No matter what end of the strength and conditioning spectrum an expert may be interested in; any expert worthy of being called an expert will agree that although there are many “pertinent” exercises to be used in specific programs, there is one exercise that stands above them all in terms of overall payoff and benefit.
Make no mistake here, “The Full Squat” is the king-kong exercise of exercises for several well-known reasons.
Here are just a few.
No other exercise can create as much central nervous system activity. Full squats improve balance and co-ordination. The systemic skeletal loading that the full squat provides enhances bone-density and creates unparalleled systemic muscle stimulation and growth as well.
Beyond that, the full squat also offers tangible conditioning and metabolic effects unmatched by any other exercise. The only other exercise that would even come close would be the power clean (but I am not partial to the power clean for several reasons. Namely, it demands more of a fine-tuned learning curve and technique, and it simply doesn’t have as many variations of application as does the squat).
What you need to understand in regards to why and how the squat stands alone as the pre-eminent exercise is because total body power development originates in the hips (and the glutes to some extent by connection) You need to know that the ability to generate power is reduced the further the distance from the hips where the force is being generated. But watching the squat exercise get butchered by personal trainers and trainees in pretty much every gym I enter led me to writing this article. And let’s get something else straight about the Barbell full squat as well.
The greatest danger in doing the squat is NOT to the knees, it’s to the spine and lower lumber area. All this stuff passing for knowledge about whether the knees travel over the feet during squat execution is much ado about nothing and focusing again on the wrong things regarding proper technique and execution. Part of what I call “personal trainer mythology.”
Full Squat Logistics
In the well-executed full squat the principal focus is on what is known as “hip drive.”
Hip drive is the active recruitment of specific muscles mostly of the posterior chain.
These are the muscles specifically related to hip extension, which is the straightening out of the hip joint from a flexed or bent position. This is what takes place in the bottom of the full squat (also known in my day as “the pocket”).
The central muscles of activation are those referred to as “hip extensors.” These are the muscles of hamstrings, glutes, and adductors as the major contributors. Of course these aren’t the only muscles involved n the squat.
But… you can’t discuss, teach, or intelligently demonstrate proper execution and application of the full squat without noting and understanding the primary focus is on “hip drive.”
Teaching the Full Squat
My whole career I’ve witnessed trainers and so-called “experts” preach all of these above concepts and still not be able to execute or instruct a proper full squat.
Conversely I’ve seen trainees with little background in the science of lifting execute excellent full squats simply by nature, and it's BECAUSE they don’t have a mind full of useless do’s and don’ts to think about. Instead, they “feel” the movement properly.
Nothing ever replaces that kind of quality biofeedback. I remember walking up to someone recently and asking “who taught you to squat like that?” And he said “No one really, it just feels right.” And it was one of those rare occasions where I could say, “Don’t let anyone teach you to squat; you couldn’t possibly do it any better than you are already!”
If you are learning or teaching the squat, the low bar position on the back is the best way to learn proper squat mechanics. Myself, I was fortunate… when I was young I cut my training teeth in a powerlifting gym. Even though this had as many downsides as upsides (I sucked at max lifts) learning to squat with the low bar position on the back was one of the many benefits I got from being in that environment. It meant I didn’t have to later “unlearn” basic squat mechanics like so many trainees have to do these days.
Many trainees are first introduced to barbell squats with the bar position high on the back, sometimes called the bodybuilder position. Learning the squat this way is not as efficient. It creates all kinds of anatomical issues for most trainees and makes balance and ROM far more problematic. It can also disrupt efficient and natural biomechanics in terms of full hip drive from the bottom position.
The low bar barbell back squat uses a forceful and deliberate hip drive to come out of the bottom position of the full squat. (a.k.a.“the pocket”).
Remember a movement like the squat can be as much mental as physical and mentally the focus of the full squat is to “drive” your ass straight out of the pocket – and this makes the glutes, hams, and adductors contract. The hip drive is favorable in this low bar position because the bar is low enough on the back to create an angle of overload which favors hip drive out of the pocket. And I can redefine “the pocket” here to mean -> the full squat position where the back of the legs are below the parallel line with the knees.
