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Squats are one of the major movements in strength training. They stand with the bench press as an exercise almost everyone should do.
Table of Contents
- What is a Squat?
- What Muscles Do Squats Work?
- Benefits of Squats
- How to Do a Squat Properly
- Common Squat Mistakes
- Squat Variations
- Squat Workout
- How Much Weight Should You Squat?
Not only do squats work your legs but they have benefits for most of your body, especially your core!
Done properly, a squat brings many benefits. Done poorly and squats waste your time or open you up to injuries.
But that’s okay, because I’m here to help you squat with proper form!
Want to learn more about this king of exercises?
What is a Squat?
Squats are one of the simplest exercises, but that does not mean they are not effective. In fact, some people call them the “King of All Exercises!”
You can do them with or without weight.
Basically, a squat is lowering your body close to the ground without lifting your heels.
Then you push with your legs to stand straight up. That’s all.
If it’s that simple, can a squat really work out too many muscles?
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
Though squats are primarily a leg movement, they require you to use muscles all the way up your body.
In fact, squats work more major muscles than any other individual strength movement! Exercising several muscle groups at once can be beneficial, as I’ve covered before.
Squats workout your leg muscles the most. Primarily these are the quadriceps and hamstrings.
Other leg muscles worked include the gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior.
Moving up the body, your rear gets a good workout too. Squats hit your gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus for maximum booty building. Your hip adductors also spend some time under tension.
Your torso isn’t left out either. The transverse abdominis muscles help to hold you steady alongside the erector spinae.
Those spinal erector muscles are an especially great muscle to safely exercise because they suffer from long days sitting in front of the computer or in school desks!
However, if you have a back injury, you should talk with your physician before doing squats.
Legs, thighs, hips, butt, and core. What else could you ask for from a single exercise?
Benefits of Squats
The benefits of squatting extend past exercising a large number of muscles.
Though, that is a great benefit. By hitting a large number of muscles at once, you spend less total time working out.
Because so many muscles are used, and some of them are pretty big, your body uses a lot of energy when squatting. This is great for burning calories and losing weight, especially coupled with smart eating choices.
Muscles demand calories even at rest and squats are a great way to grow lots of muscle at once.
Stronger legs are also great for, well, leggy reasons.
Squatting movements happen every day. Sitting down involves partially squatting. So does standing up.
Squats also increase your core stability and can help with balance, so you can walk, run, jump, and dance more sure of yourself than ever before.
You’ll also look better too, with more toned calves, thighs, and butt.
Whether you’re a guy or a gal, a nice posterior is a nice posterior.
Squats are also great for your heart without needing to spend hours running or on the treadmill.
How to Do a Squat Properly
Squatting improperly can easily lead to injury, especially with the high weights many people use.
So, here’s how to do a barbell back squat correctly. That’s the most common type of squat.
This workout is done with a barbell. You’ll eventually put hundreds of pounds on the bar but hold off on that until you’ve got the form down.
A squat rack or power rack can help you get under the bar when there’s a lot of weight on the bar, by the way.
- Stand up straight with your knees slightly wider than shoulder-width. Your toes should point slightly outward so they are in line with your knees.
- Place the barbell on your trapezius muscles, holding onto it with your palms facing forward and your elbows pointing at the floor. Make sure your shoulders are rolled back.
- Lower your torso while keeping your back straight. Inhale before descending and go slow enough you maintain control. Keep your knees behind your toes. It can help to lead the movement with your butt or your hips.
- Stop once you are below parallel. Stopping at parallel is old advice and we now know that it’s not dangerous to go ATG (butt-to-grass) if you can keep your back straight.
- Don’t bounce! Pause while you’re at the bottom position.
- Exhale as you push yourself straight up. Again, it can help to visualize your hips as driving the movement.
- You’ve reached the top of the squat. Congratulations! That’s one rep. Pause for just a moment, breathe in, and do it again.
Common Squat Mistakes
It’s easy to mess up squatting, so keep an eye out for these common mistakes. It can help to have someone check out your form, too.
- Knees and toes not in line – If your knees and toes are not in line, then your knees will be twisted. This results in shearing forces at your knee, causing torque and injury!
- Leaning forward – If you lean too far forward then more force gets pushed into your lower back. You don’t want a lot of force on your lower back unless you like spinal disc hernias.
- Lifted heels – You want your heels as flat as possible. The higher they are, the worse your balance, and the less your hamstrings and glutes can contribute to the movement.
- Rapid descent – You should be in full control of your descent all the way down. You can test to see if you’re going too fast by trying to pause partway down. If you can’t, then lighten your load and/or go slower.
- Rounded back – A straight back allows the weight to travel more ideally down your spine into the leg muscles while a rounded back forces your weaker lower back muscles to support the weight. Keep your back as straight as possible; if your back rounds at the bottom of a movement, use a lighter weight or stop before your back rounds.
There is a huge number of squat variants out there. Some are great and are part of my routine. However, some I believe were invented just to have a laugh at the poor gym goer who tries them!
