We all love the squat. It’s simple, no frills, and an excellent way to blast your quads. We all know better than to skip leg day, and if you’re going into leg day without a squat, then you’ve hardly even begun leg day. The simplicity of the squat is almost poetic. Just take your body and lower yourself. The weight of your body becomes your sole opponent for a while. When you start squatting it’s just you and your legs versus yourself. Eventually you overcome yourself and add some weight, becoming more and more powerful as you commit yourself to the squat. When building the foundation of your lower body, the squat bears the greatest load.
It’s good to know that squats are useful in a workout routine, but that knowledge alone isn’t enough. We need to understand what’s happening when you do a squat, and what muscles are being targeted when you bang out a set in the gym.
The quadriceps aren’t just one big muscle on your thigh that you use to throw your legs around. More accurately the quads are called the quadriceps femoris muscle, and it’s an interwoven group of four muscles working together to allow you to stand, run, and jump. These four muscles are responsible for your ability to extend your legs at all. That’s why the day after leg day is so arduous. When you work on these muscles you’re blasting the part of your body that allows you to do the most basic actions you take for granted every other day.
Who are these unsung heroes that keep you up and (literally) running all day? First up, you’ve got the rectus femoris, this bad boy takes up most of the space in your thigh. It starts way up on your hip bone, travels straight down your femur, and is large enough to cover most of the other three muscles that make up your quad.
The vastus lateralis takes up residence on the outer side of your femur. This is one the muscles that grows bulges out to the side to give your legs that huge cut look when you’ve put in the work. It’s partner muscle is the vastus medialis, and it lives on the inside of your thighs. These two together, will have you bursting out of your gym shorts after some good reps. The vastus intermedius is hard to point to when you’re looking at someone’s leg, or even with a diagram, because it’s buried under the other parts of your quad, but without it, you’re not going anywhere. It lies in between your vastus medialis and vastus lateralis, but it’s tucked underneath.
The hamstrings are a lot like your quads. They live along your femur, and connect to your hip, they’re responsible for a lot of the movement in your legs, and they’re not just a single muscle as you might have initially thought. The hamstrings need to fit a certain criteria to truly be considered hamstrings, you can’t just point to the back of your leg and say “hamstring” if you want to be taken seriously. To be a hamstring you must originate from a part of the hip called the ischial tuberosity, the muscle must insert itself over the knee joint, either in the tibia or the fibula, the nerves that operate hamstrings should come from the tibial branch of the sciatic nerve, and they need to participate in flexing your knee joint as well as extending your hip joint.
The muscles that meet all four of these criteria are your semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the long head of your biceps femoris. These muscles are long and easy to injure. Improper form, and neglecting your warm-ups are a surefire way to over work these delicate powerhouses.
If you’re starting to see a pattern here, then you’re probably ready to find out that the glutes aren’t a single slab of flexing meat. Your glutes are made up of three muscles, the most famous of which is the gluteus maximus. It’s the largest, and closest to the top of all of the glute gang. Your gluteus maximus makes up most of the shape of your hips. The gluteus medius is much thicker and more broad than the gluteus maximus, and the gluteus minimus is the smallest of the glute group. The gluteus minimus lies just underneath the gluteus medius.
Good glutes are usually the sign of a healthy and well trained person. Burning fat and building these muscles tend to bring to light good habits. Because the glutes are so key to many of the motions you make in exercise they tend to be constantly developing over the course of your routine. If you’re here to learn about squats, and you take our advice seriously, you’re going to come away with reasons to take advantage of our full line of products.
You’ve seen the title of this article. You didn’t just come to learn about the latin names of your muscles. You want to know if there’s a risk in beginning or continuing your squat sequence. Let’s give it to you straight, squats are great for your health overall, but the key to good exercise is good form. All of the areas the squat targets are chock full of different muscles that work together to allow you to amble about every single day, and a lot of them connect directly to your kneecap.
Your kneecap, or the patella is like a little bone shield. It protects your knee joint, and is the bridge to the holy union of your upper and lower legs. The patellar tendons are under a lot of pressure. Think about your legs and how many muscles we just learned about. Nearly every single one of them come down and hook onto your patellar region. That knee joint is important, you’ve only got one (well, two really). Careful observance of proper form, rigid adherence to your body’s full range of motion, and honesty about the amount of weight you should be squatting will keep you from waking up and thinking “my knee hurts”.
The most basic squat form will translate to any of the squat variants you feel like work best for you. But every good regimen starts with pristine fundamentals.
