Squats are often described as the king of strength training exercises. This nickname is well deserved because squats are amongst the most effective and efficient exercises around. Anyone who wants to build muscle and strength would do well to include hard and heavy squats in their strength training routine.
In fact, squats are so effective that entire workout programs have been built around this magnificent exercise, the most well-known being the infamous 20-rep squat routines that date back to the early days of the physical culture movement. Combined with copious amounts of milk, 20-rep squat routines all but guaranteed that anyone brave enough to commit to very hard squatting three times a week would put on an appreciable amount of muscle mass in as little as six weeks. For more information about this kind of program, please check out “Super Squats” by Randall J. Strossen PhD.
Squats are good for more than just building muscle and strength and can also help you burn fat – both directly and indirectly. Many people make the mistake of focusing on cardio when it comes to burning fat and getting lean but, in actuality, squats may well help you get leaner, quicker.
Squats are an effective fat loss tool because they involve a large number of muscles working simultaneously. This means that performing squats uses a whole lot of energy and as fat burning is all about creating a caloric deficit, exercises that use a lot of energy are very valuable. Broadly speaking, squats use every major and many minor lower body muscles and when performed using a barbell, dumbbells or any other heavy object held across the shoulders or in the hands, many upper body muscles too.
Because squats use so many muscles at the same time, not only do they use a lot of energy, they also crank up your heart and breathing rate which means they provide a cardiovascular workout not dissimilar to interval training. Interval training has long been associated with enhanced fat burning.
Additionally, squatting can be intense and several sets of squats will produce a dramatic increase in your metabolic rate because of something called EPOC. EPOC is short for Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. In simple terms, a hard set of squats produces a lot of lactic acid which results in that burning sensation you feel in your thighs. Removing lactic acid from your muscles and blood takes a lot of oxygen and therefore energy which means that your metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories) increases not only while you are exercising but also for hours afterward. If you have ever felt really warm for several hours after a hard workout then you have experienced EPOC for yourself already. If you haven’t, maybe you need to start cranking up the intensity of your workouts so you too can enjoy this fat burning phenomenon!
Squats and Hormones
Because squats are such a demanding exercise, performing this exercise also affects your hormones. The three most notable ones being growth hormone, testosterone and insulin.
Growth hormone and insulin are anabolic or muscle building hormones. The more muscle you have on your body, the greater your metabolic rate will be and the more calories you will burn on a daily basis. Like a big-engined car uses more fuel than a compact, increasing your muscle mass will increase your fat burning capabilities. In addition to building muscle, growth hormone and testosterone also promote fat burning.
Squats also increase your insulin sensitivity. Insulin is produced by your pancreas and is the hormone predominately responsible for ferrying nutrients into your muscles and liver. However, if these cells are not insulin sensitive, these nutrients can end up in your fat stores instead. Because squats affect so many muscles at the same time, they do an excellent job at increasing insulin sensitivity which ensures that nutrients are preferentially shunted into your muscle cells and away from your fat cells.
There are lots of different types of squat you can do but each one shares certain performance similarities irrespective of whether you are holding a barbell across your shoulders, a sandbag in the crooks of your elbows or just performing bodyweight squats…
- Stand with your feet between hip-width and shoulder-width apart. A narrow squat emphasizes your quads while a wider stance increases the involvement of your adductors or inner thighs. Taller people often find a wider stance more comfortable.
- Keep your weight on your heels to take stress off your knees. Flat, firm-soled shoes make this easier.
- Keep your chest up and shoulders back at all times and look straight ahead. Do not round your lower back.
- Initiate the descent by pushing your hips back and then bending your knees. This will ensure you get maximal glute and hamstring recruitment and help keep your knees behind your toes – important for preserving knee health. Push your knees outward to ensure your hip abductors work as hard as your quads, glutes and hamstrings.
- Descend until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Half squats will only give you half results! If you are unable to reach this depth, make sure you work on your flexibility until you can.
- Inhale as you descend and then exhale as you stand back up.
Types of Squats
While the barbell back squat is the most well know version of this exercise, there are lots of other variations that can be similarly effective:
- Bodyweight squats
- Squat jumps
- Split squats – with or without elevating the rear foot
- Front squats
- Overhead squats
- Safety bar squats
- Trap bar squats
- Dumbbell squats
- Zercher squats – bar held in the crook of the arms
- Jefferson squats – bar held between the legs
- Hack squats – bar held behind the legs
- Goblet squats – single dumbbell or kettlebell held in front of the chest
- Wall squats
Whether you train at home or in a gym, for fat loss or building strength or muscle mass, squats will help you reach your goals quicker than any other exercise. They might not be the easiest exercise but it is their lack of ease which makes them so effective. Squat hard and often and you’ll soon experience the power of the squat!