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The Squat

The squat should be a standard exercise in any lifters program. Whether the goal is
strength, hypertrophy (increase in muscle size), increased accelerative ability, or a
heightened vertical jump, the squat is the tool for the task. In addition to working
the muscles of the legs, hips, lower back, abdomen, and obliques, the demands of
squatting should stimulate a growth response from the body that will carry over into
strength and size increases in other areas.

The basic technique of the squat consists in placing a loaded barbell across the
shoulders, then bending at the hips and knees, descending into the bottom position,
“the hole,” and returning to an erect position. We will examine the squat from the
deck up.

Stance. This varies from individual to individual, but one thing is necessary for all
who wish progress: you must keep your feet flat on the deck at all times. The center
of gravity may be maintained over the center of the foot, but it is generally best to
push through the heels. This will help in maintaining bar position and help eliminate
a small degree of forward lean. To achieve this, some people find it necessary to
curls the toes upward while squatting, forcing their heels flat. The feet should be
placed at least shoulder width apart, and some individuals may best utilize a stance
nearly twice shoulder width. The narrower stance tends to place more direct
emphasis on the quads, and creates a longer path for the bar to travel. The wider
stance (often called “sumo”) tends to be favored by many powerlifters, although
some have enjo great success with a relatively narrow stance. The sumo stance
place more emphasis on the adductors and hamstrings. As a rule of thumb, lifters
with longer legs will need a wider stance than shorter individuals. However, there
are exceptions. A wider stance will tend to recruit both the adductors and buttocks
to a greater degree than a narrow stance. (1)

The shins should be a close to vertical as possible throughout the entire movement.
This lessens the opening of the knee joint, and reduces the shearing force as well.
By reducing the workload that the knee joint is required to handle, more of the work
is accomplished by the larger muscles around the hip joint. For powerlifters, this
decreases the distance one must travel with the bar, as the further the knee moves
forward, the lower the hips must descend to break parallel.

There are several schools of thought on squat depth. Many misinformed individuals
caution against squatting below parallel, stating that this is hazardous to the knees.
Nothing could be further from the truth. (2) Stopping at or above parallel places
direct stress on the knees, whereas a deep squat will transfer the load to the
hips,(3) which are capable of handling a greater amount of force than the knees
should ever be exposed to. Studies have shown that the squat produces lower peak
tibeo-femoral(stress at the knee joint) compressive force than both the leg press
and the leg extension.(4) For functional strength, one should descend as deeply as
possible, and under control. (yes, certain individuals can squat in a ballistic manner,
but they are the exception rather than the rule). The further a lifter descends, the
more the hamstrings are recruited, and proper squatting displays nearly twice the
hamstring involvement of the leg press or leg extension. (5,6) and as one of the
functions of the hamstring is to protect the patella tendon (the primary tendon
involved in knee extension) during knee extension through a concurrent firing
process, the greatest degree of hamstring recruitment should provide the greatest
degree of protection to the knee joint. (7) When one is a powerlifter, the top surface
of the legs at the hip joint must descend to a point below the top surface of the legs
at the knee joint.

Knee injuries are one of the most commonly stated problems that come from
squatting, however, this is usually stated by those who do not know how to squat. A
properly performed squat will appropriately load the knee joint, which improves
congruity by increasing the compressive forces at the knee joint. (8,(9) which
improves stability, protecting the knee against shear forces. As part of a long-term
exercise program, the squat, like other exercises, will lead to increased collagen
turnover and hypertrophy of ligaments. (10,11) At least one study has shown that
international caliber weightlifters and powerlifters experience less clinical or
symptomatic arthritis. (12) Other critics of the squat have stated that it decreases
the stability of the knees, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Studies have
shown that the squat will increase knee stability by reducing joint laxity, as well as
decrease anterior-posterior laxity and translation. (13,14) The squat is, in fact, being
used as a rehabilitation exercise for many types of knee injuries, including ACL
repair. (15)

One of the most, if not the most critical factor in squatting is spinal position. It is
incredibly important not to round the back. This can lead to problems with the lower
back, and upper back as well. The back should be arched, and the scae retracted, to
avoid injury. This position must be maintained throughout the entire lift, as rounding
on the way up is even more common than rounding on the way down, and people
who make this mistake are the ones who perpetuate the “squats are bad for your
back” myth. Furthermore, spinal position is essential to maintaining a proper
combined center of gravity (CCOG). The farther one leans forward or, even worse,
rounds the back, the more strain the erectors are forced to bear, and the less the
abdominals can contribute to the lift. To say nothing of the fact that the greater the
lean, the greater the shearing force placed on the vertebrae. Proper spinal
alignment will assist in ensuring that the majority of the force the spine must bear is
compressive in nature, as it should be. Another reason for descending below parallel
is that the sacrum undergoes a process known as nutation (it tilts forward, relative
to the two ilia on either side of it). At only 90 degrees of knee flexion, the sacrum is
still tilted backward, which inhibits proper firing of the erectors and gluteus
maximus and minimus. Going through a full range of motion completes the rotation
of the sacrum and allows maximal muscular recruitment.