Let’s start with your starting position. Get your feet a little bit wider than your shoulder-width, and rotate them so they’re pointed outwards about 30 or so degrees. When you rotate your feet outwards, make sure your knees go with them. This is important. If your knees and your feet aren’t lined up when you go for your squat you’re going to be pulling the front of the knee in directions it doesn’t want to go. This step is easy to remember, since it’s not comfortable to point your knees and toes in different directions.
Discomfort is a sure sign of fighting your body, and you’re supposed to be fighting the weights, not fighting for a spot at the physical therapist’s office. Once your feet and knees are situated, bend your upper body forwards and hold your arms out in front of you horizontally. This will help with your balance and keep you from cheating. Keep this form in your mind, stand in it for a minute if you need to.
Once you’re comfortable with your squatting form it’s time to actually execute. Brace your body, and keep your back straight. Bring your body down by lowering your thighs slowly until they’re parallel with the ground. Keep your knees behind your toes when squatting, it may be helpful to practice this in front of a mirror to track your butt and the position of your knees. If a mirror isn’t available then you can also get used to this motion by starting with your toes against a wall. You can’t get your knees in front of your toes if there’s a wall in the way.
Once you’ve lowered yourself it’s time to focus on returning to the start position. Put your weight on your heels and lift your body with your thighs and all of those powerful extension muscles in your quads. This basic squat may be all you need for a while. Increase the number of reps you do until you feel comfortable adding weights.
The box squat is, believe it or not, exactly what it sounds like. You’re going to need a box and you’re going to squat down onto it. The simplicity belies several benefits. The box squat is there to help you maintain, or learn proper form, the adjustable height of the box squat makes it easy for you to find the height you should be squatting down to, and if you’re having trouble reaching the right depth, the box squat is there to make sure you don’t bust your butt.
The ideal depth for a squat is with you hips below your knee level, but there are many variables for your specific ideal depth in a free squat. If we add a box that you need to tap with you butt then we take all of that guess work out. Get yourself a box or a chair that allows you to squat so that your legs are at a 90 degree angle. Do the same things you did with your regular free squats. Make sure that your toes are pointed outwards slightly, aim for around thirty degrees, and keep your knees in line with them to take advantage of your body’s natural full range of motion. Avoiding knee injury is the biggest concern with squats. Keep your upper body rigid as you lower yourself down towards the box. You’re not going to be taking a seat, just tap the goal with your butt, and raise yourself back up into your starting position. Don’t thrust your hips out, and keep an eye on where your knees are going. If they start making their way past your toes then your form is all wrong.
If you’re finding out that your body weight alone is no longer enough for a challenging exercise, then maybe it’s time to break out the barbell. Barbell squats are going to harness the same basics as your free bodyweight squat. Don’t start with too much weight, remember that you’re still squatting your entire body whenever you go for a squat, so adding the barbell to your squats is more weight than you think it is. Before starting your barbell squats, make absolutely sure your squat form is tight.
Line yourself up with the squat rack, and I hope you’ve got a spotter, because we’re here to break personal bests, not your back. Take the barbell onto the back of your shoulders, and lift it off of the rack. Take a few steps away from the rack, you want to make sure you’ve got space to squat these weights without banging into anything. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart with your knees and toes slightly angled. With the weights on your shoulders it should be fairly obvious now why your form is so important. If you’re overworking parts of your legs instead of evenly targeting your muscles while squatting all of this weight you run the risk of all kinds of knee or back pain.
If barbell squats are too intimidating then maybe consider a resistance band instead. The resistance band doesn’t require a rack or the potential spotter. All you need is that taut rubber, and your perfect squatting form.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, and step on the band. Grab the band in each of your hands and keep your arms out in front of you. Remember to line up your knees and toes to avoid twisting up your joints, and lower yourself down until your butt is just below your knees. Don’t forget about the relationship of your knees and your toes.
Resistance band squats may seem like a cop out. If there’s weights you can be piling onto your back, why wouldn’t you, right? Well, since most squatting related injuries come from dudes taking on too much weight too quickly, the resistance bands act as a nice reasonable transition exercise. Once the resistance band isn’t enough for you then maybe it’s time to consider adding barbells or even dumbbells to your squat regimen.
Squats are the gateway to glorious glutes, perfectly quartered quads, and high quality hamstrings. They’re a simple exercise you can bang out anywhere. Say you don’t have time to go to the gym, you certainly have time to run to the stairwell in the office or the back of house and squeeze in a few quick sets of squats throughout your day. They’re a great way to get your heart rate up, and they’re phenomenal for your thighs. But you have to be careful. Sloppy squats can lead to undue stress on your tendons, they can crush cartilage, and if you ignore the signals your body is sending you it’s possible to end up needing extensive physiotherapy. But if you follow our advice and you keep your progress incremental and reasonable then your body will thank you every time you dip your butt below your knees and point your toes out just so.