SQUATS: PART 1 – THE BASICS

In the 9 months since I’ve started this blog, the topic of squats has made an appearance in a couple posts (The 20-Rep Squat, Box Squats) but I have yet to write a post detailing my all-time favorite exercise, the single best exercise on the planet – The Barbell Back Squat.

This was a major oversight I realized needed immediate correction, so I set out to write my ultimate post on SQUATS – The King of All Exercises. It quickly became apparent that this was no small topic and trying to share everything in one post would have been too much for anyone to read, let alone write. So I decided to break this down into a 2 part series on Squats:

Part 1 – THE BASICS: Benefits, Muscles Used, Warming Up, Squat Form 101, Beginners and Fitting Squats into Your Routine.

Part 2 – GOING DEEPER: Squat Depth, Form Correction, Trouble Shooting, Avoiding Injury, Training Gear and Squat Variations.

BENEFITS

So what makes the Squat the “King of All Exercises”? Squats have a list of strength and health benefits a mile long and making Squats a major part of your training will do more to help you gain size and strength than any other single exercise.

Here is just a sampling of the many benefits of Squats:

  • Squats Work The Entire Body – Not only is the Squat the best exercise for your legs (quads, hamstrings, glutes), they also work your core (hips, lower back, abdominals), upper back, shoulders, arms and calves.
  • Increased Hormone Release – Using so many muscles in your body at one time stimulates a greater release of growth hormone and Testosterone – just what your muscles need to grow and recover.
  • Greater Core Strength – Lower Back and Abdominals provide support and stability. The core plays a major role in doing squats, and greater core strength will benefit all your other training.
  • Improved Balance, Mobility, Coordination and Flexibility.
  • Improved Bone Density & Stronger Joints – Bones are living tissue that responds well to heavy weight training by becoming denser and stronger.
  • Burns Calories and Fat – Squats burn a ton of calories and fat while developing lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass burns more fat.
  • Workout Efficiency – A few sets of squats will do more for your whole body (building muscle, burning calories, increased heart rate, developing strength and power) than a typical workout using machines or isolation exercises.
  • Prevents Injuries – Done with correct form, Squats strengthen muscles and tendons throughout the body, especially those that surround and support the joints (knees, hips, ankle, spine). Regular Squats keep the body strong, active and moving and will prevent injuries usually associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Function – Squats are a functional exercise with lots of carry over benefit to daily activity and heavier lifts in the gym.
  • Heart Health – The heart is a muscle and Squats get that muscle pumping hard. Higher rep sets of Squats will jack your heart rate up to sprint level cardio work.
  • Improved Mood – High intensity exercises like Squats are proven to improve mood and elevate sex drive.
  • Confidence and Self-Esteem – The benefits of Squats aren’t just physical. Squats require hard work and discipline. Pushing yourself to do something that is hard but so beneficial to your health and training is something you can feel good about.

As hard as they are, Squats are your best friend when it comes to overall health and fitness. Short of injury or medical condition they should not be avoided.

That being said… for those that struggle with Squats, I don’t want this article to be about shaming or guilt tripping anyone who has a tendency to avoid them. Not only are Squats a very intense exercise, for certain body types and for beginners especially, learning to Squat with proper technique is very challenging, even scary. My suggestion to anyone who struggles with Squats is to just not rule them out. You can focus on other leg and full body exercises – just don’t give up on Squats. Read up, ask for help, start light or hire a trainer. No matter how long it takes, learn to Squat.  Learn to love Squats!

WARM UP

Squats are a big exercise and it is essential to get all the moving parts of your body warmed up and ready.

Warming up for Squats, I use a series of movements called “Dynamic Stretches”. These are functional movements specific to the exercise about to be performed, gently loosening tight muscles, increasing mobility and flexibility while warming up the muscles and joints.

Before lifting weights, avoid deep static stretching where the muscle is held in a deep stretched position.   Static stretching forces the muscles to relax and release tension. This is good for flexibility but does not warm up or strengthen muscles and does little to prepare your body for the specific exercises you are about to do.

Here is my pre-squat warm up routine with demonstration video:

Shoulder Dislocations – 2 sets of 15 – Don’t let the name scare you; this is a great dynamic movement for relieving upper body tightness. Hold a wooden or PVC pole in front of your thighs. Slowly raise the pole up and over your head, keeping your arms straight with a loose grip, allowing your hands to slide to the ends as you raise the pole up and over your head.  Continue arching the pole all the way back and down as far as you can behind your back, then slowly return the pole back over your head to the starting position.

Broomstick Twists – 2 sets of 15 complete rotations – Place the same wooden or PVC pole across the top of your back with your arms loose over the ends. Gently twist from side to side, keeping your head looking forward as you twist.

