Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Squatting for bodybuilders

The free weight barbell squat has been possibly the biggest staple in weight training since the barbell was invented.  And for good reason;  few movements work as many overall muscle groups as the squat and offer the overall benefits for growth the squat does.

It is used by Olympic lifters, bodybuilders, crossfitters, athletes of every sport, and of course competitive powerlifters.

The squat has a high degree of potential in regards to capable poundage being moved with it, so it possesses a significant degree of progressive overload capability.  In other words, it can be milked for a very long time in terms of adding weight to the bar.  And one of the single biggest factors in regards to muscle growth is progressive overload; i.e. asking the body to do more tomorrow, next week, and next month, than it can do today.

With all of these wonderful factors about the squat, it obviously means that every bodybuilder should be squatting in regards to building a massive lower body.


Not necessarily.

If you're a bodybuilder, no one ever judges you based on how much you squat.  They judge you based on what you present onstage, physique wise.  There isn't a single judge out there that can tell if you squat big weights, or don't squat at all based on that package.

Lots of champion bodybuilders have used the squat as a staple in their training, and many have not.  What often separates the champions from the guys placing behind them, is their ability to choose the right movements in training that help them present a more complete package than their competition.  And for some guys, the squat wasn't an ideal movement to address deficiencies in their lower body.

For example, Dorian Yates was forced to abandon the barbell squat early in his career due to hip pain from it.  On the other hand, Ronnie Coleman did in fact make the barbell squat a big part of his lower body training.

I think both guys did ok.

So making the decision to use the barbell squat in your training largely depends on your leverages, how you squat, what muscle groups you need to bring up and if the squat targets those effectively.

Leverages and squatting - 

Unfortunately you cannot change the length of your bones.  And depending on things like femur length, the squat may be very ideal for building a big set of wheels, or it may not be.

You have probably seen that one guy who turns his squat into sort of a half-squat, half good morning exercise.  Often, these are guys that don't have ideal leverages for squatting, and suffer from "long femur disease."  And while plenty of these types can and do squat big weights, they usually are very strong and developed through the hips and trunk rather than the quads.

On the other hand, if you have short femurs you can probably squat ass to grass, as they say, with little effort and maintain an almost completely upright torso.  From a quad development standpoint, this is very ideal and far more efficient.

This doesn't mean that the guy with long femurs and a lot of forward lean have to abandon the squat.  It just means he or she will need to squat differently than the short femur mutant in order to effectively target his quads.

Joint movement and bar path -

Joint movement isn't slang for the push to legalize marijuana.  Instead we're talking about the movement of the knees, ankles, and hips in relation to torso movement to keep the weight of the bar over the center of the foot.  This is what I call the "power path" of the bar.  Where the bar travels down the centerline of the body, over the middle of the foot, and allows you to move the weight in the most mechanically efficient manner as possible.

If the bar is not in this power path, then it means you lose leverage over the bar.  If you've ever felt yourself get on your toes while squatting, this means the bar isn't in the centerline of your body, and you're out of the most mechanically efficient position to move the weight.

And regardless of femur length, the lifter needs to squat in a manner that does that.

For the short femur trainee, his knees may not travel very far forward in comparison to the guy with long femurs to accomplish the same task.  For the long femur lifter, he may have to stick his glutes way back in order to accommodate for his more prominent knee flexion and extension, to find the ideal bar path.

Ankle mobility also plays a huge role in both of these roles as well.

The short femur lifter has a significantly shortened range of motion than the lifter with longer femurs. So he or she often isn't limited by a lack of ankle flexibility the way the squatter with long femurs is.

This is often visible by watching the angle of the shin during the squat.  If the shin is angled very far forward then it is often, but not always, a sign that ankle flexibility is poor, and isn't allowing for proper hip abduction during the execution of the movement.

What this means is, in order to reach proper depth in the squat, the knees need to track outwards to allow you to sit down in the bottom.  If you are tight in the calves and have poor ankle mobility, and have long femurs, this is going to be a bad day for you.

Unfortunately for people with long femurs, they do often suffer from these problems, which is why their squat is often very ugly looking.  For those built to squat, they might actually suffer from poor ankle mobility and tight calves, but because their range of motion in the squat is so limited, it doesn't impede them from squatting with great effectiveness.

A quick fix for this is to simply insert a small plate or thin board under the heels.  This essentially bypasses the issue of having tight calves and poor ankle flexibility by not asking them to stretch as far in order to achieve proper depth and squat position.  I squatted this way in the beginning and eventually was able to squat without it.

So for those who suffer from poor squatting position and find squatting to always feel awkward and "off" this is often a simple solution to keeping you more upright in the squat, and putting the emphasis back on the quads.

Isolating muscle groups and squat depth -

Because I'm a competitive powerlifter, squat depth is a badge of honor in our circle.  I've always squatted deep, and I've never been called for squat depth in competition one time.

In bodybuilding however, I see a lot of guys squatting well above parallel and offer all sorts of justifications for doing so.

So I want to put some of these justifications to rest.

"We squat higher to isolate the quads."

I can use a hammer to break a 2x4 in half, but if I want to actually cut it to a precise length, my guess is a skilsaw is a better tool for the job.

The barbell squat is not an isolation exercise.  And it shouldn't be used as one.

It's a multi-joint movement.  So if you're using the barbell squat, I assume the reason you're doing it is to bring as many muscles of the lower body into play as possible.

Yes, the purpose of this article is how to use the squat in a more quad dominant fashion, however it can't and never will be an isolation movement.

