The Benefits of Squats
The Mighty Squat
Lower-body fitness is important for everyone, and there are good reasons we should spend some time on exercises that improve leg and hip strength. Excelling at a sport, staying fit for everyday life and maintaining independence as we age are at the top of the list, but surely you can think of others. If we want to be in shape, for sport or for life, we need to keep our legs strong.
For many people, incorporating the squat into their exercise program is a great way to accomplish this. It is regarded by many as the king of lower-body movements, and an important exercise for overall conditioning.
If you’re cringing as you picture yourself with a barbell across your back, screaming like a maniac as you struggle with some massive weight, fear not. Heavy barbell squats are great for some people, but there are many forms of the exercise for different situations, goals and fitness levels.
Some people who work out at home may do squats using only their own bodyweight. Others, such as the elderly and those recovering from an injury, may do adaptive squats. There are front squats, box squats, dumbbell squats, goblet squats, hack squats, one-legged squats, Thai squats, sissy squats and about a million other variations.
The point is that squats aren’t just for bodybuilders and powerlifters. There are all kinds of squats for all kinds of people.
In this article you’ll learn more about the advantages of squats and how they might benefit you in your own training program.
Squats are a potentially dangerous exercise. If you intend to add them to your regimen I advise you to find a certified trainer, strength coach or physical therapist that can evaluate your current condition and recommend a proper program.
Muscles and Movements
When you perform a squat you are working your lower body, but what does that mean exactly? It means, to some extent, you are working just about every muscle from your waist down, and there are a lot of them. But instead of turning this into an anatomy lesson (and an argument about whether or not squats work your calves), let’s instead look at movements. Biomechanically, squatting involves powerful knee and hip extension.
Knee extension is pretty obvious, especially if you already know a little about lifting weights. Think of sitting in a chair and straightening out your leg in front of you. The leg extension machine at the gym does exactly that, and it works the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. These are the muscles we collectively refer to as the quadriceps.
Hip extension is a little more complicated. Think of lying on your back with your knees bent, and then pressing with your feet so your hips come off the floor. Or, think of standing straight and kicking your leg out behind you. That’s hip extension, but from a real-world movement perspective there is a bit more involved.
The major muscles that extend the hip are the gluteus maximus (your butt) and hamstrings. When we are talking about movements like the squat—or running, jumping, climbing stairs, etc – the hip extensors work with the knee extensors to drive the body into an upright position from a bent-kneed position. Even when you are walking on a level surface these muscle are moving you along.
Squats will also have a training effect of your core muscles and abdominals. Altogether, there are a lot of muscles at work when you perform a squat. How hard each muscle has to work is dependent on the type of squat you perform, as well as the weight you use.
So, why am I telling you this? Because knowing exactly what you are working when you squat will help decide if this exercise can help you. Let’s look at some of the potential benefits of the squat.
Improve Athletic Performance
If you participate in any sport you can benefit from adding squats to your training program. The traditional barbell back squat is great for building strength and power, but many athletes use other variations such as the front squat, one-legged squat and box squat. For serious athletes it’s hard to imagine a more beneficial exercise.
Squats can be part of a program to help you run faster and jump higher. Strength-to-bodyweight ratio is a big factor in both of those things, and getting stronger in your lower body can help. For sports requiring power and explosiveness like football, basketball and volleyball, this is a tremendous benefit.
But even athletes whose sports require more endurance than power can use a little more leg strength. Stronger muscles move your bodyweight more efficiently and tire less easily. Athletes such as runners and cyclists may find that getting stronger at squatting will improve their performance.
The barbell squat is also a basic, compound lift like the bench press, dead lift, barbell row and military press. Compound lifts are the most efficient way to build basic strength and add muscle mass. For athletes, this means getting the greatest training effect in the least amount of time.
Increase Whole-Body Muscle Mass
Heavy squats, of course, stimulate muscular growth in your quads, hamstrings and buttocks. But there is also a school of thought that suggests heavy compound movements like bench presses, military presses and especially squats and deadlifts facilitate a post-workout burst of anabolic hormones like testosterone and HGH. This means the anabolic effect of a hard squat workout can help you add muscle all over your body, not just your legs.
If you are a bodybuilder this is stellar news, but you probably already know that heavy compound lifts are the path to packing on muscle. In some respects this is preaching to the choir. However, there are other populations who might benefit from squats and the accompanying bump in anabolic hormones. These include:
- Athletes looking to add lean muscle mass to better perform at their sport.
- Aging individuals concerned about muscle loss.
- Ectomorphic body types who struggle to put on muscle.