These are my five favorite squat variations. They are the most effective and safe alternatives to the standard back squat.
If you don’t feel comfortable with a heavy weight on your shoulders, then do the first three of the following exercises in order.
This will help you perfect your form while you work you up to a full-on barbell squat.
Squatting without weighs is surprisingly effective. It can be a good warmup and a good ancillary exercise to strengthen your tendons and ligaments once you’ve reached high weights with barbell squats.
The movement is exactly the same as with barbell squats except for your arms and the breathing.
Instead of holding your breath as you descend, inhale during the descent. Exhalation is the same.
As for your arms, you should extend them straight in front of you, palms down. This aids in balance.
A step between bodyweight squats and barbell squats, dumbbell squats are a great exercise.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand. You can hold the weighs next to your thighs or, if you want to add a tiny bit of arm workout, hold them up by your shoulders.
This squat variant can be done with a kettlebell or a single, large dumbbell.
Hold the weight high on your chest, close to your body but not touching. Grasp the sides of the kettlebell’s grip. If using a dumbbell, let it hang vertically and hold onto the top weight section using a bowl-like grip.
Then, do a squat like normal. Stop when your elbows touch your knee then go back up.
Though back squats are the norm, front squats are just as excellent. Front squats can feel more awkward, though, which is why the back squat is more common.
In a front squat, the barbell sits across the front of your shoulders, almost up to your neck (good luck, guys with beards!).
If you feel like the bar is about to choke you, congrats! The bar is high enough.
Hold onto the bar with your fingertips. Keep your elbows forward and upper arms parallel to the floor. Most of the weight should be on your torso; your hands are there for stability.
If this is difficult because of wrist mobility, they make straps for this purpose.
Once in position, the movement is almost the same, except your balance will be slightly different. Your hips will travel more vertical rather than the curve seen with the back squat.
Overhead squats aren’t as much a leg workout as they are an extension or mobility workout.
Sure, your legs still push a lot of weight, but what makes overhead squats sweet is how they open up your shoulders and loosen tight pecs.
Your abs and spine have to extend for a proper overhead squat, so this is a great core exercise. It’s also good for countering the hunch you get from slouching all day.
With an overhead squat, you don’t rest the bar on your torso. In fact, you hold it entirely in your hands.
Hold the bar above your head with your arms extended, as wide on the bar as possible. Your palms should be forward. Ish.
Everything else is like a back squat.
However, this move tests your balance more than any other, so start with a much lighter weight than you’d use with a back or front squat!
If you follow a push, pull, leg split routine like I do, then “leg day” will basically be “squat day” with some extra seasoning.
However, the leg day example in that article is an all-around leg day for beginners. What if you want a serious leg day?
For that, you need all the squats.
Make sure your warmup includes bodyweight squats. Then toss in some dumbbell or goblet squats.
Then do a set of five reps with an empty bar on your back.
Now, let’s do the workout itself.
- 3×5 Overhead Squats
- 3×5 Back Squats
- 3×5 Front Squats
Rest for a minute and a half between each set.
I like to alternate between back and front squats, but you don’t have to.
How Much Weight Should You Squat?
If you don’t know how much weight to put on the bar, then don’t put any on the first week!
If you use an Olympic Bar, that’s 45 pounds even without plates. The first week, lift an empty bar.
Each week, add on a 7.5 lb plate, so you’re adding on 15 pounds per week. Do this even if you workout several times per week (which is a good idea).
This progressive overload will see your body adapting to ever-growing weights by putting on lots of muscle.
You’ll get to heavy weights before you know it, and will be healthier than if you jumped to the heaviest bar possible!
Are squats bad for the knees?
The idea that squats are bad for your knees is ancient and bad science.
It came from a study by Dr. Karl Klein in 1961. He studied college athletes and came to the conclusion that squats made knees loose and could lead to injury.
Without getting too deep into it, his methodology was bad and there was a large amount of bias in the study. Also, almost all research since then has shown that squatting with proper form strengthens your knees.
Should I do squats in the Smith Machine?
It may seem like a smart idea to squat in a Smith Machine, as it’s a similar movement but the captured bar has no chance of falling.
However, the Smith Machine locks the bar into a straight up and down movement.
Part of the beauty in squats is how such a simple movement effectively works out so many stabilizer muscles all over your body.
When you push a bar in a machine up and down, that all goes out the window. The fixed plane of motion and lack of need to balance the bar isolates the muscles. This increases your chance of injury AND your workout isn’t as effective!
You want your heels to be as flat on the floor as possible. Shoe heel lifts interfere with this.
If I workout at home then I squat barefoot. Gyms don’t like that, so I wear Tai Chi shoes.
Flatter shoes such as Converse Chucks or Vans are another good choice.
Basically, avoid anything with a noticeable heel lift, such as most non-minimalist running shoes.
Squats are one of the most important fitness movements you can do. Whether you squat with no weight or all the weight, you’ll see improvements to strength and health.
The most important thing when starting squatting, though, is your form.
Squat right and you’ll have healthy legs for life!