Why Squats Are The Best Strength-Building Exercise For Your Legs

Why Squats Are The Best Strength-Building Exercise For Your Legs

The story around squats is confusing. Some say “squat every day” while others warn “squats are bad for your knees!” The truth is in the middle — squats are amazing for building lower body strength, but at the same time they can cause problems for the uninitiated. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the barbell back squat, and why it’s worth your attention.

Illustration by Sam Woolley.

Why Squats Should Be Part of Your Workout Program

Technically, you already squat every day.

Every time you get up from a seated position, you’re effectively doing a squat. You probably feel your thighs bear the brunt of the work, though they’re not the only muscles that rise to the occasion (heh). Aside from working the muscles in your thighs, butt, and hips, the barbell back squat also targets your core and back muscles, helping improve your posture and carve a nicer looking backside, to boot. It’s also really energy-intensive and burns a whole load of kilojoules.

And while strong legs look nice in shorts and help us do everyday stuff with more ease, we could all appreciate them even more in our later years, as Greg Nuckols, writer and strength coach at Strengtheory, points out. We sat down with him to talk about squats, and he notes:

Strong legs and hips, particularly, are crucially important for healthy ageing. You can live independently longer, perform activities of daily living without as much strain, and muscle and strength are both strong predictors of longevity.

We all know it becomes tougher to get up from a chair, toilet, or bed as we get older, but it’s never too late to start benefiting from building lower body strength or getting into strength training in general. A fairly recent study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning found that heavy squats (under supervision) can help postmenopausal women suffering from osteopenia or osteoporosis improve bone mineral density in their spine and neck, in addition to boosting their strength.

Squats Are Not Going to Kill Your Knees

If someone tells you to avoid squatting because “it’s bad for your knees,” this person probably doesn’t know — excuse the pun — squat about squats.

Don’t just take my word for it. A review article in Sports Medicine determined that the stresses of squatting to various depths, even the really low ones, don’t reach the point where they could cause harm to the ligaments in your knees (they’re pretty sturdy like that, after all).

In fact, the authors observed that the more you squat (with good form), the more your cartilage tissue can adapt and strengthen to handle the weight, just like your muscles do. The caveat here is that if you already have a history of knee issues, squats could aggravate your injury.

Otherwise, if you’ve got good technique and have healthy knees, squats can actually make your knees stronger and more injury-proof, as supported by the findings in this paper published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

So, it’s not the squats themselves that hurt your knees; it’s how you squat that’s probably hurting your knees.

When you do a back squat, the weight should be placed relatively evenly between the hips and knees (and their surrounding muscles), though note that the knees bend a lot more than they do in a deadlift.

The important thing is that your knees will hurt if you’re making them do most of the work, or if you’re shifting your weight dangerously toward your toes. The saying goes: “Don’t let your knees go past your toes.” To that, Nuckols says:

Normally, people don’t really pay attention to how far forward their knees travel; they tend to balance the forces in the squat between their knees and hips pretty evenly. However, when you tell people to not allow their knees to track forward, or if you artificially restrict forward knee travel, a lot of the load is shifted to the back and hips, away from the quads, making it a less well-rounded movement for overall lower body development.

For the most part, your knees should track over your first or second toe. Having them track a shade further in or out isn’t the end of the world, but excessive knee valgus [caving in of the knees] should be avoided, especially if there’s pain that goes along with it.

Here’s an example of good squat form.

Basically, all great back squats share a few commonalities: they force the hips back, as if you’re sitting in a chair, yet they keep the chest up and facing forward to keep the spine from flexing (or else you’ll increase your risk of spinal disc injuries); and the knees don’t cave inward.

Often, the cue is to spread your knees out and wide in the lowering portion of the movement (although a small “twitch” coming up as shown here is generally ok as long as it doesn’t hurt you, says Nuckols). Plus, your feet, especially your heels, stay planted on the ground, and your core stays tight (here’s a video to teach you how to “brace” your core) throughout the lift.

How to Get Started Doing Squats

The above video by YouTuber Omar Isuf is helpful for familiarising yourself with squatting techniques, but I recommend not adding weight until you can ace a bodyweight squat. “I believe that everyone should be able to comfortably hold a deep bodyweight squat position,” says Cody Lefever, a competitive powerlifter and the man behind a popular training structure called GZCL.

After all, bodyweight squats are a fantastic starting point to train your nervous system to groove the squat pattern and get used to the movement. Keep in mind, though, that a nice-looking bodyweight squat doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be able to replicate perfect form when there’s a bunch of weight on your back. That will take practice, too.

Additionally, Lefever suggests:

Train that [squat] movement through goblet squats and work on both mobility and strength with single-leg work. Things like back-step lunges and Bulgarian split squats are great, as they address balance and coordination as well.

People often have a hard time staying balanced, but after working on goblet squats and the back-step lunge for a few weeks an improvement usually shows. If it is awkward reaching depth with just the bar, then focus on your warm-up routine.

