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November 10, 2021 10 min read

The squat is often known as the king of lower body lifts—and it’s well-deserving of that title. There is no single lift that will hit such a wide range of muscles in the legs while also gassing them out to such a great extent. If it’s not part of your routine yet, it’s high time it be included.

However, this also makes the squat a particularly difficult lift to perform and perfect. With the guide down below, you’ll be reaping squat benefits to their fullest extent.

The Benefits of Barbell Squats

Along with the bench press and deadlift, barbell squats are one of the big three lifts that guarantee muscle development and impressive strength gains. As a compound movement that takes a complex amount of movement and synergy between muscle groups, the back squat will hit pretty much every major muscle group in the body.

This will obviously help you build muscle and gain strength, but because of the energy expenditure needed with squatting, you’re also guaranteed to burn through fat. A tough exercise like the squat will increase overall endurance, general fitness, and will strengthen your ligaments, joints, and bones.

There are very few lifts that can hold a candle to the barbell squat.

Muscles Worked

Squats are known as a juggernaut of a lower-body exercise, however, their muscle engagement extends much further than the leg muscles. In fact, it’s one of the best bang-for-your-buck lifts that anyone can implement in their routine. There are several muscle groups that work in synchrony to get you down to the ground and the back again—whatever the weight you’re lifting.

leg muscles anatomy chart

Knee and Hip Muscles

The muscles in the thighs are the primary movers in the squat. Your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and adductors are all going to be playing a big role when you go through the lift. There are dozens of different squat variations (including the front squat) which will hit these muscle groups at slightly different angles, and with a slightly different emphasis. This makes the squat a great exercise for implementing into your workout, whatever your goals. There really is no better all-around exercise for building a firm butt and tree-trunk legs.

Calf Muscles

No one can get enough of calves these days, and we’re not here to tell you that squatting will smash bad genetics. However, squatting will give your main calf muscles (the gastrocnemius and soleus) a very solid workout. It all comes down to the ankle movement, as your shins begin inclined and come to a vertical position at the top of the lift.

Abdominals

The abs are extremely important in the squat, especially when it comes to keeping you stable and maintaining a neutral spine along with your lower back muscles. This spells good news if you’re looking to develop your six-pack muscles—the rectus abdominis. Your obliques which sit to the sides of your core will also see a fair amount of activation. A stronger core will help you transfer power in a more efficient manner, both in the squat and in a multitude of other exercises and lifts.

Lower Back Muscles

Squats have gotten a bad rap in the past due to the stresses they place on the spine, especially in the lower back. It’s the lower back muscles that work to maintain a healthy posture that will help you garner more benefits while also avoiding injuries. The primary muscle worked in this area is the erector spinae, which resists the downward pressure caused by the barbell. The carry-over benefits to other activities are virtually endless, even though this is only a secondary mover in the squat.

Arm Muscles

Even the arms come into play in the almighty squat. Even though you’re not going to get a very significant arms workout with the squat, your triceps, biceps, and forearms are still utilized in keeping the bar stable against your upper back muscles. By squeezing the bar against your upper back, your arms get a great isometric workout, even though it may not be as taxing as other upper-arm exercises. Regardless, there are few muscle groups that aren’t used in the squatting movement, making it a powerhouse of a lift if you’re trying to achieve general strength and wellness.

Before You Start

You’re going to need either a squat stand, a power rack, or a half rack in order to start squatting. Next comes setting the correct height for the barbell supports. They should be placed just below the shoulders, around the level of the collarbone. This will give you a good height for easily placing the barbell against your upper back muscles.

You should also decide how high up on your upper back you’ll be placing the bar. This will affect the way you grip with your thumb and the width of your grip. The low bar squat is the form most commonly performed, so we’ll be looking at this one. Once you’ve set yourself up, it’s time to start squatting.

How to Squat

Once you’ve finished setting up the bar correctly, it’s time to start squatting. Always remember to warm up before lifting, especially if you’re going to be using heavy weights. Warming up will get blood pumping into the necessary muscles which will lower the risk of injury while also increasing your gains.


