The back squat is the single most productive lift you can perform in the gym. It’s the king of exercises, and there are many squat variations that can be valuable additions to your workout. OK, we’ve got the message. The problem is, many do not find squats to be a natural movement and may even find that they cause back and knee pain. Here is what to do about it.
Not being able to perform a specific type of squat comfortable often comes down to two issues: lack of flexibility or lack of stability. For example, you may experience back pain if your calves are tight because you will be forced to compensate by leaning forward excessively. You may also experience knee pain if you have flat (valgus) feet, a condition often caused by structural imbalances that can cause your knees to buckle inward excessively. So it’s not just a matter of “stretching whatever is tight” to squat well, but also “strengthening whatever is weak.”
The easiest way to assess structural problems in the squat is by performing an overhead squat, a simple test that only requires a stick. Because this is a dynamic assessment, it will be helpful to videotape the test so you can review your performance more carefully.
The test is performed barefoot because shoes can influence the results. Grasp the bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width and extend your arms overhead. From this starting position, squat down as far as possible without lifting your heels, then stand up. Videotape the movement from the front, back, and sides.
If you are structurally balanced, you should be able to perform the exercise with no discomfort. You should be able to squat all the way down with your arms straight and behind your ears, and keep your knees aligned with the long toes during the descent. There should also be no shifting of the hips to one side as you perform the movement. Deficiencies in any of these areas could affect your ability to perform squats comfortably and safely.
In addition to performing specific strengthening and stretching exercises for muscles that are structurally balanced, consider that performing the overhead squat as a warm-up exercise is an effective way to increase mobility and stability. Wearing weightlifting shoes is also a good idea. Besides being sturdy which increases your stability, these shoes have an elevated heel that helps compensate for tight calves. With this background, let’s take a closer look at some squat variations.
Back Squat. To get the most out of back squats, you should squat so that the tops of the upper thighs descend to a point where they are at least parallel to the floor – although we would prefer that you squat all the way down. Squatting above parallel can cause structural imbalances and reduce the overall effectiveness of the lift. Further, squatting low places less stress on the patellofemoral joint.
Rounding your back or leaning excessively forward during the squat can place excessive stress on the lower vertebrae of the spine (L3, L4, and L5). Often, these problems are caused by tight calves. Wearing weightlifting shoes or squatting with your heels on two thin weight plates will often allow you to squat lower comfortable; although if you do this, you should still be stretching the calves so that you can eventually squat low with such assistance. As a general rule, however, if you cannot squat deep without good technique or if it causes pain, you are not ready for deep squats – at least, not yet.
Wide-Stance Squats. Using a squatting style that has your feet positioned much wider than shoulder-width, a technique often used by many powerlifters, reduces the involvement of the quads. Powerlifters often use this style because it enables them to lift the most amount of weight in competition, although a hyper-wide stance does not allow many lifters to descend to a depth that would pass in some powerlifting federations.
Box Squats. Box squats, which involve squatting to a sturdy box or platform, dissipates the kinetic energy created during the descent, forcing the muscles to work harder during the upward (concentric) portion of the lift. It’s an especially popular exercise among many powerlifters. There is an issue with using especially heavy weights in the exercise or dropping too quickly during the descent, as these actions could be harmful to the spine.
High-Bar and Low Bar Squats. How you place the bar on the upper back influences how much stress is placed on the major muscles used in squatting. For example, squatting with the bar lower on the back increases the work of the hamstrings and lower back, and squatting with the bar higher on the back increases the work of the quads. Because those using the low bar squat tend not to squat as deep, they may need to supplement their training with exercises such as lunges or split squats to work the legs through a full range of motion.
Front Squat and Safety Squat. Many strength coaches believe the front squat is a better exercise than the back squat because it works the quads more effectively and is more specific to many movements that occur in sports. The primary reason many athletes avoid the exercise is mobility issues in the wrists, triceps, and upper back. Possible solutions include working on upper body flexibility, holding the bar on your fingertips (with elbows high), crossing your arms in front of you, and wrapping lifting straps around the bar and holding the straps rather than the bar. Another solution is the safety squat, which is a padded bar designed so that the weight plates are positioned more forward of your center of mass than a back squat.
Heels Elevated Squat. Elevating the heels with a barbell on the back more closely resembles the movement of a front squat, but without the limitations of upper body flexibility. It is especially popular with bodybuilders seeking to increase the size of their quads. Angled platforms are available for this type of squat that are more stable than placing your heels on thin weight plates.
Squats with Chains and Bands. Using chains or bands makes the exercise more difficult at the finish of the exercise, more closely matching the strength curve of the muscles. They also enable you to push harder longer as they help decelerate the bar -- this effect is believed to be useful in improving overall power, more specifically jumping ability. Chains provided gradually increasing resistance. Bands provide dramatic increases in resistance at the end-range, and also larger eccentric forces when coming down. Bands are also more difficult to master than chains, and should not be performed without instructions from a qualified coach with experience in using this equipment.
From these variations, there are many other types of squats that can be performed, such as pause squats, which involve pausing at a specific part of the lift. There is also the option of one-and-one-quarter squats; this variation involves squatting all the way down, coming up 20-30 degrees, going back down and then come all the way up. This exercise is often used to emphasize the development of the vastus medialis, a quadriceps muscle shaped like a teardrop crosses the knee joint and strongly influences knee stability.
Regardless of the type of squat you perform, consider that anatomical differences can affect how a squat is performed. For example, some individuals are more comfortable squatting with their feet pointed almost straight ahead, while others are more comfortable with their feet flared outward at a 45-degree angle. Those with relatively long femurs (upper thigh bones) usually have to lean forward more in the bottom of the squat. The bottom line is that you have to experiment to determine what techniques are best for you.
Squats are certainly the king of exercises, and there are many variations of the lift that can help you achieve your goals faster. Consider the advice in this article and enjoy your time in the squat rack.