Battle of the Squat Part 1:
Back squatting and Front squatting, high bar squats versus low bar squats, whats the difference? Does it really make a difference if the bar is behind or in front of your head? Should certain athletes back squat while others should front squat? How do you even perform a squat properly? We will look at all those questions while we take a look at two tremendous exercises: the back squat and the front squat. They have a bunch of similarities, but also have a few major differences. Hold on to your seat because we’re about to dive right in.
Back squatting and front squatting…some people hate squats, despise squats, avoid squats, or don’t use the squat the way it was designed for. But perhaps worst of all, many use squatting areas improperly. If you fit into any of the categories above, please stop reading and go pick up the latest edition of Country Living magazine. One of the big three lifts that everyone on earth should do is the squat. I would say the average human squats 30 times a day. Those of us who don’t want to settle for average will squat 30 times, plus whatever is on store for in the gym under a loaded condition. In those loaded conditions, you are under a bar (or holding on to dumbbells), eliciting a stress onto your body so great that it will force your central nervous system to recruit every muscle imaginable. The load will activate signaling pathways to release every anabolic hormone you can possibly produce and will activate signaling pathways within your skeletal muscle for growth (Role of anabolic Hormones in Muscle Hypertrophy). The benefits don’t stop here because the load will help increase bone density, increase heart rate, decrease stress of the day, and perhaps even let out a deep grunt that you never actually meant to let out. All of this could be happening as you fight to drive out of the bottom squat position to finish a rep.
Now, if you’re not fired up to break out of your office chair and head straight to the gym, then you might need to check your heart beat. The other option is that you simply don’t like squatting as much as I do, but you still feel like taking a trip down the education highway.
How To Squat Properly
The squat is a compound movement. When most people teach a squat, they look primarily at ones lower body. However, to get the most out of your body on every rep, you need to make sure every joint is covered. When first coaching the lower body, you must start with the toes and feet. You should stand with your toes pointing slightly out, and feel as if your toes are gripping onto the ground. Your ankles need to be mobile enough so you can “sit back” without your knees having to come forward. You need to have enough stability in your knees to prohibit your knees from collapsing in. Advanced squatters should actually focus on forcing their knees out, by doing so they actively recruit hip external rotators which also assist in hip extension. You make your money squatting in your hips. It is well known that your power comes from your ass, also known as your hip extensors. Your hips need to be mobile enough for you to sit deep and strong enough for you to drive out of the bottom position.
Moving up the body from the feet to the hips, we progress to the spine. The spine is what makes or breaks a good squat. One of the most important cues is to keep tension, and actually maintain tension throughout each rep. Here’s where your upper body comes into play because tension in your upper body will maintain an erect and rugged spine. To do this, you will have to engage your Lats, scapula, and brace with your abdoiminals. (Yes, your lats and scaps are two of the most important muscle groups when it comes to being strong, I will get more into this in a later article so stay tuned)
Your arms are needed to engage your lats and responsible for keeping the tension you have already created elsewhere in your body. Grip the bar tight, flex those lats, and don’t let your elbows flop like a bird.
Finally, the last part to pay attention to is the cervical spine, or your neck. Maintaining tension requires a packed neck. A packed neck is accomplished by pulling your head back and tucking your chin. Some people describe this as making a double chin. It sounds odd and does look a little strange, but this one cue could easily be the difference between completing a rep or letting it all come crashing down on the safeties below you.
Athletic benefits of squatting
Squatting has a multitude of benefits for everyone who does it. For now I will stick to describing the benefits athletes receive from squatting.
1.) Increase in lower body strength and power
The title of this section says it all. If your goal is to jump higher, jump further, run faster or throw harder, then you need to squat. In order to have a powerful lower body you need to be able to generate force into the ground. Newton’s Third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. How does this apply to squatting? Well, the greater the amount of power you can generate and apply into the ground, then the greater the amount of force that can be produced to send you in the opposite direction. There are a multitude of other factors at play but that’s the quick and dirty explanation.
