The squat is one of the best all-around leg developer movements an athlete can use in training. It can be tailored to fit a variety of athletes of all different shapes and sizes by altering bar position, stance, depth, barbells, boxes etc. Let’s get into some practical take-aways with the squat.
The squat will work a wide variety of muscles in your legs. Specifically, the quads, glutes, adductors, calves and hamstrings. Some will be worked more than others and some will work more than others depending on your positioning.
Let’s take a quick look at some of these factors and what variables influence the squat.
Single Vs Multi Joint Muscles
The body will prioritize single joint or mono-articulate muscles over multi joint or bi-articulate muscles. What this means is mono-articulate muscles are made to be work horses and bi-articulate muscles then kick in to assist the work horses when they’re tapped out and have nothing left. (1)
Studies show that deeper squats have shown to develop larger quads, glutes and adductor muscles than high squats when training with the same volume and percentages of 1 RM. This is important information and shows the ability to grow 3 very large and important lower body muscles while squatting deep. Squatting as deep as possible will always serve as a governor too because you will be going through a larger range of motion and accumulating more muscular fatigue during that work which will inherently lend itself to using lighter loads than you could high squat with. And there lies the rub with many of the “depth” studies. These studies tend to use the same relative load when in most cases many people can squat more with a higher squat than a full squat. This is a fairly obvious observation at almost every commercial gym on the planet.
This means that in these studies the test subjects could most likely handle more weight on the bar but are incapable of doing so within the confinement of the study. Practically speaking, if you loaded 80% 1 RM of a full squat onto a bar or loaded 80% 1 RM of an above parallel squat, the 80% above parallel squat will usually always be a heavier absolute load. This heavier load will tax the hip extensors more than the partial ROM lighter load being used working off of a deep squats 1 RM. In reality performing partial free squats, high box squats or high pin squats athletes will usually be capable of handling heavier weights and this should be done when aiming to develop hip extensor strength in a partial ROM. Historically this has been done with success for jumping athletes training the specific counter movement jump stance, lifters with sticking points above parallel and finally used to develop hip extensor strength and hypertrophy in athletes with lagging glutes and hamstrings. (2)
Hamstrings (Biceps Femoris (long and short head), Semitendinosus, Semimembranosus)
Hamstrings don’t contribute much during the squat. Squats shouldn’t be a staple lift for the development of hamstring muscles because most hamstrings are bi-articulate muscles (except for the short head of the biceps femoris which is primarily a knee flexor) and more or less stay at relatively the same length throughout the lift. However, there is a caveat. Under certain circumstances the hamstrings will be called upon to contribute to help hip extension and help finish the squat. This circumstance occurs when all the other prime movers are maxed out. The quads and glutes are doing all they can and they need more muscles to help out so you don’t die and miss the lift. The hamstrings hop up and begin assisting in hip extension. What you will see when observing a maximal squat is typically the hamstrings will lengthen by the hips shooting up helping the glutes out and being placed into a position to aide with hip extension.
This comes at a cost though because the hamstrings are a bi-articulate muscle. This means they cross two joints. The hamstrings originate at the hips and attach to the knees. Therefore, when aiding in hip extension they are directly fighting the quads on the other side of the femur by both muscles co-contracting. This means the hamstring will be contributing to hip extension while limiting knee extension. Hamstrings are still active in stabilizing the pelvis and knees and should be trained directly on their own with straight leg and bent leg or knee flexion exercises such as RDLS, GHR, leg curls etc. for overall thigh development and to help aide as stabilizers and contributors under fatigue and maximal exertion.
Quads (Rectus Femoris)
Another bi-articulate muscle that doesn’t directly contribute to the squat without a cost (similar to the hamstring) is the rectus femoris. This is the only bi-articulate muscle of the quad. Because the rectus femoris originates at the hip and attaches at the knee plus and squat is a multi-joint exercise involving both the hip and knee joint, the rectus femoris is staying relatively the same length when the hips and knees are bent (same as the hamstrings until hips shoot up for hams to extend) unlike the mono-articulate quad muscles that are lengthening and shortening when the eccentric and concentric movement of the squat occurs. In order to efficiently and directly train the rectus femoris, leg extensions work best because the hip is in a permanently flexed position and the only joint moving is now the knee joint isolating the rectus femoris more or less.
