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Cross Train

Squat it like it’s hot

Of all the exercises you can do, the squat is arguably one of the most productive and beneficial. For starters, the movement of squatting is functional in the truest sense of the word; its how you get out of a chair, get out of your car and get off the loo and walking up a flight of stairs is essentially a series on one-legged squats.

If you want to run faster, jump higher, be stronger, build a better butt, strengthen your knees and hips or build up your legs, squats are a must.

Squats aren’t just a great lower body exercise either; holding and supporting a weight on the front or back of your shoulders develops great upper body strength and keeping your torso and midsection rigid while you squat can develop a core of iron. Crunches? Sit-ups? Pah! Squats will develop your midsection far better than many so-called core exercises.

Squatting image – Writer Patrick Dale 167.5kg
Squatting image – Writer Patrick Dale 167.5kg

Personally, I also believe squats develop more than just physical strength; I also believe they develop mental strength too. Shouldering a heavy barbell, walking it out of the rack and getting ready to squat requires and develops a certain degree of bravery and resolve.

Unlike a deadlift where you can simply drop the bar if you get into difficulties, you have no such option with squats. Yes, if you are squatting heavy you should do so in a power rack but, even then, resting a hundred kilos or more on your back makes the fear real. Remember though, even when the weight is “bar-bendingly” heavy always remember, you only have to stand back up!

Some people like to compare squats to leg presses because, it appears, the movements are very similar. In fact, squats are leg presses are like apples and bicycles – not even marginally related!

While the leg press does have its merits, it’s important to recognize the vital differences…

In squats, your body moves through space where as with leg presses, your body stays stationary. This makes the leg press far less functional or natural.

In the leg press, your back is supported by a bench. There is no such support in “real life”.  Overuse of the leg press could give you hugely strong legs but without accompanying lower back strength. This means that it will be very hard to actually use the strength developed when leg pressing as your lower back will always be the weak link in the kinetic chain.

You can use a leg press for leg pressing and that’s about it. However, there are several squatting variations for you to choose from all of which offer some great benefits…

Bodyweight squats – great for developing muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness, bodyweight squats can be performed just about anywhere and are a fine addition to virtually every conditioning workout you can image. Try alternating between 50-bodyweight squats and running 500-meters. Do five sets for the ultimate leg and lung buster!

Goblet squats – performed with a single dumbbell or kettlebell held in front of your chest, the goblet squat teaches proper squat mechanics and is also a good step up from bodyweight squats. Goblet squats teach upper body tension – essential for heavy squatting

Front squats – with a barbell resting across your anterior deltoids, front squats are a good variation that many experts believe is the most athletic type of squat. The more upright torso means the lumbar spine is under less shearing force and this also makes the quads work considerably harder. However, for many, less weight must be used and the pressure on the wrists can be very uncomfortable. Despite this, front squats are a must for Olympic lifters.

Back squats – the type of squatting used in most strength training programs and also the first lift contested in powerlifting competitions, the back squat allows for the greatest amount of weight to be lifted and is adaptable to suit most exercisers. Back squats, especially where the depth of descent exceeds parallel, are an excellent anterior AND posterior thigh exercise as well as being great for glutes, core and lower back development.

Squat jumps – performed with or without weight, squat jumps are en effective way to develop leg power. For some, the high impact nature of this exercise means that box jumps are better choice but for harnessing and developing the elastic stretch component of muscle contractions, the squat jump is hard to beat.

Whatever form of squatting you chose to do, make sure you incorporate these technique tips to make each and every rep as safe and effective as possible…

  • Keep your chest up – dropping your chest will encourage you to round your lower back which is a recipe for injury.
  • Brace your core – tense your midsection as though you are expecting a punch in the belly! This will increase the tightness of your natural “weight lifting belt”.
  • Break at the hips first – initiate your descent by pushing your hips back. This helps preserve your lumbar arch and also activates your powerful glutes and hamstrings.
  • Shove your knees out – doing so will give you space to descend and also activate your adductors which will help drive you up and you of the bottom of your squat – aptly named the hole in powerlifting. Driving your knees out also prevents your knees from dropping in which will prevent unnecessary joint wear and tear.
  • Grip the bar tightly – if you are doing any kind of weighted squats, make sure you try and CRUSH the bar in your hands. This helps increase not only upper body stability but also, because of something called irradiation, increases nervous excitability throughout your body. More nervous excitability means more strength!

As my old coach used to say, “If you aren’t squatting, you aren’t training” so make sure you squat at least a couple of times a week. Use a variety of different squats and change your loading parameters to avoid too much repetition but make the squat a big part of your weekly program if you are serious about maximising your appearance or performance.

Article by Patrick Dale