Squats are often described as ‘the King of all exercises’. When you do them right, they really do benefit all aspects of your training, fitness and daily life. Don’t believe us? Read on.
As most people already know, squats are great for working your entire body, specifically your quads, core and posterior chain.
The ‘posterior chain’ consists of the erector spinae muscles, glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles.
Developing and strengthening your posterior chain can help to improve posture, promote mobility, balance and core stability as well as protect against injury and pain. Increasing strength in these areas also leads to improved athletic performance, particularly when it comes to running, jumping and lifting. Furthermore, more posterior chain muscle mass (made up of the largest muscles of the body) also increases your bodies capacity for calorie burning, as for every pound of additional muscle that is gained, the body will burn an additional 50-70 calories per day.
Squats also have many lesser-known health benefits. They can help to protect you from diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes by building the muscles that work to regulate the levels of glucose and lipids as well as insulin sensitivity. Another hidden benefit of squatting is that it improves the pumping and circulation of fluids around the body, improving both nutrient delivery and waste removal. On top of all of this, squats are one of the best functional exercises ever. That is to say, squats help you strengthen muscle and maintain mobility that will allow you to move your body more efficiently in your day-to-day life.
However, in order to reap all of the above benefits, squats have to be done correctly! An incorrect squat can lead to an array of injuries. Rounding or over arching the back or bringing the hips up too soon can cause injury to the lower back. The knees moving in and out or forwards and back can exert pressure on the joints from angles they are not equipped to deal with. Even the shoulders can get injured during back squats if the bar is allowed to roll down the back.
If you’re struggling to achieve the above movement, or are feeling discomfort or even pain during or after your squats, try not to be too hard on yourself. It is likely to simply be a result of your anatomy. By understanding potential causes, you can regularly work to strengthen/stretch other areas that may make the squatting process easier for you.
Incorrect movement patterns in the knee, such as the knees moving inwards (known as ‘valgus’) can be as a result of issues in either the hip (weak glutes or core) or limited ankle mobility. This incorrect movement pattern is important to identify and work to improve as it can help to predict knee problems including injury to the cruciate ligaments or patellofemoral pain (general pain felt in the front of the knee).
The ability to flex the foot upwards towards the shin will also affect a person’s ability to squat beyond a certain depth. This could be due to tight calf muscles or limited range of motion in the ankle joint. Altering the angle at which you turn your feet outwards or raise your heels could gain the squatter additional range of motion. This is because it takes the movement from one plane to another. This could also result in the heels rising off the floor or the arch of the foot collapsing. Stretching the calf muscles and working to increase ankle range of motion could work to improve this in the long term.
The length of your thigh and shin bones can also affect your squat. For instance, if you have (relatively) long thigh bones and/or short shin bones it will likely lead to a greater forward lean. This is normally to overcompensate for the feeling of losing your balance and falling backwards. If this is the case, a wider stance will help to give the illusion of shorter thigh bones ensuring more stability and less force exerted on the spine.
However, if you are blessed with relatively short thigh bones/long shins and torso (and have none of the previously mentioned limited range of motion or tightness) it is likely that you will be able to squat deeply and comfortably, whilst feeling no strain in the lower back, hips or knees.
There are many squat variations out there, and sometimes it’s difficult to know which one is best for your body and current ability. Once you’ve mastered the correct technique for a classic body weight squat, it is natural to want to introduce load and increase your strength. Many believe the Goblet Squat is the perfect next step.
With a front loaded weight, your body’s natural response will be to brace the core and pull the torso upright in order to stabilise and counteract the force that is pulling you forwards. This strengthens the muscles of the core without putting any strain on the lower back. After becoming proficient at the Goblet Squat, it may be time to progress.
The Front Squat involves the introduction of a barbell, whilst maintaining the emphasis on the upright posture and a stable core, keeping the stress on the quads and away from the spine. The positioning of the bar can be a little tricky to get the hang of (try the crossed arm grip unless you are planning to perform a squat-to-press) but by mastering this variation your deadlift and back squat techniques will be infinitely improved.
Finally, the Back Squat is a more advanced squatting technique, which involves placing a weighted barbell on your upper back. Back squats are widely regarded as one of the most effective exercises for supporting athletic movements such as jumping, running and lifting, but are also considered one of the more advanced options due to the potential for overloading the lower back, causing injury to the knees or even getting ‘stuck’ at the bottom.
When it comes to back squats, the force of the load and resulting muscular work is determined by how you place the bar on the upper back. Squatting with the bar placed higher on the back causes your quads to work harder. Squatting with the bar lower on the back increases the work on the hamstrings and lower back as the force of the load is controlled by the posterior muscles of the body (bear in mind that low bar squats may reduce your ability to squat very low).
We hope you found this useful, and remember if your anatomy means that performing ‘the perfect squat’ doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t fret. Consider some of the adjustments we have discussed and keep working on your form. It’ll be worth it!