The Case for Quads (Are They Important for Squatting?)

With the advent of the internet and, eventually, social media, powerlifting has climbed to new heights of popularity. As the talent pool swells with new competitors, the bar continues to rise. Every aspect of the sport has received ‘more’: more genetically talented lifters, more athletes who started younger, more access to meets and training facilities, and, of course, more improvements in technique and training.

In the last few decades of this powerlifting bubble, mad bro-scientists have been toiling away in the iron lab in an attempt to engineer more efficient movement patters, and thus stake their claim on a legacy in the sport. One of the by products of this engineering is the insistence that a hip dominant squat is the most effective way to move the heaviest possible load from point A to point B. Lifters began foregoing the deep knee bend that had been forming world champions for a century in favor of box squats, reverse hypers, glute ham raises, good mornings, and other posterior-heavy movements.

Popular culture took hold and did what it does best; water down complex ideas for easy digestion by the masses. This invariably results in a church-like following that proselytizes the way, the truth, and the light without any awareness of the founding principles that bore the idea in the first place. Geared lifting has since fallen by the wayside in favor of the classic belt and wrap combo, and many of the original members of the Church of Lowbar have since begun to doubt. 

From an analytical standpoint, the reasons used to justify a hip dominant squat seem compelling. The hip, when compared to the knee, is a bigger joint surrounded by stronger muscles. A wider setup will shorten the total distance the bar must traverse, lowering the total amount of work done. Keeping the knees out in a wide stance allows the hips to stay closer to the center of mass, shortening the moment arm between the weight and the hip, thus improving leverage. 

Essentially, the squat is treated like a back-supported deadlift, and guys like Louie Simmons and the boys at Westside were able to train the two lifts interchangeably. The hip back, shins vertical, spread the floor commands placed the load on the posterior by a much wider degree and simulated a stroke that carried over directly to a pull of the floor. If you doubt the action of wide stance squat work on the deadlift, spend 6 weeks doing strict wide stance box squats for repeating sets of 4 and get back to me. The setup also potentiated the gear that was used: triple-ply Kevlar squat suits simply would not yield enough to allow depth with a narrow stance, regardless of how much weight was on the bar.

Everything about the hip-dominant setup seemed to fit.

So why the dissent?

Quads and the World’s Best Squats

We have three broad eras of lifting to evaluate: the early decades of powerlifting up through the 1980’s, the modern equipped age spanning the late 1980’s to mid 2000’s, and the current ‘belt and sleeves’ state of powerlifting. The early decades describe powerlifting’s maturation as a sport, which was not unlike the wild west. I’ve heard stories of guys in the 70s and 80’s wearing tight denim daisy dukes under their singlets and wrapping tennis balls behind their knees. It’s no surprise that around the late 80’s, the first ‘power suits’ were available that added substantial poundage to the lifters total. After 20 years of ridiculous advances in equipment in the geared front, powerlifting received a groundswell of participation from newbies either transitioning from Crossfit or looking for filler for their Instagram accounts. This generation of new blood rejected the gear in favor of fundamental roots, even resulting in the creation of divisions that banned knee wraps. 

If we look at world class performances in each of these three eras, we will see the wide stance setup prevalent in raw contests around the geared lifting era moreso than the eras before or after. Both eras pre and post multiply lifting saw more squats high bar and narrow than slow, grinded, low bar squats. Don’t believe me? This article by Greg Knuckols addresses a study done in the 1970s that found world class squatters stayed more upright than their second and third class counterparts. The best raw squats of all time were done with medium/narrow stance in a relatively upright position. Kazmaier, Karwoski, Hatfield, Lilliebridge, Malanichev…. the list goes on. 

Dan Green highlighted his evolution beyond Westside principles and the hard lessons he had to learn on his way to being one of the greats in his article West of Westside.  Point #8 proves the point in just a few sentences: hip dominant or not, big quads squat big weights.

In point #9, Dan writes further about Konstantin Pozdeev out-squatting him by 200lbs in an early meet.

