The squat is integral in many exercise programs focusing on health, rehabilitation, injury prevention, and performance. So why is this exercise valuable?
Benefits of the Squat
- Strengthens and builds the muscles of the ankle, knee, hip, and “core” (with enough resistance as many as 200 muscles may be strengthened).1 Use at least 50% of your maximum squat to strengthen your core effectively.2
- Improves mobility/flexibility (see Deep Squat)
- May help improve vertical jump (stronger athletes tend to jump higher).3,4,5
- Improves sprint speed. In recreational athletes, a 23% increase in squat strength may significantly improve sprint time. 3,6
- May contribute to improved running economy.7 Running economy is how efficiently a runner utilizes resources, i.e., oxygen.
- May improve bone density when sufficient resistance is applied (see Health Benefits of Strength Training). In 2000, a study was published that assessed the bone density of the then current world record holder in the squat. This athlete demonstrated the highest known bone density at the time.8
- Directly specific to many of our daily activities (e.g., getting out of a chair or lifting an object from the ground).
- Squatting properly is a basic prerequisite for many ACL prevention programs and integral in the rehabilitation of ACL and patellofemoral injuries.9,10
- Useful for combating the effects of knee arthritis.11
Learning the Squat
It may take minutes to learn a bodyweight squat and in some cases weeks to properly learn a barbell back squat. It is not uncommon to have to work through flexibility issues, and in some cases strength deficits before performing the exercise optimally. Barriers to some common performance problems will be addressed in another article.
There are many variations of the squat. My intention is to focus on introducing the reader to the traditional bodyweight squat and barbell back squat.
The Hip Hinge
In my experience, untrained individuals tend to initiate the squat at the knees. This may create a scenario in which the thigh muscles increase in activity while the muscles of the hips are not “optimally” engaged.12
In most instances, the hip should break slightly before the knees. If there is difficulty initiating the movement at the hips, practicing the hip hinge may be helpful.
To perform the hip hinge:
- Start with feet shoulder width apart
- A rod should be held in contact with the sacrum, between the shoulder blades and the back of the head
- Initiate a bend at the hips pushing the hips back
- End when you feel a slight pull at the back of the thighs or begin to break at the knees
Traditional Squat (Body Weight)
- Stand with feet parallel
- Feet should be approximately shoulder width apart or wider, with toes pointing out slightly
- Chest is held up and out
- Gaze should be forward or slightly up while performing the squat
- Arms should be held at chest level
- “Sit Back” on heels while initiating a hip hinge and breaking at the knees
- Knees should track in line with the toes
- Squat to desired depth, ensuring that the natural curve in the lower back is maintained
- Straighten hips and knees at the same rate, while keeping heels on the floor
- Keep the natural curve of the back. Think of how the back is held during the hip hinge.
Language on squat depth is not standardized. Weight training magazines, the Internet, peer-reviewed journals, and gym goers all seem to use a variety of different terminology when talking about squat depth. For the purpose of this article:
- Partial squat = approximately 45-degree angle at the knee
- Half squat = approximately 90 to 100-degree angle at the knee
- Deep Squat = greater than a 100-degree knee angle (A squat with the thighs parallel to the floor is considered a deep squat as the knee angle is >100 degrees).
Regarding sport – Depth will likely change, depending on where the athlete is in their training cycle, but most athletes will benefit from focusing primarily on the deep squat.
Regarding pathology – Those with posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injuries may need to restrict themselves to partial squats (<60 degrees) to decrease excessive posterior shear force.1 The greater the knee angle during squatting, the more compressive forces are placed on the meniscus and articular cartilage of the knee.1 Someone with an ACL injury may not be off the hook as the meniscus is often damaged along with the ACL. In many cases it is advisable that squatters dealing with a knee pathology limit themselves to a half or partial squat.
Regarding those with healthy knees – For those with healthy knees the optimal squat depth to minimize the risk of injury and ensure maximum activation of the leg muscles has been proposed to be the deep squat (115 to 125 degree knee angle).12
Squat depth should be individualized, even in those who are healthy, based on factors such as the individual’s goals and physical status (e.g., flexibility,coordination).
Aesthetics – This is an effective exercise for developing the lower body. If the idea is to develop the glutes then a deeper squat may be optimal for reaching this goal.13
Barbell Back Squat
In order to gain optimal benefit from the squat, weight must be added. The barbell is a convenient way to do this and is commonly placed in the high or low bar position:
- High Bar position – The barbell sits at the base of the neck on a “shelf” created by the contracted upper trapezius
- Low Bar Position – The bar sits on a “shelf” created by the contraction of the upper/middle trapezius and posterior shoulder.
Styles of the Barbell Back Squat
Traditionally the squat is performed in a fairly upright position; however, in powerlifting a more angled torso is common. The powerlifting squat typically utilizes a low bar position, and the traditional squat tends toward the high bar position.
Considerations – When comparing squat styles, the more traditional upright squat is associated with more stress on the knees, while the powerlifting squat creates more stress at the hips.14 A tremendous amount of stress is placed on the spine during the heavy back squat. In order to minimize stress on the lumbar spine it is important to keep a natural lumbar curve during the entire movement.1
What if Hip or Groin Pain is Experienced?
Get the source of pain diagnosed by your physician. If the hip joint is the problem (e.g., labral tear, impingement, arthritis) consult with your physician or physical therapist to determine if the squat is an appropriate exercise.
The squat is an unbelievably useful tool for almost anyone wanting to improve themselves physically. The exercise needs to be individualized. It is best to consult with your physical therapist so he or she can consider your individual mobility, strength, medical history, and goals.