Squats are a compound exercise and one of the most effective for muscle growth. This guide will outline the benefits of squats, the muscles they work, different squat variations and provide step by step instructions on how to perform squats properly with the correct form and technique.
Most of us go to the gym to get bigger and stronger muscles. Some may find themselves trying endless amounts of supplements and researching the latest, and most extreme, new exercises. The truth is there is a tried and tested method to achieving bigger and stronger muscles and this is by incorporating squats into the foundation of your workout.
If you want to boost strength, muscle, and athletic performance you need to squat. Yes, they’re hard, of-course, it’s easier to pick arm day over leg day but the reality is squats are effective and if results are what you are after then squats need to remain at the cornerstone of your training.
Squats benefit your whole body in a variety of ways, different types of squats bring different benefits. Unfortunately, there are many people out there performing squats without truly knowing/ understanding the benefits or even why they’ve been told to do it. So, I’ve written the below guidance as an introduction to squats to help you figure out what’s going on, why you should be squatting and what benefits you’ll see after integrating these squats into your workout routine.
Benefits of Squats
The obvious one is that squats work all your leg muscles, but it goes a lot further than that. Squats can build up your whole body because of the demanding nature in performing them. Squatting creates an anabolic environment in your body and this provides body-wide muscle growth.
The act of squatting puts your body into a super defensive position and activates your sympathetic nervous system. This leads to a release of testosterone and growth hormone, both which are vital for muscle growth. The elevated hormone levels will help you build muscle mass in other areas of your body aside from your legs.
Also, squats help increase your athletic performance as your ability to run and jump become significantly improved. This will carry over into your everyday life, making day-to-day activities easier and help build your balance, strength, and coordination.
What Muscles do Squats Work?
This is a long list!
Here are the main muscles squats work:
- Gluteus maximus
- Adductor magnus
- Erector spinae
- Rectus abdominis
- Internal and external obliques
- Gluteus medius and minimus
Beyond these big muscles, squats will also help strengthen your bones, tendons, and ligaments throughout your lower body.
How to do Squats with Proper Form & Technique
It’s a simple motion when you think about it, you squat down and stand up. However, like other basic compound lifts, there are a lot of things you need to know.
The first thing you want to do is start with a good 5-10 minutes warm-up. You need to get blood flow to the muscles and your heart rate up. Using a stationary bike can be a great way to do this. It’s also a good idea to throw in some dynamic stretching in the form of leg swings to also increase blood flow to the muscle.
Squats are best done at the start of your workout when your strength levels are at their highest.
Here are the steps on how to do squats:
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart
- Keep your back straight, in a neutral position and keep your knees centered over your feet
- Inhale deep and in one controlled motion slowly bend your knees, hips, and ankles lowering until you’re at least at a 90-degree angle. Keep the weight on the front of your heel
- Make sure your head and chest are up and extended out
- Breath out on the way up and keep your core engaged. Keep your feet flat as you return to a standing position and imagine that you’re pushing the entire earth away from you as you stand
Depending on your goals repetitions and sets may vary. If you’re looking for strength gains, you can train in the 3-5 rep range. Just get a good 2-3 minutes rest in between sets.
For muscle gains and fitness, you can train in the 12-15 rep range. Rest times can still be 90 seconds to two minutes.
Tip – Beginners can use resistance bands to perform squats to help them improve on their form before moving to weights.
When using a barbell there are few positions, you can use. One is a high bar squat where you will have the barbell placed and supported at the top of the traps.
With a low bar squat, the bar sits lower down on the back and in either case you want to make sure that your elbows are not flailing out but pulled in closer to the body and pointing more towards the ground.
Barbell position depends on your personal preference but there are a few differences between high bar and low bar squats:
- High bar squats build more muscle in the quads and glutes and translate well to other lifts. This position will allow you to squat deeper, but you may not be able to use as much weight
- Low bar squats allow you to lift more weight and they also incorporate the hamstrings much more than high bar squats. The low bar squat may be better if you have weak knees as it creates a better balance around them
Body weight squats
Body weight squats will take the same steps as outlined above but without the bar.
