Let’s Talk Squats!

Squats are a key ingredient to any training program.  Here, we explore several aspects of a squat including:

  • What qualifies as a complete squat?
  • Four variations on a barbell squat and how they train different muscles
  • Squat safety

In colloquial terms, most any bend of both knees, especially when the feet are side by side rather than staggered could count as a squat.  In professional terms, it actually matters how much you bend your knees.  Depth is key in a squat and any fitness professional who claims otherwise likely cannot properly teach a full squat, perform one themselves, or is not educated on the mechanics of this very fine, yet complicated, movement.

What is the correct depth for a squat?  To get the full benefit of a squat, the hip side of the femur bone (thigh bone from knee to hip) should dip below the patella (the knee bone) at the bottom when viewing a lifter from the side. It takes time, experience, and a proper viewing angle to be able to see depth.  For example, one cannot properly assess depth from the front of a lifter.  It’s not possible to see the femur with reference to the patella correctly when watching a lifter from the front.

This depth must be achieved with both feet on a flat and preferably firm (non-compressible) surface using no artificial heel elevation except the elevation perhaps provided by a lifting shoe.

Depth in a squat is what makes it complete and a full range-of-motion exercise.  In all of the below variations of a squat, getting low enough is a key ingredient to success.  Not going low enough on your squat takes it out of the complete squat category and puts it into one of the following less-effective categories of “squat”:  partial squat, quarter squat, dip, or half squat.  These squat variations are incomplete in the same way that when you bench press with a barbell, if the bar does not contact your body at the bottom, it is not a full bench press.  Typically, much more benefit comes by performing the exercises at full range of motion, unless you are working on a sticking point to serve your full range of motion squat/bench press. 

Another comparison would be picking up a deadlift bar from 2 feet off the floor – this is not a complete deadlift and has far less benefit than picking the weight off the ground directly.

All full squats, to some degree, work the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.  The barbell variations listed below emphasize one or more of these muscle groups, depending on which one you perform and how you perform it.  Let’s take a look:

  •  High Bar Back Squat

The high bar back squat is named for the placement of the bar more than it is the movement of the body. It is probably the most common squat variation here and is the easiest position to teach and get into.  In this variation of the squat, the bar is placed on top of the traps across the shoulders.  This placement, especially when combined with maintaining an upright torso position throughout, emphasizes the quads and front of the legs.  This squat works the core and posterior chain a bit less than its low-bar counterpart.  A beginner who cannot quite access the low bar position, has not learned to properly brace their abdominal wall, or has goals to achieve massive quads would benefit from doing this variation of a squat.  Doing this squat with a less upright torso angle will start to engage the core muscles and posterior chain, but not as much as the low bar squat…

  • Low Bar Back Squat

Like the high bar squat, the low bar back squat is named for its placement of the bar which is lower than the trapezius and instead the bar sits atop the lifter’s contracted rear delts.  This squat typically allows a lifter to lift the most weight simply because the most muscles are involved.  The torso angle here is far less upright than the high bar squat meaning that the lifter’s torso is intentionally not perpendicular to the floor.  The lifter is leaned over to a degree, allowing the core and posterior chain to work when properly used.  To maintain this angle throughout the squat, the lifter must use their hips or glutes to exit the bottom, further emphasizing the posterior chain.  If you’re looking to get as strong as possible very quickly, this is the squat to aim for.

  • Front Squat

You’ll notice the pattern that the name of the squat is, again, pointing to the position of the bar on the lifter’s body.  Instead of the bar going behind the head on the back, it goes in front of the lifter, above the chest.  The bar sits on contracted anterior (front) deltoids with the elbows raised high. The image for this article shows a lifter at the bottom of the front squat.  The front squat, like the high bar squat, is meant to be performed with an upright torso and greatly emphasizes the quads – even more than the high bar squat, simply due to the placement of the weight being in front of the lifter’s center of mass, requiring them to use mostly quads in the movement.  This is a popular accessory lift for those training more complicated Olympic lifts or for clients wanting or needing to develop their quads far more than their posterior chains.

  • Overhead Squat

Can you guess where the bar goes?  Yep, it’s held directly over the head, with a wide grip and straight elbows.  While all squats are a balancing act, this one certainly takes the cake requiring the lifter to use lots of stabilizing muscles in the shoulder and upper back to keep the bar balanced as they descend to depth and stand up again.  This squat also is typically performed with an upright torso.  It’s not a move that will get a person a lot of raw strength super-fast and is typically the least heavy of the four squats here, but do not be fooled – it is certainly a challenge!  This squat requires more stabilizing throughout the torso than any other variation of a barbell squat.

None of these squats is specifically better than the next as long as they are all complete squats.  However, since they all emphasize different muscles and require different movement patterns, it’s important to select and train a squat that matches your specific goals.  For example, if you want to get stronger, you should probably work toward learning the low bar back squat.

What makes a squat safe? 

A key factor for squat safety is learning to properly brace your core under the weight.  When this detail is not coached properly, the risk for injury sky-rockets.  Even when coached properly, sometimes the lifter needs to practice developing the brace and holding it for the entire squat and then resetting for the next squat.  For some people, this is very tiring very quickly if they are not used to it and they may need extra time and practice before making big jumps in weight.  This is something a good coach can see and then help direct the lifter toward harder contractions more consistently. 

Another key factor in squat safety is proper loading of the bar, meaning if the jumps in weight are too big and too soon for the lifter to adapt, the risk of injury is up here as well. 

Lastly, learning to stay tight at the bottom is important for safe squats.  There could actually be a “too deep” position at the bottom of the squat if the lifter relaxes, or lets the tension in their hamstrings go.  Being loose under heavy weight at the hardest part of the squat means one has to re-contract their muscles prior to the ascent and if that gets missed, the risk of injury goes up.

Squats are truly fantastic and I’m sure that’s what makes them so popular!  Let’s make sure we’re doing them correctly, safely, and picking squats that make sense for our fitness goals.

If you’re unsure about your squat, a good coach will be of great assistance to you, if even just to give you a few cues to help you understand how to make the most out of the movement.

I am certainly available for squat-coaching and feel passionate about teaching squatters of all levels ways to improve and master this king of all lifts.