It’s not up for argument, the squat is by far the best leg strength developer. If you want to increase the size or strength (or both) of your legs, you need to start squatting.
This article will help you master the technical application of the squat.
In addition, you will discover three squatting variations that will enable you to promote strength and growth in your legs.
Benefits of squatting
In the extremely popular book Strength Training Anatomy, author Frederic Delavier tells us that ‘the squat is the number one bodybuilding movement because it involves a large part of the muscular system.’
When you squat you do more than activate your quadriceps. Besides building strength in the obvious muscle group, squatting also develops strength in your core, transverse abdominus, and pelvic griddle.
I’ve even heard it said that squatting can develop whole-body growth.
This is perhaps a consequence of the fact that ‘testosterone production is increased when you do large-muscle-group, free-weight exercises in which you use and coordinate a number of major muscle groups at the same time,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding). Increased testosterone promotes muscle growth which in turn increases size and strength.
Build strength and size with squats
Squats have for a long time been recognised as one of the best strength- and size-building exercises. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that to develop his impressive size and strength he ‘included a lot of Heavy Squats in my leg routine, especially Half Squats.’
He goes on to tell us that when trying to build strength and size, ‘you need to train according to basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).
By including regular squatting in your routine, making sure to apply the formulae outlined above, you should enjoy an increase in the size and strength of your leg muscles.
Squats can improve sports performance
But the fitness benefits of regular squatting do not stop at developing superior strength and size. Squats can also improve your performance in other fitness and sporting disciplines as well.
For example, many elite-level cyclists have incorporated squats into their training routine. It has been shown that strength-development exercises, such as squats, can increase power output.
Power exercises like squats might seem out of place in the training routine of an endurance athlete. Cyclists are typically lean and do not carry any more muscle than they need to. Muscle is heavy stuff and can impede performance over long distances.
However, squatting with sub-maximal weights, and incorporating squat variations, can enhance leg strength without increasing muscle size.
Here we have focused on one specific sport, however, squatting is an effective exercise for improving performance in many sports. Such sports include rowing, rugby, football, and all combat sports: boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA.
What equipment is needed for squatting?
One of the great things about the squat is that it can be performed with many different items of exercise equipment. Typically, most people think that you can only squat with an Olympic barbell. However, this is a misunderstanding.
Below I’ve identified a range of resistance options for squatting. When squatting with different equipment you inevitably change the dynamic of the exercise.
By doing so you can work the muscles of the legs in different ways while also mixing up what can be a bland exercise.
The Olympic barbell is the most commonly used exercise equipment for squatting. Traditionally, the Olympic bar is positioned on a squat rack, plates loaded on either side, and the weightlifter will widget themselves under the bar before executing the exercise.
Certainly, for maximal lifts the Olympic bar is indispensable. However, it’s not necessarily the best piece of exercise equipment to squat with.
Check out the best squat bar
Squatting with dumbbells for many is a preferable alternative. When squatting with dumbbells the weight is positioned in a more natural position.
Holding the weight at your sides, as you do when dumbbell squatting, not only takes the pressure off the back of the neck and lower spine, but also activates the trapezius and forearm muscles.
Granted, it’s not as easy to lift as much weight with dumbbells as you can on an Olympic bar. However, you can work a wider range of muscle groups and incorporate more variations – such as step-ups or lunges.
The kettlebell is becoming ever increasingly popular among squatters. Holding the bell by the handles between your legs is a very comfortable and natural position to squat in.
Also, to increase the intensity of the exercise the kettlebell can be upturned and held at your front. This is called the goblet squat and it serves to activate many upper-body muscles.
The single drawback of squatting with a kettlebell is the limited load capacity. Few gyms have kettlebells that exceed 32kg. For many, this doesn’t offer sufficient resistance.
And of course, there’s bodyweight or ‘air’ squats. Bodyweight squats are brilliant for circuit training or to use as a warm-up prior to performing heavy squats.
They’re also great to complete before a run or cycle as they encourage blood flow into the quadriceps and warm the muscles up.
air squats are ideal for mastering squatting technique
Furthermore, air squats offer a safe method of practicing and perfecting squatting technique. Though the squat on the surface seems a super simple exercise – down and up that’s all there is to it, right? – few people perform it correctly.
Incorrect squatting technique can result in injuries to the lower back and knees. To avoid these undesirable outcomes beginners or inexperienced squatters can practice with just their body weight. Which is much safer.
single leg squats
When you can comfortably complete 100 air squats you might be ready to challenge yourself to single leg squats. The single leg squat is a beast of an exercise that few people ever master.
Otherwise known as the pistol squat, single leg squats require more than just mega quad strength. Depriving yourself of one leg makes an easy exercise so much harder. Even powerful squatters, the quadzillers who can comfortably squat 100-plus-kees, would quickly crumble on one leg.
