A Tribute to the Barbell Back Squat
The squat is a key compound exercise, one that plays a major role in any workout program, including bodybuilding and powerlifting programs. There are several variations of this crucial exercise, but all of them work on the same muscles, building a strong core. It builds power, strength and size to your quads, hamstrings and calves, while also helping to tone-up your glutes. The type of squat you perform will depend on your goals as well as your current ability, but wherever you are with your training and wherever you aspire to be, the barbell back squat should be your main focus.This exercise is beloved by top athletes in all the spectrum of sports, because it makes them perform better and win medals. Endorsed by educated personal trainers, the characteristic movements of the exercise, is seen on regular fitness clubs and gyms all over the world. It is one that replicates a natural movement that all humans can and should perform and one that’s rooted in our history of becoming strong.
Squatting: A Natural Movement
If squatting feels unnatural to you and your legs are sore for days even after performing weightless squats, then your body is not being put through the motions that it was made for. The squat is one of the most natural movements that a human can perform. It’s one that you see babies doing all of the time—as soon as they start walking they start developing strength in their upper legs by squatting to pick things up.
Toddlers also squat all the time. They are comfortable performing different tasks when squatting, and it is practical. They are stable and strong in a squatted position. With increasing age people in the western part of the world stop squatting, and adults rarely squat in the modern Europe and U.S.
In countries like China, Japan, India and many more, squatting is still a natural movement. Chairs are one of the main reasons, why we changed from squatting to sitting, in parts of the world. The first chairs in history are from ancient times, and were luxurious and only for those with richness and splendor. How widespread the chairs became in different regions and countries vary greatly, and where affected by several cultural reasons.
In the west, squatting is something that babies and toddlers do, but everywhere else, it’s a natural movement that can make life easier. Sports with focus on mobility and activities like Yoga are contributing to making squatting a natural movement again in the western world.
We’re not saying that you should get rid of your chairs and change all your everyday habits. But we are saying that you should let your body perform the movement it was born to perform.
Squat, and build up those muscles again. Rediscover one of your most natural movements.
The Feeling and Power of Squatting
Squatting is like playing golf in the sense that it looks easy to do, but when you try it for the first time as an adult, you realize that it doesn’t feel as easy, as smooth and as natural as it used to be. This is normal, but while the golf swing is a practiced and somewhat unnatural movement, the squat is not, and by performing it again and again, your body will adapt to the range of movement and it will begin to feel as natural as it once was.
There are few exercises more satisfying than a squat. Believe it or not, the largest muscle in the human body is the gluteus maximus, which is one of the three muscles found in your buttocks. After this, the largest muscle that you exercise is the soleus, which is found in the calf, followed by the quads and hamstrings. This means that when you perform a squat, all of your biggest exercisable muscles are working together in tandem.
You can lift more in a squat than you can in most other exercises—you can push your body further. It’s an exercise that will make you feel more superhuman than any other and when you feel like that, the hormones in your body respond. Squats will spike your testosterone levels more than any other exercise and while this won’t improve your resting testosterone levels, the spike it causes will add that extra intensity to your workout, which in turn could improve your overall strength and size.
Why we Need to be Strong in the
The squat is a compound exercise, which means it activates several key muscles, as well as your core muscles. These are basically your abdominal muscles and when you build these muscles you can benefit in many ways, including:
- Prevent Injuries: The stronger your core, the more stable and resilient your body is.
- Protect: A strong core can protect your internal organs and can keep your spine strong and straight, which in turn will protect your central nervous system and help to reduce posture problems in later life.
- Reduce Pain: If you suffer from back pain then a strong core could be the answer to your problems.
- Improve posture: Improves first appearance, you look more confident and attractive. By working core muscles you can build a strong abdomen, improving the strength, size and definition of the muscles.
The barbell back squat activates many of your muscles, including those of your core and upper body. But the main muscles are in the lower body.
The Muscles Targeted by the Barbell Back Squat
- Quadriceps: These are the upper front leg muscles and get their medical name “quadriceps emoris” from the Latin “four-headed muscle of the femur”. They are not as susceptible to sporting injuries as other leg muscles and their purpose is to extend the knee and to flex the hips. The quad muscles are at work when you draw your knees to your chest, when you climb the stairs and when you perform other basic movements. They take some of the most strain during a squat.
- Gluteal: Your glutes, or gluteal muscles, are three muscles that make up the buttocks, including the minimus, medius and maximus. These muscles help to shape and define your buttocks and they are activated when you perform squats, which makes this a great exercise for anyone looking to get more definition in this area.
- Hamstrings: These are the three muscles (Semitendinosus, Semimembranosus, Biceps femoris) on your upper leg at the back. They connect at the glutes and the knee and are activated when walking, running and jumping.
- Calves: These are the muscles in the lower leg. The two largest muscles that form the calf are the gastrocnemius soleus and the tibialis posterior. They join at the achilles and play a role in most leg movements, including the squat. However, they are not activated to full capacity like the muscles mentioned above.
Controversies Regarding the Barbell
It doesn’t matter how popular, how effective or how beneficial something is, everything has its detractors and squatting is no different. Some lifters refuse to perform this exercise because of concerns regarding potential knee problems. Good form can limit, if not entirely eliminate, these concerns, but the community is divided on what good form means, and if you’re not an expert, you’re prone to knee injuries or you’re just concerned for your future wellbeing, this can be enough to turn you off the squat completely.
