The squat is one of the best exercises for athletes and the general population. By including the different squat variations in your workouts you can get all the following benefits:
* Build a great-looking body
* Increase leg strength and power
* Jump higher and run faster
* Improve flexibility and coordination
* Build strong muscles and bones
This article will review the new research on how to get the greatest training results from squats and briefly address some of the misconceptions surrounding the squat.
#1: Don’t Be Afraid To Squat ALL THE WAY DOWN
A common misconception is that full squats in which you go all the way down below parallel to a point where the hamstring covers the calf should be avoided because they are “bad for the knees.”
This bogus idea comes in part from the concern that it is bad for the knee to travel forward over the toes, as they do during full squats.
But there’s no evidence to back this claim up. In fact, restricting the knee motion in the squat causes poor movement patterns. On the other hand, allowing the knee to move freely during a deep squat motion builds passive (tendon and ligament) and active (muscle) tissue strength.
Many motions of daily life are best performed when the knee travels forward over the toes: Did you know that every time you go up and down the stairs the knee travels comes forward?
It’s true, which makes deep squat training a must if you want to perform both athletic skills and daily life activities with ease.
The Bottom Line
Training full squats can improve functional mobility and help you avoid pain or dysfunction associated with movements in which the knee travels forward—stair climbing, pivoting, or squatting down to pick a heavy box up off the floor.
#2: Train Full Squats For Optimal Lower Body Strength
The fear about full squats being bad for the knees also comes from the concern that there is an increase in compressive force on the knee in the lowest part of the squat.
In fact, biomechanical analysis shows that the highest compressive force on the knee is at a 90-degree knee flexion angle—with your thigh just about parallel to the ground.
In one study, when trainees did parallel squats and made sure their knees did not travel forward past the toes, they experienced much greater force on the hip joint than when the full squat was trained. Restricting the forward motion of the knee altered the trainees’ center of mass, increasing the force at the hip and the proportion of load on the lower back.
On the other hand, as you squat lower, the contact between the back of the thigh and the calf reduces the knee-joint forces. In addition, the quadriceps tendon and the intercondylar notch, a deep groove on the end of your thighbone, causes a “wrapping effect” that allows for better distribution of the load.
Training full squats can help you develop strong healthy knees so you’re able to do this motion safely. For example, because full squats lead to advantageous adaptations in the ligaments and tendons surrounding the knee, measurements of knee stability in deep-squatting weightlifters was higher compared to 10K runners or basketball players.
The Bottom Line: Due to the “wrapping effect,” deep squat training leads to lower forces on the knee joint than partial squats. Deep squats also increase muscular strength and adaptations of passive knee tissue, which has a protective effect when you are running, jumping, or walking up stairs.
#3: Train The Posterior Chain With Deep Back Squats
Research suggests that the hamstrings, glutes, quads, and calves are all maximally trained as squat depth increases. For example, one study suggested that the best way to train the gluteus and hamstrings is with a heavy load (over 80 percent of the 1RM) and to go deep.
As both load and depth increased, the posterior chain performed more work—even the calves contributed during the heaviest 90 percent load when trainees squatted all the way down.
Full squats also train the muscles of the abdominal area and lower back, without putting excessive amounts of force on the spine. For example, physical education students were able to lift a quarter back squat load that was 4 times greater than a deep back squat.
However, such high loads put unnecessary compressive force on the spine that are unlikely to be stabilized by the back musculature, making the back, not the legs, the performance-limiting factor—not good! Deep squats, which require lighter loads, protect the spinal vertebra and have been found to beneficially increase bone mineral density.
Practical evidence of the superiority of full squats on posterior chain strength is with a study that found that in experienced recreational trainees, deep squats are more effective for increasing jump height than partials.
The Bottom Line: Full squats are a super bang for your buck exercise because they will build a bulletproof lower back and powerful glutes and hamstrings. Use them as a primary training lift to increase jump height.
#4: Train Unilateral Squats For Structural Balance—Essential For Novices
The bilateral back squat may be the “king” of all exercises, however, unilateral squats are just as important as a fundamental lift. One of the principal outcomes of recent squat-related studies is a reinforcement of the value of single-leg training:
* The bilateral overhead squat won’t reveal all imbalances, especially to an inexperienced evaluator. Unilateral evaluations are necessary to identify muscle imbalances.
* Having one side of the body stronger than the other impairs strength and power development in compound lifts like the back squat because it results in uneven force output and excessive horizontal bar displacement. Split squats and step-up variations can build structural balance and promote bilateral symmetry for a better squat.
* Scientists recently found that Bulgarian split squats and regular squats complement each other: The barbell back squat trained the agonist muscles of the quads more, whereas the Bulgarian squat was advantageous for the antagonists of the hamstrings, the lower back, and core muscles. Include both in your training program to prevent incorrect strength ratios in the muscles.
The Bottom Line
Single-leg squats should be a staple in every program to promote balance and train proper movement patterns. Beginners should start with front-foot elevated split squats to build strength and flexibility before moving on to regular split squats, lunges, or Bulgarian squats.
#5: Use Squat Variations To Overcome Plateaus
Once you have base levels of strength, you can use squat variations to continue getting better everyday.
A heavy full-range front squat is excellent for training vertical acceleration, and the arm position mimics the catch position of the power clean, making it an essential lift for athletes. The front squat activates the abdominals, the quads, and the lower back. If there is legitimate concern about the compressive force on the knee from full-range back squats, deep front squats can be used since they place less force on the knee.
Speed squats are popular amongst athletes, but you want to be cautious with them because the high degree of acceleration achieved during the concentric down motion puts a lot of compressive force on the knee. Weightlifters have the soft tissue adaptations that can tolerate this increased stress, but most sport athletes who are looking to support their athletic performance don’t.
Therefore, for the deep squat, athletes will generally benefit from a controlled eccentric phase with a 3- or 4-second tempo to reduce force on the knee.
Half & Quarter Squats
Partial-range squats can occasionally be trained by advanced lifters and athletes to overcome a plateau, but never at the exclusion of deep squats. For instance, a study that used trained athletes showed that power and force output were greatest when athletes did partial squats using an 83 percent of the 1RM load. Velocity was greatest with full squats using a lighter 67 percent load.
This provides an example of how variations can be used for athletes to train speed and a quick first step for short sprints (do full range squats), and power and force for contact sports (do heavy partials).
The Bottom Line
A commitment to full-range training is critical. For advanced trainees, specificity and partial-range lifts may allow you to overcome plateaus, but you must program them with strategic precision.
#6: Not Everyone Should Squat The Same
A lot has been written about how people with different body sizes or limb lengths need to squat differently. Recent research shows that there are gender differences in proper squat technique.
Female athletes possess significantly lower vertebrae strength in the spine than males. As long as proper progressions are used, this doesn’t pose a problem and training will significantly increase bone mineral density in the spine in both genders.
In addition, women have greater hamstring flexibility than men. They also have less stiffness and a greater range of motion of the lumbar spine than men, suggesting they are capable of developing more muscular stabilization of the lumbar region.
These differences lead women to tend to lean forward more during squats, particularly during fatiguing lifting conditions with a high volume.
Scientists highlight the importance of training females to maintain the lordotic posture (natural arch in the lower back) as they reach the bottom and reverse out of the deep squat. Naturally, men will benefit from this as well since it is optimal technique and has helped weightlifters improve technique in the clean and jerk.
The Bottom Line
Both men and women should focus on developing perfect technique when doing squats because this will increase the strength of the spine, while training the body to handle heavy loads safely.