The squat is the king of all leg exercises and arguably of all exercises. It works not just the legs but the whole body. How? I hear you ask. I will answer that by explaining how to perform the squat.
Stand up looking forward with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and pointing straight ahead. Normally the barbell is on stands so you should position yourself under it so that it lies comfortably over your shoulders behind your neck. You will use your hands to keep the bar on your shoulders when you’ll be moving up and down. If you find the bar painful on your shoulders, roll a towel around it.
While positioned under the bar resting on its stand, you should have your legs bent. If not, you should adjust the height of the stand. To start the squat, take the bar off the stand by standing straight up. Do this by pushing with your legs to straighten them. Then walk forwards a little so that the stands are no longer in the way of the barbell.
Now you’re ready to perform the squat. Lower yourself into a squat position by bending your knees and bringing your torso forwards to keep your balance. Keep your back flat at all times and look forwards, not down or up and specially not sideways.
How low should you go?
There has been a lot of discussion over this matter. Some say going lower than thighs parallel to the ground will place excess stress to the legs. Others say going below parallel will work your bum and hamstrings more and will allow your quadriceps a deeper stretch which is beneficial to the muscles. My belief is that if you are not lifting heavy, then there should be no stress placed on your knees if you squat deep. And especially when warming up, I believe you should go quite deep to allow your muscles the full range of motion and feel the stretch. At the very least, you should squat to parallel. Anything less with moderate weight on the bar is not going to work your legs sufficiently.
So now moving up from the squatting position, push with your legs into a standing position while keeping your torso rigid. Keep your legs slightly bent in the standing position so that the weight rests on your muscles instead of your bones and joints. You have just completed 1 repetition. Now repeat for 14 more!
As with all weight-lifting exercises, you breathe in when the weight bears down on you and you breathe out when you exert the muscles, whether it’s a pushing or pulling motion. Breathing in the squat exercise is even more crucial. Firstly, you are exercising a very large muscle group so you need plenty of oxygen. Secondly, you need to keep your torso rigid and one way to accomplish that is to build up pressure within. So you breathe in as your lower yourself. At the bottom of the squat, you pause briefly and as you get out from the deep position – the sticking point in the squat exercise – you breathe out powerfully and push hard until when you are standing up and have completed the squat movement, your lungs are empty. At this point if you are tired, you can take another deep breath before you start your next rep.
Now to answer the initial question, when you push with your legs, you need to transmit this force to the bar in order to raise it. If your body is soft, it will act as a cushion and absorb all your efforts, a bit like pushing with a load with a spring. So you want your body to be as rigid as possible.
Your back has to stay flat and taut to keep the barbell in position. A round back cannot transmit force to the bar and you will hurt yourself.
Your abs are working very very hard – in fact, the next day they may feel quite sore. They play a crucial role in keeping your torso rigid and in playing a balancing act with your lower back – the two sets of muscles perform opposing range of motions just like triceps and biceps.
Your chest and shoulders to a lesser degree keep the bar stabilised on your shoulders.
Your hamstrings also perform an opposing range of motion to your quadriceps so they are involved in the exercise specially in the eccentric phase – that part of the exercise where you lower yourself. The opposite of the eccentric phase is called the concentric phase and that is when your quads should be taxed to their limits and beyond.
Your calves are also involved to a small extent in keeping you balanced on your feet.
Feet and heels position
Note that throughout the squat, your feet should be flat on the ground and you should be pushing with your heels. Imagine a single line passing through your body from top to bottom and connecting the bar to the ground via your heels. This is an imaginary line to transmit the power in your legs.
Some people place a weight disc under each of their feet to raise their heels. If you do this for comfort or to push harder with your heels then you are doing the exercise wrong. Your position is wrong and that leads you having to lift your heels in order to keep your balance. However you can use this trick of raising your heels to place more emphasis on your quads. The weight shifts forward forcing your quads to be even more involved in the exercise.
The front squat variation
The front squat serves a similar purpose. This is performed by placing the bar in front of you on your shoulders and crossing your arms around it to hold it. It can be quite uncomfortable but was a popular exercise of Arnold Schwarzenegger to improve his quadriceps as he thought the basic squat did not involve them sufficiently.
So now you understand why the squat is sometimes called a whole-body workout in itself as it recruits secondary muscles throughout the body in assisting the legs. For some variations, try with your toes pointed slightly in or out. Pointing them in works the vastus medialis, that quadriceps muscle located on the inside of your leg and pointing your toes outwards places emphasis on the vastus lateralis, that muscle on the external side of your leg. You can also vary the distance between your legs. The sumo squat is done with your legs wide open, similar to the stance sumos take.
Concluding the squat
Each person’s body is built differently so you should adopt the position that feels most comfortable to you especially as you learn a new exercise. Any sharp pain is your body’s way of telling you that what you are doing is wrong, so listen to it.
Some people turn to building muscles in a bid to lose weight. Others like to run. And yet others do both. If you are relying on building muscles to lose weight, then including squats in your workout is mandatory as it is such a muscle builder and will use up so much of your energy that you would be able to eat a chocolate cake without feeling guilty afterwards. I will take up the topic of doing aerobic exercise versus lifting weight in the future. It is an on-going hot debate.