No, not again. I can’t believe it’s been so long since it happened last! I feel like I just did one. I just can’t get motivated to do it today. I think I’ll just do some bicep curls again, even though I did them yesterday…
And that is the sad little dialogue that happens inside the head of most guys on leg day. They come up with every little excuse in the book for not hitting their legs hard. It’s already been a week since they last got under the squat rack, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it again today. Most will just confine themselves to doing an arm workout and overload on their already over-trained biceps and triceps. Squatting is real important for so many reasons that I’ll outline in this guide. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Excuses People Make Not to Squat and Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Them
The Squat- What is it?
Why You Should Squat- Benefits and Advantages
Equipment & How to Use It
Technique- How Do You Actually Squat with Correct Form?
Common Problems Have With the Squat
Incorporating the Squat Into Your Workouts
Squatting to Build More Muscle (Sample Workout!)
Squatting to Build More Strength (Sample Workout!)
Squatting for Power Workout (Sample Workout!)
Squatting for Fitness
Excuses People Make Not to Squat and Why You Shouldn’t Listen
Here’s some typical excuses that I hear all the time for not doing squats:
“It’s too dangerous. The risk of injury is too high”
Rubbish!! Anything is dangerous if you don’t do it right. Riding a bike is dangerous if you don’t pedal constantly or keep your balance. Driving on the road is way more dangerous. You could die at almost any time!! So don’t be one of those people that never does squats because they’re afraid of getting injured.
“It’s just too hard”
Again, rubbish!! Anything worth doing is hard when you first start doing it. Going to work each day is hard. Relationships are hard. Life is hard. But lots of hard things are actually good for us. And squats is no different. When you first start, it’s going to be hard. There is a learning curve to almost anything in life. But once you get over that initial hurdle, you’ll be able to reap the incredible rewards of your labour.
“I just can’t motivate myself to do it”
This one is probably legitimate. When it comes to heavy lifting, a lot of it is the mind set. Squat require a lot of mental focus and stamina, which is going to require a lot of your energy. But you don’t have to start with putting hundreds of kilos on the bar. In fact, you don’t have to start with any weight at all. As you learn the technique, and practise it often, you’ll find that the movement becomes more and more natural, and you’ll build serious mental focus and stamina along the way.
The Squat- What is it?
So what is the squat exactly? Well at the outset, the squat is nothing more or less than just the strengthening of a very natural movement- sitting down and standing back up. We do this multiple times each day at work, at school, at home and pretty much wherever we go. It involves standing upright and lowering the upper half of the body towards the ground while bending the legs at the knees. It’s also a full body movement that engages all major muscle groups in the body. It’s used in training for a range of different sports include basketball, rugby, football, most track and field events and (funnily enough) Olympic lifting.
Why You Should Squat
Build More Muscle
For those of you guys trying to build more muscle, squatting will give you incredible gains. The whole principle behind muscle building is basically maximum muscle incorporation for maximum time under tension. The squat works practically every muscle in your body from the shoulders and upper back, to the chest, abs, lower back, quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. You would have to do about 5 different common exercises (like the bicep curl or the leg extension) to get a similar level of muscle incorporation from just doing a proper squat workout. If you were to do mid-ranges reps of the squat (6-12) for 5+ sets, you would be getting massive time under tension for most of your body. The squat also works all of the tiny muscles that are often missed when only training with machines, such as the rectus femorus (a muscle in the hamstring) and the erector spinae (muscles running along the spine). This will give your body a fuller, more defined look, with all of the tiny muscles popping in your arms, legs, chest and back.
Most people are familiar with the term ‘compound lifting’. This essentially means lifting using multiple muscles groups. For example, the bench press would be considered a compound lift because it incorporates the upper, lower and middle pectoralis (chest muscles) as well as the triceps, abdominal muscles, and to some extent, the quad and glute muscles. The squat is one of the best compound exercises because it incorporates all of the leg muscles (quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves, as well as the core, upper back and even the chest. Compound lifting is so key for strength, because the more muscles you can incorporate in a movement, the stronger you can get at that movement. For example, have you ever tried doing a pull up with all of your body completely relaxed? Try it next time you go to the gym, it’s like ten times harder when you don’t tense your upper back, arms and core! Squatting will help you to get stronger at really core movements like walking, running, jumping and bending down while also transferring a lot of strength to so many other movements that you might do in the gym.
