Unless you're a competitive powerlifter or strongman, there's no reason to load a barbell on your back and squat. Doing it properly requires mobility in the hips and shoulders. It requires awesome technique. And even then, your spine and knees may eventually hate you for it.
If you want to avoid degenerative disc disease, knee or hip replacements, and if you're actually wanting to grow your legs, there are better options. We'll get into them. First things first though. You're still probably not convinced that the barbell back squat sucks for most people (yes, even you), so let's start there.
- The spine is not meant to withstand direct heavy loads.
- Most people don't have the mobility to properly execute it.
- It will tax the nervous system significantly more than other variations, slowing down recovery and your ability to train at a higher frequency.
- You're probably taxing the low back and getting minimal muscle gains for your legs.
- The cost-to-benefit ratio sucks compared to other lifts.
I see it every day. A 150-pound dude with 185 on his back will do his best set. He folds over like an accordion with his knees caving in and barely gets the bar back up. He racks the bar and sits down for five minutes with his hand on his lumbar spine and a grimace on his face. No pain, no gain, right?
Imagine making a stack of 24 jelly donuts and putting a weight on top of it. What happens? The donuts collapse and the jelly oozes out. Same concept with your spine.
If you're not properly engaging your abdominal and back muscles, the bar just sinks straight down into your spine. If your wrists are in an extended position, chances are you're not nearly engaging your lats enough to optimally do the back squat. If shoulder mobility is lacking, this is going to be a really difficult position to achieve as well.
These exercises trump the back squat and produce great gains:
1. The Front Squat
This is the real "king" of all leg exercises. It loads the quads, hamstrings, and glutes like crazy while mitigating the neural load. That means you can do this lift more often and with faster recovery.
Try to spread the floor (imagine standing on a wrinkled carpet and trying to smooth it out), brace your core, and lead with your elbows to drive up out of the hole.
Another huge advantage to this time-tested variation is that, since the weight is in front of your center of your gravity, it acts as a counterbalance allowing more ease of hitting depth and getting more stretch reflex out of your muscles.
There are many front squat variations you can adapt for your body depending on where your shoulder mobility is. One solution? Just swap your front rack position for an arms-crossed position.
2. The Split Squat
This is the most underrated and under-taught leg exercise in the gym. There's a very specific way to do it safely to make massive progress for years to come. The two biggest mistakes people make are loading the bar onto the back and creating a stretch of the Achilles tendon under load.
If you load the bar on your back, your lumbar will go into hyperextension and compression. This creates a ton of unwanted stress. Instead, load the bar on your shoulders to stabilize your midline while loading the intended leg.
In regard to the lengthened Achilles tendon under load, most will push back into their rear heel to try and maintain balance.
It doesn't take rocket science to recognize the dangers of this position. This not only puts you in a nasty position from a safety standpoint, it also takes a lot of the load off of the front leg, negating much of the benefit.
Instead, stay up on your toes and drop your rear knee straight down toward the ground. This will let you maintain a neutral position of the Achilles and provide more stimulus to the front leg.
Start on the toes of your back foot, drop the back knee straight down toward the ground, and follow the back knee with the heel, keeping the Achilles in a safe, neutral position. This will also increase the load on the front leg, getting more stimulation and engagement. Make this simple change and see how much better if feels.
Okay, okay, just make sure it doesn't look like this:
Instead, it should look like this:
- Try to "bend the bar" over your back. This will engage the lats. To help your back stay engaged during the entire lift, keep your wrists as straight as possible in flexion.
- Try to spread the floor or imagine standing on a wrinkled carpet and smoothing it out with your feet. Envisioning these scenarios will help get the glutes involved and keep the knees from caving in.
- Brace your core: Tighten your stomach like you're about to get get punched. Breathe into your stomach to create internal pressure. Think of breathing into your obliques or expanding your sides. Use a lifting belt to help you apply these cues.
- Now bend the knees and descend. Don't lose tension at the bottom.
If it's a high-bar squat (bar on the upper traps), your descent will be more vertical. If it's a low-bar squat (bar lower on the upper back) there will be a bit of a hinge component to the movement, putting more stress on the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and low back. However, this is a much more powerful way to lift maximal loads.
Most people that do a low-bar squat might want to use a lifting belt, elbow sleeves, and wrist wraps to deal with the added joint stress.