Exercise Essentials, Part 1: Squat

In this new series of posts, I will be outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.  Many of them are quite challenging and require certain levels of strength and mobility for optimal performance and safety.  Please take heed of contraindications and follow exercise progressions.


The squat is one of the most famous exercises in all of weight training.  It is also one of the most misunderstood and underutilized.  Everyone should be including some kind of squat variation in their programming, if not more than one.

What is a squat?

Stand up straight.  Squat down.  Return to standing.  Done.  While there are many variations, the squat is very simple at heart.

Bodyweight squat

Bodyweight squat

Why squat?

The squat is arguably the most effective lower body muscle builder in existence.  While it is often considered a quadriceps dominant exercise, the squat recruits every major muscle group in the lower body including the quadriceps (front thigh), glutes (butt), hamstrings (back thigh), gastrocnemius and soleus (both calf muscles), as well as many stabilizing muscles.  Also, depending on the method of loading (barbell on the back for instance), the squat also involves the lower back, abdominals, and many upper body stabilizers.

It has been called the greatest overall muscle builder.  Because the squat recruits so many muscle groups, it creates a high energy demand, making it a great exercise for fat loss programs as well.  It also tends to result in fantastic looking legs…

nice legs squat

Squats build nice legs.

Types Of Squats

There are so many squat variations out there, I would be crazy if I said I could list them all.  Here is a list of several of the more common and useful varieties.

  • Goblet Squat – The squat everyone should start with.  Squat performed with a dumbbell or kettlebell held vertically in the hands against the chest.  A great tool to teach the squatting motion.  See more info here (the pulse part is optional).
  • Split Squat – Squat with legs split, one forward, one back.  Like a lunge where your feet never move.  Video here.
  • Bulgarian (or Rear-Leg Raised) Split Squat – Same as above, but with the rear leg raised.  Video here.
  • Front Squat – Bilateral (two legged) squat with the bar resting on the front of the shoulders. Video below.
  • Back Squat – Bilateral squat with the bar resting on the back of the shoulders. Video below.
Goblet Squat

Goblet Squat

Aren’t Squats Dangerous?

Squats are perfectly safe, provided you perform them correctly.  A full barbell back squat requires a high degree of mobility in the ankles, hips, and thorax.  If you don’t have it, perform other variations, like goblet squats or split squats while you train those areas for mobility.  See the video on form below for a good overview of performing squats safely.

Performing a squat correctly

With any squat, there are several important things to remember about form.

  • Push through your heels - Your weight should always been on your heels, not the balls of your feet.  Your heels must NEVER come off the ground.  If you cannot keep your weight on your heels, reduce the load or decrease the depth of the squat.  Lack of strength in your glutes and hamstrings and poor ankle and hip mobility are the likely culprits.
  • Keep your back neutral – Never allow your lower back to round forward.  If it does, decrease the load or the depth (again).  Same culprits as above.
  • Don’t look up – Keep you head aligned with the angle of your spine.
  • Keep the chest up/forward facing – Keep your posture tall and strong, with the chest forward.  You should be able to read your shirt at all times.
back rounding during squat

Back rounding & looking up - bad.

Squat Instructional Video (Via Bret Contreras)

Bret just did a great video series on form for squats and deadlifts.  Below is his squat demonstration.  It’s about 8 minutes long, but absolutely essential for anyone learning to squat correctly (which should be everyone).  Major props to Bret – everyone read all his posts to thank him for this video.

Summary

Take home points on squats

  • The squat is considered the best overall lower-body muscle builder.
  • You should be doing at least one form of squat in your training program, if not more than one.
  • Start with Goblet Squats if you are new to squatting
  • Be vigilant about form at all times (see video above)

Leave questions!