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Everything You Want to Know About Squats E-mail
Written by Jeff Behar, MS, MBA   

The squat is an excellent lower body workout that pwoman_doing_a_barbell_squatrimarily targets your thighs (quadriceps or "quads") and hips (gluteus maximus or "glutes") but also works the hamstrings and lower back. 

Squats are a very tough exercise to accomplish correctly. But, when done correctly they can be THE exercise that stimulates growth and tone throughout your ENTIRE body! 

Primary Benefits from Squats

Squats build muscle. Squats create an overall anabolic environment in the body that maximizes gains from other exercises [in your workout]. It involve a large muscle group and require a tremendous amount of energy, they trigger the release of extra testosterone and growth hormone in the bloodstream.

Squats can be plateau busters. The squat should be a staple of leg training. The squat movement places so much stress on the body and works so many muscles at once that it has been shown to affect your hormones! Many people report growth in all areas of their body - including their arms - simply by performing heavy squats. Squatting can improve your over all workouts by several percent and define your body more effectively.

Squats increase overall power and strength. Squats increase strength in the back as well as help strengthen the muscles around your joints, giving added protection and reducing pain.Squats build strength in your legs and give definitions to your glutes. Squats enhance the ability to jump and give power as well as strength to your legs. Squats also increase core strength, improving your ability in other sports and with other lifts.

Squats are beneficial for the heart. The squat is not only a strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) exercise, but can provide a great cardiovascular workout as well. Persistent squatting improves the heart muscle, helping it run more efficiently.

Squat Basics

A barbell squat is a push-type, compound exercise which works primarily your quadriceps, but also trains your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, as well as muscles in your lower back. The following table lists general information about barbell squats and the muscles that you use when performing barbell squats.

Basic Exercise Data For Barbell Squats

Resistance Barbell + Weight

Mechanics Type Compound
Force Type Push
Targeted Muscles Quadriceps
Synergists Gluteus Maximus, Adductor Magnus, Soleus
Dynamic Stabilizers Hamstrings, Gastrocnemius
Stabilizers Erector Spinae
Antagonist Stabilizers Rectus Abdominis, Obliques

The Traditional Squat

The traditional should be one of the first squat techniques to learn.  here are many variations of the squat, so the steps below will describe the classic barbell back squat, followed by variations.  

Barbell Squat Technique:

  • In this movement the bar is placed high on the back. This is sometimes known as the bodybuilding squat. The proper squat formshoulder blades should be retracted to help support the bar.   

  • Wrists can either be rigid or extended power-lifter style, depending on flexibility. Keeping the elbows beneath the wrists can be important, because outside of this position, the shoulder may rotate. This can impinge the rotator cuff and may actually pinch a nerve and make the arm go numb for some people.   

  • Stance is just about shoulder width. Foot orientation is "natural". When you are standing casually, this is "natural".  

  • In preparation for performing barbell squats, position an empty barbell on a squat rack at a height that's about 3-5 inches lower than your shoulders. Position the spotter rails at a height that won't interfere with the barbell when you lower the weight.    

  • Load an equal amount of weight on each side of the barbell and secure the weight plates to the barbell. It's also a good idea to make certain that there aren't any loose plates or other objects laying around that will interfere with barbell during squats.   

  • You can perform a regular barbell squat by stepping squarely under the barbell and placing it in contact with your shoulder-girdle. Be sure you don't place the bar on your neck.   

  • The bar should be held in place by your shoulders. If this is uncomfortable, you can use a towel or other padding to cushion the bar. The bar will become less uncomfortable as you get used to doing squats.  Another thing to take note of is that the bar should be centered on your back (and not on your neck!). This is important: an uncentered bar will cause you to lift more weight with one leg than the other! Another way to make sure that the weight is evenly dispersed across your back is to clip a Manta Ray (TM) onto the barbell.   

  • Once you've positioned the bar on your upper back, grasp the bar firmly with your hands. It's a good idea to position your hands so that they're separated by a distance at least twice your shoulder-width. Spacing your hands too close together can lead to straining of your shoulders, which may cause you problems when you perform other exercises, such as the bench press.  

  • With the barbell centered on your shoulder-girdle, use your legs to lift the barbell off the rack and then step back just enough to perform the exercise without bumping into the rack. You can position your feet about shoulder-width apart with your feet and knees pointing outward a bit.    

  • After walking the weight out from the rack and inhaling so that the lungs are full of air, begin to further bend the knees, lowering oneself downward hips first.   

  • Hold the air in while sitting back in a manner that the calves are almost be parallel with the wall without falling over backwards. Tighten the abs throughout the motion.    

  • The load should be distributed upon the quads and heels, not the knees. Keep the chest high and back between a 45 and 90 degree angle with the floor.   

  • Bend both the knees and back together.    

  • Inhale on the way back up to a standing position.    

  • Do not lock out the knees.   

  • Maintain a slight bend to allow for increased time under tension on the thighs.    

  • Perform the entire motion in a fluid and controlled manner (Do not bounce or jerk).   

  • Repeat for 8 to 15 reps.

Squatting Tips   

  • Never squat with your feet pointing directly forward; your quadriceps muscles contract more efficiently when your feet (and knees) are pointing outward a little bit. You can place your heels on a 1-1.5 inch block to further emphasize your quads.    

  • Try to avoid taking up too much time fidgeting with foot position while the weight is on your back; more squatting injuries occur during racking and unracking the bar than during the actual exercise itself!   

  • Once your hands and feet are suitably positioned, you can perform the barbell squat by bending your knees and allowing your upper body to descend under control until your thighs are about parallel with the floor. Next, vigorously push the weight upwards until you reach the initial position.  

  • Avoid letting your balance shift forward or backward, and keep your back as straight as possible throughout the lift. This is important: rounding your back under load can injure your lower back.   

  • Focus on keeping your abs tightened throughout the exercise--this provides support to your lower back. When the weight is extremely heavy you can use a Lifting Belt to provide further support to your lower back.  Alternatively, some lifters prefer to perform "full barbell squats" where the weight is lowered until the knees and hips are fully bent..Some lifters think this is the best way to fully stimulate the quadriceps while others think this is potentially damaging to the knees and lower back. The best advice, however, is to lower the weight to a depth that allows you to keep your back straight throughout the exercise, and does not traumatize your knees. Broadly speaking, this depth typically coincides with placing the thighs roughly parallel with the floor, as mentioned above. 

Additional Types of Squat Exercises

There are many variations of the squat, that can be performed. Variations are intended to work different subgroups of muscles, or work the same muscles in slightly different ways. Some of the more popular variations include:     

  • Hack Squat (see picture on extreme right)hack squatfront squat
  • Front Squat (see first picture on right)
  • Smith Machine Squat    
  • Breathing Squat
  • Plie Squat
  • Jump Squat
  • One-Legged Squat (King Squat)
  • Sumo Squat
  • Box squat

About Jeff Behar

Jeff BeharJeff Behar, MS, MBA is a recognized health, fitness and nutrition expert, regularly writing about hot topics in the areas of health, fitness, disease prevention, nutrition, anti aging and alternative medicine. Jeff Behar's work often appears in several of the major health and fitness newsletters, health and fitness magazines, and on  major health, and fitness websites. Jeff Behar is also a well sought after personal trainer, motivational speaker and weight loss expert.
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