The squat is an essential movement for leg strength and power, it will also shape your butt and thighs, work your core muscles and reduce body fat. In fact you could say that squats should be a vital part of any exercise regime!
This is an update and revision of an earlier blog I posted on the Back Squat. I feel that this update covers more than just the Back Squat, it also goes further into why we should all squat and the benefits gained from this exercise.
The Squat is probably one of the most important strength and mobility exercises we can do. The squat is a fundamental movement pattern that we actually do well as a child but lose the ability to do as an adult. The main reason for this being that we just stopped doing it, we used chairs instead!
The variations of the squat and ability to scale this essential movement make it a must-have in one form or another in every and any training programme.
It involves hip and knee flexion and extension utilising most of the lower limb and core/torso musculature including the back extensors, glutes, hamstrings, quads and adductors; providing strength, size, shape and conditioning depending on how it’s programmed.
There have been thousands of blogs, articles, videos and workshops on the squat and its various derivatives.
However, what I would like to do here is to try and show you why we should squat, the benefits of squatting (whether for sport, strength or health & fitness) and how to programme squats into your workout so that you get the most from this awesome exercise.
“Make your squats work for you!”
Just to be clear, I am not going to discuss technique beyond how it impacts the muscles being worked. There are numerous excellent media on technique that can be accessed for free, just ensure it is a trusted site and that the information and exercise technique is high quality. Here are two links to previous blogs on the squat and it’s variations.
The squat in itself is thought of by many as fundamental, a foundation exercise that should be part of any training or exercise routine. How many times have you heard people talking about “leg day” and that they know they should squat but don’t as it’s too hard! That should tell you something about the nature of the exercise and the challenge it brings too. Squats are hard, of that there is no doubt; but they are worth the effort and when done right the gains are great.
“Leg day isn’t leg day without squats!”
However, squats don’t need to be hard. We can all squat in one way or another, some of us just need to start at the beginning again. Stretching, mobility work, and ensuring that strength is balanced across the muscles used. I often start my clients’ squat programme without even squatting, then once they do squat it’s only at bodyweight.
Opening up the hips, stretching the calf muscles and increasing ankle mobility will help with squat depth and position, stretching the hamstrings, glutes and adductors will help to prevent the hips tucking under thus putting pressure on the lower back, lengthening the hip flexor muscles will help to stop the pelvis getting pulled into forward rotation.
What are the variations of the squat and how can it be scaled? The two main barbell squats are Front & Back Squat, from there we can go to overhead and split variations too. Kettlebells and Dumbells are also often used for beginners, circuits and in classes to do Goblet Squats, Split Squats/Overhead Split Squats and other similar variations. The Squat and Split Squat (different to the lunge), Single Leg and Bulgarian Squat can all be done at bodyweight (no external load).
So how can we manipulate the squat to change the way it works for us? The main variables we can change are the repetition range, the number of sets, the load lifted, the rest period, the foot/knee position and the cadence or speed of the repetition.
The following paragraphs will outline in general the benefits gained for the variables being manipulated. This doesn’t take into account an individual’s training history or training age which should be considered when applying the following information. Please remember these are typical programmes and I accept there are many other effective methods that are not covered here.
“Get the most from your squats.”
Strength: If strength is your main training goal then working with a higher percentage of your maximum lift for medium to low reps and multiple sets will work i.e. 5 x 5, 4 x 4 or even 5 x 3 or you may try a 5, 3, 1 programme. Establishing your 1 rep max effort is essential to truly maximise your strength potential as it has been shown that training with loads of 85% up to 100% of your 1 rep max will provide the best gains in strength.
This training is intense training, probably not for beginners, and should be periodised appropriately to maximise progression and minimise injury risk and burn out. Never sacrifice technique for load when increasing the weight on the bar! Working with a coach or Personal Trainer will also help to maximise potential, reduce injury risk and ensure that your technique is sound.
It should be noted that a novice trainer or someone who has a younger training age will gain strength from almost any strength-based programme no matter the sets or reps.
Size: If size gains or hypertrophy are the goals then manipulating the sets and reps a little will certainly achieve this. Following a strength-based programme could certainly elicit size gains, however, to ensure a chance of maximising your efforts to gain size using squats you will need to increase the overall volume and to exhaust the muscles to stimulate growth i.e. 5 x 12, 6 x 8 or even consider the German Volume Programme and brave 10 x 10! For experienced trainers, one all-out maximum effort set will also work as this will potentially provide enough stimulus for growth and strength gains.
Shape: Many people train to look better, have clothes fit them better and to give confidence. Along with many other exercises, the squat when done appropriately will give great shape to your legs; hips, thighs and glutes. Typically areas many people aren’t happy with for one reason or another.
Whether building up muscle to shape “skinny” thighs or using the squat as part of a weight-loss programme to reduce body fat and gain muscle to “shape and tone” the squat really is a multi-purpose exercise. The permutations on using a squat in this scenario are almost endless and as such I will say that you should just squat rather than give you any specific sets or reps.
What I will say is that a squat with a wider foot stance and knees tracking wide over the toes will for most people engage and work their glutes to a greater extent, this is sometimes referred to as a “Sumo squat’ position. The squat uses a lot of muscle and whether strength training or toning it will boost your metabolism and help you to burn more calories even after your training session has finished.
Conditioning: The squat uses a lot of muscle, pretty much every muscle in the lower limbs and torso. This makes the squat an excellent exercise to be used as part of a conditioning programme either in isolation or as part of a circuit. Try completing 5 to 8 sets of 8 squats at approximately 50% of your maximum load starting on the minute every minute and see how hard you are breathing at the end!
“Work hard at your squats and enjoy the results!”
Squat as deep as you safely can keeping your form strict, squat often and get the results you are after. They’re hard work and will work you hard but are definitely worth the effort whatever the results you are after. I hope this has provided some help, reassurance, guidance and motivation to squat more!
Check out my blog post with these home exercise equipment options too!
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