Talk about excuses! I’ve got a bad back. My knees are shot. It’s torture on my neck… yadda, yadda, yadda. You’d think the gym was hosting the local octogenarian crochet convention the way grown men whine like old women when it comes time to get under the rack. You’d figure that after all these years, they’d finally have it worked out – if you want to be a semi-buffed showboat, whine away – but if you want to be a bodybuilder, shut up and squat!
WHY IT’S SO GOOD
There really isn’t that much involved in squatting. All you’re doing is going down into a sitting position and then standing up again – with a little resistance thrown in. Yet this simple movement is the most productive thing you can possibly do if you want to pack muscle onto your frame. Why? Because it works your entire body while giving you a damn good cardio workout. Unlike most upper body functional strength movements, the squat involves more than one prime mover and many synergists. The result, if you apply consistency and progressive resistance, is more muscle and less fat. Now, we could list virtually every muscle group in your body when it comes to squat stimulation, but here are the prime movers:
As the name implies, the quads are a muscle group comprising four individual muscles. The Rectus Femoris (Upper Quad) has the function of bending the hip and straightening the knee. The Vastus Lateralis (Outer Quad) assists in the straightening of the knee, as do the Vastus Intermedialis (which sits behind the Upper Quad) and the Vastus Medialis (Inner Quad). The squat mimics the function of each of these muscles allowing you the potential of fully developing them. All you’ve got to do is take a look at a guy who’s done just that to realize that it’s gonna be worth it – for the quads, when fully developed and striated, are a thing of absolute beauty.
The hamstrings sit behind the thighs and are the muscle group responsible for flexing (bending) the knee and extending the hip. The hammies make up a large percentage of the total volume of the upper leg and add balance and proportion for the look you’re after. In addition, well developed, strong hamstrings prevent injury and act as stabilizers for many other gym movements. The squat mimics their function giving them maximum stimulation.
The glutes consist of three separate muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medias and gluteus minimus. The three of them combine to lift the thigh forward, out to the side and to rotate the leg inward and outward. As well as contributing to that cute butt thing that women seem to adore, well developed, striated glutes contribute hugely to that awesome total body look (anybody remember Rich Gaspari?).
Spinal Erectors & Abdominals
The spinal erectors work in conjunction with the abdominals to keep the spine upright (think of guy wires on opposite sides of a tent pole). Fully developed erector spinae will help ward off one of the major banes of the developed world – lower back pain. They’ll also give some awesome muscular detail to complement the lats. And heavy, consistent squatting will go a lot further to building a six-pack than spending all day on an ab-cruncher.
Load up the plates on a squat rack with the bar sitting at shoulder height. Position yourself under the bar so it rests on the backs of your traps and shoulders. Grab the bar with a wide, overhand grip, lift the bar off the rack and step back. Set your feet shoulder width apart, with your knees slightly bent and back naturally arched. Now bend from the hips as you lower yourself as though you were sitting in a chair. Stop when your thighs reach parallel then push back up. Don’t round your back.
Place the bar across your traps, with it resting as far back as is comfortably possible. Take a grip on the bar that is closer than a conventional grip – about half the width of a bench press grip is ideal (this will help keep your traps bunched up and your back more upright). With your chest out and back arched, squeeze your shoulder blades together and tighten your abs. Your head and eyes should point upwards (focus on a spot above you) and your feet should be shoulder width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward. Now slowly lower yourself, focusing on bending from the hips rather than the knees. You will be going slightly back and down to a parallel position in which your lower legs are almost vertical to the floor. From the bottom position explode back up, making sure that the power of the drive is coming from the quads rather than the knees (you definitely don’t want your knees to either splay out or pinch inward). To achieve this, consciously initiate the upward drive from your heels rather than your toes (think of driving your heels through the gym floor). Do not lock out at the top but move smoothly into the next rep.
6 THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER DO UNDER THE RACK
1. Use A Heel Block: Just like platform shoes, heel blocks belong to the 70’s. A block placed under your heels will not make the movement safer nor allow you to handle more poundage. What it will do is cause you to lean over slightly, and in the process round your back, placing more pressure on the knees and lower back. So get that block outta here.
2. Squat without Shoes: The opposite extreme to heel block squatting is squatting with no shoes and, therefore, no heel arch at all. But it always pays to avoid extremes. In this case, completely flat footed (i.e. shoeless) squatting will place more of a workload on the glutes than the quads and will make you more prone to a foot slippage which could end your squatting (not to mention your walking) days forever.
