat. Your lower back must resist this downward force to keep your spine neutral and safe. This strengthens the muscles on the back of your spine which protects it against injury: your erector spinae.
-Abdominal muscles. Your abdominal muscles help your lower back muscles to keep your spine neutral when you squat. The rectus abdominis, the external and internal oblique and transverse abdominal.
-Arms. Even your arms assist your upper-back muscles to balance the bar on your back. Your hands squeeze the bar which increases tension in your forearms and upper-arms. You get some isometric arm work.
Lower body anatomy showing the primary movers(agonists).
Why you should squat.
Squatting can bring with a lot of health benefits if done regularly and correctly, different goals require a different approach. Your coach can help you in the direction you want to go. Most importantly, do this exercise with intensity and intent (as you should with any exercise). The rewards can be many and will be there for you to reap. Below you will find a list of the most important potential health benefits, not in any particular order.
1. Increased strength. Strength is your ability to move your body against an external resistance. When you squat gravity pulls you and added resistance(weight) down. Your muscles must generate force against gravity to control your body weight and any added resistance on the way down and squat it back up. Increase your squat strength and you increase the strength of your muscles. This strength carries over to daily life and sports(functional strength).
2. Increased aesthetics. As stated before, squatting works a a lot of muscle. All these muscles work at the same time to balance and squat the weight. If you squat regularly and are able to add resistance over time your muscles will get bigger, this is crucial is your goal is of an aesthetic nature (even just toning muscles means you have to increase muscle mass).
3. Increased hormonal output and efficiency, which in turn promotes the ability to grow muscles as well as delaying the loss of lean muscle mass which unfortunately already starts when you're over 25 years old. Lifting weights in general lowers cholesterol, improves glucose metabolism, improves insulin response and so on.
4. Burns fat. Your muscles burn energy to lift weight. Squats burn a lot of energy because they work many muscles and with potentially a lot of weight. Heavy squats also increase your metabolism for hours post workout. Because of the versatility of this exercise it can be easily be incorporated in many kinds of fitness programs, such a High Intensity Training and Metabolic Resistance Training. When you combine this with proper nutrition, squats will help you getting leaner.
5.Increased stamina. Squatting can be a great exercise to increase stamina it raises your heart rate very very quickly because it requires an enormous amount of oxygen to perform.This in turn increases your cardiovascular and pulmonary efficiency(depending on resistance you use, the number of repetitions you make and rest between sets and usually as part of larger workout program)
6.Increased explosive power. Explosiveness is your ability to generate force fast. Stronger legs can do more work in the same amount of time. The more work you can do in any given time, the more power you have. Squats can build explosiveness for sports by increasing power. If you squat explosively you will condition yourself for speed and strength (jump squats for example). They don’t make you slow for sports, they can make you faster and jump higher.
7. Improved skeletal strength. If you squat with an olympic bar for example, the weight of that bar compresses anything under it . Your bones are living tissue (they heal if they break) which react to this vertical compression by getting stronger (the muscles deliver any kind of tensile strength). Squats can actually increase the density of your bones. They make them stronger and less likely to break. This protects you against falls and osteoporosis.
8. Improved joint health. Squats strengthen the muscles around your knee joints, hip joints, ankle joints, spine and so on. It also strengthens your tendons and connective tissues. This creates support for your joints and spine. It protects them against injuries. And it can help you recover from lower back or knee pain. The key is to squat with proper form so you strengthen your joints instead of stressing them.
9. Increased flexibility. Most people who squat for the first time realize they’re inflexible because they haven’t squatted below parallel for years. Squats will not make you inflexible because you must be flexible to squat. Squatting each week moves your legs through a full range of motion. This promotes proper hip, knee and ankle flexibility.
10. Improved Balance. Squats train you to balance yourself and any added wight while your body moves. This improves your balance and coordination. It also increases your ability to feel your body move through space (proprioception). squats can make you better at sports and learning new skills. Free weights squats are best for this purpose.
11. Builds discipline. An indirect and much overlooked benefit, but the fact is squats are hard to do. Doing hard things, even when you don’t feel like it, trains the muscle between your ears: your mind. This builds discipline and mental fortitude which is very important to get results in the gym. This can carry over into other area's of your life, like sticking to good nutrition habits, going to bed on time, doing the work, and so on. Squats build discipline.
How to perform the squat.
I will use the back squat as an example because it is the most basic form and most of it's principals apply to other squat forms, also it would be a bit much to describe every form of squat in detail. Squat in the power rack for maximum safety you'll have to use an Olympic barbell (It’s the long and heavy one: 2m20 and 20kg). Set the horizontal safety pins so they can catch the bar if you fail. Always consult your gym personnel or your coach before trying any exercise, using any equipment or when in doubt, a mistake made can cause serious injury!