On the other hand, if traditional barbell back squatting causes you pain or you’re not comfortable with them, there are multiple squat variations that can be just as effective for building legs, such as the front squat, goblet squats, and lunges. In fact, this paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that front squats were just as effective for hitting the involved muscle groups as back squats, although keep in mind that front squats have their own learning curve.

Either way, you’ll need to take the time and effort to ease into these squat exercises.

No Need to Squat Super Deep to Reap the Benefits

The debates on the internet over how deep someone should squat can fill entire volumes of encyclopaedias, but the gist is that deep-squatting (or squatting “arse to grass”, as some people lovingly call it) isn’t for everyone.

Deep arse-to-grass squatting does have a few more pronounced benefits. The deeper you squat, the more effectively you work the muscles involved and the greater the improvements in strength, this study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research explains. And as we already pointed out from the knee analysis study earlier, deeper squats don’t increase the risk of injury to your knees either.

But just because deeper squats are safe and demonstrably more effective at building leg strength, not everyone can (or should) squat arse-to-grass. Whether you do or not will largely depend on your history of injury, how your body is built, and your training goal, since different squats can work on different things.

For example, partial squats (lowering yourself just a little) can be great for getting some serious power behind a jump, or for helping more advanced lifters work past difficult points in their squat. “The only people who need to squat that deep with weights are Olympic-level weightlifters,” says Lefever.

If you’re keen on squatting deeper, the good news is that you can learn to squat deeper with practice. One way is by doing goblet squats, which gives most people an easier time to “get to depth” since the weight is in the front of the body and changes the mechanics a bit.

Once you’re comfortable with that, you can move onto the more challenging front squats. “By prioritising range of motion and control of the lift more than the load on the bar until [they] master the movement, most people can squat deep if they’re willing to invest the time and effort,” Nuckols said.

Additional Tips to Improve Your Squat and Boost Your Strength

To be able to perform squats comfortably and effectively, you’ll first need decent flexibility in your hips, ankles, and upper back to help you get into the squat position with a barbell on your back (or in front of you if you’re doing front squats). Beyond that, here are other crucial tips to keep in mind:

  • Squat first: You want to avoid being fatigued when you squat, or else you could increase your risk of injury and/or have an unproductive squat workout. If the day’s workout calls for squats, you should do them first.
  • Always be safe: If you’re squatting alone, make sure you can bail out of a bad lift when you need to. One way to help you do that is to set up the safety bars (adjustable bars that run perpendicular to the barbell on either side of you) to an appropriate height (usually above the barbell’s lowest point). So, if you’re having trouble driving back up, you can tilt your back slightly more upright and roll the barbell onto the safety bars instead. (Omar Isuf teaches you some “bail out” techniques in this video.)
  • Strengthen your core: A strong core helps keep you stable and lift more weight safely. While some people argue that squats are an amazing core exercise, they’re not enough. Core exercises, like bird dogs, pallof presses, or “stir the pot”, should be done separately and in addition to squatting.
  • Keep your torso tight: You need to make sure your torso, or core, is engaged before starting the squat. “While I’m squatting, I’m just thinking about bracing my abs and torso as hard as I can,” said Lefever. Here’s where a weightlifting belt can be helpful to create the abdominal pressure for your core to “brace against” in a heavy squat, to protect your spine, and to let you lift a bit more weight. There’s no evidence that wearing a belt makes your core weak either. For more information, Nuckols has a great article on the matter.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together: Imagine squeezing your shoulder blades together to keep your upper back and traps stable. It helps to keep your elbows pointed down and towards your butt, not just pointing them backwards.
  • Ditch the foam pad: Some people like to keep a foam pad cushioned between the bar and their traps, but the pad doesn’t let you properly rest the bar where it’s most comfortable for you.
  • Focus on moving fast: Speed is integral. It keeps the movement fluid and gets you past trouble spots. If you find yourself struggling, keep your chest up and imagine relentlessly driving through your heels and pushing your traps into the bar.
  • Adjust your grip: Most people would do well by having a wider grip to keep the bar steady, but feel free to play around a little bit. The more important thing is to have your wrists in a neutral position.
  • Try weightlifting shoes: Weightlifting shoes provide feet and ankle stability during a squat, and they can help you squat a little deeper because of the raised heel, too. Shoes are a pricey investment, though, so make sure you really, really like squatting.
  • There’s no one way to back squat: We’ll all squat a bit differently due to the way each of our bodies is built. These differences in anatomy will mean that a comfortable and safe squat may look differently for you than it does for me, including how deep you squat, how wide your stance is, where your hands are, or how far forward you lean.

As with deadlifts, squats are highly technical and highly individual. Of course, the most important thing to remember is to avoid going heavier than you can safely handle. And don’t fret if you can’t squat to a certain depth. Keep yourself mobile and keep working on it. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the squat, and I’ve finally just broken into the 90 kilos myself after nearly a year!

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