But it shouldn’t be like that because this really is an effective and safe exercise when performed correctly and the body is allowed to move and lift in a natural manner.
The belief that squatting with good form is bad for your knees seems to stem from a study performed in the 1960s. This study was later criticized, with claims that it suffered from researcher bias and that very little thought was applied when choosing subjects. But at the time the conclusion that a proper squat put the knee ligaments under extreme stress was enough to turn many people away from the exercise.
Fortunately, more studies have since been conducted and we now have a wider field of research to study, most of which is more reliable.
One of the most revealing studies was conducted by Duke University. It was able to conclude that while a lot of pressure was applied to key areas of the body, the ankles seemed to take more of it than the knees, with the hamstrings acting to counter some of the strain that would otherwise be placed on the knees.
It also backed-up the mantra often quoted by fitness pros that you should avoid bringing the knees beyond the toes in order to alleviate some of the tension placed on them. However, this study also found that even in extreme cases, the tension applied to the knees was well within the limits of what they can handle.
Of course, all of this is assuming that good form is used and that no mistakes are made, and this is where the line becomes blurry. Because if performed incorrectly then the tension may shift and the knees and ankles may be placed under duress, leading to injury and degradation. That’s why it’s important to squat properly.
The Angle Argument
There is one other controversy that has divided the squatting community and it concerns the angle of the squat, with some suggesting that you should dip your body below the parallel and others suggesting that this causes more force to be applied to the knees and ankles and thus results in an increased chance of injury.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that parallel is safer, but studies suggests that the force applied to those key joints does not increase as you go below the parallel, while the overall tension applied to lower body muscles, and therefore the potential for growth in those muscles, does increase.
In other words, below parallel is usually the best option and with proper form this will not put your body under any additional stress.
History of the Barbell
The barbell is the most important piece of equipment needed to perform a weighted squat. You can of course use dumbbells, holding one either side, but this may strain your wrists and your knees in ways that the barbell won’t.
Dumbbells have actually been used by humans for thousands of the years. The earliest versions, known as “halteres”, were used by the Ancient Greeks while training for the Olympics. The barbell, however, may be as recent as the nineteenth century. There is no definitive proof that it was invented at this time, but no record of it exists prior to the 1800s.
These early barbells were basically dumbbells that could accommodate two hands, and they were used by professional athletes and soldiers. In 1870 they were referred to as “barbells” for the first time in the book “Madame Brennar’s Gymnastics for Ladies, A Treatise on the Science and Art of Calisthenics and Gymnastic Exercises’,” where they were described as being “4 to 6 feet in length” and designed for heavier exercises.
These barbells had fixed weights on the end in the shape of globes and were popular as stage tools for circus strongmen. These strongmen began to commission larger and more elaborate barbells for their acts, often turning to American company The Milo Barbell Company, or a British company owned by Thomas Inch. These two companies were rivals in the early years of the 20th century and it was this rivalry and combined popularity that triggered an improvement in the shape and design of the barbell, while also helping to introduce these apparatus to more gyms around the world.
In the 1920s a German by the name of Kasper Berg produced the first 7-foot barbell, a length that would later become the standard for Olympic weightlifting after featuring in the 1928 Olympics. The design was improved upon in the 1950s when a Swedish inventor created a barbell that was stronger and more durable, and as other companies began to replicate this design, the prices continued to fall, helping the barbell to become a mainstay in gyms and homes around the world from the 1960s onwards.
Is the Conventional Barbell Safe?
The barbell has been centuries in the making, but as mentioned above it’s something that began life as an extended dumbbell and morphed into a performance prop for strongmen, so just how safe is it for squatting and is there a better solution?
Firstly, it’s important to note that those early barbells were considerably different to the ones we use now. Modern barbells are designed to stand-up to heavy loads and to withstand drops. They are durable and produced to not fail in the most crucial moments. As for the squat itself, there are several issues regarding safety and there have certainly been a fair share of injuries and squatting accidents.
The injuries are often chronic due to wrong technique. The exercise itself is complex and involves several large joints of the body. To execute the barbell back squat properly, require full attention, knowledge and acceptable technique. All this demands time to learn, especially if you aim to push yourself far.
If you use a squat rack and keep the weights at a manageable level, and only perform the exercise from time to time, then you should be safe. It may be uncomfortable for the neck and shoulders though.
If you decide to make the exercise a major part of your workout program, then it is something else. That means increasing the weight and frequency.
Anyone working out seriously with a program including the barbell back squat, must have necessary knowledge and execute the technique appropriate. This require knowledge and experience with proper gaze, handgrip, position of the barbell, how to place the feet, depth of the squat and position of the knees. Without this, it may be unsafe.
Some trainers don’t recommended squats, believing they put athletes under unnecessary stress. Some athletes refuse to do them and others are concerned about the risk of injury. But a lot of these concerns can be reduced and even eliminated, to an extent that the barbell back squat is a key exercise that everyone should perform.
The squat as a movement isn’t going anywhere. In addition no one has improved substantially on the basic equipment. While there are many variations, none of them can match the barbell back squat in terms of sheer power, force and effectiveness. What if the future will bring a barbell back squat that put less strain on your neck, shoulders, back and joints? Making the exercise more comfortable and safe, while it still work the core as much as the barbell squat we know today. A safe, fun and effective barbell back squat.
This exercise is here to stay, and that can only be a good thing. Step forward, carry the weight, and squat.