3. Look Down: Try looking down at your toes right now. Notice what has happened to your lower back? It’s become rounded – enough said.
4. Hunch Over: Ok, so we’re laboring the point here – but going by the number of guys we see day in and day out squatting themselves right into a mobility scooter, it’s a point that we think needs laboring. Not only does hunching over and leaning forward dramatically increase your risk of lower back injury, it also defeats the prime purpose of the exercise. At the end of the day the squat is a quadriceps exercise. Leaning forward robs the quads of much of the effect, placing undue stress on the trunk extensors (hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors). Bottom line here is to keep your ego in check and never sacrifice good form (back arched) for heavy weight.
5. Go Spotterless: No other exercise puts you in as vulnerable a position as the squat. If you’re going heavy and you get stuck during the upward drive, you don’t have too many options. If you don’t have at least one well trained spotter, there’s a good likelihood that some sort of injury is going to result.
6. Squat on a Smith Machine: The forced line of movement that the Smith Machine locks you into puts you in a more likely position to round your back as you began your upward thrust, which makes the Smith Machine a bad squatting choice.
SETS, REPS & FREQUENCY FOR CRITICAL MASS
As you may have guessed by now, squatting the right way is damn hard work. As a result, most of us hate squatting. This is why you’re not likely to see guys doing set after set after set of squats the way you do on the bench. Well the good news is that you don’t have to squat till the cows come home to build an impressive lower body – but you do have to move some heavy weight. Here’s a squat program to kick your leg growth into overdrive:
Squat Frequency: Once Per Week
Warm up set: 20 reps 1st working set: 12 reps 2nd working set: 10 reps 3rd working set: 6-8 reps
Concentrate on perfect form on every rep while pushing for more poundage on every set. And remember to leave your ego at the gym door. What matters is how hard the working muscles are being stressed not how impressive the iron on your back looks. With that in mind here’s a routine that will force you to drop your squat poundage while ramping up quad intensity:
Squat Warmup set
Leg extension 2 x 12 (toes pointed out and back against bench to hit outer quads) Squats as above Leg curls 3 x 12,10,8 Calf Raises 3 x 15 (5 second hold at top of each rep) Treadmill hill program 15 minutes
1. Bench Squats: Placing a box behind you allows you to squat to exactly the same depth every rep. This overcomes the tendency to cheat by only squatting partially as the reps get harder. As long as you don’t bounce off of the bench you won’t be risking vertebral damage. Just go down low enough to kiss the bench with your butt and you’ll be that much closer to the perfect set.
2. Front Squats: This movement is more upright and so places a more direct workload on your quads. You won’t be able to lift as much weight as in the back version, though. Approach the squat rack and grab the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Bring your elbows forward so your palms face up and bring the weight back to rest on your front delts. Initiating from the hips squat down to parallel and drive back up. The beauty of this movement is that it forces you to keep your back arched – if you don’t, the weight will spill off your shoulders.
3. Hack Squat: This little used squat variation will bring that awesome teardrop effect to the thigh (as well as add outer sweep to the vastus medialis). Set the lower pins of your squat rack 8 – 12 inches from the floor. Rest the loaded bar on the pins. Place a couple of 10 pound plates on the floor to rest your heels on and then get into position in front of the bar and facing away from it, your feet shoulder width apart and resting on the plates. Squat down and grab the bar with a shoulder width under-hand grip. With back arched, rise to a stand. The bar will be resting against your hamstrings. Now lower until the bar touches the pins. That’s one rep.
DON’T GET YOUR BACK UP
Some guys pull the old sore back excuse when it comes time to talk squats – and some don’t. If you’re one of those trainers who really does have lower spinal issues going on, then you are best advised to avoid heavy squatting. So, does that mean you’re never going to be able to build a decent pair of pins? No – it just means that you’re going to have to take a slightly different route. The leg press, for example, will do a nice replacement job for heavy squats without unduly stressing the lower back. You can safely go hard and heavy on the leg press and get a full range of motion without injury worries. After 4 heavy sets of leg presses, do 3 quick sets of 20 reps of bench squats with a light weight. From there do 2 supersets of leg extensions and leg curls. Finish with 15 minutes on the treadmill – just don’t plan on climbing any stairs for a few days.
Dane Fletcher is the world’s most prolific bodybuilding and fitness expert and is currently the executive editor for BodybuildingToday.com. If you are looking for more bodybuilding tips or information on weight training, or supplementation, please visit www.BodybuildingToday.com, the bodybuilding and fitness authority site with hundreds of articles available FREE to help you meet your goals.