 

  1. Begin by facing the bar and stepping underneath it. Your hands should go up around the bar on either side of you. When it comes to your grip, it’ll largely depend on your flexibility but you do want to aim for narrower rather than wider (your hands should be just outside your shoulders). You can also either use your thumb or opt for a thumbless grip, securing the barbell against your back shoulder muscles instead. A thumbless grip will allow your wrists to better align with your forearms.
  2. With the weight now securely placed on your shoulder muscles, step backward away from the supports holding up the barbell. Shift your stance so that your heels are shoulder-width apart, and your feet are turned about 30 degrees outward. Your feet should also be kept completely flat on the floor. Begin with a slight bend in your knees, with your chest raised high and engaged abdominals and glutes. Keep your head staring at a point straight in front of you, rather than dropping your chin.
  3. Keep your lower back in a neutral position without any rounding or arching. Initiate the movement by bending the hips and knees simultaneously, pushing your hips back while your knees come forward. Continue downward until you’re at least parallel to the floor, but preferably further. Your chest should remain up with your abdominals engaged, and the bar path should track directly over your mid-foot in a vertical line, without any horizontal movement.
  4. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the movement pause for a second. Then, explosively push through your midfoot and heel, using your toes to keep you balanced. You want to move your hips straight up, reversing the movement and keeping your knees out, your head looking straight ahead, and your chest up.
  5. Once you’ve reached the top of the movement in the starting position, lockout your hips and knees, squeezing your glutes at the top. Take a deep breath before engaging your muscles to prepare for the next rep. Hold your breath at the bottom of the movement before releasing it again at the top.
  6. To rack the bar once you’ve finished your set, lock your hips and knees before stepping forward to the supports. Ensure that the bar is over the supports by hitting the rack, and then bend your knees to allow the barbell to rest. Repeat for the number of sets and repetitions that your programming calls for.

Tips and Tricks

Squatting is difficult—that much is obvious. And they’re not necessarily difficult because of the heavy weights normally utilized, but because of the amount of technique that’s required to successfully pull off a squat. Proper technique is first and foremost important to avoid injuries. Injuries will kneecap your gains and can take you out of the game for months, so avoiding them should also be priority number one.

However, proper form will also ensure that you’re practicing the lift in such a way that maximizes gains. Finding the optimal bar path, engagement, and movements will help you optimally train your muscles. Not only will this allow for more efficient training sessions, but also more gains over the long run.

Going Deep, or Not

If you’ve been around the gym long enough, chances are that you’ve probably seen some pretty shoddy squatting. The biggest squatting sin is not going deep enough at the bottom of the movement. There might be several reasons for this, but optimizing squat depth is one of the best and simplest ways to improve your squat.

Common advice is to squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, but this isn’t enough for most people. Going below parallel—so that your hips end up below your knees—is the minimum depth you should be aiming for. Not going far enough will emphasize your quadriceps while ignoring other important muscles such as the glutes and hamstrings. If you continue not squatting deep enough, it can lead to muscle imbalances which will impede your knee health, and over the long term, can lead to injuries.

If you find that you’re not squatting deep enough, try either lowering the amount of weight you’re using, or turning out your toes more and pushing your knees to either side. This should allow you to enter a deeper squat and reap its full benefits. However, there is a risk of overdoing it. Some people will squat “ass-to-grass.”

As the name suggests, it’s when your butt goes down to touch your ankles. While ass-to-grass will carry your muscles over a full range of motion, it’s going to impede your progress by not allowing you to lift as much weight. Furthermore, most lifters won’t have the mobility to be able to go this deep without their lower back rounding, which is going to be dangerous in its own way.

Keeping an Eye on the Knees

A lot can go wrong with knee positioning when it comes to squats, so it’s worth paying special attention to this area. The knees should track along with your toes throughout the entire lift. If you look down, your feet should remain aligned with your knees and their angles. When lifters go for particularly heavy lifts, there’s a tendency for the knees to begin caving inward.