There are a few things you can do for hand placement for a bodyweight squat; you can cross them across your chest, you can clasp them together in front of your chest or if you want to make them more intense – hold them above your head.
With bodyweight squats you can make them more of an athletic movement by adding in jump squats exploding out of the bottom and extending upwards
How Much Should You Squat?
The squat is like any other exercise; you need to regularly do it to progress and improve on them. There are many factors that contribute to how much you should be able to squat such as age, sex, lifting experience, bodyweight and your physical makeup.
If you are progressing, you should be able to squat at least your bodyweight with good form for one repetition. If you’re starting out, a good standard is to squat 75-80% of your bodyweight.
As you get more advanced, you may be able to squat your bodyweight plus 40-60% of your bodyweight.
Regular free-weight barbell squats will be the king of all exercises but if you want to mix it up, here are other versions of squat you can do.
The same principles of executing the exercise will remain but you will need to incorporate different variables:
Front squats are a basic squat which utilise a barbell. However, unlike back squats, they require using the weight across your front- usually balanced across your upper arms. This can be quite tricky to get the hang of because too high and you’re in danger of strangling yourself, too low and you’ll throw-off your balance. For new starters, it can be a huge game changer in how you conduct your workout
Benefits of front squats
You’ll likely see some huge benefits if you’re just starting out, since front squats work out your hamstrings, glutes, quads and calves. These are some of the biggest muscles in your body, therefore you’ll be burning loads of calories in no time, as long as your form is correct. Even better, front squats work as a compound exercise, because you’ll need some upper-arm strength to keep your weights upright- not to mention that your balance will be working it’s behind off!
Jump squats take the most basic squat format and add a jolt of cardio into the mix. Essentially, all you need to do is follow the front squat given above but, instead of slowly rising back into a standing pose, you will need to do an explosive jump, swinging your arms up to their highest point, to give you some added power.
Benefits of jump squats
Jump squats help to tone your lower body muscles, but it’s the explosive movement that really gets your heart pumping. This, in turn, helps your heart become stronger, meaning your blood pumps fast and hard enough to shift any cholesterol hiding your veins and arteries. They also boost your sports performance, since the movement causes you to increase the reaction time of your fast-twitch muscles.
Goblet squats have the same foundation of a front squat, but they involve you holding a weight, such as a medicine ball, between your hands and high on your chest. The ideal accessory for this movement is the infamous kettle bell. Using this, you’ll need to grasp the handle with both hands and raise the bell to just below your neck-level. Then perform the squat as you would normally.
Benefits of goblet squats
The added weight from your chosen accessory means your muscles need to work harder, so you can be sure that a goblet squat will keep you sore the next day! Not only this, your inability to use your arms as a counterweight should require you to perfect your balance, when performing this move. These are also a great alternative to back and front squats, if you have trouble using barbells, as they’re easier on your back and more manageable for new starters.
Box squats may have thrown you off, if you’ve never heard of it before. It is essentially a front or back squat (with the barbell across your shoulders) that has you sitting on a box in the middle of the movement. So, beginning from a much wider stance than usual, you’ll be lowering yourself until your rear-end hits the box, at which point you’ll need to push yourself back up again.
Benefits of box squats
The wider stance required in box squats works your abdominal muscles harder and places greater emphasis on the posterior chain (again, those muscles we like to mention so much, including the glutes, quads, hamstrings etc.). As your body is working extra hard to maintain proper form throughout the motion, which is much harder when your legs are wider than usual, it increases your strength tenfold and helps you gain a wider range of motion. It’s also a fantastic way to ensure proper form, in that you are unable to take the squat too low, while also having a way of checking that you’re hitting the squat low enough.
Helps in balance, core strength and muscular control. Press the barbell overhead with a wide grip with your hands closer to the weights and keep the bar over your center of gravity while you squat. This also needs to be with lighter weight.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This is like doing lunges, but you still hold the bar on your back like a front squat. You will place one foot behind you on a bench, push your hips back like in a front squat and let your back-leg bend at the knee. Lower until your front leg reaches parallel, or your back knee touches the ground. Perform 12-15 reps on the first leg before switching to your other to complete one set.
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