The Squat: A Complete Guide

What is the Squat?

The squat is the most efficient and effective way to build leg size and strength. As a compound movement, it allows you to drive sufficient volume into your quads and glutes, whilst handling heavy weight.

In principle the squat is one of the simplest movements to undertake. Unracking the bar, dropping down until your hips drop slightly below parallel and back up again seems like a comprehensive enough guide to get started.

Man squatting in a powerlifting rack with 170kg on his back and knee wraps
The squat is the simplest, most effective builder of leg size and strength

But when you take into account the hundreds of both large and small variables such as breathing (sic. The Valsalva Maneouvre) or feet and knee position, the squat’s intricacies become apparent.

So What do Squats do?

The squat is the most efficient builder of leg size and strength. No other movement is able to target your quads and glutes so effectively.

Compound movements may be more taxing on your CNS because more muscles are required to undertake the lifts. But they are the most effective builders of both mass and absolute strength.

You can use higher repetition, lower weight sets to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Or you can use heavier weight and lower repetitions for strength training (myofibrillar hypertrophy).
The multitude of squat variations make the squat one of the most transferable lifts. Ideal for sport performance and better suited to it than the deadlift*, you’ll be able to work on your leg strength and explosive power without frying your CNS.

Front squats more effectively target quads than back squats. And pause variations are excellent for improving your explosive power.

*The deadlift is so taxing that performing it alongside additional sporting activity arguably isn’t ideal for improving your sporting performance. Power clean and squat variations are typically better suited.

Do Squats make your Thighs Bigger?

Absolutely. There’s no other exercise that so effectively targets your quadriceps.

Your ability to load a heavy weight onto the bar when squatting and move the weight from A to B is unparalleled when it comes to stimulating hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Did you know there’s more to increasing your thigh size than just squatting?

If you’re in a calorie deficit (or trying to lose weight) then squats won’t increase your thigh size as you won’t be taking in enough calories (and protein) to allow for protein synthesis.

The opposite is true if you’re in a caloric surplus (or trying to gain weight). Protein and calories are the key to gaining muscle size and strength. If you’re looking to get strong and in this case increase your thigh size, then you need to eat above maintenance calories.

Otherwise no, squats won’t increase your thigh size. Unless you’re an absolute beginner and have no legs to speak of. Then literally anything will help.

Did you know: A larger thigh size (or greater muscle mass) doesn’t necessarily correlate with a greater 1RM squat. The subjects were split into a highly trained olympic weightlifting group, powerlifting and bodybuilding.

The bodybuilders had the lowest average 1RM max squat and there was no correlation between thigh size and squat max.

All other things being equal, mass moves mass. But strength and muscle building training are entirely different concepts. My post on hypertrophy would be a good starting point.

Do Squats make your Bum Bigger?

Much like the above, there’s no other exercise that targets your bum (or glutes) so effectively.

I had always assumed that squatting ATG (‘ass-to-grass’) would have an effect on glute activation.

It appears to make sense that squatting deeper would have an impact on muscle activation in your bum as you’ve increased the ROM (Range of Motion).

However this study by Contreras et al goes completely against that. This examined mean and peak EMG (electromyography) amplitude on glutes, biceps and the vastus lateralis (thigh) – essentially the overall muscle activation – during front, parallel and full depth squats.

There were no statistical differences between the muscle activation between either full depth, parallel or front squats.

However it is widely accepted that a greater ROM leads to increased hypertrophic changes. For instance, if you increased the ROM of each squat by 10%, the chances are your time under tension by a similar amount.

And muscle growth is stimulated by volume, frequency and intensity.
Time under tension is a crucial part of that. The longer your squat takes, the greater the impact on muscle growth.

What Types of Squat are there?

Back Squat

The most utilised types of squat, performed with the barbell resting on top of your shoulder blades (high bar) or nestled on top of the ridge made by pulling your shoulder blades together (low bar).

Now Read: High Bar vs Low Bar Squats

Front Squat

Performed by holding the barbell in the front rack position on top of your collarbones. The front squat is a quad dominant, generally more taxing version of the back squat.

SSB Squat

Typically it targets the same muscle groups as the front squat. You need a specific SSB bar to perform it properly. A great squat accessory.

Goblet Squats

Performed by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of your body and squatting. Ideal for beginners in training them in the correct neurological patterns and improving their flexibility.

Bodyweight Squats

More useful for beginners or home workout enthusiasts, bodyweight squats are a high repetition tool designed at driving some volume into your muscles.

Paused Squats

Optimal for improving explosive power and strength in the bottom position, pause squats are an excellent addition to your arsenal. You can pause at the bottom of any of the above variations.

Speed Squats

Add accommodating resistance (chains or bands) and perform 1 or 2 reps as fast as pssible every 30 seconds for around 10 sets. Great for those looking to improve their explosive power and speed strength.

Single Leg Squats (Pistol Squats)

Great for more advanced lifters and this type of individual limb training is brilliant for training individual leg strength. Something you don’t normally get with compound exercises as squats normally require you to utilise both limbs bilaterally.

