Long considered the ultimate in free weight exercises, the barbell squat is a true test of motivation and dedication to an exercise routine. No other exercise pushes you to your limit or brings you the results you want quicker than barbell squats. Second only to the deadlift in total body muscle activation, the squat does not involve the limiting factor of forearm strength. That means you stop when your legs and back get tired, not your grip. This is an in-depth look at the pros and cons of the barbell squat.
Muscles Targeted: The squat targets a large proportion of the muscles in your body. Most notably the quadriceps and hamstrings bear the brunt of the load with the erector spinae working hard in a stabilizing function. Your gluteus maximus is also heavily involved with the lifting portion in the squats depending on how far you descend into the movement. Last but not least, your trapezius muscles get a workout from holding up the heavy bar.
Exercise Instructions: Place a barbell behind your neck and securely rest it on your shoulders across your trapezius muscles. Your feet should be just beyond shoulder width apart. Begin this exercise by squatting as though you are going to sit down in a chair. Keep your shoulders back and your chest out. Squat to a point to where your thighs become parallel to the floor and then return to the start position. It is very important that you keep your back as straight as possible throughout this movement (one way to help do this is to focus your eyes on a spot high on the wall in front of you throughout the entire exercise).
Why This Exercise is Important: Barbell squats target the majority of the body’s musculature. In a bang for your buck sense, there are few exercises that can compete with it. Your lower leg muscles are roughly 70% of the muscular mass of your body and most trainees would be wise to build their base larger to encourage gains elsewhere. In a world where the majority of people spend far too much time sitting, squats can improve your hip mobility and ankle flexibility. Barbell squats also have a high carryover to athletic events. Both your running speed and your jumping height can be improved greatly from heavy barbell squatting.
Things To Avoid: Barbell squats are an easy movement to learn. However, due to the heavy weights that are used when squatting, caution must be exercised to maintain proper form. Some things to look out for include letting your knees move too far forward. A general rule of thumb is to keep them behind the front of your foot. Also be aware of letting your knees buckle inward or outward as this greatly increases the force the knees bear. Always keep the bar firmly in place and avoid letting it roll forward or backwards on your neck. When coming out of the hole, or the bottom of the squat, lift with your shoulders first and then raise your hips upward.
Reps and Sets: The recommendations for reps and sets vary for barbell squats. Olympic lifters and powerlifters favor heavy low rep squats to build a base of strength and in the powerlifters case, to prepare for their competitions. Their routines call for 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps to build massive strength. Someone looking to increase their muscular mass would be well suited to stay in the 8-12 rep range and do anywhere from 2-4 sets. One rep range that has stood the test of time is the 20 rep squat routine. Once said to the be perfect way for the skinny guy to gain weight, this routine is performed by loading a weight you can do for 10 repetitions maximum and then pushing out 20 repetitions. This is repeated for maybe 2 sets, if you can handle it.
Other Exercises To Use: Try switching your routine from barbell squats to deadlifts as they use a large proportion of the same muscle groups. Other exercises to swap out for squats include barbell front squats or even barbell lunges. View our extensive database of exercise guides for a comprehensive list of exercises that target the quadriceps.
Few exercises have a more deserved place in a gym goer’s routine than barbell squats. If you’re not regularly squatting you’re leaving a whole pile of untapped muscular gains on the gym room floor. Make sure to start slowly, maybe even with just a broomstick handle to get the form down and then work your way up as it will soon be one of your heaviest lifts. Good luck!