Updated: Jun 21
THE “KING” OF ALL EXERCISES?
For as long as I have been training, which is coming up on 25 years next year, I have heard the squat being called the king of exercises. Others say it is the deadlift, or maybe the full Olympic clean, due to the magnitude of motor units used to complete these lifts. Others may argue that the deadlift overall uses more muscle and is more demanding, but I’m not fully on board with that notion.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter, nor is there a definitive answer on which is “the best”, since we all have different training experiences, coaching experiences, body types and training goals. So really, it is subjective at best and arguing about it is not time worthy.
I personally love the squat. In one way or another, I squat every client I have. Some may perform only the goblet squat, front squat, specialty bars (cambered, safety bar), heel elevated versions only, or single leg variations. Either way, the multi-joint actions and global body coordination required, make the squat a highly effective tool for virtually anyone when selected and prescribed appropriately.
With that said, I REALLY like working to build big squats. Powerlifting and Olympic lifting present their own unique arena to test one's physical limits, and the usage of the squat for non-barbell sports is widely accepted and I personally use them year round with a large number of my athletes.
So, with so much acceptance for a lift, comes a LOT of people trying to build their squat, or at least to some degree utilize its variants in their own programming to achieve a particular goal.
Below I’ll address some top of mind points that everyone should consider if trying to optimize their squat performance, or even better to decide how, where and in what capacity to include squat styles.
ADDRESS THE BASICS FIRST
LEARN TO SQUAT PROPERLY
Often times, the #1 reason most people struggle with the squat, or feel uncomfortable squatting, is that they have not been shown how to squat PROPERLY.
It is easy to know what a squat is, what it looks like and that it consists of a fairly simple looking movement pattern, and any Google or YouTube search will yield more than enough information. The take away message here is that you need to figure out what works for you and your own structural architecture, and the list of variables is surprisingly extensive if we really dissect it:
Personal variables to consider:
Stance width (wide, standard, narrow stance)
Injury history affecting range of motion (ROM) or impacting your confidence under load
Toe angle (the degree to which the feet are turned out relative to straight)
Torso and limb lengths. These cannot be altered and will be the primary factor affecting the style and shape you can achieve in any exercise
Depth appropriate for your hip and ankle mobility (could vary over time and can be improved)
Grip width (wide, medium, narrow)
Grip style (full grip, false grip, placement position on specialty bars, etc…)
Bar placement and elbow position based on bar placement (high bar, low bar, front rack, arms straight in front, cross arm front rack)
I am going to make a statement that I really do believe in- and I accept that it may ruffle some feathers…Learning how to squat from an experienced professional who has helped a lot of different people succeed, is not the same as hiring any personal trainer.
This is important and worth mentioning for several reasons:
Education matters- Having someone who understands anatomy, joint architecture and biomechanics involved in the squat will ensure you are taught how YOU should be squatting and set realistic expectations on depth, foot stance, width and suitable squat styles.
It is unfortunate to say this, but becoming a personal trainer is not overly difficult. Many certifications require a very minimal set of skills to be demonstrated, minimal total curriculum to be covered and simply are not set up in a manner that can prepare a new personal trainer for the diversity that each new client will bring to the table. Over time, these skills can be learned by working extensively in the trenches , however that will only happen if a personal trainer stays in the game for the long term, is driven to continue with their education and have the right people around (or travel to learn from them) to develop the coaching skills required to identify individual nuances. Unfortunately, lack of client success and thus low client retention (leading to low income), is a factor that leads to many short lived personal training careers.
The sooner you learn the finer details of squatting, the faster you will get progress and minimize risk of injury.
Master THE SKILL of the SQUAT by doing it MORE frequently
For beginners, performing the same movement everyday, is not an issue, since the actual stress being applied is so low, that cumulative fatigue and tissue damage is not of concern. If you want to get better at squatting (or anything for that matter), you should consider doing it more often, until you reach a point of diminishing return. For advanced lifters, high frequency can be incredibly effective, however needs to be programmed appropriately and the entire training cycle adjusted to account for the accumulated training stress. For the scope of this article, we will stay clear for now of high frequency squatting for the advanced lifter.
There are a few simple ways to incorporate a high frequency squatting strategy:
1. Perform some light weight daily squatting (this could be daily bodyweight squats to develop a better pattern and coordination for beginners, or low weight goblet squats for intermediates or advanced lifters)
2. Adding various squat styles in the run of a week (more important if you are past the stages of a beginner, to alter the training stress and improve adaptation). This may mean for the intermediate lifter, that you perform a 3 day training week that looks something like this:
Mon: . Back squat 3 x 10
Wed- Front loaded rear foot elevated split squat 3 x 8/leg
Fri- Front squat Work up to a 5RM + 2 x 8 @ 10% less than top load
3. Use squats as a finisher on all training days. A simple example for after all main exercises are completed is to perform 50-100 strict bodyweight squats in as few sets as possible. This will be surprising harder than one would think, and if technique has been taught and position and depth is maintained, it will produce a robust adaptive stimulus for the newbie or intermediate lifter!
