Do You Even Squat?

Squatting is one of the most functional and beneficial exercises known to man. Whether you are the average gym-goer or an elite athlete, young or old, you should be squatting. You should squat for speed, power, muscle size and general quality of life. Squatting activates the most powerful muscles of the body and is one of the best tests of your lower body strength.  Back squats are the most common type of squat and you may also be familiar with the front squat; if not, you soon will be.

There are a few squat variations one can perform. The variations will slightly load different body structures and, depending on which type of squat you choose, will dictate the amount of weight you can lift. Squats are so versatile; they can be used as a stability exercise, a global strength/power exercise or a speed exercise. 

When Squatting Gets a Bad Rap

Squats can either be your best friend, helping you develop the desired legs and glutes you have been dreaming of, or they can hurt you. When they hurt you, just like any other exercise, it is commonly due to poor biomechanics or too much weight. If done correctly, squats are one of the safest and most functional exercises to do. Think how many times you perform the sitting to standing and standing to sitting movement daily without injury. The reason why squats can get a bad name from a select few is that if you do injure yourself squatting, unfortunately you seriously injure your back.  Injuries from squatting normally put you out of training for a while and consequently you might end up hating the exercise. Then there are the other people who are just too lazy to squat. The fact one does not squat is clearly reflected in all or either their physique, strength, stability, speed and power. 

The Set-Up

Squatting is a multi-joint movement recruiting numerous muscle groups. When one squats, movement occurs at the hips, knees and ankles. There are numerous variations of squats but for simplicity we will only cover the two main types of squats in this article; the front squat and back squat. What differs between these two lifts, as their names suggest, is the bar placement. The weight an individual can lift will alter between these two lifts with an increased capacity normally seen in the back squat.

When you set up to back squat the barbell is placed across the back of the shoulders. Within the back squat there is the high-bar squat and low-bar squat. These two differing locations will cause slightly different angles and load through the hips. With the high-bar squat the bar is placed upon the upper trapezius muscle, whereas the low-bar squat has the bar placed about 10-15cm lower over the posterior deltoid muscles. The bar position in each of these variations is different but the up and down motions are much the same.

The front squat involves placing the bar on the front of your shoulder. There are a couple of different methods of holding the bar in place. The best method is to grasp the bar at a width equal to or slightly outside your shoulders. Your goal is to keep your upper arms parallel to the floor, elbows up, with the back of the hand coming down onto the top of your shoulder; this keeps your back in a good position.

Balance is Key

Something you may overlook is the weight through your feet. Simply being balanced is the most important aspect of your squat set-up.  When standing our weight balances over the middle of our feet through the ankle joint. When we are balanced we are in a position that requires less effort to maintain stability. An issue arises if you shift your body weight closer towards either your toes or heels, creating increased moment arms.

To Front Squat or Back Squat?

Both these squats should have a place in your program. Like anything, they have pros and cons about them. Some studies have found very comparable levels of muscle activity and recruitment between the two. Therefore, choosing one over the other will not deter from muscle growth. Some research has found the back squat to cause more force on the spine and knees. You have to remember this may simply be due to the fact most people can back squat heavier weights. Consequently, greater load means increased force through the spine and knees. If you have any issues a front squat may be more comfortable for you and won’t deter from muscle growth as previously mentioned. In relation to back injuries there is some mention that the front squat would cause less injury due to a decreased lean occurring through the lumbar spine. If you are looking for greater hip drive, such as in sprinting, the back squat has its advantages.

Studies have shown hip extension is performed quicker with the bar on your back, leading to greater power in the glutes. Some people have difficulty with shoulder range, making back squats difficult. In this scenario, while one is working on increasing shoulder range, they could front squat.

When planning whether to front squat or back squat match the squat to your needs, likes and conformability.  Back squats are more the norm in gyms so if you are to take up front squatting make sure you do it safely and progressively.

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