(Writer’s note: This is the second in a series of articles that will cover the bench press, overhead press, squat, and deadlift. To become a beast in the gym, one must perform these movements like a beast)
There are a few things you can do in the weight room that will make you feel like, and turn you into an absolute savage. Squatting heavy is one of them. Putting a massive amount of weight on your back, sitting down, and standing back up again is a great way to undo some of the postural damage caused by sitting at a desk all day, get crazy strong throughout your entire body, boost muscle building hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, improve self-esteem, and build a monster set of legs and glutes.
Sure you could derive some of these benefits from leg extensions, curls, and presses, but that’s like saying I could eat a Salisbury steak while flying coach on a JetBlue flight instead of getting a filet at Ruth’s Chris. Technically the two are kind of the same, but really they’re incredibly different.
Isolation exercises — like extensions and curls — will build muscle, but because they target a single muscle group there will be fewer calories burned, a negligible hormonal response, and virtually no neural response because those exercises don’t force the quads and hamstrings to work with other muscle groups. By all means use these exercises if mass is your goal, but use them alongside heavy or high rep barbell squats.
Likewise, leg presses will allow you to use a great deal of weight, but with less of a training effect because your body won’t have to control the weight through the range of motion – the machine does it for you. This means that the training effect that squats create for the abs, spinal erectors, shoulders, traps, and chest won’t occur. Leg presses are great for adding size to your thighs, but not so much for adding strength. If used properly however, they can be a great addition to a leg workout designed around the squat.
I distinctly remember being a freshman in high school lifting weights after track practice – my coach, who also happened to be my offensive coordinator during the football season, demanded to know why I was leg pressing instead of squatting. Before I could even stumble over whatever lame excuse I was going to give, I was being yanked out of the leg press and escorted over to the squat rack (this was 1999, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to do that to teenagers anymore, but you should be).
In any case, the reason I was leg pressing instead of squatting was because I wasn’t coordinated enough to squat heavy, didn’t understand the technique, and valued my ego (not wanting look weak or unskilled in front of my peers) over my progress in the gym. It’s the same thing I’d imagine a lot of people go through when choosing the leg press over the squat. If you’re a guy in the gym fear of looking weak or uncoordinated in front of bigger, stronger dudes and yoga pants clad ladies might very well steer you towards the easier leg press machine.
Likewise, for a woman in a gym full of grunting meatheads the idea of competing for rack space, and performing an entire workout with just the bar or a low amount of weight can be enough to drive you out of the gym, and downstairs to Rico’s Rockin Spin Class (or whatever group exercise your local globo-gym offers). But it shouldn’t, because squatting is awesome, and really good for you.
So how the hell do I do this?
I’ll give you a breakdown of how I personally get set up for and perform my squats. For reference I am a 5’8” 185-lbs male, if you have a different body type it may require slight changes in technique, but the general dos and don’ts remain the same.
Set the bar up around sternum height in the rack. Grip the bar about a fist and a half outside of shoulder width (adjust as necessary until you find your sweet spot). As with the bench press you should retract and depress your scapula (squeeze those shoulder blades together), come under the bar and step up with the bar eventually landing across your upper back (again this is all about finding your sweet spot, most recreational lifters use higher bar placement, I prefer lower bar placement). Perform a slight squat to move the bar out of the rack step back and set your feet.
I like to keep my heels at about shoulder width with my toes pointed slightly outward (this creates the proper track for the knees to follow). As you set your feet, dig them into the floor to ensure stability from top to bottom. Now, you’re ready to squat. Maintaining tension throughout your body (tension should remain constant through the whole movement), break at the hips (not at the knees!!!) and stick your butt back and down. When you hit the bottom, drive your heels into the floor. As you come back up to the starting position try to “spread the floor” with your feet and feel your knees tracking laterally (this will engage your glutes and make it easier to move the weight).
If that explanation came off like a big bowl of word-mush then this video will make things easier to understand.
Of course putting weight on your back and performing a full body squat with it can result in injury if performed in a haphazard manner. If you’re seriously worried about being able to squat unsupervised talk to a trainer at your gym and ask for a spot, and maybe buy yourself a few sessions – it’s worth it in the long run.
On the other hand if you’re already pretty fit and want to teach yourself the technique before jumping into the deep end then I’d suggest the following progression.
Bodyweight squats or prisoner squats – do these for a few weeks while you learn to really groove the technique. These are literally what they sound like – squats performed with no added weight. The nice thing about body weight squats is that they can be performed anywhere. Find a place with a great view and get to work. Run your phone’s camera while doing them and check out the footage afterwards to find flaws or trouble spots in your technique.
Goblet squats – grasp a kettlebell or dumbbell between your hands in front of your body and perform a squat. This will get you used to squatting with added weight, but without placing an excessive load on your spine. Perform these every week for a month or two.
Once you are able to perform quality reps with the goblet squat it’s time to step into the rack for the real thing. I’d suggest starting with a lighter weight for higher reps so your body can neurally adapt to the movement pattern, and to develop your confidence with weight on your back. As you get stronger, add more weight and reduce the number of reps per set.
If you have an injury that prevents you from loading weight onto your back, or simply want to experiment with other forms of squatting then I have some good news – your options are plentiful.
Overhead squats, zercher squats, and front squats are all guaranteed to put hair on your chest and mass on your thighs – as well as other muscle groups.
As always here are some more badass articles on building a beast of a squat