Updated: Jan 28
The king of all exercises, the squat. Loved by those who perform it regularly. Hated by those who perform it regularly. The squat is a human resting position (many cannot rest in a full squat since childhood but should be able to - see image below) where one folds at the hips, knees and ankles to lower ones centre of gravity until the body can rest above the heels. It provides a multitude of physiological benefits and is regarded by many strength and conditioning coaches as the most complete strength exercise, especially when the movement pattern is performed correctly and resistance is added to shape ones physique and improve health and fitness.
The Benefits of Squatting
Squatting provides us with a multitude of benefits from the obvious to the more surprising. Let's explore some of the benefits of squatting:
- Muscle Growth
Squatting with adequate resistance will obviously lead to muscle growth in the legs, however, a heavy squat session could elicit muscle growth in other areas of the body. It is often said that "squatting works every muscle in your body", and though this isn't quite true - every muscle should be working in a squat, though not every muscle is worked to the point to cause microtrauma which leads to growth - some growth may occur as a result of elevated hormone levels (1).
- Increased Hormone Levels
Expanding on the point made above, squatting - and other heavy resistance exercises that use a large amount of muscles such as deadlifts, snatch, clean + jerk - elicits a hormonal response where levels of testosterone, growth hormone and cortisol increase (2).
- Brain Health
Research published in Frontiers in Neuroscience shows that neurological health is dependent on activity levels, and that specifically that using the legs for weight bearing exercises in particular sends signals to the brain that are important for the production of healthy neural cells. Restricting movement completely showed a 70% decrease in brain stem cells and a reduction in specialised cells vital for nerve cell health (3).
- Increased Bone Mineral Density
Type 1 collagen amino-terminal propeptide (P1NP) and type 1 collagen C breakdown products (CTX) are important markers for bone growth - find out more about collagen here - and a study of post menopausal women has shown that heavy squatting for maximal force development has been shown to improve the ratio of serum P1NP/CTX which indicates an increase in bone formation (4).
The squat is one of the most physically taxing and most under-performed, incorrectly performed exercises (try saying that quickly 10 times) even though the general public has been made aware of the incredible benefits for a long time.
Why is this the case?
We have already mentioned it is mentally, physically and emotionally taxing (heavy squat sessions are tough) which drains the central nervous system. This in itself makes people refrain from performing squats or at least performing squats with enough weight to elicit a physiological change, however, there are other factors which discourage them:
- most people do not actually know how to squat CORRECTLY for their body type or their goal. This often leads to pain - you should develop a burning sensation in your muscles, especially your thighs and buttocks, but NOT PAIN - which is likely to put anyone off performing the movement again.
- the dreaded leg DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) which make you produce sound effects similar to the loud grunts heard in marathon matches at Wimbledon during any simple knee bend, sitting motion or action involving your lower limbs.
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How should you squat?
Simple, look at a child squatting. Feet flat on the ground, chest up, close stance, knees and hips fully bent, sitting on their heels. This is how we are designed to move and almost everyone will have completed a full squat at some point in their lives without even knowing it. As we get older and spend less time moving, we lose our innate flexibility and mobility. This leads to a plethora of joint and postural problems such as lower back pain which can be debilitating for some. The oft-seen hip hinge/squat hybrid seen in most commercial gyms - and taught to personal trainers!! - is not a proper squat and can lead to serious back problems. You know the one, the hips shoot backwards and the knees bend to 90 degrees (or less in most cases) while the upper body bends forward to balance the movement, all while the shins remain perfectly vertical to “protect the knees”. Let’s clear this up once and for all, one should squat as low as possible while keeping the torso as vertical as possible with your feet roughly between hip and shoulder width (5).
Note: This may not be the best way of squatting if you want to move the greatest amount of weight. It is, however, the safest and most effective method of squatting for overall health and fitness
- Ideal foot position
If you have very wide hips it might be worth experimenting with a wider squat stance. Everybody has different physiology and it is important to find what works for you and your individual needs. Select a foot position where you can comfortably sit low into a stance and maintain a vertical torso. With deliberate practice and high repetitions at a slow speed, you will find your natural squat stance. Another way to find your ideal squat stance is to perform 3 squat jumps without paying attention to the position of your feet. After your last squat jump, stand still and look at your feet. This is a good indicator of your ideal stance.
In order to stick to the topic of squatting strictly, DOMS will be explained independently in another article (keep an eye out for it). For now, ensure you are sleeping enough and eating healthily and you will notice the soreness will most likely not be as intense in subsequent sessions. As a matter of fact the soreness is a good indicator your muscles worked enough to elicit a physiological change; for this very reason many gym goers are disappointed when they do not notice DOMS after working out.
