There is no exercise more important than the barbell back squat. Even deadlifts—its uglier, more brutal cousin—might take home second place in terms of importance to the developing physique. Why? Squats are a foundational exercise: without strong legs, lower back, glutes, and core, your gains will be minimal at best and “upside down pyramid guy you see doing curls in the college gymnasium” at worst. Squatting once a week is good. Squatting three times a week is even better. But for many people, the squat is a daunting exercise, not just because “owwie it hurts my legs omg I can’t even,” but because of preexisting injuries, poor form, or sheer lack of confidence, which in itself is a big problem. If you find yourself, at any age, in one of these categories, there are three courses of action you can take to get your lower half back in the iron game: work on your form to continue squatting, alter your squat depth, or replace squats with another lower-body exercise until you feel ready to squat.
You Gon’ Learn Today: Workshopping Your Form
Despite how many people recognize the importance of squats and do them on a routine basis, it’s safe to say that many do not pay attention to their form, resulting in injury and resentment of the granddaddy of all mass-building exercises. If squatting results in pain other than a muscular burn, it’s time for you to step back and reassess proper form. No matter whether you prefer high or low-bar squats, there are a few hard and fast rules to keep in mind:
- Break at the hips first. The first movement of a squat is no different than sitting on a toilet: your hips tilt backward, shifting the weight from your knees to your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, or “posterior chain.” At the bottom of a squat, you should be able to wiggle your toes: all the weight is on your heels.
- Keep your shoulders drawn and your core tight to create a “shelf” for the bar to rest on. This is what makes the squat a total-body exercise. Your arms and torso aren’t just along for the ride, they are integral to moving the weight.
- As you return to the beginning position, your hips should NOT rock forward. Maintain a neutrality to your hips that is more or less similar to their position when you squat down.
- Feet are shoulder-width apart or slightly wider, toes pointed outward at a slight angle, not parallel.
- Your knees track outward over your feet. The last thing you need to be doing when you’re at the bottom of a squat with 200 lbs on your neck or shoulders is worrying about knocking or shaking knees.
There are undoubtedly many more intricacies of squatting form to discuss, but these should always be observed to ensure success with each and every barbell back squat.
“A** to Grass” Isn’t for Everyone: Rehab and Squat Depth
It’s a favorite saying of powerlifters and girls who desperately want likes on #booty pictures, but does it really make a difference? If you consider yourself to have a strong squat and feel your gains are appropriate and advancing at a rate you enjoy, not really. Many different schools of picking things up and putting them down have touted different ways to do the same exercise, with some suggesting squatting below parallel, just to it, or going down until your genitalia tap the floor like a disgraced congressman’s foot in a public bathroom. The difference in squat depth is, however, very important to pre-existing issues with hip and ankle mobility, core strength, shoulder impingement, and weakness in the anterior chain (lower back, glutes, hamstrings). In many cases, these weak links can be tempered with some dedication and a few stretching exercises.
If you’re not being held back by an injury but want to tread carefully into the realm of deeper squats, consider the box squat, a progressive form of squat training that allows you to perfect your form in a comfortable range-of-motion before transitioning to a lower box and beginning the process over, the box acting both as a physical cue for you to start driving back up to the to of the squat and also a safety net allowing you to feel more secure at the deepest portion of the squat.
Love the One You’re With: Replacing Squats
It’s a tough decision to make, but sometimes all of the ankle and trunk flexion exercises and box squats in the world aren’t going to help an injury that’s too far gone or otherwise magically get you into squatting shape. Don’t feel too blue if and when that day comes, because there are plenty of other exercises that can do phenomenal work in place of the barbell back squat.
Take, for instance, the reverse barbell lunge. It can be done with a clean or cross-arm grip, but by keeping the bar in front of the body and the weight relatively light it can be both a major confidence booster as well as a good way to work the legs and engage the entire body. Another fine replacement is the dumbbell Bulgarian split-squat, which uses the same concept of calf raises on a wood block to help increase the possible range of motion, which in itself can make for a more challenging exercise. If neither of these are appealing, focusing more on your deadlift could be a great boon to your strength while also making you become more comfortable with some of the same movements involved in the squat, should you ever pick them up again.
While nothing truly great comes from taking an easier route, the only excuse for injuring yourself, be it from bad form or too much weight, is ego. Be humble: admit you know nothing, and learn. Teach yourself proper form, warm-ups for your weak points, and how to grow into a body ready for the barbell back squat if you’re not already, because let me tell you, a workout without squats just isn’t quite right.