When In Doubt, Squat It Out
By Trevor Mah, Personal Trainer at St. Albert World Health
The squat has been deemed the king of exercises in the world of fitness. When hearing that term, a lot of people may automatically associate it strictly with an exercise to work on your legs, but squats are a useful exercise and have multiple applications for many goals. While squatting is certainly a useful exercise develop your leg and hip musculature, here are some other reasons to add them in to your routine.
Note: For the sake of simplicity, squats will mainly refer to the classic free weight barbell back squat (high and low) unless otherwise specified.
Lower body muscle development
This one is pretty straightforward. The main muscles that are used in the squat involve your glutes, quads and hamstrings. A full “leg-day” will typically involve squatting somewhere in the program. The reason is simply because it is the best ‘bang for your buck’ exercise for your legs. By comparison, a squat dominates other leg exercises, like:
– Lunges: You are limited by the amount of weight you can lift and the balance required will tax your body leading to an accelerated breakdown of form (but still great for any leg workout when implemented efficiently).
– Deadlift: For most people, you are limited by the amount of volume that can be performed. This exercise is typically more complex leading to a slightly higher learning curve.
– Machine leg press: A lack of core engagement and limited carry over to other exercises and athletic feats is a downside. Variations such as split squats, front squats, overhead squats, sumo squats etc,. allow versatility of the same movement but shift emphasis on muscle groups if required in your program.
Upper body musculature
Many people are unaware of the benefits that squatting can have in improving the physique of the upper body. Performing upper body exercises in a program paired with squats (not necessarily the same workout) has a whole body effect. Squatting is one of the most demanding exercises that illicit a lactic acid response from the body, the essential thing that causes the “burn” sensation in the muscle. To simplify things, lactic acid is a pre-cursor to growth hormones to be released and flooded through the body leading to positive effects such as muscle growth and fat burning.
So how does that relate to the upper body? Simply put, the answer lies in your heart. Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood throughout your entire body. All that good stuff released from diligent squatting gets circulated through to the rest of your body from your legs when you switch to an upper body exercise. This forces the heart to bring blood back up to the top part of your body and as a result, your upper body is reaping the benefits of additional gains granted by the lower body.
Of course, the same thing can be said with any other compound lower body exercise such as the deadlift, lunges, step-ups etc., so long as sufficient weight is used to induce sufficient lactic acid buildup in the first place. For more advanced lifters, another alternative can be sprinting if done at a high intensity.
Core & Better Abs
As mentioned, the squat is a whole body exercise due to the many parts that are involved in the movement of a heavy weight. Of course, the lower body is clear on controlling the force required to the move the weight, but other parts play their role as well. To simplify body mechanics, the bar is racked on the upper part of the body and the lower body is locked on the floor generating force. In order for both parts to work effectively in unison, there must be support in between. There lies your core, which is braced throughout the movement to enable a proper lift. Just remember that squatting alone is not the end-all solution for a six-pack. It is simply an effective compliment to a proper diet and consistent exercise regimen.
Overall Strength & Power
When observing a power lifter and Olympic lifter, you will notice that the one thing they have in common is their proficiency in heavy squats. Many of their programs revolve around it as a foundational exercise to develop their skill. Of course, the two diverge in terms of speed and the type of squat performed, but nonetheless it is vital and they simply would not be able to perform well without it. The strongest muscles in the body are the lower body ones that are a direct representation of strength and power.
Weight Loss & Improving Body Composition
Barbell squats in a well-structured workout program induce a large oxygen deficit post-workout. This deficit is the key to burning fat and improving body composition. This effect can be covered in an entirely separate topic, so I will get straight to the point. When a body recovers from a workout, it must restore itself to a state of normalcy. In order to get there, it requires a lot of energy and therefore must use resources (i.e. fat and other sources of energy) to do so. It is the recovery process where most of the change happens. To summarize, squats will drain the body more efficiently than other exercises, causing the body to burn more energy to recover from the stress and in turn leading to a leaner body.
Flexibility, Mobility, Body Structure
Firstly, to clear the air, squatting does not hurt the knees or any other joint. Squatting will only cause pain and discomfort if performed incorrectly, barring any other pre-existing injuries or muscle imbalances that may lead to poor body mechanics. When performed correctly, squatting is one of the most natural movements for the body. Every time you sit up from a chair, it is a squat. A full range of motion squat acts as both a stretch and exercise for many of the muscles involved that carry over to many day to day functions. Frequent proper squatting will lead to improvements in lower body posture. With better posture comes better movement. With proper movement comes less pain as everything moves the way the human body is intended. There are still many people out there that may require additional focus on soft tissue work and mobility before full range of motion squats are feasible; however, simple regressions to even a basic bodyweight squat performed enough times can develop sufficient muscle memory to understand basic form.
Speed, Endurance, Athletic Performance
Virtually every sport in the world involves the use of the legs as a means to generate speed, power or a demonstration of agility. Squatting allows one to develop the ability to drive more force into the ground; thus, it helps the development of speed. In terms of endurance, this will come down to the proper squatting routine. Additionally, squatting will help improve movement patterns that mimic and are functionally relevant to many sports and dynamic movements. Do take note that squatting and sports are a rather one way relationship. Squats will help sports, but playing sports typically does not substitute squatting. Just ask yourself, does Sidney Crosby not squat just because he plays hockey?
Squats are an essential and useful exercise that can help one accomplish any fitness goal. It is versatile in regards to the ability to regress and progress for people of all fitness levels. Once one is able to achieve proficiency with the classic barbell back squat, opportunities will open to work towards any fitness goal. To conclude, I will finish off with a final sentiment: when in doubt, go squat!
Are squats a major part of your workout? What exercise would you love to see a tutorial or informative post on? Let us know!