Squats: The Ultimate Exercise?

by Michael on October 9, 2009 · 0 comments

You never know when you'll run into a mandatory leg exercise area. (Photo by sanchom)

You never know when you'll run into a mandatory leg exercise area. (Photo by sanchom)

The toughest part of your body to work out is the legs. For the longest time I dreaded “leg day.” And if I was still using Nautilus-type machines I probably still would. Leg curls and seated presses are mind-numbingly dull and don’t hit all the muscles I want to work. Then there are leg extensions, which put huge stress on the knee joint. All of this added up to a leg workout that was long and boring.

Back when I was figuring things out on my own, I tried squats. And guess what โ€” I hurt myself with poor form. So it was back to the machines for a (long) while, and my legs didn’t see many gains.

When I switched my workout to free weights, I started from scratch with squats. I watched video and got pointers on my form. Although I don’t have a specific “leg day” anymore, I’m actually excited on the days when squats are in the plan. There are many components to squat form, so in that respect it keeps my mind occupied while also engaging virtually every muscle from my knees to my core.

Your First Squat

To start with the squat, you really want to work without weight. I think you’ll be surprised how much you’ll feel 15-20 properly executed air squats, especially if you’ve never done them before. Concentrate on your form:

  • Legs a little more than shoulder-width apart, with the toes turned slightly outward.
  • Chest up, shoulders back.
  • Hips back.
  • Your weight on your heels.
  • Look straight ahead.

From there you want to go down like you’re sitting in a chair that’s out behind you. If you keep your hips back, your back will have that slightly concave curve you want. Go all the way down until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. It can help to put a low bench under where your butt should land and squat down until you touch the bench. If you don’t get down far enough, you won’t engage your hamstrings and the exercise will be half wasted.

After you’ve reached bottom, drive up with your hips. Using the best form, the weight bar will make a straight line up and down โ€” all the power and movement is in your legs.

When you’re ready for weight, start with an empty bar across your back. Your hands should be near your shoulders with the bar resting on your trapezoids. Only increase the weight on the bar when you feel completely comfortable squatting the current weight with 100 percent proper form. And use a squat rack to hold the bar before and after your set.

What I Learned

If there’s one thing that improved my squat more than any other, it’s the placement of my feet and making sure my weight is on my heels. If your feet are far enough apart and your toes pointed outward, you can more easily keep your knees behind your toes.

I also learned to go down as far as I can, and maybe a little further. A lot of guys stop way too high, and they don’t get all of the benefit of the exercise. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone go down too far.

Worried about hurting your knees? Doing squats with proper form, all the way down, can actually help strengthen your knees.

Let’s Go to the Tape

As always, even if you can’t get a personal trainer to watch you, at the very least you’ve got YouTube to offer examples and form. Here are a selection of squat form videos:

This is a basic tutorial showing repetitive form. The next video is a bit more instructional (although there’s some unintentional humor in there โ€” those wacky Aussies):

And finally here’s a walk-through of strict squat form by Crossfit guru Mark Rippetoe (search under his name on YouTube for many more related videos):

As always, take it easy, think form over weight, and use the full range of motion. After you get the hang of squats, I think you’ll like the results. By beach time next year you’ll be swimsuit-worthy indeed.

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