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Squats: What You Need To Know

Squats: What You Need To Know

For a lift that is as debated and discussed as squats are, they are also one of the most misunderstood and improperly executed movements. No matter what you think of them, whether you want to lose weight, gain muscle or improve power and strength, a properly executed squat should be included in your workout on a regular and consistent basis. A traditional squat engages the erector spine, hamstrings, quadriceps, adductor longus,  gastrocnemius, and gluteus maximus as well as the core muscles and stabilizing muscles in the hips, knees and ankles in other words just about every major muscle and joint in the body. Bases on the individual’s mobility and range of motion, each muscle group will be activated slightly differently. In this article, we will look at the benefits of a traditional squat, which muscles are used and explain proper form.



Benefits of Squats

Health Benefits from Squats

Functional exercises are those that help your body to perform real-life activities, as opposed to simply being able to operate pieces of gym equipment. Squats are one of the best functional exercises out there, as humans have been squatting since the hunter-gatherer days. When you perform squats, you build muscle and help your muscles work more efficiently, as well as promote mobility and balance. All of these benefits translate into your body moving more efficiently in the real world too.

Strong legs are crucial for staying mobile as you get older, and squats are phenomenal for increasing leg strength. They also work out your core, stabilizing muscles, which will help you to maintain balance, while also improving the communication between your brain and your muscle groups, which help prevent falls – which is incidentally the #1 way to prevent bone fractures as opposed to consuming mega-dose calcium supplements and bone.

Most athletic injuries involve weak stabilizer muscles, ligaments and connective tissues, which squats help strengthen. They also help prevent injury by improving your flexibility (squats improve the range of motion in your ankles and hips) and balance, as noted above.

Squats obviously help to build your leg muscles (including your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves), but they also create an anabolic environment, which promotes body-wide muscle building.

In fact, when done properly, squats are so intense that they trigger the release of testosterone and human growth hormone in your body, which are vital for muscle growth and will also help to improve muscle mass when you train other areas of your body aside from your legs. So, squats can actually help you improve both your upper and lower body strength.

One of the most time-efficient ways to burn more calories is to gain more muscle. For every pound of additional muscle you gain, your body will burn an additional 50-70 calories per day. So, if you gain 10 pounds of muscle, you will automatically burn 500-700 more calories per day than you did before. Squats are a great exercise to gain some additional muscle. 


Sports Benefits from Squats

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a full-time athlete, you most likely know that studies have linked squatting strength with athletic ability. Specifically, squatting helped athletes run faster and jump higher, which is why this exercise is part of virtually every professional athlete’s training program.

The number #1 sports benefit to performing squats is glute recruitment. Your glutes are your engine in sports. Strong glutes help you drive during acceleration in sprints, they help you add kilos to your power clean max, they help you make that long jump PR. The list is endless. Maximum glute recruitment takes place at full depth in the squat. Not to mention, squatting and heavy compound movements in general have a huge benefit in central nervous system adaptation and has endocrine boosting effects.

The main stabilizers of the trunk are the transverse abdominals, obliques and erectors. These are all heavily recruited during squats. A large ROM means your core is under stress longer (time under tension). Although your core is isometrically contracted throughout a squat, having to stabilize your body (the core’s main job) for a greater ROM under heavy weight is important for greater rate of development.



Anatomy of the Squat

Major Muscles Used In The Squat

Glutes: The gluteus maximus along with the gluteus medius and minimus make up the glutes. Within this group of muscles, the gluteus maximus is the main extensor muscle of the hip. It is the largest and most superficial of the three gluteal muscles and makes up a large portion of the shape and appearance of each side of the hips. It's thick fleshy mass, in a quadrilateral shape, forms the prominence of the buttocks.

Its large size is one of the most characteristic features of the muscular system in humans, connected as it is with the power of maintaining the trunk in the erect posture. The importance of this can be seen in other primates who have much flatter hips and can not sustain standing erectly.