Squatting, particularly explosive squat movements, can produce incredible power. Athletes such as basketball, volleyball and football players train with squats to add inches to their vertical jump. Sprint athletes train with squats to shaves seconds off their sprint times. Muay Thai fighters train with squats to build powerful kicking force that can shatter bones. And athletes from pretty much every other sport on the planet will use squats in some way shape or form to help them become more explosive in the movements they need for their chosen sport. Squatting will help you to become a much more explosive individual, especially if you add a key element in the process- speed. Power is essentially force x speed, and so if you can increase either one of these variables, and keep the other constant, you’ll increase your power output.
Believe it or not, squatting is actually one of the most effective fat loss technique. Some of you might be thinking “No way, he’s crazy right?!” Well I might be, but I’m not lying when I say that it’s incredible for burning fat off your body. The reason for this is simple, and it goes back to what I said before about muscle incorporation. The human body can be compared to a furnace that’s constantly burning. The fuel for the furnace would be the food that we consume and our metabolism would be the fire. How do you get a fire to burn more fuel? You increase the intensity and size of the fire, right? It’s the same thing with our bodies. Every muscle in the human body is constantly burning energy, with the biggest muscles burning the most energy and the smallest muscles burning the least energy. When you squat, you’re incorporating almost every muscle in your body, so you’re essentially making the fire as large as it possibly can be. And a bigger fire means more fuel burnt, which means more fat loss for you. Done deal.
Squats are also great for getting fitter. This is because the legs, being the largest muscles in the body, require a lot of oxygen to move- more so than the arms, back or any other muscle group in the body. When you train your legs hard, like you do in the squat, you’re forcing your heart to work really hard to pump the necessary oxygen to those muscles and around the rest of the body. This is going to improve our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and also just you’re overall fitness. That’s also partly why a lot of people find it difficult to get through a leg work out because their hearts are working overtime to keep fuel the legs with the oxygen that they need.
Equipment to Use & How to Use It
So what equipment do we need to perform a squat. By the way, when I say squat I’m referring to the standard barbell back squat. This involves loading a bar onto your shoulders and then bending down in a controlled manner, before then standing upright again. There’s lots of little additions that you can use with the squat, but here is a list of the conventional equipment:
Most gyms will have a bar that you’d typically use for barbell movements such as squat, deadlift and bench press. If you’re going to be squatting at home, you’ll need to get a bar that you can add weights to. You can buy these online or source them from a distributor. Places like Amazon or eBay would probably have a whole selection of different bars that you can choose from. A standard Olympic bar weighs about 20 kilograms, give or take a couple hundred grams. You can get bars in all different shapes and sizes, but for now, just stick with a straight, Olympic bar.
Again, most gyms will have a rack that you can squat in, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find one. If you’re going to be squatting at home, I’d advise that you get a rack to at least allow you to get under the bar when you’re squatting. You don’t have to have a proper squat rack though. If you don’t have much spare cash, you can construct a rack from a couple of arm chairs on top of a couple of solid benches. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s been done before. You just put an arm chair on a solid bench on either side of you with the arm chair facing in towards you. Then you can rest the bar on the sitting part of the armchairs, just like you would if you were putting it up in the squat rack.
When first starting out, you probably don’t really need too much weights, since you’ll be practising the correct technique and building functional strength in that movement at first, but pretty soon you’re gonna get stronger and you’re gonna need more resistance to keep getting stronger. Again, if you’re going to a gym, there should be plenty of weight plates lying around the place. If you’re going to be squatting at home, you might need to invest a bit of cash into a few weight plates. Or, if you liked the idea with the arm chairs and the benches, you could also just make some makeshift weights with bottles of water, bags of rice, or pretty much any heavy objects that you can find at least two of (one for each side of the bar).
Lifting Shoes (Optional)
Although a lot of guys recommend proper lifting shoes, I don’t think it’s essential when you’re first starting out. Obviously, if you’re a seasoned lifter, you’ll know what works best for your feet and you’ll do accordingly. I personally find Chucks or sneakers to be fine when doing all but the heaviest of squat workouts.
