The back squat is the keystone exercise in all of my strength programs. It’s the first exercise I teach a beginner, and I give it priority at every workout—the exception being an Olympic lifter who’s also planning to do snatches or cleans at that session. The back squat is the ultimate hip and leg movement, and it strengthens the back and the shoulder. When you’re handling a heavy poundage, all of the muscle groups in your upper body have to be fully contracted. When you do that consistently, those groups become stronger.
While many of us in the new field of strength training for athletes were preaching the merits of the full squat, others proposed that it should be avoided at all costs because it was risky to the welfare of the knees.
The controversy can be traced to the research done by Dr. K.K. Klein at the University of Texas in the early 1960s. He tested competitive Olympic lifters and students at the university and concluded that full squats created unstable collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments and advised against doing full-range movements in the exercise. Almost instantly, that piece of research sent a firestorm across the country, and coaches, especially football coaches, since that sport was the first to adopt strength training, either dropped squats from their programs or started using partial movements.
No one seemed to question Klein’s testing methods. If they had, they would have found that his was not a valid study. I know that because I was one of his test subjects. I was attending Southern Methodist University and would travel to Austin a couple of times a year to compete in Olympic meets. From my very first encounter with Dr. Klein, I complained loudly that his testing methods were extremely shaky. In the first place, the study design wasn’t blind. That is, he would ask the lifters whether they did full squats. As we were all Olympic lifters, we did full squats as part of our training. Then he, not an unbiased assistant, would apply pressure with both hands to the sides of an aluminum gadget that he had designed and that covered the upper and lower portions of the leg around the knee joint. Then he would take a reading from a dial similar to a blood pressure gauge.
In effect, he could get any reading he desired, He pushed so hard that many complained that he was hurting their knees and didn’t let him test them again. Further, he ignored the fact that the weightlifters were also doing heavy snatches and cleans, exploding to a very deep squatting position. If he was looking for a culprit for knee problems, he should have been testing those two quick lifts.
When Tommy Suggs and I set about our mission of educating football coaches on the many benefits of weight training for their players, we spent more than half the time convincing them that squats were not a dangerous exercise. Some listened; some didn’t. I recall one coach saying that he not only didn’t allow his players to do full squats but that if he caught them going too low, he’d kick them off the team. When we asked him what he did to improve their hip and leg strength, he replied that he had them duck-walk the length of the football field carrying a teammate on their backs.
Happily, that absurd behavior has changed. Research has shown without question that full squats do not put the knees at risk and that they are in fact the very best exercise to strengthen that joint and prevent it from being damaged in sports. Of course, you have to perform squats correctly. As with any other exercise, if you use faulty form, injuries can occur. Yet far more athletes sustain dings from bench pressing than squatting, and no one is stepping up and saying that the bench should be excluded from strength programs.
One of the things I teach beginners is how to dump a squat. I have to believe that everyone who’s lifted weights for a long time has gotten stuck in the bottom of a squat. On many occasions when I was training alone, I found myself not able to grind through the sticking point and being driven down into a very deep squat. As soon as I realized what was happening, however, I reacted by kicking the weight backward and at the same time moving my body forward. The worst part of the whole deal is having to unload the bar and set it back on the squat rack. That’s a good thing to know, and it kept me from being too timid with my weight selections when I was alone.
In fact, I never liked having spotters when I squatted. I didn’t want anyone standing behind me, that’s for sure, and when I had two spotters, one always seemed to be a tad slower than the other; I ended up being jerked around with a heavy weight on my back—but that’s just me. If there are competent spotters available, by all means use them. At the same time, don’t worry if you’re squatting alone. Just learn how to dump the weights. Remember never to relax until you’ve succeeded in punching the weight off your back.
While the back squat is the primary hip and leg exercise in my strength programs, several variations are very beneficial to athletes: front squats, overhead squats and wide-stance squats.
Before you introduce any of them into a routine, however, you must learn how to do back squats perfectly and do them long enough to establish a solid strength foundation. For anyone just starting out on a strength program, that will help you learn how to squat correctly. For those who have been doing the exercise for some time, it will be a refresher course. It never hurts to review various aspects of any exercise. Over the years many fall into bad habits and never realize it until they take the time to reexamine all the small points.
One reason so many prefer partial squats over full-range ones is simply that they’re easier. You need to understand from the outset that full squats done with heavy weights are very hard. As you get more and more involved in the strength game, though, you learn that the difficult exercises bring the greatest results.
The back squat is actually one of the easiest exercises to teach someone in all of strength training. It’s a natural movement. Watch small children at play. They’re constantly squatting, and their form is perfect. If a person has not been taught improper form, he or she will do a full squat correctly on the very first set. One reason I encourage parents to teach their children how to squat while they’re quite young is that it comes so easy to them. When older people try to learn the lift, it takes more time so because they’ve lost a great deal of the needed flexibility in their hips and legs.
I’ll begin with the positioning of the bar across the back. Invariably, beginners pull their heads away from the pressure on their backs in an attempt to lessen the discomfort. That, however, only increases the problem. Instead of trying to move your neck away from the bar, do this. Scrunch your shoulders together and elevate your traps as high as possible, even if you don’t have much in the way of traps yet. That will give you a ledge on which to place the bar. It will also make you keep your upper body tight, an important consideration for the lift. Next, lock the bar in place. If you don’t, it will move during the execution of the exercise and cause pain.