But since isolating the quads is often used as an excuse as to why some guys squat high, we can put that notion to rest as well.

The deeper you squat the more the knee extensors, i.e. the vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris, AKA the quadriceps, are brought into play.

Depth is a more important factor than load on the bar when it comes to force produced by the quadriceps.  So if you're loading up your ego on the bar, and cutting it high, you're involving the knee extensors less, and the hip extensors more.

So deep squatting means more quadricep involvement.  Higher squatting means less.

So what is depth?

The deepest you can get without sacrificing proper mechanical position.

So if you can't get to parallel or below (where the hip crease is below the top of the knee at the bottom of the squat), then the quadriceps are going to play less of a role in your squatting.

This may cause some to say "well so-n-so squats high and has great quad development."

Yes and some guys can eat taco bell and get shredded, but that doesn't mean you can too.  Just because someone else can do something and get away with it doesn't make it ideal.  And what someone else can do literally has no impact or significance on your own training.

If you're going to use the barbell squat to build your quads....

1.  Squat as deep as possible without losing proper mechanical position.
2.  Keep the load of the bar mid-foot.
3.  Use small plates or a thin board under your heels to eliminate poor ankle mobility/tight calves as a roadblock to hitting depth and staying more upright.
4.  Do all of the above while finding your stance, and positioning that allow you to maintain as much of an upright torso position as possible.

Knee wraps -

Another issue I see with a lot of bodybuilders are the use of knee wraps while squatting.

Knee wraps will allow the lifter to use more weight on the bar, but what they do is eliminate the force being produced by the vastus medialis in order to get out of the bottom position of the squat.  What this means is, you replace the work that is done by a muscle with the wraps, and this means less development for that muscle.

This is important because the vastus medialis is the only quadricep muscle that has a medial pull on the knee.  The knee needs a strong VMO in order to facilitate proper knee tracking.  If knee tracking is not ideal, then there will indeed be knee pain, usually in the patella tendon.

A lot of guys that use knee wraps say they can't squat without them because of knee pain.  If you think about this for a minute, they are caught in a vicious cycle.  They can't squat due to knee pain, so they use wraps.  Using wraps means less force produced by the VMO, which means a smaller and weaker VMO, so knee pain continues.  Essentially, putting on wraps is a temporary band-aid that isn't fixing the knee pain issue.  It's just bypassing it, but not in a way that has long term benefits.    .

In fact, it has drawbacks.

Knee wraps compress the knee cap into the thigh, increasing friction between the patella and cartilage.  This is not something you want going on in your knee if long term knee health is desired.

For guys that do experience knee pain while squatting, it behooves you to spend some time strengthening the VMO and your hamstrings, which also help in knee stabilization, so that you can eventually ditch the wraps and squat without them.

Some great movements for strengthening the VMO are...

1.  Step ups on a box
2.  Split Squats
3.  Toe pronated leg extensions

As a bodybuilder, your goal is muscular development.  Adding wraps means you're taking away a muscles involvement in a movement, and relying on a piece of equipment to do its job.  Throw away the knee wraps and fix the issue.  I'm not saying this to be argumentative, I'm saying it so that you can avoid more knee pain down the line and eventually squat pain free, with more quad development.

Other factors - 

Pain could always be a reason why some guys will just never be able to squat.  This could be from former injuries, tightness in certain muscle groups, or inability to ever correct technique and form.

It all depends on the reason for the pain.

If you have worked with a great coach who knows how to fix your squat, and you still have pain, then it may be more ideal not to barbell squat, and to focus on doing movements you can do pain free, that allow you to progress and continue to refine and further your muscular development.

If you have worked with a coach and come to the conclusion that your own leverages don't make squatting ideal for optimal quad development, then ditch it and focus on movements that do.

Conclusion - 

The squat is still a fantastic exercise for the majority of people who train, and compete in bodybuilding.

However it doesn't come without fixing for a lot of people either, if their desire is to use it to maximize quadricep development.

For some people there are better options for building the quadriceps due to poor leverages for squatting.  Hack squats, leg presses, and various squat machines can all work in regards to building massive quads.

Spend the time perfecting your barbell squat, but also realize you don't have to marry yourself to a movement if it is not suited for your structure and doesn't address and develop the muscular area you are trying to use it for.

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  1. Paul, I'm a little fuzzy on this part: "If the shin is angled very far forward then it is often, but not always, a sign that ankle flexibility is poor, and isn't allowing for proper hip abduction during the execution of the movement."

    For me, in order to break parallel with the bar tracking over mid-foot, my shins will not stay very upright unless I move my stance well outside of shoulder-width, and that eventually leads to hip pain. I may be misunderstanding, what you're saying, or I may be missing something important.

    1. Then you need to reread what I wrote. If your knees come very far forward during the squat then the shins will also have a significant angle to them. This is usually seen more in either guys with long femurs, or those that can't get the groin to open due to poor ankle or weak glute medius.

      If your levers just dictate that angle then you simply have long femurs. If you don't, then it's the ankle/glute medius problem.

  2. Great info on the VMO; Its crucial for that last 30 degrees of extension and proper patellar tracking. A weak VMO and weak hips = knee pain. Not the squats fault, the squat just brings those deficits to the front.
    Almost everyone I've seen with knee pain has a weak vmo and weak hips.
    Great article!

  3. This is the helpful and If you have worked with a coach and come to the conclusion that your own leverages don't make squatting ideal for optimal quad development, then ditch it and focus on movements that do.

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