The Squat: Train Legs At Home
Movement pattern 1/7
Main focus: Legs (Quads, Glutes)
Quote: “Squatting is the perfect analogy for life. It’s about standing up when something heavy takes you down.” Unknown
1. The forgotten art of squatting
Squatting is perhaps the most fundamental movement we have in our human repertoire. Squatting is usually the first movement we learn. In fact, you probably had the best squat technique in your first years on the planet. You could effortlessly sit down with your butt on the ground and your back straight. And with both feet firmly planted in the ground, you could then stand up straight.
But as the years go by, this is not something we maintain. At a young age, we replace squatting with sitting. We sit on chairs, sit on desks, sit in cars or sit on sofas. The older we get, the more we sit. Without repetition, our bodies forget that you were able to squat effortlessly. The hips, knees and ankles stiffen, the muscles in our thighs weaken, the mobility disappears, and the balance required to squat like you were born to, without falling backwards, is gone.
But hope is not lost. We can all still squat, we just have to remember how. Fortunately, the solution is simple. The secret lies in performing the exercise repeatedly over time. Then your nervous system will better remember how to recruit the relevant muscles to perform that specific movement, combined with improved mobility in your joints. More specifically your hips and ankles.
2. Squat variations
When most people think of squats as an exercise, they think of squats with a barbell on their back. Although this is definitely the most popular variation of the squat, it is not the only one (spoiler alert) nor the variation I recommend for beginners, people with lower-back pain or for home workouts.
Before you load the barbell with weights, a certain level of technique is required to perform the exercise without injuring the lower back. Also, it’s not suited for simple home or travel workouts, since a heavy barbell squat requires a squat rack, a barbell, several weight plates and enough space to store everything.
Personally, I do barbell squats whenever I am in a commercial gym to train legs, since barbell squats have the greatest potential to develop maximum strength and muscular development in your quads. But for several years I suffered greatly from lower-back pain, making this movement impossible to perform. In this period, I could still do lunges, goblet squats and front squats since the upper body is more erect during these movements, causing less pressure on the lower back. Refer to the illustration of the 5 exercises that all train the squat movement. Work your way through gradually from lightest to heaviest exercise. The heavier the exercise, the greater potential for strength and muscle development.
3. Exercise: Goblet Squat
Why do goblet squats? A goblet squat is the most effective exercise you can do when training your legs at home. It strengthens your quads, calves, glutes and core muscles. In addition, it improves your arm and grip strength when holding the weight (ideally a kettlebell) in front of you.
By holding a weight at your chest, you move your center of gravity more towards the middle, and thereby force a good posture in the upper body. Further, holding a weight actually helps you to go deeper in the squat movement, compared to an air squat. Due to this mechanism, the exercise has a shorter learning curve than other squat variations.
A step-by-step guide
Starting position: Start by holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, weight plate or backpack in front of your body with both hands. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
Sit down: Tighten the core muscles in the abdominal region and start sitting down. Hold your chest up and keep a straight back all the way down. You continue to lower yourself as far as you can. Over time, you will gradually get further and further down towards the bottom position. That is when the top of your thigh is parallel to the floor or deeper. Over time you will improve your hip and ankle mobility, and thereby go deeper in the squat. Half squats will only produce half results.
Squat up: From the bottom position, press your heels down to the ground, shoot your hip forward and stand up to straight. Make sure your knees, glutes and back are all moving at the same pace so you can maintain an upright position throughout the movement. For maximal efficiency, make sure the weight is moving in a vertical line. If you feel any pain in your knees or in your back during this movement, then it’s time to reassess your technique. And the less weight you use, the better your technique usually becomes.
In summary: Here are 3 things to keep in mind
4. How genetics affect squat technique
People with longer thighs relative to their torso (like me) are biomechanically forced to lean more forward when they squat since their hips will be located further back in the bottom position of the squat.
Since this increases the stress on your lower back, these people tend to do better with a squat variation where the weight is placed in front of you (goblet squat / front squat), compared to a normal barbell squat where the weight is placed on your back.
Conversely, people with a longer torso relative to their thighs will naturally have a more upright torso during a squat. For these people, a deep squat with a straight back will simply come more naturally. In sum, this means that your genetic torso vs thigh-proportions determine your ideal squat technique. Therefore, don’t copy the squat form of someone with a different body type.
Bonus tip - Strenghten the “gluteus medius” muscle
There is a little known muscle in your hips called the “gluteus medius”. And when underdeveloped, it is a common root cause of knee pain and lower back pain. Since it cannot be targeted with exercises like squats or lunges, the two isolation exercises below become necessary.
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