“Where I’d always squatted with a wide stance with my butt back, he stood more upright with a close stance and allowed his knees to travel way out in front of his feet…. If I kept squatting with my knees out and back and sitting my hips way back I was only going to scratch away and make modest PRs but I would never add 200 pounds if I didn’t overhaul my squat.”

Now, no rule is absolute and there are definitely other considerations to make regarding squat setup. First and foremost, you cannot outsmart your own anthropomorphy. Your limbs are exactly as long as they are and, barring extreme surgery, that will never change. It is not practical for someone with uniquely long legs and a short boxy torso to stay upright during a squat if the goal is to move a maximal load. For bodybuilding, yes. For Olympic lifting, yes. For powerlifting, no.

Guys like Steve Goggins folded over like brief cases because that was the most efficient way for their uniquely lengthed limbs to work. Guys like Blaine Sumner and David Douglas posses superb hip mobility, likely due to the actual shape of their hips, which allows substantial depth to be met with a wide stance. And guys like Donnie Thompson and Henry Thomason squatted a lot of weight with a geared setup because they trained geared for so many years and, all things being equal, no other factor can compensate for years spent practicing a specific pattern.

But assuming that you are not one of the 5% of outliers with exceptionally long legs (exceptionally short legs make staying upright easier) and that you have no desire to have three of your best buddies cram you into a denim singlet, your chosen setup should reflect a best guess of what is optimal. To determine that, let’s take a look at how the human body actually executes a squat. ​​For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore every contributing muscle above the waist. The muscles of the abdominals, obliques, erectors, and upper back all contract isometrically to maintain position. While they put out great effort, they do not act on the hip or knee, so they are not responsible for actively moving your body through space. The main movers we will discuss are the glutes and hamstrings (primary hip extensors) along with the quads and rectus femoris (primary knee extensors)

How the Hamstrings & Rectus Femoris Work: ​Double Joint

The hamstring and rectus femoris muscles each cross two joints, the hip and the knee, which means they are responsible for simultaneous action on both of these joints. The hamstrings contract to extend the hip joint, as in a back extension, and flex the knee joint, as in a hamstring curl. The rectus femoris is equal and opposite, flexing the hip, as in a sit up, and extending the knee, as in a leg extension. This means that each muscle is actively contributing to the squat on one end (the hamstring extends the hip, the rectus femoris extends the knee) but actively hindering the squat at the other (the hamstrings flex the knee, the rectus femoris flexes the hip). When they fire to act on one joint in a squat, there is a cost at the other end in the form of antagonistic effort.

How the Quads and Glutes Work: Single Joint

The quadriceps and glutes are single joint muscles, and extend the knee and hip, respectively. There is no price associated with their efforts in a squat; all of their effort goes directly into moving the joint that they cross over without hindering the other. For this reason, they can be thought of as ‘primary’ movers, taking over in the squat first and to a greater degree than their two joint counterparts.

How They Work Together: Lombard’s Paradox​

When we observe the work of the quads and hamstrings on the knee joint, we see two directly opposing forces. The hamstring anchors below the knee as it works at the other end to extend the hip (which is vital in a squat), but the torque created on the knee by the hamstring directly opposes the quadriceps effort to extend the knee. This creates a mystery, called Lombard’s paradox, since it would seem that the knee should be frozen in place by two equal and opposite efforts.

Despite this paradox, the knee still extends, mainly due to the fact that, while opposite, their respective torque is not equal. There is a greater extensor torque created by the quadriceps than flexor torque by the hamstrings, creating net extensor torque. In fact, in studies surrounding this phenomenon, it has been found that elite squatters typically have greater net extensor torque. Essentially, the more the quads outperform the hamstrings, the better the squatter. This, at the very least, should compel you to acknowledge quadriceps development as a priority, regardless of squat style.

When these single joint main movers pair with their double joint antagonists in a squat, an interesting thing happens: the double joint muscle maintains tension across both joints as the single joint muscle fires, essentially ‘strapping’ the single joint muscle to the other end.

Sit down in a squat and slowly begin to extend your hips while maintaining your knee angle. Stop halfway up and imagine that there is a short string running down from the front of your hip to just below the patella. What happens when your glutes continue extending the hips? The knees straighten!