Besides stellar strength, pistol squats require excellent balance and body coordination. Coupled with these perquisites, you also need some serious muscle control.
A common technique error made when pistol squatting is to bounce out of the bottom position. In addition to looking dreadful, this technical abomination significantly increases injury risk.
It’s for this reason that you should develop strong legs before attempting the single leg variation. Moreover, when you feel like it’s time to go solo, you’d be wise to use supports – or at least solicit the services of a spotter.
4 Squat Variations
#1: Back squat
The back squat – or just ‘squat’ – is the most commonly performed of all the variations. And it is by far one of the best whole-body strength-building compounded exercises you can perform.
If you want to develop quadriceps and glute strength and size start squatting.
Back squat teaching points
Firstly prepare the barbell: ensure that you have not overloaded it and that, if you are using a free-weight bar, the clips are securely fastened so as to prevent the discs from sliding off the end. Also, ensure that the bar is set at the correct height for you: often you see people set it too high or too low which requires that they manoeuvre their bodies in an unnatural position to un-rack the weight. It’s best to set the bar slightly below your shoulders.
Now stand under the bar. Before attempting to un-rack it make sure that your feet are in the correct position, your hands are evenly spaced, and that the bar is resting across your trapezius muscles.
When you are comfortable and have organised your anatomy in the correct position, only now should you consider removing the bar from the rack.
To do so tighten up the core, stand up under control and step back and away from the rack (of course whether you need to do this depends on the structure that you are squatting in).
Again, organise your feet so they are just over shoulder-width apart.
Under control slowly execute a squat ensuring to bend at the knee.
When there is a 90° angle between the calf and hamstring pause then fire through the quadriceps as you return to the start position.
Maintain a smooth continuous movement from start to finish.
Keep your eyes riveted on an indefinite point in the distance (or a spot on the gym wall).
Ensure that your entire foot remains flat on the floor.
DO NOT flex your spine – when squatting ‘this error contributes to most lower back injuries, especially slipped discs,’ (Delavier).
Don’t let your knees collapse inward – this is indicative of physical incompatibilities with the weight selected; in short, the squatter has gone too heavy: it’s better by far to lift less weight and to lift it well than to overload the bar and look like one of those fools fighting under the load, body quaking and creaking.
Don’t hold your breath.
Don’t shift your weight onto your toes.
Don’t collapse at the hips. You see this a lot in squatters and it’s usually a consequence of one of two reasons: 1) the squatter is not physically capable of correctly lifting the weight selected, or 2) they lack the necessary flexibility to dip lower than 45°. To compensate, and to delude themselves into thinking that they’ve completed the full movement, they fold at the waist. All this does it place massive stress on the lower back thus significantly increasing the risk of injury. Best either to reduce the weight or stop at 45°.
#2: front squat
The technical aspect of the front squat is almost identical to the back squat. There’s one fundamental difference, though, that being the positioning of the bar.
With the front squat, the bar sits on the anterior deltoids as opposed to the trapezius muscles, as with the back squat.
This subtle positional difference shifts a lot of the exercise emphasis onto the anterior leg muscles. Whereas with the back squat the weight is distributed more across the quads and glutes (and lower back if the exercise is performed incorrectly), the front squat focuses primarily on the quads.
The reason being is because the resistance is situated directly above the quadriceps. In addition, with the bar in the ‘front rack’ position, you are able to maintain an upright posture. There’s no hinging at the hips when front squatting, not if you want to avoid rolling the barbell down the gym that is.
Front squat teaching points
Firstly, position the bar on a squat rack so that it is slightly lower than your shoulders.
Manoeuvre yourself under the bar ensuring that you are positioned dead centre. The bar should be resting on the front of your shoulders, your arms crossed over at your front, hands placed on the bar. Note: it helps to raise your elbows as this creates a ledge on which the bar sits (see the image above).
When you’re comfortable, lift the bar off the squat rack and step back.
Before executing the front squat, organise your feet so that they are evenly spaced, and you have created a stable base from which to lift.
Now that you are in the correct position, under control squat down until a 90° angle forms between the calf and hamstring.
Firing through both quads stand up.
If you haven’t performed a front squat before practice with an unloaded bar first.
Take a good step back from the squat rack as you don’t want to catch the bar hooks while squatting.
Always execute the movement under control and maintain command of the weight.
Don’t round the back or hinge forward – if you find that you’re doing this it could be because a) the bar is too heavy; b) you lack the requisite flexibility in the Achilles tendon. To remedy the first reason is obvious. As for the second, either don’t dip down as far or position a couple of blocks under your heels. Alternatively, buy a pair of deadlifting shoes as they feature heel spacers.
#3: overhead squat
Of all the squat variations featured in this article, the overhead squat is the most technically challenging. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a go. Just ensure to observe safe lifting protocol and don’t go heavy. Firstly, master the movement with an unloaded bar or whip out the faithful broomstick.
