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What is a squat and where to start?
The squat is undoubtedly one of the most natural and inevitable human movements. Getting up from a chair, tying your shoelaces, or picking up your keys from the floor – all of these require some form of squatting. It should also be noted that historically, squatting (or sitting) was done far more, especially before the proliferation of furniture.
However, since we now have conveniences such as chairs, armchairs, benches and toilet bowls, the necessity of being able to squat has been greatly reduced. This has unfortunately deprived mankind of an ancient exercise that strengthens the legs as well as the abdomen and back, improves circulation and posture, and helps to maintain mobility and vitality even at an advanced age.
In the most general terms, a squat is a movement in which there is flexion at the knee joint (not only, but especially there), both feet stand firmly on the ground, and the pelvis travels first down to a certain depth, and then back to the original stance. However, many different kinds of squats fit under such a vague definition, and that includes squats done technically poorly. So let’s look together at the details and nuances of this king of exercises.
The spectrum of hip and knee flexion (bending) during the squat
If we consider a squat to be deep enough roughly at the moment when the thigh bones are at least parallel to the ground (this is also how the minimum depth of a competition squat is defined), some combination of flexion in the knees and in the hips (flexion, “breaking at the waist”) must occur in order to bring the pelvis to the desired depth.
Neither knee bending nor forward bending are a priori wrong, but they do indicate the type of squat being performed. Bending at the knees is necessary for the squat, whereas bending at the knees, while not necessary, will occur to some degree in almost all squat variations. Examples of extremes where almost only knee flexion occurs are front squats or overhead squats.
The opposite is true for deadlifts where forward bending is necessary (such as the classic deadlift), whereas knee bending strictly speaking is not necessary, but again will occur to some degree in virtually all deadlifts. The extreme of the deadlift, which consists almost entirely of bending at the hips (forward bend), is the Romanian deadlift.
So, if we’re going to talk about squats, the greatest amount of forward bend in the exercise we’ll still call squats will be seen in the so-called low bar squat (squat with the barbell placed lower on the back) with a wider stance. More forward lean will already mean slowly abandoning squat territory in favor of deadlifts.
It should be stressed again that neither the forward bend nor the bend in the knees is “right” or “wrong”, but their ratio determines what the exercise is, and which muscle groups will be more stressed. When the knee bend predominates , the quadriceps (front of the thighs) and glutes are more involved, whereas the hamstrings (back of the thighs) and glutes are more involved in the forward bend.
Technique of the classic squat without weight
Since we have to start somewhere, in my opinion it’s best to start with the golden mean. Choose a medium stance (shoulder width or a few inches wider), with the feet slightly turned out. The stance will be upright and the spine in a neutral position, with the body weight distributed over the entire foot, so that the centre of gravity will fall on the centre of the foot. On the way down, we will push the knees outwards and forwards (exactly where the toes of the feet are pointing), and the pelvis will sit slightly backwards.
The moment we reach the desired depth, that is, when the femur is at least parallel to the ground, we will reverse the movement in an identical (mirror) upward direction until we get back to an upright stance. Throughout the squat path, we are careful to keep a straight back (neutral spine position). When squatting without weight, inhale in the downward direction and exhale in the upward direction.
Hand position is not essential, but to start, I recommend either forearm extension or interlacing the hands at the nape of the neck (with the elbows moving away from the head, not pushed forward) during the squat. The second option is especially useful if you have trouble keeping a straight, solid back for the duration of the squat.
The most common technical mistakes when squatting
By far the most common mistake tends to be shrinking the knees towards each other, which usually happens on the way up, but sometimes all the way through the squat. Since the knee is a joint that only allows movement in one plane (specifically flexion and extension in the sagittal plane), it’s not hard to surmise that a force vector that points inward perpendicular to that plane will not do the knee joint any good.
The first thing to diagnose is what is causing this error. It may be just ignorance of the technique (or simply not realizing the error), then pointing out the error is usually enough. Another possibility is that the practitioner has chosen a stance that is too wide for their mobility. The wider the stance, the further “apart” we must push the knees, which places demands on mobility in the groin, which must allow sufficient abduction at the hip joint.
The last possibility is that there is a lack of mobility in the ankle, which unfortunately tends to be a major stumbling block and hindrance to performing a textbook squat. Most of the time, it is the effect of long-standing stiff and shortened calf muscles that will not allow a sufficient amount of dorsiflexion (forward travel of the knee and shin without the heel coming off the ground) in the ankle. This deficiency is manifested either by the knee swinging inwards (as described above) or by the heel coming off the ground (which is an even more serious technical fault).
In this case, stretching of the calf muscles, dynamiting and extending the range of motion at the ankle is appropriate. However, this may take some time (say a few weeks), so in the meantime we can include squats with a slightly more pronounced forward bend (“sitting back”) and a wider stance, as these do not place such demands on that dorsiflexion.