What is an ideal squat position and set up?
Let's start from the ground up:
Feet - find your ideal foot position (see above). Your feet DO NOT need to point perfectly straight ahead. If your feet naturally turn outwards slightly, that is fine. Ensure your knees track over your 2nd/3rd toes when you squat and that you can comfortably dorsiflex (bend) your ankles. Do not let your heels lift. “Grip” the floor with your feet to maintain a natural inner foot arch.
Knees - the knees must track over the 2nd/3rd toes. It is perfectly safe for uninjured individuals to allow their knees to come forward in a squat - in fact, it is advisable. Forcing your knees to stay “back” in line with your heels places a massive shear force on the knees and lower back and can lead to serious injury. As you squat down, drive your knees outwards and sit between your heels. As you stand back up, drive your knees outwards again to further activate the buttocks for a more powerful squat (competitive powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters often pull their knees inwards to assist on the upwards portion. While this is actually a very safe technique, it requires very strong knee stabilisers and should be avoided if you are not a professional athlete).
Hips - the hips move backwards slightly in the squat movement but the focus should be on a downwards movement. Imagine someone is pulling your hips downwards towards your feet. Develop and maintain the highest amount of tension possible in your buttocks (forcefully clench) throughout the movement for complete control. A “butt-wink” is when the pelvis tilts posteriorly (forwards/towards your stomach) at the lowest portion of the squat. If this only happens at the bottom of the squat and to a small degree, no injuries should occur and there is no reason to worry - assuming you maintain a strong abdominal brace throughout.
Lower back/core - maintain a neutral spine! Hyper-extension of the lower back (where the hips are pushed back as far as possible creating a lower back curve) is common and NOT safe. As much as you contract your lower back muscles, contract your abdominals and transverse abdominis (deep core) as much as possible.
Bracing sequence - when performing exercises that require a great deal of core stability an abdominal brace should be performed to keep your trunk strong. When bracing the abdomen, imagine you are bracing yourself to receive a punch to the stomach. Contract every muscle NOT being used to move to provide support. Breathe through the chest without releasing the abdominal brace and avoid bloating the stomach (forcing the abdominal muscles away from you) by simultaneously pushing the abdomen out and drawing it in.
Middle and upper back - keep the breastbone (sternum) elevated and the shoulders pinched together. For back squats, place the bar on your upper trapezius muscles - you want the bar to sit comfortably on the meat of the muscle formed when you pinch your shoulder blades together. If the bar places too much pressure on your neck then it could mean that you are leaning too far forward in the squat. If this happens then you need to fix your squat pattern (keep reading to find out how).
Head - maintain a neutral spine. This is as important for the neck as it is for the lower back. If you excessively lift your head when you squat then it could indicate you have inadequate thoracic mobility and/or lean forward too much. Look straight ahead or even slightly downwards but not upwards.
Grip - hold the bar as close to shoulder width as possible so the shoulders and upper back can contract efficiently. Squeeze the bar strongly to ensure it is stable (this may have a radiating effect - tension through the forearms travels through the elbow and consequently increases tension in the upper back). It also improves mental preparation as you become aware of how the body is connected and ready to lift.
In groups of people where a deep squat remains a frequently performed position, we see more natural versions of the movement.
Problems when squatting
If you are struggling to achieve a full squat, several factors may be preventing it. The list below will help you differentiate between them and isolate the one which most accurately describes what you are experiencing.
- Inflexibility/lack of mobility
One does not need a high degree of mobility to safely perform a full squat, normal levels of mobility are required. Modern life has restricted our mobility to the point where chronic back pain is common and people cannot move properly. In order to perform a full squat you require adequate mobility in all areas of the body, specifically:
Lower back - while adopting a full squat, as opposed to a squat/good morning hybrid, is better for the lower back due to less shear force placed across the lumbar spine, a weakness in the lower back will still lead to pain. This can be seen in posterior pelvic tilt, or “butt wink” where the hips tuck underneath the torso at the bottom of the squat. This can also be attributed to tight hamstrings or hips. A small amount of butt wink is OK as long as it does not cause back pain.
The Fix: perform exercises that strengthen the lower back and deep core e.g. Palof press, Aquamans, Supermans, glute-ham raise holds, reverse plank and deadlift variations.
Knee stabilisers - the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) is a major knee stabiliser. It is the muscle that sits above your knee on the inside of your thigh (teardrop muscle). It is responsible for countering any inward bending of the knee during a squat or box jump. Excessive inward bending of the knee results in an inefficient movement pattern and can lead to injury.