So the glutes, which exist solely to extend the hips, do so against a tight rectus femoris, which directly contributes to knee extension. This pairing allows the glutes to contribute to knee extension and, in a similar action, the quads to aid in hip extension! Even the gastrocnemius, the two joint calf muscle, is pulled on directly by the quads to plantar flex the ankle while jumping.

This obviously requires much more work from the single joint muscles: the quads and glutes have to strain more to extend their respective joints as their double-jointed antagonists stubbornly maintain tension at the other end. This point cuts to the crux of this article: where the squat fails.

The “Squat-Morning” or How a Squat Fails

Right at the stick point of a squat, typically just above parallel where the hips are likely to shift up, is where we discover what is lacking. It made sense to me in the beginning that a failed squat attempt, especially one where the hips popped up and back, had to be a result of a weak posterior. When a ‘squat-morning’ occurs, the quads contract fully as the knees continue extending, but the hips fail to do so. The quads outperformed the hamstrings, right? It was so simple. And wrong.

It is very common with this issue for the ‘squat-morning’ to occur at weights that are not maximal. Consider when a lifter actually makes it through this disaster: the knees move back, stretching out the hamstrings, and placing the weight further away from the hips. From a physics standpoint, this is a huge disadvantage to the working muscles. But if the lifter were to complete the lift in this way, which is common, that means the hamstrings took over in a horribly disadvantaged position and saved the lift! How could the hamstrings be weak when they are responsible for the entire completion of the lift to begin with?

The real answer lies in the bodies built in mechanisms, refined after millions of years of evolution and a billion deaths . Remember that the quads get ‘strapped’ to the hips via taut hamstrings that cross both joints. If the quads cannot handle the extra load of extending the hip along with the knee, the hamstrings will release, allowing the knee to finish extending (which it couldn’t do when the hamstring was tight) and the stronger muscles of the posterior to take over. The squat-morning occurs because the quads cannot pull their weight.

Regardless of squat style, the knees do not extend without quadriceps that create more torque on the knee than the hamstrings and the absolute best squatters possess a set of quadriceps that greatly outperform the hamstrings. In an environment where all of the emphasis is put on a ‘hip dominant’ movement, from endless practice pushing the hips back and knees out in the competitive version of the squat to dozens of accessory exercises designed to build up the posterior chain, it is easy to see how so many lifters sold on the ‘powerlifting squat’ setup can allow such an important mover to fall behind. 

We know that as the hamstring works to extend the hip, it simultaneously works against the quadricep’s efforts to extend the knee. This means that any effort to ’emphasize’ the hamstrings by stretching them, leaning forward, or loading into them will further hinder the quadriceps in getting the knee moving out of the hole. An anterior pelvic tilt (over arch in the lower back) pre-stretches the hamstring before the descent which must increase flexion torque at the knee and result in an underperforming squat. Sitting back into the squat on the eccentric is a way to ‘load’ into the hips with wider stances, placing the strain directly on the posterior and, again, creating more work for the quads. 

Then wouldn’t this continued stress against the quads lead to bigger, more developed quads?”

If the quads were the only knee extensor, then possibly. But remember, the glutes aid in knee extension by extending the hip as the rectus femoris stays short, which could potentially allow the quads to fall behind. Since hip dominant squatters heavily emphasize training the posterior, especially the glutes, the rectus femoris just has to stay tight enough to hold on (which isn’t difficult since isometric contractions are inherently stronger than concentric ones) while disproportionately strong glutes take care of the rest. 

In summary, when we look at the sheer number of upright squatters at the top of the heap along with objectively evaluating the action of the muscles of the leg on the leg joints, it becomes hard to defend a wide stance, low bar, hip dominant squat over one that makes appropriate use of the quads. The fact that there are lifters who have made their way to elite and beyond with a hip dominant setup is a testament to the fact that you get good at what you train. In real terms, I believe the body adapts to how it moves well enough that a hip dominant setup will not substantially hinder progress over time. But going in with this disadvantage, slight as it may be, means that the disadvantaged movers must be trained that much harder. 

​No matter what style you choose….. work your quads.

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