November 27th, 2020

Training Matters: Squats — the what, how and why

By Medicine Hat News on October 2, 2020.

We are slowly starting to head back into gyms and as we do so, we may wonder about some of the best exercises we can be doing.

There is little doubt that the squat is one of the most functional and versatile movements. The squat is a closed-chain kinetic exercise similar to several athletic movements and activities of daily living.

Regardless of your skill and expertise, there are benefits to squatting and gains to be had as we train the muscles around the knee and hip joints and develop our lower back. That being said, there are a ton of different squat variations and it’s hard to know which one is right for you.

Let’s explore some of the more common variations – the back squat, front squat and overhead squat – and discuss which one is right for you.

The back squat is one of the most commonly seen variations of the squat. Just as it sounds, the barbell is loaded on the back in either a low or high-bar position. A reason for its popularity is the ability to typically move more weight than the other versions of the squat. The back squat also targets the hamstrings more than other lower-leg muscles.

There are some downsides to the back squat. Due to the increased ability to load the lift, there is also increased tension on the tendons at the knee and ankle. There are also increased compressive forces on the knee. The back squat increases the amount of trunk lean and requires greater ankle mobility.

So who is the back squat right for? If you are looking to lift a maximal amount of weight, increase the strength of the hamstrings and lower back, and have superior ankle mobility, then the back squat is the lift for you. If you have knee, Achilles, and low-back issues, then you might want to find an alternative version. Ultimately, the back squat does increase the susceptibility to injury, and learning proper mechanics and form is essential.

The front squat is more common in Olympic lifting as it mimics the catch phase of the clean. This changes how we load the body as the barbell is placed across the anterior shoulder. With this placement, the quadriceps group becomes the primary targeted muscles. This leads to less compressive forces on the knee and low back.

The front squat is right for you if you are looking to develop your quads, have knee or low-back problems, reduced shoulder mobility, and decreased load on the Achilles. While the front squat typically uses lighter loads than the back squat, studies show that it is equally as effective as the back squat in strength and power development. The only downside to the front squat is the increased pressure on the wrists which can be solved using the cross-arm modification.

The most technical and challenging of the squat variations is the overhead squat. Just as it sounds, the bar is positioned overhead by either pressing or jerking up from the shoulders or with a snatch. This squat replicates the catch position of the snatch and is also common among the Olympic lifting population. The overhead positioning requires a significant amount of core recruitment to maintain stability and is considered a full-body complex movement.

Due to the high-demand for core recruitment, shoulder, hip, and ankle mobility, the overhead squat usually results in lighter loads being lifted. This is also a reason the overhead squat is a commonly used full-body assessment tool. The increased stability, balance, coordination and mobility requirements challenge the entire system.

The overhead squat is right for you if you want an incredibly effective way to train the entire body. Even with light loads, the overhead squat will improve not only strength and power, but balance, coordination and stability.

Armed with this knowledge, you can head back to the gym ready to train the most effectively and safely for your specific body. If you are looking to find out more about your own stability/mobility strengths and weaknesses, ASDC offers 3D movement assessments.

Alex Graham, CES, XPS is the strength and conditioning coach at ASDC-SE. She also is the Kinetisense Performance Specialist and is a leading expert in 3D functional movement. Email: agraham@mhc.ab.ca

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