At one time I allowed athletes to use a towel to cushion the bar, but now I discourage the practice. When the weights start to get demanding, the towel itself becomes a hindrance, so it’s best to get used to the smooth bar against your traps—that is, unless you have the misfortune of having to use a bar with a knurl in the center. Then all bets are off. Go ahead and wrap something around it.
You want to grip the bar as closely as possible so that you can lock it into your upper back. Back out of the rack and place your feet just a bit wider than shoulder width, with your toes turned out slightly. Not much—just a bit to help you with your balance. Don’t merely stand on the floor; grip it with your toes, and tighten all the muscles in your body from your ankles to your neck. Look straight ahead. Now lower yourself until your thighs are at least below parallel. Even lower is better. When you go as low as you can, pause while staying extremely tight: That’s an excellent thing to learn from the very outset. It will help you get stronger in the long run and prevent you from getting into the habit of the most abused form flaw in the squat, rebounding out of the bottom. Do that repeatedly, and the result will be sore knees. As I mentioned above, it’s not the exercise but sloppy form that causes the problem. Same as when you constantly rebound the bar off your chest in the bench press or you do dumbbell curls in a herky-jerky fashion.
After that brief pause stand up quickly. Once you get the feel of the movement, the recovery should be as explosive as possible. Reset, and do another rep. Your entire body must remain extremely tight throughout the lift. Relaxing even a bit will have an adverse effect. The most common problem is that the bar runs forward, out of the proper line, making it more difficult to finish the lift. A relaxed body will also cause your lower or middle back to round, and you need to avoid that. Your entire back must remain straight throughout. The best way to ensure that is to pull your shoulder blades together before you start the squat and concentrate on keeping them together to the finish.
To help keep your back straight and prevent the bar from moving too far forward, lift your head as you come out of the rock-bottom position. Do all your breathing at the start and finish, or at least after you’ve moved through the sticking point. If you take a breath during the hard part of the squat, your diaphragm is forced to relax, and that diminishes the power.
Why is going low so important? Two primary reasons. It’s safer for your knees and builds more strength. When you do a quarter or half squat, your knee joints and the surrounding tendons, ligaments and muscles are responsible for stopping the descending weight, and that obviously places a huge amount of stress on them. In contrast, when you go below parallel, the job of halting the weight shifts to the larger muscles and attachments of the hips, glutes, quads and leg biceps. So while many people believe they’re protecting their knees by doing partial movements, they are in fact placing them in jeopardy.
Partial squats strengthen the quads and abductors just fine but fall way short when it comes to working the legs’ other muscle groups. Partial squats create disproportionate strength in the lower body, and that will eventually lead to trouble once the quads move too far ahead of the adjourning groups. In short, going low is good; staying above parallel is not.
The question often arises whether it’s possible to go too low. Yes. I’ve started some athletes who were so flexible in their hips that they could nearly sit on the floor when they squatted, which was all right if they were able to maintain a flat back, but they couldn’t. Rather, their lower backs rotated under them, and that you don’t want. The best way to correct it was to put the athlete inside a power rack and set pins at a point I wanted him to squat down to. In cases where a power rack wasn’t available, I had him squat down to a bench at the height I wanted. I never had him sit down on the bench—just touch it and stand up. I’m not a fan of the box squat idea. I contend that it compresses the spine way too much, especially for athletes who haven’t yet done enough work to build a strong back. I know that many powerlifters swear by box squats, but it’s been my observation that they’re all heavyweights or lifters with years of experience in the sport—and on more steroids in a week than all the guilty Major League players have injected in the history of baseball. That throws what they do out the window, in my opinion.
Wearing a belt when squatting is a good idea. It adds support to your midsection, helps keep you warm and gives you feedback during the lift—however, it won’t save you from an injury caused by sloppy technique.
Now I want to move on to a superb leg exercise that used to be part of every strength athlete’s and bodybuilder’s program—front squats. I insert the lift into athletes’ routines as soon as they’ve built a solid enough base and display the necessary flexibility in their shoulders. Again, young athletes have the advantage here since they have not yet done a lot of shoulder exercises, such as bench presses, that tighten the shoulder girdle.
Your shoulders must be flexible enough to rack the bar across your front deltoids so that your triceps are parallel to the floor. The form often shown of a bodybuilder crossing his arms to hold a bar while he does front squats is not acceptable. Since you can’t lock the bar in place, you can’t use much weight. Thus it becomes an auxiliary exercise rather than a primary one.
Being able to handle enough weight to increase strength appreciably depends on a solid rack. Few have the necessary flexibility in their shoulders initially, but nearly everyone who’s willing to spend the time stretching out his shoulders and elbows can achieve it. You can proceed in a couple of effective ways. Place a bar loaded with a moderate amount of weight across your front deltoids. Have a training mate elevate one elbow at a time, and then hold it for a 10-second count when it hits the point where it cannot go any farther. Then do the other arm. Next, do both arms at the same time. When you come to the holding part, make sure you don’t let your upper body lean backward, away from the discomfort. You must keep your torso straight for this to work.