*IF you are an advanced lifter and your squat has stalled, here are my point form recommendations:
1. Prioritize the squat in the workout. Even for an Olympic lifters, this may mean only 1 snatch or clean variation before moving into squats (typically we would perform 2-3 lift specific variations or combos first in the training session)
2. Increase your frequency (this could mean squatting 3 days instead of 2, or changing from upper/lower body splits to full body splits with squat variations being top priority)
3. Use an undulating periodization model (high/low) during the course of a week. Using various rep ranges paired with exercise variations that address weaknesses in order to allow appropriate recovery from the higher stress training days
4. Use tempos and pauses to improve various positions and balance. A simple 3 second eccentric can do wonders to improve positional control or tension awareness. Likewise, a pause at any particular joint angle will improve recruitment and control within a few degrees of this joint angle used. Strength is very angle and plane specific, so isolating weak points along a bar path can quickly address a limiting position.
5. Use accommodating resistance like bands and chains to overload a particular segment of a lift (less effective for the raw lifter, but will have some degree of transfer to the lift as a whole if it appropriately addresses a very weak point in the lift)
6. Use multiple squatting styles each week (front squat, back squat, safety bar squat, wide stance, heel elevated, cambered bar squat, etc…)
7. Add more muscle. If you have been focusing on strength for quite some time and you are a competent lifter, you really just may need to add more muscle. Get your protein and calories up and focus on more volume to drive hypertrophic adaptations. A bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle, so sometimes you just need to get bigger.
8. Find the lifts you are weakest at and that you would expect to be able to lift more weight, then do those exercises. No one likes focusing on the things they are not good at (I know some of my athletes really dislike doing things they feel weak at), but if you have to do a good morning out of the hole on a squat when you get above 90%, there is a pretty good chance your quads could use some direct work and addressing it will have a big payoff.
A sample higher frequency week for the advanced lifter could look like this, and could be ran for 3-4 weeks before a deload, depending on the lifter and other work being completed:
Mon: . Back squat 3RM
Tue- Paused front squat 1RM @ 9RPE (meaning they could have completed 1 additional rep if needed)
Thu- Safety bar good morning 3 x 5 (wide stance, all work sets within 10% of top load for the day @ 8RPE)
Fri- Front squat 3 x 3 @ 90% of Tuesdays 1RM (no pause)
Sat- Back squat 5 x 5 @ 80% (this day is designed to include more total volume @ effective load percentages before having an entire day off)
addressing your individual weaknesses
Weaknesses can come in many forms. A weakness or missed lift could come from either a technical issue, a muscular/physical weakness or from being psychologically unprepared. Of course, it could also be a combination of many variables.
Identifying weaknesses or having someone else help you identify them is a big step towards making a plan that will tighten the bolts and make your other exercise selections more appropriate for you.
Having a well-designed plan is important for strength more than it is for hypertrophy. Adding muscle requires just as much hard work, but comes with a different set of stimulatory requirements.
Developing an efficient nervous system is a major component to getting stronger and more powerful, whereas building muscle is more reliant on applying appropriate stresses to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and then supporting those processes with recovery, nutrition and general stress management.
Building muscle requires direct stimulation to the target tissues and fibers, whereas strength focuses more on the body as a system producing force and the muscle and joints involved working as required to complete a motor task or movement. Yes they go hand in hand, but there are glaring difference that make it worth the mention.
PHYSICAL, TECHNICAL AND MENTAL LIMITATIONS AFFECTING THE SQUAT:
Balance/stability at a certain position during the lift (technical, or physical limitation)
Lack of muscle mass in primary muscles involved (physical limitation)
Inadequate ankle or hip mobility (mobility limitation or physical structural issue due to injury)
Weak spinal extensors (physical limitation)
Weak adductors- specifically adductor magnus (physical limitation)
Weak quads or hips (physical limitation)
Weak glutes (physical limitation)
Weak obliques or lats, needed to properly transmit force from the legs and stabilize the trunk into a proper position (physical limitation)
Not being amped up enough for a tough set of squats (mental limitation or poor training environment:
Nervousness from previous injury, leading to mental inhibition and low force production (mental limitation leading to physical limitation)
Squatting in general is a very natural movement, but it has variables affecting its execution. For some things, we can pick low hanging fruit and address them quickly and with ease (such as performing 1-2 sets of squats with just your bodyweight everyday to improve balance), while other situations, like an advanced lifter stalling, requires more thought and planning.
In part 2 of this squat series, we will discuss the primary musculature involved, identifying specific weaknesses and how to address them in programs.
Keep things simple, but know when to dig a little deeper!