How much do you bench? Who cares, how much do you Squat? No matter the sex, level of fitness, and/or phase within the training program squats should take precedence. This multi-joint hormone producing exercise increases caloric expenditure while burning fat. In fact, squats are often considered the most useful and effective exercise in resistance training because of their fat burning and muscle building qualities. Other note worthy exercises is Olympic lifts and deadlifts.
Strength and Conditioning coaches consider the back squat as one of “the big three,” which is squat, clean and bench. The large mechanical (i.e. muscular) effort that is required during squats from the hip and knee extensors make this movement vital to train. The hip extensors are the gluteal maximus and three out of the four hamstring muscles; the fourth muscle of the hamstrings that is not involved in hip extension is the short head of the biceps femoris. The short head biceps femoris is involved in knee extension. The quadriceps muscle group is involved in knee extension as well. All of these muscles, in combination, serve as the prime mover muscles involved in running, sprinting, jumping and many other athletic movements.
Squat Load & Strength
During the squat exercise barbell load increases hip extensors mechanical effort more than the knee extensors. This biomechanical analysis highlights the importance of increasing load for enhanced performance in fitness and athletics. For fitness, developing the glutes and hamstrings is essential for lean and tone legs; the squat exercise develops both of these muscle groups. In athletics, the glutes and hamstrings are essential in applying force upon the ground, which is essential in getting faster and jumping higher. Increasing resistance (i.e. load) recruits high threshold motor units that arouse adaptations such as hypertrophy and strength (1). Both hypertrophy and strength adaptations are vital to athletes and fitness enthusiasts; however, these adaptations are only available when the load is continually and gradually increased.
Muscular strength is the highest amount of muscular force produced by a muscle, which is determined by lifting the highest possible weight for one repetition (aka 1RM). It has been suggested that 85% of 1RM is essential for strength and hypertrophy adaptations (1). These adaptations are due in part to metabolic stress / tension being imposed on the contracting muscles. However, getting stronger isn’t limited to 1RM. If you are performing 50kg at 8 repetitions and the next week you move up to 60kg at 8 repetitions then you got stronger. The point is that constantly increasing load, no matter the percentage, is required to see results.
Technique and exercise order are just as important as load in producing results from squats. Squats require high levels of muscle effort. Muscle effort is the amount of force the muscle must produce to perform a selected task. Multi-joint complex movements, squats, require high amounts of muscle effort from numerous muscle groups. Squat depth, as well as load, must both be considered when determining the amount of muscle effort required to perform the squat movement. High amounts of muscle effort can result in a breakdown of technique thus resulting in less effective movement patterns and potential injuries. Therefore, it is more crucial to teach proper squatting technique while working on flexibility to be able to perform full range-of-motion squats. Once you have mastered both technique and flexibility load should be continually increased to make adaptations.
Squats and performance is simple, if you don’t squat below a parallel squat (≈105° of knee flexion) then the exercise will not reach its full potential. As a strength coach I am aware of the “good ole” box squats. Box squats allow power lifters to increase strength for a very specific range of motion. Another benefit of box squats is to teach beginners how to properly squat without excessively shooting their knees in front of their toes early on in the squat motion. However, the fact remains the same, in order to achieve superior athletic performance results from squats athletes must squat full range of motion, “ass-to-grass.”
In order to increase hip extensors, knee extensors and plantar flexors of the ankles muscular effort squatting below parallel is critical. Squat depth has shown the greatest muscle effort for all three. Barbell load has shown to maximize the muscular effort of the plantar flexors of the ankle and hip extensors. Although load and depth provide the greatest results, improper form jeopardizes the integrity and results of the lift all together. Before attempting to squat with increased load check these three things:
1. Your core is strong enough to maintain lordosis throughout the entire range
2. Your knees do not excessively pass in front of your toes early on in the squat range of motion
3. Your heels stay on the floor through the entire range-of-motion
Once you have the form dialed in and all three technique checks marked off then increase the load and depth and watch mind blowing results come your way!
ATHLETES NOTE: a study was done in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning (2) that highlighted that vertical jumping ability and how to increase jumping ability through squats. Squat depth was the difference maker. All persons who performed parallel or partial squats alone saw 0% increase in vertical jumping ability. Some even suffered from knee pain in the long haul. All persons who performed full range of motion (ROM) squats saw increases in their vertical jumping ability and complained of zero knee pain. Please Note: I am unaware of the study’s name or when I read it, but I only can recall the source. I apologize for this. I can tell you the amount of participants in the study was limited to around 10 persons. However, there are numerous other studies that support these same results.
1. Fry, AC.
The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations.
Sports Medicine 34: 665-670, 2004.
2. Journal of Strength and Conditioning
National Strength and Conditioning Association