You can do the same routine inside a power rack. Lock a bar in place, loosen up each arm in turn with assistance from a training partner, then do both arms together. As the count gets high, you’ll feel your elbows rising slightly. Slightly is okay, because if you do the movement often you’ll eventually achieve the flexibility that will enable you to rack the bar firmly across your front delts and do a full front squat without any trouble.
It’s worth the effort. The front squat is a better test of leg strength than the back squat. On the back squat you can lean forward and use your back to help move the weight upward—not the case with the front squat. Any leaning at all will result in losing the rep. You must maintain an absolutely erect posture during front squats.
Another thing I like about this exercise is that you have to go into a deep bottom position. Any attempt to cut the lift off only results in failure.
Whenever I see someone having difficulty going into the hole on a back squat, I teach him how to do fronts, and in a short time he is going deep on both lifts. In the process, new muscles are strengthened, and the numbers on the two exercises begin to climb.
Rack the bar firmly across your shoulders, step out of the rack and set your feet at the same place you used for the back squat. For some it’s necessary to use a bit wider stance, but you can determine that rather quickly. Look straight ahead or a little upward. If you look down, your elbows will lower, and you don’t want that. As in the back squat, make sure your body is extremely tight. While keeping your back perfectly flat, pull yourself down into a deep bottom position. Stay tight in the bottom. The initial move out of the bottom is quite different from the move in the back squat. There you want to drive the bar upward with your hips and lower back, then squeeze your hips under the bar to keep it in motion. That doesn’t work for the front squat. If you shoot your hips upward and backward even a bit, the bar will run forward, which puts a huge amount of stress on your wrists and elbows and will carry the bar out of the correct line.
On the front squat your first move out of the bottom is to drive your elbows upward, and then stand up. That will fix the weight right over your power pack so you can move right through your sticking point. Make sure you keep looking forward. Trainees tend to look down, but that carries the bar out front, and when you’re handling heavy weights, a bit out front is usually too much.
You do the front squat much more dynamically than a back squat. A back squat can be lowered slowly, but if you try to lower a front squat that way, it will travel forward when you pass through the middle and carry you out of the ideal position. Pull the bar downward, and when you hit the bottom, hesitate a nanosecond, tense all your muscles even tighter than before and think of your hips and glutes as power. Explode upward with your elbows leading.
Breathe at the start and finish. Before doing any rep, make certain that your rack is solid. If it’s slipped off your front delts too far, then stop. Other than for warmups, I have my athletes do threes only on front squats. In the event they can’t maintain a firm rack after the second rep, I have them do doubles and add extra sets to increase their workload.
One of the hidden benefits of the front squat is that it strengthens the middle and upper back to a greater degree than the back squat does. The back squat hits the lower back more than the other segments, which means doing both reaps more benefits than just one or the other.
Another version of the squat that works all the groups in the back nicely, as well as all parts of the lower body, is the overhead squat. As the name implies, it’s a full squat with a bar held overhead. It requires flexible shoulders, but in a different way from the front squat. Again, however, the shoulders can be loosened over time. Use a towel, a piece of clothesline or a broomstick. Hold it overhead and rotate it back over your head. As you feel your shoulders become more flexible, move your grip in more and repeat the process. You can do it at night at home and just prior to overhead squatting.
Core training is now the “in” word in physical fitness. There’s no better way to strengthen the core than overhead squats. They very directly strengthen all the muscle groups that surround the spine, as well as the hips, glutes and upper and lower legs, and do a terrific job on the shoulders and arms. Since the deltoids, triceps and biceps are responsible for supporting the weight overhead during the squat, they’re much more involved than in any other form of squatting. By the way, overhead squats are an excellent exercise for those who are merely trying to stay in shape. Not a great deal of weight is needed to get the job done. They’re also a prerequisite for anyone wanting to do full squat snatches.
Take a wide grip, push up against the bar, look straight ahead, and go into a deep full squat. The bar should be fixed directly over your spine. Move straight up and down, always maintaining pressure against the bar. The key to success is keeping your elbows locked and holding the bar in the correct position.
Finally, it’s a good idea to know how to do wide-stance squats. They’re one of the best ways to strengthen adductors, a muscle group that often falls behind the quads and hamstrings. Weak adductors can be identified by observing an athlete’s knees during a heavy squat or pulling exercise. If they turn in, his adductors need more work. An adductor machine will serve the purpose, but one isn’t always available.
How wide? As wide as you can go and still maintain your balance. Your toes should be pointed straight ahead rather than out. All the pressure is placed on the outside of your feet, which also makes this exercise different from any other type of squatting. As with the overhead and front squats, your body must stay erect throughout the movement, and for wide-stance squats to be effective, you must go very low, way below parallel. The lower you go, the more you make the adductors work.
Try the different versions of the squat. They all work the body in unique ways—a good thing in strength training. One of them might improve an area that’s been holding you back for a long time. Plus, variety is most helpful in the motivation department, and we can all use all of that we can get.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com. IM