Function: When the gluteus maximus takes its fixed point from the pelvis, it extends the acetabulofemoral joint and brings the bent thigh into a line with the body.

Taking its fixed point from below, it acts upon the pelvis, supporting it and the trunk upon the head of the femur; this is especially obvious in standing on one leg.

Its most powerful action is to cause the body to regain the erect position after stooping, by drawing the pelvis backward, being assisted in this action by the hamstring muscles (biceps femoris long head, semitendinosus, semimembranosus), and adductor magnus of the inner thigh.

The gluteus maximus is a tensor of the fascia lata, and by its connection with the iliotibial band steadies the femur on the articular surfaces of the tibia during standing, when the extensor muscles are relaxed.

The lower part of the muscle also acts as an adductor and external rotator of the limb. The upper fibers act as abductors of the hip joints.

Quadriceps Muscles: The quadriceps muscles are made up of four muscles; the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius. All four of the quadriceps muscle attach to the knee cap (patella) via the quadriceps tendon and are the only extensor of the knee joint. It plays a key role in every movement of stretching of the knee and keeps the knee from buckling when standing.

Hamstring Muscles: The hamstring or posterior thigh muscles are made up of three separate muscles, which include the biceps femoris muscle, semitendinosus muscle and the semimembranosus muscle. These muscles attach at both the hip and knee joints. They are very important for mobility because they are the extensors of the hip joint and also flexors of the knee joint. They pull the leg for different activities, for example pulling the leg back while running of before kicking a ball.

Adductor Magnus: The adductor magnus is one of the larges muscles in the human body. It starts by connecting from the ingerior pubic ramus, ischial ramus and ischial tuberosity and inserts to the linea aspera and adductor tubercle of the medial epicondyle. Its function is adduction, extension and flexion of the hip joint as well as internal and external rotation. Overall the hip adductors play an important role in balancing the pelvis during standing and walking.

Gastrocnemius: The gastrocnemius muscle or the calf muscles is a very powerful superficial bipennate muscle that is in the back part of the lower leg. It runs from its two heads just above the knee to the heel and is a two joint muscle. The gastrocnemius is primarily involved in running, jumping and other “fast” movements of the leg, and to a lesser degree in walking and standing. Its function is plantar flexing the foot at the ankle joint and flexing the leg at the knee joint.

Erector Spinae: Is a set of muscles that straighten and rotate the back. It is made up of a group of muscles and tendons that are paired and run vertically throughout the lumbar, thoracic and cervical regions and lies in the groove to the side of the vertebral column. The three muscle groups making up the erector spinae are the iliocastalis, longissimus and spinalis.

Core Muscles: The core (often referred to as the torso) is a series of muscles, extending far beyond your abs, including everything besides your arms and legs. However for this article, we will focus specifically on the erector spinae, internal obliques, external obliques, rectus abdominis, transverses abdominis and pelvic floor muscles which all work together when performing the squat.

Our core most often acts as a stabilizer and force transfer center rather than a prime mover. However, most people focus on training their core as a prime mover and in isolation. For example, when training the core muscles, most people think of and focus on doing crunches and back extensions versus functional movements like deadlifts, overhead squats and pushups or other functional closed chain exercises. By training our core as a prime mover and in isolation, we are missing out on the true function of the core as well as better strength gains, more efficient movement, longevity and health.

All functional movement is highly dependent on the core and squats are no different. A lack of core muscular development can result in a predisposition to injury. The core is used to stabilize the thorax and the pelvis during dynamic movement and taking the time to develop it will result in better lifts and fewer injuries.



Major Joints Used In The Squat

The prime movers in the squat are the muscles around the hips and knees, but all joints below the belly button (hip, knee, ankle, foot) and most of the spine need both stability and mobility to squat properly. Without spending adequate time building stability, mobility and proper form, performing a proper squat will be exceptionally hard if not impossible and the chance of injury will be greatly increased. Below, we’ll cover the joints evolved in the squat and their importance.