In my opinion, chasing some magical boost in hormones is probably not the best use of your time or mental energy. However, since there are so many other positives to squats and lifting weights in general, I’d consider this one a bonus.
Burn Calories and Lose Fat
As discussed above, squats work a lot of different muscles. Some of these are among the largest muscles in your body. Muscles burn calories when at work, so when you do squats you are expending a whole lot of energy. You are also, of course, getting stronger and gaining a little muscle.
Squats tax your cardiovascular system in a big way. While not an aerobic exercise, they will still give your heart and lungs a workout, particularly where medium-high rep ranges are involved.
For those looking to control their weight this is good news on all fronts. While you are exercising you’ll be burning lots of calories, and that means, maybe, losing weight. Gaining muscle and being active means increasing your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you naturally burn at rest).
It’s a win-win. Adding squats to your program will provide a great source of calorie busting, and by adding more muscle you will burn more calories even while you are at rest.
Rather not lift weights? That’s okay. Even squats without weights can go a long way toward burning calories, building muscle and keeping you fit. You don’t need to be a gym rat to benefit from the squat.
Obviously there is much more to dropping a few pounds than doing any one exercise, but strength training can be a key part of your program.
Be Fit for Life
When you were young you were ready to tackle anything. You could swim or play sports all morning, ride your bike for hours in the afternoon, run around the neighborhood in the evening and then crash out at the end of the day with a smile on your face. The next day you could get up and do it all again without any hint of soreness.
Somewhere along the way things changed. There is a lot more to do, school, jobs and families to worry about, responsibilities to attend to, and by the end of the day all you want to do is pass out on the couch.
Now, when the opportunity for physical activity does come up, you pay for it the next day.
Obviously there are some physiological reasons for this, but a sedentary lifestyle contributes as well. If you make strength training, including the squat, a part of your life you will be more able to meet the physical demands that life throws at you.
Maybe that means the weekend softball games, mowing the lawn or hiking in the mountains. Or, maybe Cousin Bob wants you to help him move out of his apartment this weekend. While he’s sore and whining the whole time, you’ll breeze right through if you maintain your strength training routine.
There is no fountain of youth, but strength training, and compound lifts like the squat, can go a long way toward helping you feel younger and healthier.
Stay Strong into Your Golden Years
People are living longer than ever, and staying strong and active is important. As we get older we tend to lose muscle mass and bone density, and this can eventually mean a degradation of walking gait, balance issues and possibly traumatic falls. A general strength training routine, including squats, can help slow that process, and allow people to be active well into their golden years.
This means something different to each of us. You may wish to continue with rigorous sports and outdoor activities you have enjoyed your whole life. Or, you may be content with staying strong enough to play with your grandkids or keep the garden in tip-top shape.
Even if you have a long way to go until retirement, now is the time to think about these things. Start to build a strength base and develop good exercise habits you can continue for the rest of your life.
For seniors it is especially important to seek guidance from a trained professional when deciding on an exercise program. Some older folks do just fine with traditional squat exercises. For others, an adaptive squat exercise may be safer to increase and maintain leg strength.
Are Squats Dangerous?
Squats have a lot of advantages, but they also have a dark side. The barbell back squat in particular has gained a reputation among some as a dangerous exercise, sure to ruin your back and knees.
It’s easy to see why. Of all the barbell exercises you can do in the gym you’ll probably be strongest at the back squat. It’s tempting to pile on the pounds, and sometimes people push their limits too far and end up getting hurt.
It’s also an exercise where it is all too easy to use bad form. This can put unnecessary stress on the knees and lower back, and lead to serious injury.
Don’t let that happen. Take the time to learn the movement using light weights, and always train safely.
That said, some people definitely should not do squats, particularly those with existing knee and back issues. Go and talk to you doctor about your medical history and make sure you are safe for this exercise.
If you experience any pain in your knees or low back while squatting, stop immediately and get it checked out. If you have a history of knee or low back pain or have had surgery, talk to your doctor before proceeding. Even if you can’t do any one particular exercise, your doctor, trainer or physical therapist may recommend other exercises to help keep your legs strong.
The information presented in this article is meant as a general overview of the benefits of squats. It should not be taken as an exercise prescription for your specific situation, or as anything other than educational information. If you choose to squat you do so at your own risk.
If you do decide to add squats to your workout, my advice is to find a certified strength coach, trainer or therapist who can educate you on the proper way to perform the exercise. They can evaluate your present conditioning level, consider your goals, and come up with a training program to meet your needs.
Whatever you decide, good luck and be safe!