Although this is somewhat normal with attempts at lifting 1RMs, doing this excessively will lead to knee pain and potential injuries. This is because your knee joints shouldn’t be twisted in the lift, and the more in-line they remain, the better for your lower body heath. When you go down into a squat, you should be trying to push your knees out and to the sides.

You’re trying to externally rotate your hips throughout a squat, and keeping your toes out at an angle will help with this. And while there are squat variations that call for a wide stance, keeping it at shoulder-width is a good way to maintain the proper knee pathway. A good tool to use if you’re having knee placement issues is a band. Banded squats will give you a cue to keep pushing your knees out.

Maintaining a Neutral Spine

Your lower back is an especially important area to keep an eye on when squatting—and even more important if you’re squatting heavy. Rounding in your lower back will compress your spinal discs and can even lead to a herniated disc. The issue usually stems from going too deep into the squat, or just having poor flexibility in general. Although you do want to go below parallel in your squats, you don’t want to go to the point where other factors in your form begin to break down.

Another back rounding issue comes from pointing your knees straight forward as you squat. This is because your hips get in the way of your thighs, and it becomes impossible to squat below parallel without rounding the lower back. A key part of keeping your back healthy is also paying attention to the other squatting tips we’ve looked at already—the depth and the knee positioning.

Heels Rising off the Floor

Heels lifting off the floor during the squat is a common problem that lifters face. Some people will recommend putting something under the heels to elevate them, getting rid of the lifting motion. However, this isn’t a good solution over the long term. Squatting with your heels elevated will place even more stress on your already loaded knees since they’ll be pushed even more forward. Elevating the heels is even less recommended when it comes to lifting heavier weights since the instability can be dangerous.

There are usually two reasons for heel issues: poor flexibility or a too narrow of a stance. Poor flexibility can be fixed in time with squat variations that require less mobility, or other general lower body stretching exercises. However, before you blame it on mobility make sure that your stance is wide enough. Your feet should be planted at a shoulder-width distance from each other, with your toes turned out. A narrow stance will make it difficult to keep your feet flat on the floor throughout the entire lift.

Sometimes it can also come down to the type of shoes you’re wearing. There are special lifting shoes with hard soles that maximize your stability. Shoes with soft or gel-filled soles won’t give you the stability necessary for heavier lifts and can cause you to raise your heels. If you’re not in the market for specialized shoes, Chuck Taylors are a classic lifting shoe that can get you where you need to be.

Programming

Squats are an extremely useful exercise, whatever your goals: strength training, bodybuilding, and endurance development will all benefit from implementing squats in the routine. If you’re going for strength, aim for about 3 to 4 sets of a maximum of 6 reps, but usually between 3 and 5 reps. You’ll want to be using a heavier weight, gassing out your muscles as much as possible. If you’re looking for hypertrophy (muscle growth), performing 3 to 4 sets of up to 12 reps is the best way to go. But as always, proper programming will come down to your individual needs and goals.

Squat Variations to Try

Like we mentioned above, there are dozens of variations and alternatives to the barbell back squat. For example, you can try substituting in dumbbells or kettlebells, for the dumbbell squat and goblet squat, respectively.If you’re looking for something more difficult, the overhead squat is a good way to go.

 

And if you’re low on workout equipment, the bodyweight squat is an effective compound exercise, even though it’s not going to lead to the same muscle activation as heavy squats.If you’re looking for other alternatives to add to your lower body training program repertoire, lunges are a great addition as well, along with box jumps to build explosive power. These are some of the best exercises for cultivating muscle mass and strength.

Powering Up with Squats

We’ve hopefully hammered home the fact that the squat is a difficult lift, but with its difficulty come a lot of benefits. You’re bound to be stronger, bigger, and generally healthier in a long list of aspects. However, this also means that squats require a lot of fuel. Protein being the building block of muscle, it’s obvious you’re going to need to load up on that at the dinner table.

But if you’re still looking for a way to turbocharge your gains, a high-quality  whey protein powder can go a long way to taking you to the next level. Bringing together all the pieces we’ve talked about, not only will your physique be aesthetic, but so will your squat form—and that, for some, is worth more.