Hips: Muscles around the hips help stabilize the pelvis and knees during squats.

If someone lacks hip mobility, they will often lean forward too much when squatting (stressing the spine). Or they will initiate the squat by “popping the butt” up too quickly.

The hip joint and hip muscles are a primary focus of the squat. As you descend, your hip joints flex, stretching the hip extensor muscles, particularly the gluteus maximus muscle of the buttocks as well as the hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh. The hip joints also abduct slightly as the thighs widen apart, lengthening the adductor muscles of the inner thighs. When you stand up, the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings extend the hip joint powerfully. The adductors aid the hip extensors by drawing the thighs toward each other.

Knees: When squatting, keep knees stable, in line with the hips and feet.

When the knees flare out or cave in (beyond a couple degrees), tendons and ligaments become vulnerable and work extra hard to resist awkward forces.  This is probably why young athletes can “get away” with ugly squats (but this catches up with them as they age).

Make sure knees follow the direction of the toes. If your toes point out while squatting (which is a normal variation, especially for women with wider pelvises), so should your knees.

Don’t panic if the knees go slightly over the toes, as this can help to ease the movement of the lower back. What’s most important is that your hips are back, behind your heels.

Ankles and Feet: Ankles help with support and power generation during squats.  Limited ankle mobility can lead to the heels coming off the floor, foot pronation (outside of the foot elevating) and the knees caving in.

The ankle joints also play a role in squatting. As you lower into a squat, your shins tilt slightly, an action of the ankle joint called dorsiflexion. When you stand up, your shins move back as your ankles plantar flex. Two of your calf muscles -- the soleus and the gastrocnemius -- are responsible for the action of plantar flexion. Tightness in your ankle joint or calf muscles can limit your ability to dorsiflex your ankles as you descend into a squat, making it difficult to keep your heels grounded.



Proper Form For Squatting

Very simply stated the squat is performed by standing in an upright position with hips and knees fully extended. To move into the position the hips, knees and ankles flex as the body squat to the desired depth, to come out of the squat the movement is reversed and the body returns to the starting position.

Squat depth is measured by the flexion of the knee with 3 basic depths being recognized:

Partial Squat: 40 Degree Knee Flexion

Half Squat: 70 to 100 Degree Knee Flexion

Deep Squat: Knee Flexion of 100 Degrees or more

To maximize the full benefit of squats, you want to focus on the deep squat. If deep squats are too difficult, the start a depth that you can achieve and work your way to a deeper squat with time.

For simplicity, we’re going to define a traditional squat as a back squat with a barbell. In this squat, your feet are 4-5 inches wider than hip-distance apart with your toes pointed out, the barbell rests on your shoulders grip is slightly wider than shoulder width, the spine is erect and the arms are engaged.

There is a natural tendency for the body to move forward as the hips lower, but that isn’t to be confused with bending forward. In order to keep the chest and head up, lift the chest up, squeeze the shoulder blades together and keep the eyes looking straight ahead. Keep the abdominals engaged and pulled in to keep the low back straight and to prevent it from rounding. Learning how to execute this movement on its own can be challenging but things get complicated when you add weight, so be sure to spend time on this movement before adding weight to the bar.

Your ability to maintain form safely and effectively is based on your mobility and your ability to move the weight of the bar. Tight muscles limit your range of motion making it difficult to adequately recruit muscular energy to support and lift the load. When you combine tight muscles with too heavy of a load you compromise the low back and the knees. If your upper body collapses under the load, your back rounds which can lead to; strained muscles, herniated or bulged discs and SI joint displacement. As the force of the weight increases at the knee with deeper squat depth; knowing how much weight you can safely move is essential, in other words, move up incrementally. Additionally, fatigue and faster movement can also deteriorate form and lead to poor technique.