Top 8 Benefits of the Squat

The squat is the most influential leg builder around. It’s an iconic movement that improves your overall leg strength, size and mitigates injury risk.

An essential lift for any aspiring weightlifter or if you’re looking to improve your sports performance.

Below are what I believe the top 8 benefits of the squat are. From core stability to vertical jumping prowess the squat has got the lot.

Top 8 benefits of the squat infographic

1. Improving Leg Strength: The squat is much more quad focused, but no other leg movement activates more muscle fibres than the squat. Whether that’s a high rep set or a 1RM effort.

2. Core Stability: The valsalva manoeuvre is essential to learn when lifting weights. It increases intra-abdominal pressure (hence why a powerlifting belt is so effective) and forces your core to brace.

Heavy weights improve your core’s proficiency and effectiveness. You won’t get a six-pack from it, but it’s an essential part of training it.

Diagram to highlight the increased effects on internal pressure the valsalva manoeuvre has
Diagram to highlight the increase in internal pressure the valsalva manoeuvre causes

3. Enhanced Power Production Potential: Compound movements recruit more muscle fibres and utilise heavier weight. This requires extreme ATP energy usage and builds power and strength in your leg drive.

4. Fat Burning: The increased number of muscle fibres activated and heavier load used means that squats fire your metabolism up like nothing else (except the deadlift). An increase in muscle mass in the long-term means you burn more calories in a sedentary position, so it’s a win-win.

5. Muscle Building & Enhanced Muscle Size: Whether it’s a heavy session or hypertrophy building session, squats build muscle strength and size which means you basically can’t fit into any pair of jeans. But you do need to buy powerlifting shoes to be effective.

6. Increase Vertical Jump: Jump squats in particular increase your vertical jump. I wouldn’t recommend this for weightlifters or powerlifters, but it can be effective for sport training when performed under supervision.

7. Injury Prevention & Bone Strengthening: Using heavy weights puts immense strain on your bones and the human bone is a living organism. By stressing your bones you can increase their density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis in old age.

8. Improve Knee Stability & Connective Tissue: Squats are immensely stressful, but you get used to it. Done properly your knees will no longer cave in and the connecting tissues around them get stronger and stronger.

Other than being a phenomenal muscle builder and power generator, squatting improves balance, core stability and has excellent fat-burning and body aesthetics properties.

Incredibly muscular man with a shaved head, carrying dumbbells and chains
Squats are the best way to improve leg size and strength

Utilising compound movements like squats, bench presses and deadlifts clearly improve strength, power and body composition when programmed correctly.

They are also incredibly powerful injury prevention techniques that boost testosterone production and have been proven to help prevent and mediate osteoporosis and forms of depression.

The squat in particular is utilised across almost every sport as leg strength, power generation and core stability are absolute necessities.

But coaching and performing the squat effectively, efficiently and safely is an art form. One that requires absolute concentration, years of expertise and a checklist, which you can read more about below.

How do I make it stronger?

Increasing any lift requires patience. And this really is a complex topic, so I suggest reading my more in-depth post on the topic: how to increase your squat.

You need to accumulate volume over time under your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) threshold. In layman’s terms, you need to perform a significant enough number of repetitions over time to stimulate growth, without pushing yourself beyond your recoverable limit.

That’s how overtraining occurs.

So you first need to accumulate volume to build a base level of strength and improve your ability to recover. Then you start increasing the intensity (weight of the lift) and reducing the volume.

Remember the heavier the weight, the harder it becomes to recover. So reducing volume is a must.

Specificity should also increase over time. At the beginning of your program, you should be working on weak points. So variations of the squat is essential. Pause squats for improving control and power out of the bottom position for example.

As your program goes on you need to reduce the number of variations and focus more on the core lift itself – the squat. So it’s critical you understand the best accessories for improving your squat because you don’t have energy to waste.

Does Squatting Burn Fat?

If burning fat is what you’re after and you don’t see the squat as an effective way to improve body composition and lose weight in the long run you couldn’t be more mistaken.

Read this: Beginners Guide to Weight Loss if you’re keen to drop a few dress sizes.

Whilst you cannot selectively spot reduce fat* (i.e. specifically remove belly fat), the most time efficient and effective way to burn fat in the long run is to build muscle. Every additional lb of muscle you hold burns around 10 calories per day.

There’s virtually no other movement that builds muscle more effectively then the squat (sic. the deadlift), as it builds such powerful glutes, quads and hamstrings.

If you increase the size of the biggest muscle group in your body, it makes complete sense that squatting, or any compound movement, is a great long-term solution to losing weight.

*There are actually fat loss creams that do work at spot reducing fat, but who on earth wants to use that?

Is it a good idea to Squat Everyday?

If you’re talking about bodyweight squats then that’s fine. They aren’t at all taxing to your CNS and are easy to recover from.

If you mean full barbell squats then not really.

The Bulgarian Method is an Olympic weightlifting style program that requires an athlete to squat everyday. Sometimes twice a day. So athletes do it in principle.

But squats are much harder to recover from than most normal exercises. And you’re not an Olympic athlete (probably not on steroids either), so there’s absolutely no need for you to squat everyday. 2-3 times a week is plenty.