And let’s be clear about another thing here as well regarding squat technique and hip drive: Driving the hips out of the bottom position of the full squat does not EVER mean “bouncing” or “rebounding” out of that bottom position. Any load in any exercise must be controlled through its entire intended range of motion! Bouncing and rebounding weights is foolish; not just technically unsound.
Full Squat ROM (Range of Motion)
But let’s make no mistake here: to “most effectively” recruit the hamstrings and get them to contribute all they can to aid in hip extension, you will need to (at least in the beginning) do a barbell squat and descend it “deep.”
And again let me make this point clear : contrary to personal trainer gym-floor folklore, when the deep squat is performed correctly – which means butt to heels, ass to grass – however you want to say it this is not only a safe exercise for the knees, it’s likely “the” safest exercise for the knees.
And the full squat properly executed under control helps to produce the most “stable” knees, more so than any other leg exercise can. (Although properly executed lunges can also have this knee-stabilizing effect as well.)
It bears repeating: actual full squat “depth” means the hips must visually drop below the line of the parallel position with the top of the patellas.
Therefore if you can’t squat “deep” as in below parallel then you really have no business at all squatting with a weight on your back. Remember if the weight on your back is too heavy for you to descend safely below parallel, then the weight is too heavy.
Yes, even if that weight is just your bodyweight.
You don’t ever get around this by doing partial squats. Half squats train and massage only your ego, and quarter squats show you should slapped in the face for general stupidity.
One of the reasons so many of you cannot get into a full squat position is because your hips lack flexibility, not because your legs are too weak. When your hips lack flexibility in this manner then getting ample flexibility for a full squat can be enhanced by what I call “unloading the knees and hips.” This is done very slowly at first, descending only as deep as your body allows – performing slow and continuous reps with either tubing or TRX as you displace your bodyweight while doing so. Eventually your body will allow you to descend deeper and deeper as you displace more of your weight into the tubing. (See the video.) This will happen from rep to rep within the unloading sequence, as well as from workout to workout. Therefore, unloading the knees and hips this way, should be part of any good warm-up protocol, whether training legs that day or not.
There are many variations of the basic barbell back squat.
I mention a few here that I will write about another time.
My favorite variations of the squat include:
- Front squats
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- DB Squats, with DB’s hanging at the side.
(This latter one is easily mimicked with the hexagon bar squat as well.)
The front squat will require an article of its own. I particularly like Bulgarian Split squats for many reasons, mostly to do with proprioceptive demands, as it challenges the lateral system and the deep longitudinal system, all beginning in the feet. Myself, I just do them just with bodyweight and high reps, and find that very effective for overall effects.
The DB Squat is great for learning the full squat movement in general. It is also fantastic for anyone with low back issues as it pretty much eliminates spinal compression in real terms while still lending the overall positive metabolic and systemic effects of squatting. These are my three favorite squat variations. But make no mistake there are several other viable squat variations out there.
However not all squat variations are useful just because they exist in one specific training genre. The Box Squat is such an example.
Box Squats have no real purpose in any training program designed for muscle development or for beginner to intermediate trainees
And they are especially not for anyone with any kind of even a hint of low lumbar issues.
The Box Squat is an advanced exercise with a COLOSSOL downside of potential for injury, and serious disc injury at that. It comes as a result of completely unnecessary spinal compression risk and reality.
The fact is some exercises and moves have absolutely no business in a “cross-over” utilization and implementation in other fitness practices. Powerlifters may find the risk of Box Squats worth the benefit of doing them, but for everyone else, the exercise has little benefit in real-world terms, and it comes at an extremely high risk of potential for injury–SERIOUS injury at that.
You will not find Box Squats in any of my programs.
So – we’ve talked squats – the one exercise that stands alone as “the best” exercise. It could be argued all other compound exercises tie for second place.