“Squats are bad for your back” is yet another cry of the weak of both leg and spirit.
While an improperly performed squat can cause problems, so can improperly
performed barbell curl, yet many of the people who use the squat rack only to curl
do not seem to have a problem strengthening their elbow flexors. While the squat
can be hazardous to the back among the untrained who often incline the torso to an
unsafe degree, as well as round the back, skilled athletes have been shown to
minimize trunk segment torques by maintaining a more erect posture. (16) It has
been positively shown that maintaining an upright torso during the squatting motion
reduces both spinal compression and shear forces. (17) Several studies have shown
that weightlifters experience not only less back injury and pain that many other
athletes, but often even less than inactive individuals, which clearly displays that a
proper weight training program, which includes squatting, is beneficial in avoiding
injury. (18,19)

The placement of the bar is another very important consideration when squatting. If
one places the bar high on the traps, more emphasis will be placed on the quads,
and a low bar squat recruits more of the lower back and hamstrings, by virtue of
back extension, simply because the lower the bar is placed, the greater the degree
of forward lean. Even when high bar squatting, the bar should NEVER be placed on
the neck. This is far more stress than the cervical vertebrae should be forced to
bear. When a powerlifter squats with a low bar position, the bar should be placed no
lower than three centimeters below the top of the anterior deltoids. For other lifters,
comfort and flexibility will go a long way towards determining bar positioning. When
gripping the bar, at first it is best to place your hands as close together as possible,
to maintain tension in the upper back, and to avoid any chance of the bar slipping.
As a general rule, the lower you place the bar, the wider your hands will have to be.
Anything placed between the bar and the lifter, such as a pad or towel, decreases
the force of friction and increases the chance of the bar slipping. It is to avoid
injuries that this practice is banned in competition. Also, this will artificially raise the
lifter’s CCOG, which makes it harder to balance under a heavy load.

Look slightly upward when squatting, to avoid rounding the upper back. The
movement should be initiated from the hips, by pushing the glutes back, not down.
This will assist in keeping the shins vertical. On the way down, keep the torso as
close to vertical as possible, continue to push the hips back, and push the knees out
to the sides, avoiding the tendency to allow them to collapse inward. The manner in
which the lifter descends will greatly influence the manner in which the ascent is
made. When the necessary depth is achieved, begin ascending by pushing the head
back, and continue to concentrate on pushing the knees outward.

One of the most common mistakes made while squatting, or performing any
exercise for that matter, is improper breathing. At first, the lifter should inhale on
the way down, and exhale on the way up. Many advanced lifters will take several
large breaths, hold it all in on the way down, and then exhale forcefully at their
sticking point on the way up. This technique, known as the “Partial Valsalva,”
requires practice like any other.

There are many other types of squats, but all of them are secondary to the squat
itself, which is appropriately termed the “King of Exercises.”

The front squat is performed in a similar manner, but the bar is held in the clean
position, across the anterior deltoids, not the clavicles. The hands should be slightly
wider than shoulder width, and the elbows should be elevated as much as possible.
The bar is maintained as high as possible by elevating the elbows. This allows the
lifter to maintain a more upright posture, and increases the emphasis on the glutes,
while lessening the involvement of the lower back. This exercise may allow a lifter
who lacks the flexibility required to perform a full squat achieve a reasonable depth
while improving flexibility. The front squat will place far more emphasis on the
quadriceps muscles and less recruitment of the hamstrings takes place. 7 (20)
When comparing the squat to other exercises, it is important to note that the squat
causes less compressive force to the knee joint, and greater hamstring activation,
than both the leg press and the leg extension. (21)

Another por type of squatting exercise is the split squat (“lunge”). In this type of
squat, the legs are placed at approximately shoulder width, but one foot is out in
front of the athlete and one is placed to the rear, as if a lifter has just completed the
jerk portion of the clean and jerk. The athlete descends by bending the front leg
until the knee is slightly forward of the toes. The shin of the front leg should be ten
degrees past perpendicular to the floor. It is important to maintain an upright
posture when doing so. As when squatting, co-activation of the hamstring serves to
protect the knee joint during flexion, (22) which is very important as often a greater
degree of flexion will occurring when performing the split squat.

