From Charles Poliquin
Wondering how you should squat to get stronger, leaner legs and improve performance? The answer is simple: You should squat all the way down. An abundance of research shows that full squats are by far the best exercise for training the lower body for strength and performance, but many people shy away from perfecting this most important exercise. This tip will provide guidelines for a better squat.
If you think squatting is not for you, think again! You squat many times a day even if you don’t perform them as exercises: You squat when you get up from a chair, when you pick up your shoes from the ground, when you get in and out of your car, and when you pick your kids up off the floor. If you don’t perform this motion properly, you will put repetitive strain on your knees and back. In fact, it’s a good bet that poor squatting technique and lack of posterior strength is a significant contributor to the high rate of back and knee pain in the Western world.
Let’s look at what squatting really means. From a functional perspective, a squat is the ability to go from standing all the way down to the ground by bending your knees, hinging at the hip, and keeping the back tight and flat, with the torso upright. In order to minimize strain on the lower back, you want to go all the way down so that your hips are well below your knee. You need flexibility in your ankle and hip joints, and balance between your back, abdominal and leg muscles in order to squat effectively.
Deep squats also have greater transfer to vertical jump and sprint speed than partial or parallel squats, making them the preferred exercise for athletes. For example, German study that came out last year illustrates the need to target weak links that will compromise your performance and mobility: A weak back and lack of flexibility in the hips and ankle joints.
This study had recreational trainees perform either deep back squats, deep front squats or quarter-range back squats for 10 weeks. Both of the deep squat groups significantly improved their vertical jumping ability, increasing by about 8 percent. The group that trained quarter squats did not increase vertical jump height at all, and only increased squat jump height by 2.6 percent.
A noteworthy outcome of this study was that the participants in the quarter-squat group were at risk of collapsing at the thoracic spine before the strength in the quadriceps could become a limiting factor. Basically, the trainees’ back strength could not stabilize the load that would be adequate to challenge the quads. Researchers note that athletes will be able to lift much greater loads than the recreational trainees in this study, making the back musculature a limiting factor to training before the legs will be optimally challenged.
Take away from this study the following points: Proper squat technique is not easy but it’s ESSENTIAL. To achieve it, you need to actively work on your squat form, but you also need to train assistance exercise to target weak muscles. For example, the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) of the quad can be strengthened with step-ups and split squats. Training these unilateral exercise will allow you to achieve big gains in the bilateral squat down the road.
In addition, back extensions and deadlifts are excellent exercises to help you build strength in the back and lower body for a stronger full squat. Upper back lifts such as chin-ups and rows will help you avoid collapsing at the thoracic spine as your loads get heavier.
Finally, let it be said that partial-range training may be appropriate for more advanced lifters to challenge the strength curve, but it should never be used as the sole or primary training stimulus. For a start to finish guide on back squatting, read Ten Tips for A Better Back Squat.
Matuschek, C., Schmidtbleicher, D. Influence of Squatting Depth on Jumping Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012.26(12), 3243-3261.