What is the best way to squat? How often should I be squatting in a normal exercise routine? These are great questions and they are questions that we hear a ton around the gym. We wrote this blog to help answer some of these questions so you can start to feel more confident in the gym!
Squats are often coined “the king of all exercises” and rightfully so. Squats are a highly functional movement that not only train multiple muscle groups at once but also have incredible carryover to overall strength and activities of daily living. However, one can take a scroll through their instagram feed and see 8 different squat variations that claim to be “the best.” There are a plethora of squat variations out there, each promising a different outcome. So which squat pattern is best? What are the differences between a front squat, back squat, and split squat? We are going to break down the benefits of these different squat variations, as well as discuss when each may be appropriate to use.
People know that squats are a great lower body exercise, as they engage almost every muscle from the hips to the toes. But did you know squats are also an incredible way to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles? Studies comparing a weighted plank to a squat showed similar activation in the abdominal muscles, but the squat activated the erector spinae (the “line the spine” back muscles) to a greater extent. Seeing as low back pain and weakness is one of the most common reasons people come see us at Made2Move, squats can be a great component of a PT program working to ameliorate back pain.
But which squat is best? When choosing a squat variation, it ultimately comes down to an individual’s movement history, mobility, and what they are training for. People often wonder what the “best” leg exercise is, and the answer is that it is the one you enjoy and that aligns with your goals. Below are 3 of the most popular squat variations that we utilize with our patients here at Made2Move Summerville.
The front squat: an often dreaded movement by those who lack mobility through the wrists, ankles, knees, and back. Front squats require greater overall mobility, and specifically target the adductors and quadriceps muscles. People often report a greater soreness through their abs following a front squat vs. a back squat. This is because front squats have a higher level of core activation than back squats do.
While front squats require more mobility through the wrist and ankles, less shoulder mobility is required for the front squat than the back squat. This makes front squats advantageous for those with preexisting shoulder injuries. They can also be useful for in-season shoulder dominant athletes, such as baseball, softball, and lacrosse players, in order to reduce the risk of injury in the weightroom.
Front squats also are beneficial for Crossfitters and Olympic lifters. For Crossfitters, the front squat carries over to common movements like wall balls and thrusters, and for olympic lifters, front squats are a major component of the clean and jerk.
The back squat: a tried and tested movement to build strength, improve mobility, and enhance athletic performance. Back squats work all the muscles through the legs and hips, but target the hamstrings and glutes to a greater extent.
While back squats still require adequate mobility, they require less mobility through the hips, ankles, knees, and wrists than front squats. Because you're placing the load on the back vs. resting it on the shoulders in the front squat, people can also go heavier on a back squat than they can on a front squat. Additionally, the back squat loads the spine more directly than the front squat, which is great for developing back strength.
Split Squat- great for athletes (and everyone else)
Split squats: one of the most underrated lower body movements in the gym. Split squats are one of the most functional movements you can do in the gym. This unilateral exercise mimics the way we walk and run, as well as works on balance and strengthening the smaller stabilizer muscles in the hips.
Being a unilateral movement, split squats require more balance and single leg stability, but place less load on the back and spine than a back or front squat. Split squats do not load the back as much, so if back pain or injury is an issue, split squats could be utilized to be able to continue training the legs. Dumbbells not heavy enough or grip is giving out before the legs are? Try using a safety squat bar and lightly hold onto the rig while you squat. Or you can try wearing a weight vest to load this movement further. When there are shoulder injuries that restrict one’s ability to get into the front rack or back rack position, split squats with dumbbells held at the side can also be a great alternative.
There are also many variations in the way you can hold the weight or place your feet through the split squat. You can use a barbell (in the front or back rack position), safety squat bar, or dumbbells. In regards to foot placement, you can elevate your rear foot using a box or bench, and do Bulgarians [aka Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS)]. Some studies actually demonstrate a greater glute and hamstring activation in the RFESS than in a normal back squat. Thus, working split squats into your program will also help in developing overall strength that will carry over to your bilateral lower body lifts like front squat, back squat, and deadlifts.
So which squat should you be doing? The first thing our therapists at Made2Move Summerville would recommend would be to define your goals. Figure out what you enjoy the most and where you may have limitations. Is your thoracic mobility lacking? Front squats may be a good movement to improve this. Are you an in-season baseball player? Split squats may be best to minimize soreness and overall load through the spine and shoulders. Here at Made2Move Summerville, we can help decide which squat may be the best for you and develop a program to suit your needs. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org today to set up an initial consultation.