So how does all of this apply to squatting and being more powerful? Well think about what is required of your body in order to lift heavier weights…you have to generate more power, right?
You might be thinking, ‘so great but how will that help me as an athlete?’ Well, the power you can generate under load will affect your ability to drive off each step. Generating more power will help you whether you are pushing off the mound while throwing a pitch, making a quick cut on the football field to break away from an opponent, or smashing a volleyball straight down.
2.) Increase in core strength
I continually have athletes ask me when they are going to do “core” exercises. My response is always the same…we’ve been doing core exercises all workout. Briefly, the core is just another piece in the chain. Its primary goal is to keep you up right, and it is always “on” while you are standing. Yes, you need to have the ability to resist rotation, spinal flexion, and extension of the spine, but you also need to be able to stand. Frequently athletes need to do all of these things, maintaining body positioning in loaded conditions. Just look at power lifters; those guys can squat over 600lbs, and I dare you to say they don’t have a strong core! In order to complete a heavy squat your core MUST MUST MUST be braced. If it’s not braced, I can guarantee you will flex at the spine and not complete the lift.
3.) Decrease your risk of an ACL injury
Squatting, specifically a back squat places the load posteriorly (back side). By placing the load posteriorly you create anterior posterior force; this type of loading is indicative of your ACL. So by back squatting you are increasing the ability to resist anterior displacement of the tibia in relation to your femur. This ultimately leads to loading, which leads to strengthening of your ACL.
Benefits of Squatting for Everyone
No one wants to be the guy at the gym whose legs are smaller than their own forearms. Sounds crazy, I know, but I see it happen. To stop this from happening start squatting. Squatting as mentioned before requires recruitment of muscles throughout not only your lower body but also your upper body. Placing your whole body under load starts a cascade of signaling pathway that are responsible for muscle hypertrophy. Since the load is also handled by your upper body, assuming you squat and brace properly, you will begin to see yourself widening out, that is also assuming you take in enough calories!
2.) Expending calories!
If the motivating force behind your every workout is to expend as many calories as possible, get squatting. And I’m not talking body weight here, but squatting under a significant load. Since squatting requires the recruitment of so much musculature, you can bet your bottom dollar that caloric expenditure is high. It’s a simple concept, the more work your body has to do, the more calories you’re going to expend. If you ever get a chance to watch someone moving a heavy set of 3 you’ll notice that they are sweating by the end of the third rep!
3.) Increase in anabolic hormone production
For years the reason people said to squat was because of the increase in anabolic hormone production. This was thought to be the reason for the growth associated with squatting. This is no longer true, but there are a plethora of other benefits associated with the rise in anabolic hormones. Anabolic hormone play an important role in protecting against liver and other organ diseases that are related to elevated levels of cortisol. From a performance standpoint improve your neuromuscular system through lipid protein pathways, neuron activity, motor system function, cognition, muscle properties, and energy metabolism.
4.) Increase in Bone mineral Density.
Arguably the most beneficial adaptation associated with various forms of squatting is the increase in bone mineral density. Whenever your bone is placed under load, the bones that deal with the force begin to lay down new more dense osteoblasts, ultimately increasing the density of your bones. For the older folks who read this, squatting has the ability to slow the inevitable degradation of bone specifically in the lower extremities, HIPS, and spine. It will allow you to maintain your current bone density for a longer period of time, ultimately decreasing your risk of fracture!
To be continued…
You should now feel a bit more educated on the general benefits of the squat. Stay tuned because the ride is just beginning. We will be diving more into the different variations of the squat, looking at the benefits and downfalls of each one. If you’ve ever wondered the benefits of a back squat compared to a front squat, whether a single leg squat is in fact superior to a back squat, if there is any sort of benefit to actually doing a box squat when you have the ability to do a full squat, if squatting to full range of motion is actually bad for your knee, or have had any other misconceptions or questions they might just get answered.