Squats are a resistance exercise that provides all kinds of benefits regardless of your current fitness level or your goals. Due to the many variations of squats you can customize the movement by changing your stance, varying the depth of your squat, adding or removing weight or combining the squat with other movements.

How easily or deep you move down into the squat using proper form depends on 3 things. Your available mobility, your joints and how low you can maintain your form with weight, based on the first two variables. The traditional depth for a squat was always thighs parallel to the floor, and for most people when they go lower they compromise their joints and their form. When you want to perfect your squat, start by learning how to perfectly move into a traditional squat, then if it is your goal, learn to do a deeper squat.



Mobility and Squats

Mobility is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of squats and is often misunderstood. For the purpose of a squat, we are going to define mobility, as an individual’s ability to fully develop their flexion and extension in their muscles and joints, to execute the movement of a traditional squat. This means that you don’t have to stretch or be able to touch your toes, what it means is that you have to accurately assess your body and your form and you need to make changes to reach your maximum potential. A lack of mobility will definitely throw off your balance, lower the amount of weight you could potentially lift and put you at risk of injury.

In order to effectively perform a squat, you need a substantial amount of mobility in the hips, psoas, quads, calves, ankles and feet. Hip flexion is important to squats as when you have good hip flexion you can more easily decrease the angle between the thigh and the hips, which lets you go deeper into the squat. The psoas and the quads are directly related to the hip flexors, so keeping them mobile, supports hip flexion. If you’re ever dropped into the squat and felt your feet peel up off the floor or have ever fallen over, you have tight feet, ankles and calves. In order to improve mobility in one, you have to work on mobility in all three.

Mobility for Hip Flexion: Half Lunge

Mobility for Psoas and Quads: Kneeling Quad/Psoas Stretch

Mobility for Calves, Ankles & Feet: Kneeling with Flexed Feet, Runners Stretch

If you’re new to mobility work try starting by adding mobility work your workouts at least three days a week. Mobility work can be performed anywhere from 3 days a week to 5 days a week to daily if you’d like.

You might be saying to yourself, “What if I have excellent mobility?”

If you’re one of the small percentages of people who have a wide range of mobility, that can easily do a deep squat, without any variations in movement. If you have great mobility, you have to focus on your form, and not hang out in your flexibility. In other words, you can still risk injury if you try to lift too much weight too soon, without taking the time to learn proper form and to build up strength and power to squat heavy weight.



Proper Squat Breathing Patterns

Breathing properly through squats will ensure that your muscles get the oxygen they need, will prevent you from passing out and will help you focus your mental tenacity on the movement of the squat.

When you are in the starting position with the barbell in place: begin to inhale, lift your chest and lower your body, hold your breath at the bottom and stand up. You can exhale starting about halfway up. . . but emptying out too much air when you are low in the squat collapses the chest and decrease your strength and wreck your form. Practice your breathing patterns and time them. You should be able to easily inhale for a count of 5-6, hold for a count of 5-6 and exhale for a count of 6. From an established base, you can change your squat breathing pattern to your specific movement. In between squats, take as many breaths as you need to feel calm in your mind and not feel out of breath.




There is no one other single exercise that delivers a number of benefits that squats do. The key, however, is to take the time to properly develop your squat technique, mobility and to increase your lifts incrementally. If you take the time to develop these different areas of the squat and integrate them into your workouts regularly, you’ll not only improve your gains but maximize your athletic performance through improved explosiveness, speed, jumping high ability, core stability and much more.  

Amanda Ashley
Amanda Ashley - Author

Amanda Ashley has been in the fitness industry for over 20 years and is a yoga instructor, functional movement coach and specialist in performance nutrition. She actively pursues her passion in the gym, on the yoga mat, the running trail and occasionally snowboarding down a mountain. Amanda has helped hundreds of clients reach their goals, through her rigorous training programs and delicious nutrition plans. You can catch up with Amanda on Instagram or Facebook.

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