Certain misinformed and so-called “personal trainers” will have people squat in a
smith machine, which is, quite simply, an idea both hideous and destructive. This is
often done under the misguided “squat this way until you are strong enough to
perform a regular squat” premise. Even if one overlooks the obvious fact that it is
better to learn to do something right than build bad habits from the start, there are
numerous other factors to be considered. The smith machine stabilizes the bar for
the lifter, which does not teach the skill of balancing the bar, balance being
important to any athlete, as well as the fact that free weight squatting strengthens
the synergists which goes a long way to preventing injuries. A chain is only as
strong as its weakest link, and the smith machine leaves far too many weak links. To
say nothing of the fact that free weights provide a greater transfer of functional
strength than machines. (23)Furthermore, the bar moves straight up and down, and
very few people squat in this manner, which means that the smith machine does
not fit a lifters optimal strength curve. (24) The smith machine also requires that the
lifter either squats with his torso much closer to vertical than would be done with a
real squat, which mechanically decreases the involvement of both the spinal
erectors and the hamstrings. While this would be fine if it was done by the lifters
muscular control, when the smith machine does this it is disadvantageous to the
lifter by virtue of decreasing the ability of the hamstrings to protect the knee joint.
Another mistake made, aside from simply using it in the first place, is allow the
knees to drift forward over the toes, the chance of which is increased by the smith
machine. As was previously mentioned, this greatly increases the shearing force on
the knees. This from a device touted by the ignorant as “safe.”

There is a great debate about the use of belts when squatting, some sources insist
that you must wear one, while others state quite the opposite. It is worth noting that
there are plusses and minuses to wearing one. Using a proper belt while squatting
can serve to increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) which will serve to stabilize the
spinal column, reducing compressive forces acting upon the spine and reducing
back muscle forces. (25) However, muscle activity of the trunk appears to be
significantly reduced when using a weight belt, which can lead to the muscles of the
trunk receiving a less than optimal stimulus when using a belt. (26) Other
proponents of belt use have shown that the use of a properly designed power belt
may improve a lifter's explosive power by increasing the speed of the movement
without compromising the joint range of motion or overall lifting technique. (27)

There are numerous methods of utilizing the squat in any athlete’s training
program. While a variety of rep and set ranges are optimal for a bodybuilder who
wishes to maximize hypertrophy, an athlete’s must carefully plan a training
program to meet their goals. Even though squatting will lead to gains in size,
strength, and jumping ability, the more specific the program, the greater the
results. When an untrained subject begins lifting, numerous programs produce gains
in practically all areas, but this changes rapidly, with limited progress being made
unless something is altered. (28)

To utilize the squat to gain in size is both simple and complex. Individuals will
respond to a variety of rep ranges in different manners based on fiber type, training
history, biomechanics, injuries, etc. Bodybuilders, who are concerned exclusively
with gains in size, should squat heavy, as fast-twitch muscle fibers have the
greatest potential for hypertrophy. However, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (growth of
muscle tissue outside of the sarcoplasmic reticulum) will contribute to overall
muscular size, and is obtained by training with lighter weights and higher reps. Rate
of training is once again an individual decision, but as a general rule, the greater
the volume of training, including time under tension (TUT) per workout, the longer
one must wait before recovery is optimized, allowing supercompensation to take
place. A word of caution about performing higher repetitions while squatting: As the
set progresses, the degree of forward lean increases. While this is desirable to
increase the stress on the hamstrings, it takes the emphasis off of the quadriceps,
as well as increases the risk of injury. (29)

An athlete wishing to improve his vertical jump should not only squat, but perform a
variety of assistance work specific to both improving squatting strength as well as
specifically improving jumping skill. As jumping requires a great expenditure of force
in a minimal amount of time, exercises such as squatting should be performed to
increase muscle power, as muscle cross-sectional area significantly correlates to
force output. (30) When wishing to increase one’s power through squatting to assist
in the vertical jump, one must train to generate a high degree of force.(31 ,32 ,33 )
This is done by squatting a dynamic manner, where one is attempting to generate a
large amount of power while using submaximal weights. This has been shown to
provide a great training stimulus for improving the vertical jump. (34) A program
consisting of a session once-weekly heavy squatting, ballistic lifting, and plyometric
training, with each being performed during a separate workout, should provide
maximal stimulus while allowing maximal recovery and supercompensation.(35,36)

