As you may have already discovered, the squat (along with dead lifts) is at the top of the heap as one of the most effective overall exercises for stimulating muscle gain and fat loss. This is because exercises like squats and dead lifts use more muscle groups under a heavy load than any other weight bearing exercises. This stimulates the greatest hormonal response.
University research studies have proved including squats into your training program also increases your upper body development, even though upper body specific joint movements are not performed. Whether your goal is gaining muscle mass, losing body fat, building a strong and functional body, or improving athletic performance, the squat and dead lift and their variations are the ultimate exercises.
Squats can be done with barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells, or even just body weight. Squats should only be done with free weights–never with a machine. Machine limit the range of motion and movement and don’t involve the numerous support muscles.
The type of squat that people are most familiar with is the barbell squat where the bar rest on the upper back of the shoulders. Many professional strength coaches believe front squats, where the bar rests on the shoulders in front of the head, and overhead squats, where the bar is locked out in a snatch grip overhead throughout the squat, are more functional to athletic performance than back squats, and have a smaller risk of lower back injury.
A combination of all three will yield the best results for overall muscular development, body fat loss, and athletic performance. Front squats are moderately more difficult than back squats, while overhead squats are considerably more difficult than either back squats or front squats. I’ll cover overhead squats in a future article.
If you’re only accustomed to performing back squats, it will take a few sessions to become comfortable with front squats, so start out light. After a couple sessions of practice, you’ll find the groove and can start increasing the poundage.
To perform front squats:
The front squat recruits the abdominals to a much higher degree compared to back squats because of the more upright position. It’s mostly a lower body exercise, but is great for incorporating core strength and stability into the squatting movement. It can also be difficult to learn how to properly rest the bar on your shoulders.
There are two ways to rest the bar on the front of the shoulders.
1. Step under the bar and cross your forearms into an “X” position while resting the bar on the dimple that is created by the shoulder muscle near the bone, keeping your elbows high so that your arms are parallel to the ground. Hold the bar in place by pressing the thumb side of your fists against the bar for support. (This hold is demonstrated by the image in the beginning of this post)
2. Hold the bar by placing your palms face up and the bar resting on your fingers against your shoulders. For both methods, your elbows must stay up high to prevent the weight from falling. Your upper arms should stay parallel to the ground throughout the squat. Find out which bar support method is more comfortable for you. (This hold is demonstrated by the image to the right)
Initiate the squat from your hips by sitting back and down, keeping the weight on your heels as opposed to the balls of your feet. Squat down to a position where your thighs are approximately parallel to the ground or lower, then press back up to the starting position. Keeping your weight toward your heels is the key factor in squatting to protect your knees from injury. It’s a myth that deep squats hurt the knees. Done correctly, squats actually strengthen the knees.
Practice first with an un-weighted bar or a relatively light weight to learn the movement. Most people are surprised how hard this exercise works your abs once you learn the correct form.