Weight Belt (also optional)
A lot of guys swear by a weight belt, and there’s some logic in making sure you have one. You can if you want, but it’s another accessory that isn’t absolutely crucial when just starting out. If you do it right, you can actually train your core to act as a virtual weight belt through creating an inner wall of pressure while you squat- something I’ll talk more about later on in the article.
Gloves, Singlet, Shorts (All optional)
Again, these kind of items are accessories at most. You don’t have to have them, but they will be of some assistance if you do, especially when you’re trying to train real heavy.
Unracking the Bar
Before you even get to the stage where you can actually squat the weight, you need to make sure that the weight is properly on your shoulders. To get under the bar, stand behind the middle of the bar and grab the bar with both hands at close to twice your shoulder width. This is going to be different for different people, but you essentially want enough room between your hands and your shoulders so that you can incorporate as much of the upper back as you can, but you don’t want them so wide that you lose stability. Usually two times shoulder width is sufficient.
Once you’ve grabbed the bar with your hands, step forward with one foot, usually your strong foot, bend down a little and stand directly under the middle of the bar so that the bar rests high up on your shoulders. If you’re really new to squatting, this might feel quite uncomfortable, but you’ll get used to it really quickly.
In this bent over position that’s going to resemble something of a split-squat, you want to try and press your shoulder blades together while tensing your abs, lower back and legs. Now take a deep breath from your stomach, so imagine that you’re breathing in and then the air is going all the way down to your abs. While standing up slightly to take the bar up and out of the rack, exhale slowly in a controlled movement.
Once you’ve lifted the bar out of the rack, you want to take a step back so that your feet are parallel (neither one is further forward than the other).
Once you’ve actually got the bar on your shoulders, you need to get your feet in position. You should have your feet spread a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Your toes should be pointed diagonally away from you, so that if you were to look straight down at your feet, they would be making a V.
The next few steps of the descent have to be done simultaneously. You inhale deeply, and then hold the air in tight, trying to push the air down into your stomach. At the same time, you need to point your knees in the same direction as your feet, with the leg as vertically straight as possible from your foot to your kneecap. From this position, squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly, and try and tense your core as hard as possible. Stare straight in front of you the whole time you’re descending- your eyes should never be anywhere else. Squeeze your glute muscles so that you have a little arch in your lower back. Then, in one controlled movement, lower your body towards the ground while bending at the knee. Your leg, from your foot to your kneecap should be as vertically straight as possible. Continue to lower your body until the top of your quads are closer to the ground than your knees.
The descent is only half of the movement. Now you’ve gotta get back up! Once you’re down in the bottom of the squat (the top of your quads are lower than your knees) you want to keep everything tense, particularly your glutes, core and upper back as well as tensing your quads.
The next few steps of the ascent have to also be done simultaneously. Keep the pressure in your abs, but begin to exhale slowly while pushing your feet as hard into the ground as you possibly can. Then raise your body out of the squat while keeping everything tight until you get back up into standing position.
Repeat the descent and ascent steps for as many reps as you plan to do in the set.
Reracking the Bar
When you’ve finished the reps in the set, to rerack the bar you just need to reverse the process you used to unrack it. Take another deep breath and push the air down into your abs. Step forward with one foot so that the bar is just above the rack. Bend over slightly while keeping the air in your abs and gently lower the bar down into the rack. Once the bar is resting fully in the rack, you can let out the air you were holding in and step back out from under the bar.
If you’re a real beginner, you should just work on getting the right technique down first before doing anything else with the squat. Spend a couple of weeks really learning the technique until it becomes second nature, because it will pay dividends for a long time once you do.
Because of the huge muscle incorporation and intensity, you can do a whole workout around the squat. In fact, if you’re not doing a squat workout regularly (at least once a week) you’re probably not maximising your strength, muscle and fitness potential.
There are lots of different squat workouts with varying progressions, but the most fundamental squat workout format is that of the 3-5 method.
Powerlifters use the 3-5 method religiously to build massive strength and power. The idea behind the 3-5 method is to keep the sets and reps really low so that you can maximise the amount of weight lifted, and therefore build maximal strength. This means 3-5 reps per set for 3-5 sets per workout. To do it properly, you want to have the weight so heavy that you couldn’t possibly squat with that weight for more than 5 reps per set and/ or 5 sets in one workout.
