By Ali Fraser
King of all exercises, right?
Such a prestigious exercise, that t-shirts have even been printed with slogans such as:
“Squat ‘til you puke!”
“Squat hard or go home”
If you don’t have your clients squatting – you’re a lazy trainer. Even worse, you’re just not hardcore.
Is all of the above warranted?
Well, if your client is a powerlifter; yes. It’s kind of a big deal. In fact it’s 33.33% of everything they’ll do at competition. So there’s no avoiding it.
For clients wanting to improve aesthetics though?
I’m going to give that classic pain in the dick answer: It depends.
The first thing it depends on quite simply is whether your client can squat at least somewhat comfortably (by this I mean, do they feel it in their quads/it feels natural Vs all through the lower back and uncomfortable) and for it to visually look like a squat – and not a good morning.
Typically an easy way to gauge this is by femur (thigh bone) length. Someone with short femurs/average-long torso is probably going to be able to squat ass-to-grass with no deviation of the pelvis. And feel it in their squats.
Someone with long femurs and a comparatively short torso will usually find the squat to just feel more ‘awkward’. As well as feeling it put load through the low back/hips Vs quads.
It does this via pushing the torso forwards and increases the ‘moment arm’ of the movement. Think of the moment arm as the distance between the load and the axis (joint) at which it moves around.
I’ve attached a graphic to demonstrate this:
Can you see in the pic on the left, the barbell is being carried further forward and away from the hip? (Hence the orange line). This means that additional loading will be put through that joint. Hence the client feeling it through their back.
In the picture on the right, the barbell (load) sits much more neutral, reducing the moment arm at the hip and overall making it a more balanced/comfortable movement pattern.
The above is a super simple gauge that works in most cases.
However, we can take it a few steps further, looking at the supporting joints that are involved aside from the hip:
Let’s start at the ankle. The goal during the squat is to be able to create as much dorsiflexion (knee travelling past the foot) as possible. If your client is restricted through this part of the movement, they’ll tend to compensate by flexing at the hips more than needed.
When this occurs, we end up with a similar scenario to the above. The client will compensate through the lower back due to the increased moment arm.
Not only does this feel uncomfortable, but you’re reducing the quads involvement. So the exercise actually becomes less effective if quad growth is the goal.
Next up is the shoulder. If the client is medially rotated (shoulders rounded), they will struggle to keep a neutral spine.
As the set progresses, subconsciously the client is often pull forward. By now, you’re probably understanding what’ll likely be happening in this case?
Forward lean = bar being taken further away from the hip again.
The further the bar is from the hip? The more the spinal erectors kick in. And – you guessed it – less quad involvement.
Finally, let’s take a look at the knee.
If knee flexion is poor and the movement is initiated via pushing the hips back you will now make this exercise more glute dominant.
If the rep is started with knee flexion and the spine is kept as vertical as possible, the knee joint will be further away from the load than the hip joint; making the muscles around the joint working harder.
Hopefully you’re starting to see that it’s very easy to change the squat into a glute dominant exercises instead of a quad dominant. This isn’t always a ‘bad’ thing. It’s just that most people are squatting with quad growth in mind as the primary focus, and glute stimulation as a secondary benefit. Not vice versa.
It’s worth noting that both the quads and glutes will always be working. But the degree to which each is involved is influenced by the above factors.
Ultimately, if you have a client that has great dorsiflexion at the ankle, great knee flexion, short femurs and can keep the spine as vertical as possible, then by all means squat.
Chances are though; your client will have at least one of the issues above.
What to do then? A few solutions!
If the issue is ankle mobility: Try adding heel wedges to aid this. Check the pictures below to see just how effective this can be and shifting the load/moment arm:
If the issue is poor shoulder mobility: Try a safety bar squat if you have access to one. Failing that, try a front squat.
And if there are multiple issues?
Just. Don’t. Squat.
Alternatives like the below may be a better option:
- Split Squat
- High Step Up
- Leg Press
- Hack Squat
- Pendulum Squat
- Belt Squat
Sure, the squat is a fantastic exercise and has built many sets of legs over the years.
But, for optimal progress in terms of muscle growth specific to the quads, don’t ‘force’ a client to squat if biomechanically they’re just not suited to it.