Compound movements: The Squat
The squat is easily the king of all functional exercises (in my modest opinion) and the first movement to work on (along with the deadlift, of course). I remember when I first started involving squats in my routine, how surprised I was by all the little details that you need to pay attention to while squatting. After all, I always assumed that squats are a very natural movement (which they are), and as such, they should be pretty easy for everyone. Much to my surprise – that was not the case and I saw many people struggle to get the perfect squatting form. What’s worse – I saw many people neglecting it and not working on improving it.
Here is why you should squat:
- Squats are a compound movement – they involve multiple joints (in this case – hips and knees). Contrary to popular opinion, they are not just a “leg exercise”, they utilize multiple muscle groups and work the whole body.
- Squats improve the strength of your muscles, joints, bones and increase flexibility, making you less prone to injuries both in training and in everyday life activities (such as picking stuff up, sitting down, etc.).
- Research shows that compared to other machine weight exercises using similar lower-body movements such as the leg press, free weight squats promote greater anabolic hormone response. This transfers to faster muscle growth and fat loss.
- If you are doing Crossfit, there are 3 types of squats you will often see in your WODs and programming: back squat, front squat and air squat (bodyweight squat). A little less common is the low bar squat.
The Air Squat
The set up for the bodyweight squat is fairly simple.
- Your stance needs to be either shoulder-width or a little wider, toes pointing slightly outward.
- Keep your back straight and spine neutral.
- Keep your weight on the heels.
- Have a tight core through the whole movement, this will be crucial when you add weight.
- On your way down, knees should be in line with your toes.
- To do a full squat, your hip joint needs to be lower than your knees – always aim for that, in order to get the maximum out of the movement.
- Upper body and hips rise at the same rate, maintaining a more vertical torso.
- Look straight ahead through the whole movement.
Note: As you can see (if you look a bit closely), here I am performing the air squat with a resistance band positioned right above my knees. This is a great way to activate your glutes before a workout and create that mind-muscle connection before starting your session. By forcing you to push out through the knees the entire time in order to keep a proper squat form, that simple tool enables you to not only activate your gluteus maximus muscle, but also the much harder to wake up gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles. This helps you to achieve that round and attractive behind, as well as to fix those so-called “hip dips”, in case they bother you. (If you still don’t have a band yet, I love the ones from ProSource!)
Back squat – low and high bar position
As you probably already know, the main difference here is the positioning of the barbell on your back. Based on that, certain muscles will be more involved than others. All the points mentioned about the air squat, are valid here as well.
High bar back squat:
- The bar is placed on your upper traps.
- Knees and hips move down at the same rate to keep the chest high and the bar in the midline.
- As with the air squat – go to or bellow parallel, with your knees slightly past over your toes.
- Use the quads, glutes, and hammies to raise the weight back up.
The high bar back squat engages the quadriceps muscle more. It’s more commonly used in Olympic weightlifting. It is also more transferable to other types of Olympic weightlifting movements like the snatch and clean&jerk.
Low bar back squat:
- The bar is placed on your rear delts.
- The squat starts with the hips first, followed by the knees and the chest folds slightly over.
- Go to or below parallel.
- The rising of the weight up is through the posterior chain muscles and the quads.
The lower bar back squat is more common for powerlifting, as it allows you to lift heavier weight. It favors the posterior chain muscles over the quads.
As you can guess – it’s all about the different positioning of the bar. Here are the main points to remember for the front squat:
- The bar is placed on your shoulders, elbows are up and you only need to hold the bar with your fingertips.
- The squat starts with your knees first.
- Allow your knees to past over your toes, so that you keep your spine tall and head and neck neutral.
- Go to or below parallel.
The front squat is quad focused.
These are the main points to help you improve your squat form. Remember that it takes time, consistency and a lot of mobility work, so be patient.
Another thing to take into consideration that is said over and over again, but it’s always worth mentioning – prioritize good form over heavier weight.
Lastly, I want to address one of the biggest myths concerning the squat – if your knees should or shouldn’t go past over your toes. The distance that your knees travel forward depends on multiple factors, such as the length of your legs, your mobility, your stance – it is all based on you specifically.
For example, if you have longer legs, the knee travel will be longer compared to someone with shorter ones. If you have poor ankle mobility, you might not be able to get your knees past your toes, without having to lift your heel off of the ground (which you shouldn’t do).
In summary – to a great extent, the way your squat looks depends on YOU, but knees past the toes are in general safe and you shouldn’t shy away from it.
So, with all that info in mind, off to the gym and happy squatting!
If you also want to learn how to perfect your deadlift form, check out Compound movement: The Deadlift!