1. Setup. Face the bar. Grab it tight with a medium grip, slightly wider than shoulder width. Put it on your upper-back by dipping under the bar. Raise your chest.
2. Unrack. Move your feet under the bar. Unrack it by straightening your legs. Step back with straight legs. Lock your hips and knees (without hyper extending them).
3. Squat. Take a big breath, hold it and squat down. Push your knees out while moving your hips back. Keep your lower back neutral.
4. Break Parallel. Squat down until your hips are below your knees. Thighs parallel to the floor isn’t low enough. You must break parallel.
5. Squat Up. Break parallel then squat back up. Keep your knees out and chest up. Lock your hips and knees at the top. Breathe.
Don’t try to Squat the bar straight into the uprights. You could miss them. Finish your set first by holding the bar with locked hips and knees (be sure not to overextend)at the top. Then walk forward until the bar hits the vertical parts of your Power Rack. Your feet will be right under the bar. Now Squat down by bending your legs. The bar will land safely into the uprights.
Squat form and technical basics.
Your build determines how proper squat form looks like for you. The wider your shoulders are, the wider your grip should be. If you have a short torso with long thigh, you’ll lean more forward than people with a long torso and short thighs. Don’t try to squat like someone else does unless you have the same build. Follow these general squat form guidelines instead and individualize them as you gain experience.
-Stance. Squat with your heels shoulder-width apart. Put your heels under your shoulders.
-Feet. Turn your feet out 30°. Keep your whole foot flat on the floor. Don’t raise your toes or heels.
-Knees. keep your knees in the direction of your feet.
-Hips. Bend your hips and knees at the same time. Move your hips back and down while moving your knees out.
-Lower Back. Squat with a natural arch like when you stand. No rounding or excess arching. Keep your back neutral.
-Grip. Squeeze the bar hard. But don’t try to support heavy weight with your hands. Let your upper-back carry the bar.
-Grip Width. Use a medium grip, narrower than when you Bench Press. Your hands should be outside your shoulders.
-Bar Position. Put the bar between your traps and rear shoulders (low bar) or on your traps (high bar). Center the bar.
-Wrists. Your wrists will bend and hurt if you try to support the bar with your hands. Carry it with your upper-back.
-Elbows. Behind your torso at the top, not vertical or horizontal. Inline with your torso at the bottom of your Squat.
-Upper-back. Arch your upper-back to create support for the bar. Squeeze your shoulder-blades and raise your chest.
-Chest. Raise your chest before you unrack the bar. Keep it up and tight by taking a big breath before you Squat down.
-Head. Keep your head inline with your torso. Don’t look at the ceiling or at your feet. Don’t turn your head sideways.
-Back Angle. Not vertical or horizontal but diagonal. The exact back angle depends on your build and bar position.
-Un-Rack. Put the bar on your back and your feet under the bar. Unrack it by straightening your legs. Walk back.
-Way Down. Bend your hips and knees at the same time. Hips back, knees out. Keep your lower back neutral.
-Depth. Squat down until your hips are lower than your knees. Thighs parallel isn’t enough. Break parallel.
-Way Up. Move you hips straight up. Keep your knees out, your chest up and your head neutral.
-Between Reps. Stand with your hips and knees locked. Breathe. Get tight for the next rep.
-Re-Rack. Lock your hips and knees. Then step forward, hit the rack and bend your knees.
-Bar Path. Move the bar in a vertical line over your mid-foot. No horizontal movement.
-Breathing. Big breath at the top. Hold it at the bottom. Exhale at the top.
How deep should you squat.
-Squat down until your hips are below your knees. This moves your body through a full range of motion. It strengthens your leg muscles evenly. Thighs parallel to the floor isn’t low enough. You must break parallel so the top of your knees is higher than your hip crease. If you can’t squat parallel, put your heels shoulder-width apart and toes 15 till 30° out. Now squat while keeping your knees to the sides over your feet. You’ll be able to squat deeper.
-Partial squats. A lot of people only Squat a quarter or half the way down. You can squat more weight. But partial squats primarily work your quadriceps (and not even all of it). They don’t strengthen your hamstrings and glutes. Many people think partial squats are safer. But they create muscle imbalances which actually can cause injuries.
-Full squats aka squatting 'Ass-to-the-Grass' This involves squatting down until your butt touches your ankles. This works your muscles through a greater range of motion. However most people lack the flexibility to squat deep without their back rounding. I recommend you break parallel then stop. No need to squat deeper to gain strength and muscle unless you have a specific goal (weight lifters use this technique to aid their lifts).
