If You Don’t Squat – Do You Even Lift?

For many people, squats are a big part of their strength and fitness program.  It’s a movement that feels natural and gives them great benefit in terms of lower body power, strength, and development.  For others, squats never seem to click.  No matter what the variation or how good the form, they never feel quite natural and tend to target lower back and knees as much as the quads.  No question, squats are easier for some than other.  Are they also better for some than others?  While many people thrive on them, would others be better served by minimizing their importance in the program, or even eliminating them altogether?  Are squats right for you, and if so, to what degree?

For the first 15 years that I trained, I did squats every single leg workout – high bar, heavy weight, rock bottom! After all, it was “The King of Exercises”.  If you didn’t squat, you couldn’t be serious about your training, right?  You didn’t have the heart and dedication it took to be successful.  You were avoiding the most “anabolic” exercise that you could do.  If you didn’t squat, did you even lift?

Somewhere along the way, squats and I fell out of love.  Experience is often the best teacher and since then I’ve added another 20-plus years of training to my resume.  After thousands of workouts, you tend to learn a few things.  For me, after a time, I simply wasn’t getting out of doing squats everything that I felt I had earned.  That “just been run over by a truck” feeling was no longer endearing enough as a badge of honor if it wasn’t going to be accompanied by visible progress.  I begin to notice and question a few things.  Why did that guy who never did squats have trees for legs?  Why was that dude who could squat 1000 pounds walking around on sticks?  Yes, I understood the genetic component and potential chemical involvements that could be a part of other’s equations.  I also understood that I needed to be a bit more objective.  If the input isn’t leading to the desired outcome, then something needs to be examined.

I still believe that squats are a great exercise for many.  They just might not be the best thing for everyone.  Are they right for you?  Will they help you reach your goals?  That’s a question you should definitely be asking yourself and having the right information will help you figure it out.

First of all , there is more than one type or style of squats.  There are barbell back squats, front squats, overhead squats, Smith machine squats, air squats, duck squats, Hack squats, land mine squats, jump squats, etc.  Even when talking about conventional barbell back squats, not everyone can or will look the same as they drop down under a weighted bar.  Squat variations can consist of high bar, low bar, feet wide, feet close, heals elevated, rock bottom, parallel, etc.  What’s good form and proper depth for you may be different than for someone else. That’s just how the body is engineered.  Limb length, torso length, muscle and joint flexibility, natural points of leverage and levers, etc., all will help determine how your body is able to squat and potentially what it can do.  For some people, the bar will track perfectly vertical and be positioned over their center of gravity.  For others, it will be a constant fight to find the right feel, depth, bar position, foot position, etc.  Depending on what your goals are from doing them, squats may or may not be worth your efforts.

So what’s the answer for you?  If you participate in a sport or activity that requires a specific form or style of squats (like powerlifting, cross fit, olympic lifting) then you should practice and become very technically proficient at that form.  Without being able to do it correctly then you have no chance of succeeding.  If you can do them correctly, but simply aren’t structured ideally enough to do them as well as you’d like, while you may still participate and always improve, you should also understand that you may have some limitations relative to others.  And that’s just fine.

If your goal is geared more towards overall athletic performance, strength development, or physique development, then you don’t have to be as locked in to a specific form or style.  It’s ok to experiment and try to find a marriage between what’s “text book” on paper and what feels most natural for your body.  The goal is to find they style or form that is most effective for you.  Find the form/style that’s going to help you reach your goals most effectively.  If you’re looking to build bigger quads, maybe high bar squats or front squats will be a better version for you.  If you’re looking for max power and strength, maybe low bar, powerlifting style squats will serve you well.  If you’re looking to improve your athleticism and core strength, then combining back squats with overhead squats, and even employing pistol squats will help do the trick.

It will take some degree of experimentation to find what feels and works best.  Give yourself enough time to really be able to make a decision.  Every time you try something new it will feel awkward and “off”.  Give it a good 4-5 sessions and see if you notice them getting better (unless you know right away – especially via a pain indicator – that this is not for you).  Probably you will find one or more variations of squats that are in line with your goals.  And there are of course movements like leg press, leg extensions, machine hack squats, Smith squats, DB squats, etc. to augment with (or even substitute from) traditional squats if you find/feel that would work better for you.

Squats are a great exercise in a number of different variations.  But the real value of an exercise is in it’s ability to move you closer to reaching your goals.  Don’t shy away from exploring something that has given a lot of success to a great many.  At the same time, don’t feel locked in to doing something that may not fit your particular body or be quite as effective for you.  Ultimately you have to decide the right way to spend your time and energy to get the best results from your efforts.

Photo: Terry Goodlad   Models: Ana Tigre and Elaine Goodlad

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