The overhead squat is a classic Olympic lifting movement that has enjoyed a rise in popularity thanks to CrossFit.
More so than its brothers and sisters, the overhead squat develops serious whole-body strength – especially in the legs, core, and shoulders.
When performing an overhead squat, you are essentially maintaining an isometric contraction in the shoulders and latissimus dorsi muscles.
Overhead squat teaching points
Taking a double-wide handgrip position, the bar is supported directly overhead. You can get the bar in position from the squat rack or by executing a snatch.
The arms are locked out, shoulders back, and you are pulling the bar with either hand as though you are trying to tear it in two. This action improves the stability of the position and helps to keep the bar fixed in position.
When the bar is securely supported, go ahead and perform a squat.
It’s likely that when you near 90°, the bar will start to tip forward thus throwing your posture out of alignment. This is perfectly normal. However, if you continue to squat you will have to abort the exercise by dropping the weight. At full extension, the shoulders simply aren’t strong enough to support even a light bar. One simple way to circumvent this problem, which is a consequence of a lack of flexibility in the Achilles tendon, is to pop a pair of blocks under your heels.
If you’re overhead squatting for the first time, ask an exercise professional to coach you through the technique.
Master the movement with an empty bar or broomstick!
Use spacers under the heels to facilitate the full range of movement.
Don’t rush this exercise. Of course, you shouldn’t rush any exercise. But that is especially important when executing complex movements such as the overhead squat.
Don’t allow the bar to tip forward. If you feel this happening STOP! and then stand back up. Over time, if you practice the exercise enough, you will eventually develop the flexibility that’ll enable you to perform the full range of movement. Until then, either use spacers or be satisfied with a shallower dip at the knee.
#4: goblet squat
Goblet squats are traditionally performed with a kettlebell. But you can just as easily use a single dumbbell.
In many ways the goblet squat shares positional similarities with the front squat. Also, like the front squat, when goblet squatting much of the exercise emphasis is focused on the quadriceps.
But where the goblet squat differs is in how it engages upper body muscle groups. When fixing the kettlebell (or dumbbell) in position, you must maintain an isometric contraction in the core, upper chest, shoulders, and biceps.
In addition, if you want to make an already challenging exercise harder, you can easily transition from a squat into a thruster. All you would do is press the kettlebell above your head when standing out of the squat. For a full treatment of the kettlebell thruster follow the link: How to Perform a Perfect Thruster.
Goblet squat teaching points
Stand directly over the kettlebell.
Grasp the bell ensuring to position your grip so that you are holding the outer edge of the handle. Your thumbs should be pointing to the floor.
Pull the bell back between your legs and swing it up level with your chest.
If you’re in the correct position, the base of the kettlebell should be pointing to the ceiling, the kettlebell poised majestically at your front, and a 90° angle at the elbow joint. If your biceps don’t burn when goblet squatting, you simply ain’t doing it right!
Squat down under control until your forearms touch the top of your thighs.
Return to the start position.
Use a light kettlebell if you are goblet squatting for the first time.
Ensure that your feet are correctly positioned before performing the exercise.
Maintain perfect symmetry when squatting and focus on driving evenly through both legs.
Don’t fold forward at any point during the exercise.
Don’t allow your knees to come together during the downward phase. Postural corruption – rounding of the back, knees coming together, etc. – is a sign that the lifter is a) poorly practiced; b) trying to lift too much weight; or c) lacks flexibility. Much of this improves with practice and patience. Until then, use a light kettlebell or a tin of beans.
Instead of boring you with a pointless conclusion about how awesome the squat is and how, if you’re desirous of developing superior leg strength, you absolutely must include it to your training routine, I’ve instead chosen to conclude this article with a few FAQs.
If after perusing the squat FAQ you have a question of your own, pop it in the comments box below and I’ll endeavour to answer it.
Which squat is best?
That depends on your training objectives. If you just want to build strength in the big muscles of the legs – quadriceps, and glutes – then the standard squat will serve you well.
However, if you want to spice up your leg routine, and at the same time stimulate a broader range of muscle groups, then the overhead or goblet squat will certainly scratch that itch.
For best effect, you ought to mix and match the squat variations outlined above.
Which squat targets the quads?
The front squat, overhead squat, and goblet squat target the quads best. But then a good blast on the standard squat will also beef up those quads.
Are squat shoes worth it?
If you plan on becoming a serious squatter then yes, squat shoes are most definitely worth it. We’ve produced a comprehensive review of squat (aka deadlifting) shoes. In this review, you will discover the benefits of proper lifting shoes as well as a range of excellent products.
Check out the 5 Best Deadlifting Shoes.
Can squat cause back pain?
It certainly can if you fail to maintain the correct form. Lifting too heavy can also cause lower back pain.
You can avoid or minimise lower back pain by mastering squatting technique and lifting lighter loads.
Now that you've mastered the squat, it's time to perfect the deadlift!