The last mistake worth mentioning is the loss of proper back position. Fortunately, this is most often a coordination error, not a lack of mobility. When performing a squat, one has to pay attention to many things at the same time, so it is not strange that something escapes one’s attention (and it may be just the right back posture). It should be noted that bending the spine without a load on the back (dumbbells, heavy backpack) is perfectly fine, but there is no reason to forgive this mistake unnecessarily at the beginning when we need to practice with a load over time.
If the flexion occurs in the lumbar spine and specifically in the bottom phase of the squat, this is called “Buttwink”. Since this fault typically occurs in the movement all the way down, the easiest fix is to simply not go so low (reverse the movement once we reach a full squat as described above). If we want to actually perform the squat all the way down, we need to work on mobility
(again, especially ankle mobility), and play around with stance spread and technique so that it’s feasible for us to squat without unwanted pelvic bracing.
Bulgarian squats for intermediate
It can be assumed that ordinary squats without weights will be too easy for a beginner pretty soon too. Once you’re not having any major problems doing a couple of sets of a few dozen squats (say 4×30 or more), it’s better to invest time and energy in more difficult variations of the exercise.
The most straightforward way to make squats more difficult is to simply add a weight, whether it’s a large axle on your back, a kettlebell in your hand, a weighted vest, or a simple backpack loaded with water bottles. However, let’s look at a few ways to make the exercise harder without having any extra weight.
My personal favourite option is the Bulgarian squat, for which we only need a bench, a chair, stairs, or anything else we can rest one leg on. The Bulgarian squat is basically a compromise between lunges and single leg squats.
Stand with your back to a bench (or anything that’s roughly 70-100cm tall that you can rest your leg on), take a step forward, and then cross one leg over the edge of the bench. From this one leg stand we go down into a squat (again to full extension see above) without lifting the heel at the standing leg, and then return to the original stance. The rear leaning leg helps us to keep our balance, but doesn’t contribute much strength to the exercise.
Since the exercise is unilateral (only one side of the body is occupied – in this case, one leg), it is obviously necessary to perform the same number of repetitions on the other leg. For this reason, it is logically preferable to start with one’s weaker side, since one can shoot for a number of reps on the stronger side that the weaker side will then not match.
Pistol squats for the advanced
If even the Bulgarian squat isn’t enough for you, the hardest caliber of squat without weight is the so-called pistol squat, which is a squat on one leg with the other leg extended forward.
This squat is demanding not only on the strength of the standing leg, but also on coordination and balance. Unless you are a highly gifted and trained athlete, I recommend practicing this variation first by leaning on a bench (chair, sofa …) with one hand while performing the pistol squat. The leaning arm can then help you both in terms of strength and balance.
There is one technical exception to the pistol squat compared to standard squats, namely that the above described pelvic tuck (“buttwink”) simply has to occur in the bottom phase of the exercise. This is due to the need to balance – if one wanted to keep a straight back and sit back, one would simply fall to the ground. The pelvis must go to the heel in the bottom phase, so some rounding of the spine is inevitable.
How do you use squats to build strong quadriceps and glute muscles?
Now that we know the proper squat technique and a few of its more difficult variations, all that’s left to do is to incorporate the exercise into your training regimen. Any bit of exercise is far better than inactivity, but just for leg training I would recommend two to three slightly more intense, challenging workouts a week rather than a few squats here and there every day.
The reason for this is that the legs consist of bulky and strong muscles that just a few squats will do nothing to tear out. For real stimulation, the thigh and glute muscles need to be “jogged” a bit. Of course it depends on your time and commitment, but an example of incorporating squats into a workout might look like this:
- Beginner: Include 5 sets of 10-20 squats three times a week (choose the exact number so that you are able to technically perform all five sets correctly)
- Intermediate: Include 3 sets of 10-20 backpack squats three times a week (load according to your strength capabilities), plus 3 sets of Bulgarian squats of 10-15 reps on each leg.
- Advanced: Include 3 sets of pistol squats for 8-15 reps on each leg, plus 3 sets of Bulgarian squats with a backpack on your back for 10-15 reps on each leg, three times a week.
In conclusion, I would like to point out to aspiring squatters that the legs are usually uncomfortably sore for a day or two after a proper workout. Moreover, this pain cannot be avoided much, as it echoes when walking, sitting on and lifting from a chair, and during many other normal daily activities.
Muscle pain and fatigue is perfectly normal, and a good stretching and massage (with a foam roller, a ball…) or very light aerobic activity (for example, walking more briskly) will help to relieve it and promote overall blood circulation and the associated regenerative mechanisms. In addition, take comfort in the fact that pain is only temporary, and that “What hurts, grows!”