Quads (Vastus Intermedius, Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis)
Quads are in the same boat as the adductors and will grow more from deep squats and a large ROM. The quads are the primary knee extensors in the bottom of the squat and throughout the lift. The hardest ROM for the quads is in deep squat and the lift progressively gets easier on the quads the more the joint straightens and the higher up you move the weight as load is gradually shifted towards the hip extensors. Quad activation is not affected by stance width so for quad development any stance width can work with depth being prioritized. (3)
Adductors experience significant growth when deep squatting and are actually a primary hip extensor in the deep squat position. The deeper you squat the more adductor growth you will gain. These are not easy muscles to develop and many people spend time doing direct adductor exercises when you can get plenty of bang for your buck by simply squatting deeper.
Glutes experience muscular growth in the bottom of the squat as well but biomechanically aren’t the primary hip extensors in the deep squat, the adductors are. The glutes become the primary hip extensors at around parallel. This circles us back to our prior conversation on squat depth and 1 RM load. If the glutes are the primary hip extensors at and above parallel and we can handle more load in that position normally, then it would make practical sense to target this ROM specifically with partial squats and use heavier load to adequately tax the glutes and cause growth and or strength development.
Now, there are nuances and competing theories to what we have talked about above, particularly in regards to stance width and depth. Some studies say stance width will increase glute activation, meaning a wider stance will activate more glute max and glute medius. This is especially true if the athlete creates some lateral floor tension via “spreading the
floor.” (3) There are some studies that point towards this while others suggest deeper moderate stance squats activate the glutes more. This may be because the glutes are stretched at the bottom when reaching depth, which is a factor in muscular growth. Another complimentary theory to a moderate stance VS wide is the mechanical disadvantage the glutes will be placed in with a wider stance because the glute muscle is now pre-shortened. A short muscle is generally not in a good position to produce strength or power.
So now that I have thoroughly confused you here is the applicable take away:
“Nevertheless, chronic studies have suggested that deeper squats, or a combination of different ranges of motion, induce the most substantial functional and muscular gains, possibly due to more considerable time under tension, mechanical tension, and longer muscle length.” (4)
What this means is do them all because we don’t know. Squat deep, squat narrow, squat wide, squat at different depths and train the muscles through full and partial range of motions at different angles. This applies to all lifting fundamentally, not just squatting. I would contribute the most amount of yearly volume on exercises that don’t beat you up, that you can recover from and get great work in with.
Now that we have gotten through the technical aspects of the squat lets go over some practical tips and tools.
Setting Up to Squat
Set the bar at around chest height depending on whether you use a low or high bar position adjust from there. Walk your chest into the bar.
Set your grip and once you set your grip do not move your hands when ducking under the bar to set up. Before you get under the bar set your feet in the stance you feel the most powerful with in order to unrack with your hips and knees.
Once your bar height, grip and stance are set gather your air and use the Valsalva technique setting your brace at around a 7/10 tension. Duck under the bar.
If you are using a high bar position, retract your shoulder blades together and place the bar on your traps. If you are using a lower bar position, still retract your shoulder blades together, but place the bar on top of your rear delts. It’s important to place the bar on top of the rear delts because if you place the below the rear delts than you no longer have a “shelf” and the scapula will probably become protracted and you will hold the bar on your arms instead of you upper back.
You want your feet and hips under the barbell far enough that you aren’t unracking the bar with you back and use your hips and knees in unison.
Now, take another huge breath of air and top off the air you had already gathered before ducking under the barbell. This breath should be a 10/10 amount of air. Stand up with the weight once you’ve braced and shoved all that air deep down into your belly. Let the weight settle on your back and stabilize. Step backwards with one foot. Let the weight stabilize. Step with the other foot. Stabilize. Now take another big sip of air topping off anything you’ve lost during the walk out. Head up or back into your traps and the bar and squat down. Hit the hole with slight elastic rebound out of the bottom and stand up hard. That’s all there is to it.
Notice how 90% of what I just spoke about is the setup. That is essential in every lift. If you don’t get that right then nothing downstream will work properly.
