Did you know that despite its popularity and efficacy, most people perform the squat incorrectly? They do not seek proper instruction, or if they do, it’s from the local gym rat that calls himself a coach, who’s never sought instruction himself.
The barbell squat is one of the most frequently prescribed, as well as used, exercises for many good reasons. Not only is it a supreme exercise for strength and hypertrophy for powerlifting and physique competitors, Its bio-mechanically and neurologically similar to a wide array of athletic movements, which makes it an ideal core exercise for enhancing athletic performance.
Performing the squat typically begins with the lifter standing with the hips and knees in a neutral, extended position. The spine is upright while preserving its natural curves. The feet are at a width determined by their goals, experience, and weak points. Right before the descent, or eccentric portion of the lift, the lifter takes a deep breath and holds it throughout the eccentric (lowering) phase. This increases intra-abdominal pressure to enhance spinal stability. The amount of air inhaled can increase as the load increases. This maneuver also enables more power development in the shoulders and hips enhancing force output and velocity. The descent begins with a hip hinge and continues with flexion at the hips and knees driving the hips back keeping forward motion in the knees to a minimum. It’s commonplace for lifters to be taught to descend until the hip joint is level with the knee, or the top of the thigh is parallel to the floor. The accent, or concentric phase, is achieved through extension of the hips, knees, and ankles continuing until the lifter is back to the starting position. Throughout the entire movement the lifter should keep looking straight ahead or slightly upward, because as the head goes so goes the back. If one looks downward, it will tend to round the upper back, reducing power output in the shoulders, reducing one’s overall performance and increasing risk of back injury.
The above description is an extremely simplified version of the squat. There are several variables that go into prescribing and coaching an individual on how to perform a squat, e.g., goals, lifting experience, weaknesses, muscular imbalances, age, kinesthetic sense, and skeletal build. I highly recommend to my clients and to anyone reading this article, to first show proficiency performing the squat with just a wooden rod or broom stick before advancing to a barbell squat or any other squat variation. The squat is a difficult movement to master, so by performing body weight squats one can spot weaknesses, and develop the essential neural pathways.
Once you have the basic movement pattern down, and it’s time to work toward your goal, where does one begin? So how far apart should your feet be? How do I squat to bring up weak glutes? How do I target my quads when squatting? What bar position should I use? Below you’ll find some of the research to answer these any other questions.
Squat depth and muscle activation
The gluteus maximus (GMax) is the largest of the three gluteal muscles and contributes most of the size and shape of the butt. It is one of the strongest muscles in the human anatomy and is the most powerful extensor. Research has shown activation of the GMax is greatly influenced by squat depth; the deeper one squats the more the glutes are activated. This is because as a muscle lengthens its ability to generate force increases.
Unlike the GMax, squat depth does not appear to have any effect on hamstring activation. The hamstrings are biarticular muscles crossing over two joints: the knee and the hip. They function both as hip extensors and knee flexors, so their length remains somewhat unchanged throughout the movement. The hamstrings have been shown to produce approximately half the EMG activity during the squat, as opposed to during a leg curl and stiff legged deadlift.
Muscular activity of the quadriceps has been shown to peak at approximately 90° of flexion, with little change thereafter. This implies that if one is looking to increase the size and strength of the quadriceps, squatting past 90° is not necessary.
Squat stance (foot placement)
Several studies reveal that varying your squat stance does change the muscular EMG activity of the GMax and adductor longus. The wider one’s stance is, the greater the EMG activity of the GMax and adductor longus. Conversely, stance width has not been shown to alter muscular activity in the quadriceps and hamstrings.
Generally speaking there are two bar positions when performing a back squat, i.e., high bar and low bar. The high bar is placed above the acromion usually on top of the traps, and the low bar is placed just below the acromion. The acromion is the lateral edge of the spine of the scapula. It extends over the shoulder joint and attaches to the collar bone (acromioclavicular joint), and forms the highest point of the shoulder. Also called the acromial process, it’s the point of attachment for the traps and deltoids.
The low bar position allows for more forward lean of the trunk, typical of a powerlifter’s squat. This forward lean causes greater hip flexion and has been shown to produce greater hip extensor torque. Concurrently the low bar squat allows for less knee flexion, which elicits less knee extensor torque.