Common Problems with the Squat
Knees Not Pointing Outwards
This one I see often in beginner lifters. They’re so eager to just pack more weight on the bar that they sacrifice good form and end up plateauing, or worse, putting themselves completely out of action for 6 months with a major ligament tear. You don’t want to be one of those people. When squatting, you should have your feet pointed slightly outwards (NOT straight in front of you) and your knees should point in exactly the same direction. Often with beginner lifters, the big muscles such as the quads and glutes get a whole lot stronger really fast, and the smaller muscles in the knees, hips and ankles don’t have enough time to catch up. So you’re knees end up moving from side to side as you go down and then try and come back up out of the squat. A good way to avoid this is to put a resistance band around your legs (just below the knees) and keep it tight the whole way throughout the wind. This will help you avoid a lot of injuries.
Feet Not Wide Enough Apart
A serious impediment to your lifting capacity will be not having your feet wide enough apart. Although you don’t want to be sumo squatting (super wide squats) you also don’t want to have your feet too close together. For one, this means that you actually have to squat further (it’s a further distance between the top and bottom of the squat) but this also shifts the focus to the quads, and doesn’t allow for much glute or hamstring incorporation. A good gauge is to figure out how wide your shoulders are and then to shuffle your feet an inch or so wider on each side.
Back Not in a Neutral Position
This is a sure way to get a back injury! You need to avoid rounding your back at all costs, because it really will cost you if you hurt it. When you’re squatting, keep the natural arch in your back. An easy way to make sure this happens is to look straight ahead of you at all times- you don’t want to stare above you- just straight in front of you, with your shoulder blades squeezed tight together and your back slightly arched.
Not Going Below Parallel
This one’s probably not going to give you an injury if you don’t do it, you’ll just be missing out on greater muscle incorporation and strength gains. The thing about going below parallel is that it works a lot of muscles that you wouldn’t be able to work otherwise. For one, it’s good training for your glutes and hips, but it also builds flexibility and strength in your knees, ankles and shins. Your shins don’t really get worked in the top part of the squat, but when you below parallel, they begin to kick in.
This all really depends on what you want to get out of your squat. Some people think it’s ludicrous to squat more than once a week, while others squat almost every single day. I find that when I’m training beginner athletes, twice a week is pretty standard. By the way, I’m talking about heavy squatting (70-90% of 1RPM twice per week). Since it’s such an important movement for building overall strength, muscle and conditioning, I would definitely recommend incorporating some sort of squat exercise into every other workout that you do. A lot of guys that have been squatting for a while will likely be squatting about once a week, but this is more for maintenance than for trying to build muscle or strength. If you’re starting out, I recommend squatting heavy twice a week, but incorporating some sort of squat exercise into at least every other workout.
Incorporating the Squat into Your Workouts
So now that I’ve given you a run down of the important concepts surrounding the squat, let’s look at how you might incorporate the squat into your workouts.
The first thing that you need to figure out is what you want to get out of the squat. Obviously if you’re right at the beginning, this probably isn’t as important. Just learning how to squat well will naturally improve your overall strength, muscle tone, power and fitness. But if you’re serious about wanting to get the most out of the squat, you really need to knuckle down to what you want out of it.
Squatting to Build More Muscle
If you just wanna pack on some serious muscle, then I’d recommend working in the 6-8 rep range and focusing on proper form and maximum tension during every rep. I would also recommend working in the 6-8 set range and squatting no more than once or twice per week to let your muscles heal and regrow.
