By Kevin Hirose – BKin, CSCS
The squat, a primal movement humans develop in infancy and use often in childhood, is a basic movement that people in Western society do not do enough of, mainly due to regular use of the chair. The squat is also an exercise. However, the are a few common misconceptions about the squat as an exercise such as:
“They are bad for your knees.”
“They are bad for your spine.”
“There is a one-size-fits-all squat technique.”
“In general, proper squats are good for your knees. Poorly done squats can be bad for the knees. It’s all about proper technique and posture.”
“Again, if done with proper technique and within an individual’s movement capacity it is NOT bad for the spine.”
“Absolutely not! Not everyone will squat the same due to individual mobility and skeletal structure uniqueness.”
But what is a squat, in biomechanical terms? Basically, it is a movement in which the hips (bum), along with the torso, move down towards the ground via movement from the hips, knees, and ankles as seen in the diagram below. As you can see the hips move down to about 5 o’clock with the torso slightly to moderately pitched. The pitch of the torso depends on the type of squat, individual mobility, and skeletal properties of the hips.
Here are the 4 main points to be discussed in this entry:
- Squat Variations and Biomechanical Differences
- Works the ENTIRE body in different degrees
- Individual Mobility and Structural Differences
- Squat Training Progressions and Programming
1) Squat Variations and Biomechanical Differences
Here are the three of the more common barbell squat variations:
- Front Squat
- Back Squat (Low bar)
- Back Squat (high bar)
The picture below shows the three common squat variations at the bottom position: front squat, high-bar back squat and low-bar back squat. Each variation requires a slightly different posture and torso angle, which in turn changes the required activity of the muscles involved in the movement. Based on the information listed so far, can you determine which muscles will be become more activated and dominant? More specifically, which squat variation is more quadriceps dominant versus more gluteal dominant?
If you guessed that the front squat variation (on left) is quadriceps dominant, then you are correct. Which would make the low-bar squat (on right) more gluteal dominant and the high-bar squat (middle) intermediate. Quite simply, the more upright the torso the more quadriceps driven it becomes and vice-versa. To illustrate this principle, the hip hinge deadlift, pictured below, involves significant forward torso pitch and is posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings) dominant.
However, when it comes to teaching a squat to a novice or someone with a poor squat pattern it is usually best to front load (weight in front of body) the person since it encourages a more upright torso, especially for those who tend to pitch forward. A goblet squat, using a dumbbell or kettlebell, is a great example. Once an individual has mastered the goblet squat, other progressions are possible such as the barbell front squat. However, the client/athlete must have enough shoulder mobility and core stability to do it safely due to the positioning of the bar, which lies across the deltoids (shoulders) touching the neck just above the clavicles (collarbones):
Correct Barbell Front Squat Bar Position
Correct Front Rack Position (with high elbows)
Another front-loaded variation is the Zercher Squat:
The Zercher squat clearly requires the most upper body strength, namely the upper back, and core strength due to the position of the load. It is generally considered a more advanced variation.
And last but not least, the Overhead Squat:
The overhead squat is a variation that requires the most shoulder mobility and stability but is generally the one in which the least amount of weight can be lifted. It is a useful lift for those who do Olympic lifts, such as the Snatch.
Another important variable in the squat, which can make a world of difference in terms of comfort and most importantly, safety of the joints and soft tissue, is the foot positioning. The feet are the base of support of the entire body in a squat, therefore, it is vital they are in the correct position. Incorrect foot positioning can result in immediate discomfort and point pain and, over time, accumulated joint and soft tissue injury. In general, the second and third toes should track or be in alignment with the knee in order to prevent torque or twisting of the knee joint. Excess deviation from this alignment can cause problems for squatters, especially those with existing knee issues. And what is really important to understand is that, the wider the stance the more the feet must be angled out in order to maintain proper tracking since the legs at the hip joint become more externally rotated (angled outwards).
2) Works the ENTIRE body in different degrees
Although the squat is primarily a lower body exercise, it also requires core strength/stability and a measure of upper body strength with variations such as the front squat and especially the Zercher squat (pictured later in the entry). Going back to the lower body, the squat is considered a quadriceps dominant movement, meaning that the quads are the principal muscle group utilized but a proper, deep squat also works the adductors (inner thighs) and gluteals! Once a squat goes beyond a certain depth, it becomes gluteal and hamstrings dominant. That is why people with weak or inhibited gluteals have great difficulty with deep squats since they lack the strength at the bottom. In a quarter squat or even half squat, you are working mostly quads and very little posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes).
The core (trunk of body) is important in all squat variations since it is the provides overall stability and is the transmission of strength from the legs into the upper body, which is carrying the weight/resistance. It is not possible to do a heavy squat safely, if at all, without core strength and stability. So it is imperative that the core is bracing the spine sufficiently, especially the lumbar spine (lower back) to reduce the chance of back injury. The body must also stabilize the joints of the hips, knees, shoulders, ankles and even feet. And since the body is carrying load (barbell, dumbbell, sandbag, etc.) it must utilize its stabilizing musculature, as well as use the prime movers (large muscles) to move the load.
Prime mover is a term used in kinesiology and biomechanics, which is used to describe the muscles that provide majority of the force in the actual movement. In the case of the squat, the quadriceps, gluteals and hamstrings provide the majority of the force of the movement. However, there are also muscles that are involved which are not Prime Movers, such as Stabilizers and Synergists. Since the squat is a involves the whole body to a certain extent there are numerous stabilizing muscles such as the core musculature which is allowing the body the hold the load without collapsing. There are also muscles, such as the gluteus medius, that provide stability of the hips so the knees do not collapse and rotate inwards. Synergists are simply muscles, which assist the prime movers such as the adductors (inner thigh muscles) that are involved in the deeper portions of the squat.
At the top of a squat, in regards to the lower body, the quadriceps do most of the work at the top third of it, while the glutes gradually transition to become the dominant group at the bottom half of a deep squat. If you have ever noticed that when squatting deep for the first time in many years or the first time you can remember, it may have been difficult to stand up from the position or you may have even not been able to stand up, getting “stuck” at the bottom. Can you guess the reason(s)?
Deep squats are a fantastic method for building hip extensor strength (primarily gluteus maximus) while the hip is in a very flexed position. In my experience, clients or even athletes afflicted with weak/inhibited glutes will have a difficult time squatting beyond a depth that requires glute strength and stability. So it is a trainer’s/coach’s job to teach them how to squat correctly and to increase their depth. However, doing that well can be a bit tricky due to certain factors such as the type of squat, mobility/flexibility limitations, and the hip and leg bone structure of an individual.
Yes! I have, AGAIN, decided to make this entry and two-parter just because of the abundance of information on this topic. So the last two sections mentioned earlier, 3) Individual Mobility and Structural Differences, and 4) Squat Training Progressions and Programming, will be presented and discussed in the conclusion, “Breaking Down the Squat – Part 2”. In the meantime, if you decide to start squatting but are unsure of technique and/or programming consult the expertise of a trainer or coach first. The squat is definitely one of those exercises not to be done incorrectly.