They conjure up images of men with crew cuts pushing heavy weights in darkly lit gymnasiums. They have survived the Nautilus and Cybex Revolutions. They are the dinosaurs of power lifting exercises. Sooner or later, if you are serious about building lower body strength and explosiveness, you will find yourself poised beneath a rack of weights preparing to do a set of squats.
There is an obvious reason for the longevity of squats; they really work. Gymnasiums are now called “health clubs” filled with row after row of specialized machinery and free-weights. Torn T-shirts have been replaced by designer workout outfits. The introduction of Nautilus machines popularized the concept of muscle isolation. Design a machine that can isolate a specific muscle and single joint, then work that muscle into shape. Thus you find yourself working a circuit of machines, moving from the quadriceps machine to the lat machine to the deltoid machine… “Old school” exercises like squats are different, they are less specific. They involve multiple muscle groups and multiple joints working in tandem. It’s a different kind of stress load that involves various muscle groups working as a unit to achieve a specific motion. There are advantages to both philosophies. Progressive resistance of an isolated muscle group is an especially effective method of rehabilitating an injury. The injured muscle must be brought back to full strength in stages. Specific, isolated resistance exercises are an essential element of most rehabilitation programs.
Research in the field of kinesiology (the study of movement) points to substantial advantages when training multiple muscle groups. Think about it; sport demands coordination, explosiveness and strength. A volleyball player leaps into the air, swings her arms forward, pushes side to side, runs forward and backward, all movements generated by multiple muscle groups working as a team. The nervous system must also be fine-tuned to orchestrate such finely coordinated movements. Shouldn’t your workouts reflect the demands of your sport? Training various muscle groups and joints to work together will encourage measurable gains in strength and coordination. This concept applies beyond athletic competition. Lifting a sleeping child and placing him into a special kid’s seat in the back of your car demands physical strength and coordination. Parenting can be viewed as the ultimate physical sport. Training each muscle individually will not prepare you well for the stresses your body will encounter on a daily basis.
WHAT ARE SQUATS?
Squats provide the foundation for lower body strength, primarily utilizing the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and spinal erectors. It is interesting to note that in order to do a squat properly, one must also focus on upper body control and form. As a result, bodybuilders are often surprised to find secondary gains in upper body strength and size as well. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the “classical back squat.” Keep in mind, there are many variations of this exercise. There are hack squats, front squats, “old style” hack squats and back squats with narrow stance. We can discuss these variations at some other time.
For a classic back squat it is best to find a squat rack, thus avoiding the strenuous task of having to clean and jerk the bar overhead. The feet should be approximately shoulder distance apart, allowing for a solid center of gravity. There is much difference of opinion regarding foot placement. Some trainers prefer the toes facing straight ahead. I believe the preferred position is with the toes slightly outward. Since so much weight is involved, it is essential that you find the most comfortable position possible. If you aren’t sure, then I recommend jumping in the air, allowing yourself to land comfortably to the ground with your feet shoulder distance apart. Where are your toes facing now? That will likely be your optimal foot position.
Now let’s start the exercise. It’s a good idea to wrap a towel around the bar to protect your upper back and shoulders from irritation. Most gyms have a foam pad available just for this purpose. Be certain the bar is solidly in place, no slipping sensation or imbalance. Step under the bar, place it across the upper back and take one step backward. Your feet are planted shoulder distance apart, pointing comfortably outward. Your shoulders are pulled slightly back and down. Feel the muscles between your shoulder blades tightening, allowing for upper body stability under the weight of the bar. The chest is pushed up and out. Tighten the abdominal wall and gluteal muscles. Everything should feel solid and steady before you begin the squat. The position of the lower back is a major factor in preventing injury. The cardinal error in form is to bend slightly forward in the low back, causing an overload of the spinal joints. This can lead to serious lumbar disc injury as well as tearing of the stabilizing spinal ligaments and muscles. The proper position maintains a normal lumbar lordotic curve, a very mild curve that allows the glutes to rotate back slightly (see figure 1). Without the proper lordotic curve the low back loses strength and is susceptible to overload. Be certain to bend your knees slightly. If the knees are rigid, then you are locking the heavy weight load into the knee joints without adequate muscular support. This will lead to overload of the knees.
Find a point straight ahead and use it as a point of visual focus. Maintain proper neck posture throughout the exercise. You should feel balanced. Beginners are often advised to place their heels on a board or barbell plate in order to maintain proper squat form. This is a bad idea with a life of its own. It continues to get passed along to novice lifters. Do not place a board under your heels, it will cause you to lean forward, thus placing more stressload on your knees and lower back. If your legs are not flexible enough to squat fully, go down half way. It is important to have your feet flat on the ground; you will be pushing through them during the exercise.
Now you’re ready to squat. Keep your knees bent and lower your body in a controlled manner. As you go down your torso should not change position. The lordotic curve of the low back must be maintained. Lower the position as though you were sitting back in a chair, glutes pushing back as you lower the thighs parallel to the ground. You should feel the tension in the quads and hamstrings. At this point you have reached the lowest body position for this exercise. Some bodybuilders recommend “deep squats,” bringing their glutes further to the ground. They believe that deeper squats will help them to attain greater hamstring and quadriceps strength. That is a myth!!! Deep squats jeopardize the stability of both the knee and lumbo-sacral joints. Deep squats cause the knees to bend to a point of extreme joint separation. The ligaments, which hold the joints together, are overstretched while under a heavy weight burden. This creates ligamentous tearing and knee instability. A similar story is played out at the lumbo-sacral joint. It, too, is separated in a forced traction while under a heavy weight load. This leads to lumbo-sacral tearing and instability. An unstable low back is a sure way to short circuit your workout program for a very long time. Be certain to avoid these serious risk factors by squatting to the point where the thigh is parallel to ground!
Now it’s time to push through to the starting position. Do not bounce to gain momentum. Make it a steady, smooth motion. Feel the weight through the bottom of your feet. If you push from the forefoot (by the toes) you will overload the knees. Push through the entire foot. Let your hips come forward as you rise to the starting position. Congratulations, you have completed a solid repetition.
A few final thoughts about this powerful exercise. To build lower body strength and power, you will need to use a high volume of weight. You must work with a spotter, no ifs, ands or buts. Safety first, always. If you cannot control the bar with perfect form, use less weight. Heavy weight places added stress to the joints of the body. If you have a problem with foot pronation and wear orthotics in your shoes, try wearing them when you do squats. They will help limit torsion stress to the ankles and knees.
One last point. People often ask if they should use weight belts for added support when doing squats. The plus side to using a belt is that it provides added support during the exercise. The downside is that without a belt the smaller muscles of the back are forced to work harder, creating greater overall strength and stability to the back. My vote goes to not using the belt.
If you are dealing with a low back or knee injury, be certain to consult your doctor before trying squats. When you are ready, keep in mind that squats help to strengthen the knees and low back like nothing else.