The contrast between the squat and other exercises such as the pullover and the bench press runs deeper. Although everyone can do more than 1 squat easily, few prefer to do it and instead concentrate on these other exercises.
Why? Squats are extremely exhausting and give a burning sensation in the legs. In addition to that, people prefer to train the t-shirt muscles – chest and arms – than the legs, which are often hidden by baggy trousers. What a serious error of judgement!
Why work out the legs
Well, where would you be without your legs? In a wheelchair. Your legs are the foundation of your body and carry it around. For any movement that you perform on your legs, the vast majority, you will need a strong base and powerful legs will provide just that.
Whether for walking, running, climbing, playing football, badminton and tennis, any sport or movement that uses the legs will benefit from strong legs, whether to kick a ball far, to jump up high in basket ball and move fast on the tennis court.
Your legs constitute one of the largest muscle groups of the body. As you activate these muscles through strength training exercises such as the squat, you incite them to grow even stronger.
The body releases growth hormones in the bloodstream to build muscles where you have pushed them to their limits. The bigger the muscles, the more growth hormones you release. Which one would you train as a priority then? legs or arms? In fact, training legs would lead to bigger arms according to this line of thought, as long as you also activate your arm muscles.
Finally, muscles are fat furnaces – they burn calories even when you sleep! This is no dramatic exaggeration. It is well-known that weight-lifting boosts the metabolism and keeps it high long after the effort is over. This is in stark contrast to cardio exercises where the calorie-burning session ends as soon as the exercise is over.
So with weight-lifting, you are able to keep burning calories as you rest and even sleep. Where do the legs come into that? It’s the same story: which one would you train to keep burning calories after your workout: legs or arms? The bigger the muscle group, the more calories that are burnt during and after the exercise and for longer.
While proponents of the leg workouts will focus on these reasons only, I prefer to adopt a holistic approach and say that all the muscles of the body need to be exercised and be given due attention in proportion to their size and importance. So the pullover is as important as the squat as is the bench press. Focusing on one area at the expense of another will lead to an unbalanced body. This is clearly the case for those eschewing leg training.
Now that we are all clear about why working out the legs is important, why should we do the squat instead of other exercises such as the leg press?
It’s a case of compound exercise here and readers of the Art of manliness should be familiar with that concept
The squat also works your upper body, to a certain extent, as the weight is located on the shoulders. The back plays a crucial role as it has to transfer power generated from the legs to the bar
More than any compound exercises, balancing the weight and especially your body are essential here, unless you want to end up crushed by a barbell heavier than you. The bar on top of your body increases your centre of gravity and coupled with a heavy load, makes it much harder to balance
If you are targeting your core muscles, the squat is an excellent exercise to do, involving not just the lower back but also the abs and obliques. Some people even rely on the squat to train their abs
How to do the squats
The squat is a fundamental movement that everyone knows how to do. If you need a reminder, you can read all about the squat here, otherwise, to fine-tune your technique, here are a few pointers:
Lead all movements with your hips. As you lower yourself into the squat, move your hips backwards and down and bend the knees. As you straighten from the bottom position, push your heels into the floor and push your hips forwards to straighten up. Your upper body will naturally follow
Don’t lock out your knees at the top of the movement otherwise you rest the weight on your bones. You want to keep your muscles under tension all the time so keep the knees slightly bent
The right breathing technique is crucial in squats. As you go down, breathe in deeply. Hold your breath as you push up and release towards the top of the movement. Keeping your breath in as you push up helps create pressure in your abdomen and make it rigid
Feet positioning alters the effect of the exercise on the quads. Slightly larger than shoulder-width is the standard position but try much wider – sumo style – to target the vastus medialis and hamstrings and a narrow stance to target the vastus lateralis
Maybe you already train your legs. Maybe you even include the squat. But do you just go through the motion without pushing yourself? If so, you don’t stand to benefit much from it. Your body will only improve if you push it to its limit and that applies to the squat as well. So ramp up the weight you are lifting or increase your reps to make it harder.
A favourite trick of mine is to massively increase the weight beyond what I can handle for a full squat and then just push the bar off the stand and bear the load on my shoulders. Then rack the bar back. No squatting, nothing. The idea here is to get your body used to very heavy loads so that what comes after feels light.
You can also try breathing squats which involves a high number of reps, a slow technique and a short rest between each rep. Breathing squats will leave you gulping for air. An old training trick is to do the pullover between sets.
How about pre-exhaustion? Sometimes the quads become really powerful; in a complex movement like the squats, other muscles get tired well before them. So the trick is to tire the quads before via the leg extension and then finish them off at the squats.
The squat doesn’t have to be the last exercise in your leg workout. After you finish at the bar, move to a machine exercise such as the hack squats or leg press where you do not need to worry about keeping your balance. Now you can only concentrate on just pushing with your legs.
Where the squats involved the lower back, stability, caution and concentration, by working at the machine, you can concentrate exclusively on your legs. You can even use your hands to help push your knees for that last rep, or do partial and negative reps as well.
Finally, how about some lunges to conclude the session? If you thought that was an easy exercise, try doing that after all these leg exercises and with your leading leg on a HOBO ball for less stability. The squat will seem a piece of cake by then.
Everyone can squat, few choose to do so to avoid the pain. Be a man and don’t avoid squatting. Your legs will thank you.
Iron Simba writes on how to build muscles and stay fit on his blog ironsimba.co.uk. Not a personal trainer, fitness fanatic or muscle freak but just an ordinary guy, what he writes is what he learnt from experience, trial and error and from others over many years spent in gyms.