The Fix: squat deeper! The deeper you squat, the more the VMO works. This may mean using a counter balance such as a TRX to help support your upper body. Other exercises such as the Peterson step-up and reverse sled drags also help to strengthen the VMO.
- Using too much weight
Adding too much weight to the bar before you have built an adequate base of strength and mobility is a recipe for injury. Reduce the weight until you have sufficient strength and confidence in your technique. DO NOT add too much weight to the bar before you can comfortable pause with perfect form at the bottom of each squat for more than 10 repetitions. Anyone you see loading the bar with "impressive" amounts of resistance and perform several half repetitions is asking for a debilitating injury. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, squatting to full depth with a lighter weight under control for enough repetitions will elicit muscle growth; the further you travel in a squat, the longer the muscles are under tension for; this is one of the most well-known techniques for muscle building.
Fix your squat
- Start improving your flexibility at the bottom of the squat
The prying squat is a great way to do this:
Stand with your feet at hip width and toes turned out slightly. Hold onto a stable object and “pull” your hips downwards into a deep squat. Use the support to maintain a straight back and use your elbows to force your knees outwards. Move around slowly in the bottom position to stretch out your hips and ankles. Move slowly in and out of this position 5-6 times while focusing on maintaining an upright posture and creating space in your lower body joints.
- Work on your goblet squats
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in a rack position in front of you and keep it close to your chest. Keep your elbows pointing downwards and close to the body. As with the prying squat, “pull” your hips down into a deep squat and allow your elbows to finish on the inside of your knees. Use your elbows to drive your knees outwards while pausing at the bottom to adapt to the position faster. Drive the chest upwards and forcefully contract the legs and glutes to return to the start position.
- Strengthen supporting muscles
Every muscle in the body is required to safely perform the squat, however, there are muscles that perform to a higher degree which require extra attention to prevent injury and ensure an efficient squat. Use the exercise list below to strengthen these key areas.
Lower back - Aquamans, Supermans, reverse planks, glute-ham raises and holds, deadlift variations
Core - Palof press, plank variations
Knee stabilisers - eccentric knee extensions, Peterson step-ups, reverse sled drags
Thoracic/middle back - Aquamans to Supermans, lat pulldowns and pull-ups, prone overhead presses.
- Work on mobility
Hips - the hips should be mobile enough to move between the feet when the knees are squeezed outwards. The prying squat is a great way to improve hip mobility as are the pancake and wall squat stretches.
Thoracic/middle back - proper thoracic extension is important in the squat as this stops the bar pushing the torso forward and turning the movement into a good morning exercise. If you feel yourself being pushed forward in your squat or have trouble keeping your chest up then you should work on your thoracic mobility. Performing strengthening exercises for the middle back while using foam rolling and self myofascial release (SMR) techniques will help to improve mobility through the middle back.
Shoulders - problems in the shoulder area are often connected to problems in the mid back due to the alignment of the shoulder blades. If you have shoulder impingement or struggle to pin your shoulders back and elevate your chest when holding the bar, approach this as if you had insufficient thoracic mobility (see above).
Ankles - in order for the knee to travel forward, the ankle must be mobile enough to facilitate the movement. A tight Achilles tendon and calf muscles restrict the ankles ability to bend (dorsiflex) thus restricting forward knee movement. If you struggle to move your knees forwards you should consciously work towards increasing your ankle flexibility. Foam rolling and SMR techniques on the calf muscle and band-assisted stretches for the calf will help increase ankle mobility. You may want consider wearing lifting shoes such as Nike Romaleos or Adidas Powerlift while you rectify the issue.
How to perform a full back squat
- Set up
- move underneath the bar and squeeze your shoulders together tightly with your hands close to your shoulders and rest the bar on the meat of your upper back.
- Perform core bracing sequence.
-stand up and take the weight of the bar on to your shoulders, move away from the pins and stand in your squat stance.
- take a deep breath and ensure core is fully braced. Hold your breath for the entire descent and for 3/4 of the ascent.
- lower yourself into a squat by bending your knees and hips. “Pull” your hips downwards - do not rely on gravity - and try to “sit” between your feet or on your heels.
- allow the knees to move forwards and drive them outwards ensuring they track in line with your second toes.
- aim to get as low as you can so your hamstrings touch your calves.
- pause briefly at the bottom and return to starting position.
- after desired number of repetitions, strongly walk back towards pins and let the pins take the weight of the bar. Ensure you are not supporting the bar as you let go.
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Further reading: https://barbend.com/butt-wink-aaron-horschig-squat-university/
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.