When training to improve one’s overall squatting ability, expressed as a one-

repetition maximum (1rm), once again a variety of programs may be utilized. The
most common is a simple periodized program where, over time, the training weight
is increased and the number of repetitions decreases. This sort of program is
utilized by both Weightlifters and Powerlifters alike. A sample periodized program is
included in Appendix B. Some sources state that you must train to failure, while
others state that one should train until form begins to break down, leaving a small
reserve of strength but reducing the risk of injury. It should be stated that there is
no evidence that indicates training to failure produces a greater training stimulus
than traditional volume training.

Far and away the most complicated, and controversial training program is the
conjugate training method. Using this method one trains to develop maximal
acceleration in the squat during one workout, and in another workout (72 hours
later) generate maximum intensity in a similar exercise to the squat. This is based
on an incredibly lengthy study by A. S. Prelepin, one of the greatest sports
physiologists of the former Soviet Union. (37) This method also uses the practice of
compensatory acceleration, where an athlete attempts to generate as much force
as possible, by not only generating maximal acceleration, but by continuing to
attempt to increase acceleration as the lifter’s leverage improves. The addition of
chains or bands can increase the workload as well as force the athlete to work
harder to accelerate the bar. Utilizing this system, the squat is trained for low
repetitions (2) but a high number of sets (10 – 12), with training intensities being 50
– 70% of the athlete’s 1rm. Rest periods are short (45 – 75 seconds), and the squats
are often performed on a box, which breaks up the eccentric-concentric chain, and
inhibits the stretch reflex, forcing the athlete to generate the initial acceleration out
of the bottom of the lift without the benefit of the elasticity of the muscle structure.

During the second workout, an exercise which taxes the muscles recruited when
squatting, but not an actual squat, is performed for very low repetitions (1-3, usually
one). The goal on this day is to improve neuromuscular coordination by increased
motor unit recruiting, increased rate coding, and motor unit synchronization. This
allows the athlete to continue to generate maximal intensity week after week, but
by rotating exercises regularly optimal performance is maintained. For one
microcycle, a squat-like exercise is performed, such as a box squat, rack squat, or
front squat is performed, then the athlete switches to a different type of exercise,
such as good mornings, performed standing, seated, from the rack, etc. for another
microcycle, then switches exercises again, often to a pulling type exercise such as
deadlifts with a variety of stances, from pins, from a platform, or any number of
other variations. Once again, chains or bands may be added to increase the
workload. A sample training program is included in Appendix B, and a variety of
maximal effort exercises can be found in Appendix C.

Assistance work for the squat is of the utmost importance. The primary muscles
which contribute to the squat, in no particular order, are the quadriceps,
hamstrings, hip flexors/extensors, abdominals, and spinal erectors. When an athlete
fails to rise from the bottom of a squat, it is important to note that not all of the
muscles are failing simultaneously. Rather, a specific muscle will fail, and the key to
progress is identifying the weakness, then strengthening it. A partial list of
assistance exercises is provided in Appendix D. While it is impossible to simply state
that if x happens when squatting, it is muscle y that is causing the problem, some
general guidelines follow. If a lifter fails to rise from the bottom of a squat, it
generally indicates either a weakness in the hip flexors and extensors, or a lack of
acceleration due to inhibition of the golgi tendon organ (no stretch reflex – train with
lighter weight and learn to accelerate if this is the case). If an athlete has a
tendency to lean forward and dump the bar overhead, it generally indicates either
weak hamstrings or erectors. If an athlete has trouble stabilizing the bar, or
maintaining an upright posture, it is often due to a weakness in the abs.

The above factors assume that proper technique is being maintained. If this is not
the case, no amount of specific work will overcome this problem. Drop the weight
and concentrate on improving skill, which is far more important than training the
ego, and less likely to lead to injury.

Safety is the key issue when squatting, or performing any lift. With a few simple
precautions, practically anyone may learn to squat, and do so quite effectively. The
rewards are well worth the effort. Squat heavy, squat often, and above all, squat

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62, Moscow: All-Union research Institute of Physical Culture.
Eat like a horse, train like a bull, juice like a heifer.
Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.