Squats are perfectly safe as long as you adhere to the safety guidelines for any equipment you are using, use proper form and don't have any prior history of injuries. Having said that any exercise done incorrectly can be very dangerous especially squats. This is because the load can be very high and when things go wrong the potential for serious injury is there. Don't be afraid to do them but use common sense and proper form. Below some important tips you can apply to assure proper form, effectiveness and mitigate risk.
-Turn your feet out 30°. Point your knees in the same direction. Squat down by moving your knees and hips at the same time. Move your hips back and down while bending and moving your knees out. If you do it right, your knees will move the first half of the Squat and then stay where they are. Your hips will finish your squat and carry most of the weight. Squat by bending your knees and hips at the same time. Move your hips back like sitting on a toilet.
-Your lower back must always stay neutral, maintain a natural arch in your lower back like when you stand. Keep the bar over your mid-foot. Failing to maintain your spine neutral is dangerous. Rounding your lower back or hyper-extending your back is dangerous. The former squeezes the front of your spinal discs, the latter the back part, both can cause herniated discs.
-Don’t let the bar move over your forefoot or it will pull you forward and out of balance.
-Failing reps safely. If you really push yourself and you can sometimes end up failing a repetition. How should you handle this with squat? Squat in the power rack and you won’t get stuck under the bar. Power racks have horizontal safety pins to catch the weight if you fail, these pins are adjustable. Set them lower than your bottom position of your squat so you don’t hit them on good reps. If you fail to squat the weight, lower it on the pins by Squatting back down. Practice without any added weight (bar only) so you get a feel for it. Even if you use a spotter(pick a good one, properly spotting squats is not easy), use the power rack.
Most common squat variations.
Below a list of the most common squat variations, some are better suited for strength, other for balance or explosiveness. Pick a variation (or several variations) that is best suited for your personal goals. Experiment with different forms if you wish, variety is a key factor in any successful program.
-Back squat – the bar is held on the back of the body at the base of the neck or lower across the upper back. In powerlifting the barbell is often held in a lower position in order to create a lever advantage, while in weightlifting it is often held in a higher position which produces a posture closer to that of the clean and jerk. These variations are called low bar and high bar, respectively
-Front squats. Front squats are squats where the weight rests on your front shoulders. Your torso is more vertical to keep the bar balanced over your mid-foot. Your knees come more forward and your shins end more incline than on a back squat. But your hips move less back. Olympic weight lifters front squat because this movement is part of the squat clean. Bodybuilders also often front squat to target their quads but using a cross-arm grip.
-Dumbbell squats. Dumbbell Squats are squats with dumbbells(surprisingly). Hold the dumbbells by your side, you can use an elevation(step) to stand on, or the dumbbells might hit the floor before you can break parallel. This feels very different as your center of gravity is lower, try to keep as upright as possible.
-Box squat. At the bottom of the motion the squatter will sit down on a bench or other type of support then rise again.
-Sumo squat. The barbell is rested on the shoulders in the usual squat position. The legs are wider than shoulder width apart and the feet should be pointed outwards. when squatting, you should feel a stretch on the adductor muscles which are found on the inner thigh.
-Overhead squat. The barbell(or any type of weight) is held overhead, normally in a wide-arm (snatch) grip; however, it is also possible to use a closer grip if balance allows.
-Split squat. Is an assisted one-legged squat where the non-lifting leg is rested on the ground a few 'steps' behind the lifter (You could arguably call this a static lunge).
-Bulgarian squat – performed much like a split squat, but the foot of the non-lifting leg is rested on a knee-high platform behind the lifter.
-Jump squat. The squatter engages in a rapid eccentric contraction and jumps forcefully off the floor at the top of the range of motion.
-Pistol squat. A single leg squat done to full depth, while the other leg is extended off the floor. Usually done with just the body weight, sometimes dumbbells, kettlebells or medicine balls are added for resistance.
Standing overhead squat performed with fitness ball.
If you want to develop your lower body, get stronger, quicker or more explosive power, the squat is a great exercise to help you. In fact there really is no substitute. Adding one or more forms of squat to your routine will help you with all of these. Not all squat forms are suited every goal, when in doubt consult your coach (common sense will get you a long way though). The same really applies for the amount of sets and rep ranges you should do. If you're still in doubt you should also consider the other possible benefits mentioned. In fact there's no good reason not to squat, except for existing injuries or any fysical limitations you may have. Using the right squat technique is paramount though as with any exercise, not only for effectiveness but also for health and safety reasons. There's not much left to say really, so shut up and squat!