The squat is one of the big foundational exercise movements of strength training. Despite its reputation it is rarely performed correctly and rarely used to give the maximal benefits that it could
Requirements to do the squat
To be able to do a squat correctly you need to be have some of the basics in place. For starters you need to be able to perform a 90 degree overhead squat test. If you cannot, then you will be unable to reach the 90 degree angle of your thigh versus the floor without rounding your back and exposing yourself to injury. The inability to pass the overhead squat test means you are too tight in one or more of the following muscles – Calves, glutes, spinal extension (lower and / or upper) or chest
Once adequate flexibility is restored you must ensure you have correct muscle activation in both the core and the glutes – VMO outer thigh axis. Core activation involves a diaphragmatic breath, followed by immediate pelvic floor contraction and lower stomach hollowing. Hold this while breathing in on the way down and then breathe out on the way (just after the hardest part of the lift).
Glute – Vmo – thigh activation refers to how the glute muscles and inside thigh tear drop should be active throughout the squat to stabilize the knee and hip joints. When these muscles do not work you will find your outer thigh overcompensates and this may lead to knee and hip pain. Restore this system through thigh stretching and inner thigh and glute activation exercise / mental focus on them during the exercise.
If you have these in place then you will be able to get some great benefits from the squat. If you do not then you can still grunt, pose and battle through the squat exercise but you are asking for injuries and simply ignoring your weak areas.
Technique and variation
The key to squats is correct activation of the core, a concentrated breathing pattern and a consistent depth of 90 degree.
The standard squat works the thighs, glutes, lower back and core stability. The number of muscles involved means it is a great challenge to the nervous system and also make a large impact on the hormonal and cardiovascular systems.
Variations of the standard squat include:
Wide angle squat – allows for use of the glutes more easily and reduces loading on the lower back.
Narrow angle squat – More emphasis is on the thigh and increases loading on the lower back. Should only be done with very good flexibility.
Front squat – Bar placed at the front of the body. This changes the angles that the muscles worked.
Split squat – Allows targeting of the glutes much more easily and teaches the body to resist similar to what is encountered in running.
1 leg squat – Requires glute medius and VMO activation. It focuses the effort more into the glutes as well as training balance and co-ordination.
Jump squat – jumping into the area with a weight uses the same muscles as a standard squat but the emphasis is on speed strength and power.
Quarter squats and deep squats – Quarter squats you will only go a quarter of the way down. This is good for loading the weight up and is a good form of high strength training when used alongside normal squatting. Deep squatting is taking your bum all the way to the floor. You will need adequate flexibility for this. It emphasises the glutes and thighs greatly.
All these squats can be done using dumbbell or barbells. In general it does not take too long for the legs to become too strong for the weight the arms can hold so barbells are more important.
The main errors are the usual ones you see in every gym up and down the country. People allow their backs to round trying to get to 90 degree or they go way too shallow because they are not flexible enough to hit the required angles. Alternatively it is simply the lifters ego is too large and they are using too heavy a weight to go through the full range of motion.
Muscle soreness is another squat issue. The idea is to not feel sore the day after a legs session. If doing leg weights for the first time in a while you must go light. This means even though you can / could / should be able to do 4 sets at 80kg, the first session back you may need to just do 2 sets at 20kg and then increase gradually session by session until you can work up to 4 x 80kg without feeling like a statue. It may take up to 3 – 4weeks of legs training before you can start going hard at it like you would say for your chest or shoulders for example.
Any squat movement that produces pain in any joint requires you to stop immediately. It most likely points to an issue with flexibility or muscle activation.