Full ROM squat: The most highly used version of the squat is well, the full ROM squat. We have spoken about this type squat throughout this article. Here are main differences in regards to what you can change and tweak with a basic barbell squat. You can squat with a high bar or low bar, little more quads VS a little more hips or wide stance VS close stance, a little more quad VS a little more hip.
Partial ROM squats: Squatting to a high box or a high pin or just free partial squats may be used as a practical exercise to target the glutes and hip extensors. Set the exercise up at or above parallel and be sure to be sitting back and using/targeting the hips not just cheating the exercise and using your quads/ knees to stand up by altering the bar path of the exercise. My personal favorite is parallel box squats for this variation.
Low box squats: This is another one of my favorite tools to teach athletes how to hit depth and gain comfort in squatting low. The boxes height stays the same and is a repeatable marker of depth. For all box squats I personally always teach and use a brief pause on the box, no touch and go or butt tapping the box then moving. The slight pause forces some muscles to relax while other contract and makes the lift harder by removing some of the stretch reflex. This will benefit you when going back to free squats and utilizing the stretch reflex out of the hole when hitting depth.
When sitting on the box do not use momentum to stand up either. Once the glutes sit and pause on the box fully then the torso angle must stay silent. No rocking back and then forwards in order to use momentum to stand up off the bottom of the box. This will not help translate to a free squat nor will it help you grow muscle since your using momentum and not contractile tissue. This may also cause sheering knee forces which is avoidable by not performing in this manner.
Front squat: The front squat will keep the torso very upright and not allow the athlete to sit back into their hips. If they were to do so then they would dump the bar forward. This exercise will be a little more quad and adductor dominant as long as depth is low. For most people this exercise will be able to handle the least amount of absolute weight on the bar since it is biomechanically the weakest squat position compared to back squats. The upper back will get a good stimulus from this lift as well. Athletes must possess adequate shoulder and wrist mobility to perform this lift. A common misunderstanding is to retract the scapula on this exercise similar to a back squat but this is incorrect. The scapula must be protracted and a shelf made on the anterior deltoids for the bar to rest. The bar must sit high on the delts and against the throat. If you feel like you can’t breathe and the bar is lightly choking than you are performing it correctly.
Safety Squat bar: I would be letting people down if I didn’t mention this bar. One of my favorite bars and one of the most challenging squat variations is the SSB or Hatfield bar. Popularized by “Dr. Squat” Fred Hatfield the bar has handles that rest on the front of the chest and a pad that props the bar high up on the traps and neck in the rear. This way the athletes arms are free from being stuck behind the bar and can grab onto the handles to squat or grab onto a rack/bench or other support beam to use the hands for balance and to push through a sticking point in the squat as a form of accommodating resistance. This bar is a form of very high bar squat. Traps activation is much higher in this lift similar to front squatting but the SSB can handle absolute heavier loads while still reaching similar biomechanical angles as a front squat depth wise. This is a great way to build the legs and save the shoulders/biceps of large athletes or athletes with a history of upper body injuries.
Piston/pulse squats: Squatting using this variation is one way to gather tons of time under tension in the lower depth position. You squat down, squat half way to ¾ of the way back up and then come back down keeping constant load on the legs. This is a great exercise and will pump your legs up for sure. Reps can be anywhere from 5-20.
Belt squat: Belt squats are very popular now a days and for good reason. They’re a great way to get in some extra leg volume while not loading the spine and back. The weight is distributed across the hips on a belt via a lever arm machine, cable system or free weight system. The most basic belt squat you can rig up is standing on two boxes or benches with a loaded dip belt and perform squats. I’d keep these in the 15-30 rep range and get some quality leg work in while sparing the rest of the body.
Squats are a very taxing full body lift and will take a ton of energy to complete the stronger and more efficient you become at them. You can use squats for strength training in the lower rep ranges of 1-5s, for hypertrophy training in a variety of ranges but most efficiently in 5-12s, or even for HIIT type training using short rest intervals or high rep squats like 20 rep sets. Nothing will make your lungs and legs burn quite like that! It doesn’t matter if you goal is to improve GPP or athletic performance, to build tree trunk legs like a bodybuilder or strong legs like a powerlifter or even prevent an elderly person from falling, some version of a squat has a place in every training routine.
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