Your workout might look like something like this:
|Set||Reps||Weight||Speed||Rest Between Sets|
|#1||10||Just the Bar (WARMUP)||2 seconds down, 1 second up||1 minute|
|#2||10||40% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 1 second up||2 minutes|
|#3||8||60% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 2 seconds up||2-3 minutes|
|#4||8||60-70% of 1 RPM||2-3 seconds down, 2 seconds up||2-3 minutes|
|#5||8||60-70% of 1 RPM||2-3 seconds down, 2 seconds up||3 minutes|
|#6||8-10||60-70% of 1 RPM||2-3 seconds down, 2 seconds up||2 minutes|
|#7||10||50% of 1 RPM||2-3 seconds down, 2 seconds up||1 minute|
|#8||Till Failure||40% of 1 RPM||2-3 seconds down, 2 seconds up|
- Keep your mind focused on your quads and glutes during every rep
- Don’t rush any of the reps- keep every smooth and controlled
- Form is key for building muscle
- Stretch really well after your workout (this helps with flexibility)
Squatting to Build More Strength
If you wanna build strength, then even just deciding to incorporate the squat into your workouts is a great start! Compound lifts are an amazing tool for building incredible full body, functional strength. For building maximum strength, I would recommend working in the 3-5 rep range, but only if you can already squat at least 80% of your bodyweight. If you a complete beginner, I would recommend starting in the 8-10 rep range, using less weight and focusing more on executing with perfect form. If you’re already familiar with the squat and you can already squat at least 80% of your body for 1 rep, then a good strength workout might look something like this for you:
|Set||Reps||Weight||Speed||Rest Between Sets|
|#1||10||Just the Bar (WARMUP)||2 seconds down, 1 second up||1 minute|
|#2||6||60% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 1 second up||2 minutes|
|#3||5||80% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 1 second up||3-4 minutes|
|#4||5||85% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 1 second up||3-5 minutes|
|#5||3||90-95% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 1 second up|
- Psych yourself up before each set with music, mental talk or whatever method works best for you (heavy squatting requires a lot of mental energy and you need all the motivation you can get)
- Make sure you get enough rest between sets (rest as long as you need till you feel like you can hit the reps for the next set)
- Brace the abs (you need to squeeze the air into your abs as hard as possible to create a virtual interior wall)
Squatting for Power
Like I said before, squatting can build incredible power. Although this is true for a lot of reasons, one of the main reasons is that the quads, glutes and hamstrings contribute a large portion of the strength and power to your body and so building power in those areas will translate into power across your whole body. The main thing to understand when trying to squat to build more power, is that there are two variables to power- speed and force. If you can increase either one will keeping the other constant, you will increase your power. The problem with a lot of traditional squat training is that once you get to heavier weights, you start to slow down and it actually hurts your explosive power. So you need to squat heavy, but you also need to make sure you squat as fast as you can without incurring injury.
For explosive power, I’ve found it best to stay in the 6-10 rep range. This seems to be the best balance between building strength and maintaining speed. Here is what a workout might look like if you’re trying to build power:
|Set||Reps||Weight||Speed||Rest Between Sets|
|#1||10||Just the Bar (WARMUP)||1 second down, ½ second up||1 minute|
|#2||10||40% of 1 RPM||1 second down, ½ second up||2 minutes|
|#3||8||60% of 1 RPM||1 seconds down, ½ second up||2 minutes|
|#4||7||70% of 1 RPM||1 second down, ½ second up||2 minutes|
|#5||6||75-80% of 1 RPM||2 seconds down, 1 second up|
- Do every rep as fast as you possibly can while maintaining correct form
- Even when the weight gets heavier (70-80% of 1 RPM) you need to try and move the weight fast, so spend as little time as possible under the bar
- Make sure that you extend properly at the top
Squatting for Fitness
If you’re just wanting to use the squat to get fitter, then the easiest way is to pick one of the workout methods above, and just try and do it with minimal rest. The less rest you have between sets, the harder your heart is going to have to work to pump the necessary oxygen around your body. It’ll be tough, but you can get insanely fit from just squatting with minimal rest- you never even have to get on the treadmill! In fact, I’d go so far as saying that, especially for anaerobic fitness, squatting without resting can increase your fitness faster than any amount of running that you might do on the treadmill!
People make so many excuses about why they shouldn’t squat- don’t be one of those people! The squat is an incredible compound exercise that can pack serious muscle onto your whole body, massively increase your functional strength and improve your overall fitness. You can do it as a single workout, or you can incorporate it into your other workouts to get some incredible gains!
Was this guide helpful? Follow this blog to get a notification when we realise the next ultimate guide: How to Deadlift! Also check out 10 Minute Workout Series: Iron Thighs! and Squat vs Deadlift: Which is Better?