Front Kicks & Side Kicks – 15-20 kicks each leg – Use a chair, wall or anything stable to hold onto with one hand. With the opposite leg do a full forward kick, loosely swinging your leg all the way forward and back like a pendulum. Follow with side kicks, swinging leg across the front of your body in a sideways swing.

Bodyweight Squats – Simply go down into a deep squat position without any weight or bar. Do a few full reps before holding the position at the deepest part to stretch out the hip flexors and adductors. Work up to a full minute hold in a deep squat position; hold onto something stable if necessary for balance.

Light Sets – When you’re ready to Squat, start with a few light warm up sets with little weight or just the bar. Slowly add weight as you build up to your working sets. Don’t do a lot of high rep sets.  You just want to prepare your body for the weight of your working sets.  Warm up sets should take care of any remaining tightness in your body.

HOW TO SQUAT

These are just the most basic guidelines for performing the Squat.  I will get into deeper detail on Squat technique and troubleshooting in the next article, but for now, I just want to cover the basics so that you have enough information to get in the gym and start Squatting.

Squat Rack / Power Rack – For safety, always Squat inside a Squat Rack or a Power Rack with safety rails.  If adjustable, set the height of the safety rails so they are just a few inches lower than the barbell at the lowest point of the Squat. You want to be able to lower the barbell onto the rails in case you don’t make the lift.

Set Up- When racked, the barbell should be at the same height as your mid-shoulders, you want to be able to clear the lift-off pins without having to stand on your toes. Grab the barbell with a wider than shoulder width grip. If your upper body or shoulders feel too tight to use a medium grip, go wider for your first couple of sets. Your shoulders should loosen up and allow you to bring your grip closer in as you get through the warm up sets.

Unrack – Get under the bar with the barbell resting across your upper back/traps (not directly on your neck). Get under the bar with both legs and press up, holding the weight on your upper back. Take 1 step back, keeping your legs straight and locking your knees and hips as you assume the starting position. Stand with your feet directly under your shoulders (shoulder width stance) with toes pointed out approximately 30 degrees.

Squat – Take and hold a big breath deep into your abdomen. Bend at the hips and knees simultaneously. Hips bend back and down, as if sitting back into a chair. Knees bend outward in line with the direction of your toes.   Keep your head and back in a neutral position (no arching or rounding) and keep your chest up. Squat to just past parallel. At the bottom your hips should be lower than your knees. Without pausing, thrust back up to the starting position. At the top, lock your knees and hips and exhale. Repeat for all your reps.

BEGINNERS

Starting out, I recommend using very light weight or just the bar. There is no rush to squat heavy and learning form should be your goal.   If even the bar seems to be too much or if you are having too much trouble with form try bodyweight squats or goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell.

I recommend starting out with 3-4 sets of 10.  As you progress, slowly start adding weights to the bar.

Take videos and Squat in front of a mirror. The visual feedback helps you work on your form and depth. Squatting with a workout buddy is also a good idea because they can give you feedback and encouragement.

SQUATS IN YOUR ROUTINE

Even though it is a full body exercise, the Squat is generally categorized as a leg exercise. The big question is when and how often should you Squat?

When using full body workouts, Squats are usually done at the top of every workout, 3-4 times a week. A few examples of these are The Golden 6 Workout and Stronglifts 5×5.   Squatting frequently results in explosive growth and strength gains. For many reasons, I think a full body approach and frequently doing Squats is the best choice for almost anyone looking to get significantly bigger and stronger.

Split Routines usually break up your training into 3-5 workouts, training 1-2 muscle groups per workout and is the favored approach for bodybuilding goals.

Split routines usually include a lower body or leg day with a higher volume of sets and a variety of exercises to thoroughly train the legs. Squats should be the priority when training legs and should come first in a leg day routine. After Squats, follow up with lunges, hack squats, front squats or box squats. A second exercise that predominantly hits your quads, done immediately after Squats will really tear up your quads and have you crawling out of the gym. Finish off your legs with leg curls or reverse hypers for your hamstrings and some variety of calf raises or calf presses.

WRAP UP

Covering the Basics, this article was written with beginners in mind. Part 2 will go deeper into technique, troubleshooting and avoiding injuries. In the meantime I’d love to hear any feedback or questions. Leave a comment or contact me.

In addition to using my own experience and knowledge base, I have to give credit to www.stronglifts.com for being a major source of information and inspiration on this topic. If you really want a complete and thorough resource on Squatting technique, do yourself a favor and devour this article: http://stronglifts.com/squat/.


And if you were digging the mighty doom metal in the embedded video clips, the tune is called “Yet Another Raft of the Medusa (Pollard’s Weakness)” from the band AHAB.   Here is the full epic tune in all it’s doom laden glory:

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