Performance in anything requires physical ability as well as skill and experience in that particular movement. It would be enough to say that squats develop really strong and conditioned leg and hip muscles but the fact that the pattern of squatting so closely resembles athletic and real-world movement patterns gives it a quality that few other movements have. It’s no accident that squatting is a key feature in all athletic programs, from American football and soccer to track and field events. Putting a weight on your back, sitting down and standing back up creates physical adaptations that transfer over to just about every physical activity you can think of.
Now, there might be valid arguments for favoring more specialized variations when it comes to peaking in a specific event. Specificity advocates have cited quarter squats as being more specific (and, thus, more useful) to sprinting and jumping and I’m inclined to say that they aren’t exactly wrong. But as a base standard for physical development, getting comfortable sitting down into a parallel squat will lead to a baseline of strength, size and coordination that will provide a substantial platform for more specialized training in any particular sport.
I’ve been an advocate for squatting as a staple supplementary movement in strongman, even though squatting doesn’t pop up as an event often as the deadlift does. Aside from the benefit of having generally strong legs, the movement pattern of squatting conditions athletes for heavy loads and carries and provides a conditioning stimulus that transfers over to some of the longer events and medleys. Consider the specific demands of having to support a heavy yoke across your shoulders as you walk across a course or having to sit with a heavy bag or stone in your lap before wrapping your arms around it and standing up. No doubt that the strong posterior chain built with heavy deadlifts will contribute to performance here but the upright position and the deep bend of the knee required from these movements will 100% benefit from a lot of time spent squatting with a barbell.
If you’ve ever done really hard sets of squatting, you’ve noticed that they are much more fatiguing than most other exercises are. The reason that so many are afraid of high rep and high-volume squat programs is because a hard set of squats contains much more density than other lifts AND that stress is applied to many more muscles. Getting into the weeds with a heavy set doesn’t just tax one particular muscle group or one particular energy system. You will notice multiple energy systems are being hit and that the fatigue is much more systemic.
The unique feature of squats is that you can hold the bar across your shoulders and recover in between reps. Where that would lead to rapid fatigue in movements like deadlifts and presses, in the squat, that recovery allows you to continuously push out reps beyond what the weight you are using would typically allow you to do. This increases the ratio of work per unit of time and that is a devastating stimulus for growth. If you have the constitution to push your set of squats to the limit, especially in a high rep threshold, you will have the ability to grow at a rate that your non-squatting peers simply won’t be able to match.
- Mobility and Joint Health
Squatting encourages movement through the ankles, knees and hips. While many in the Western World suffer from diseases in these joints related to inactivity, those who squat as part of a day-to-day regiment are typically insulated from such pathology. The lower rate of knee problems in cultures that typically kneel or squat while at rest is well-documented and there’s no doubt that this is a byproduct of the strength built from routinely engaging in a deep-knee-bend.
Sitting into a squat keeps the muscles that surround the hip capsule flexible which means it’s less likely that the lifter might get bound the way they do in other areas when they are trained for a long period of time without any supplemental stretching. This stress will also target the knee joint and thicken the connective tissue that surrounds it which can insulate the knee joint against many degenerative issues.
Obviously, overuse issues can pile on over time as the thing that makes you stronger can eventually be the thing that runs you down. You still are responsible for ensuring that your squat programming pays priority to good positioning and arranges itself in a way that is sustainable. But over the entire population, I feel confident saying that those who squat regularly will be at less risk for knee and hip problems than those who do not.
- Psychological Development
The difficulty of dedicated squat work is the reason that it is so good developmentally to begin with. But the benefits aren’t just physical. Committing yourself to very hard work and regularly being uncomfortable (the way you might be in a full squat position with several hundred pounds across your shoulders) can improve your resolve, your aggression and your ability to execute once things get hard.
Tempering yourself against obstacles requires a specific type of training in its own right so it makes for a nice 1-2 punch when the best developmental activity can also sharpen you psychologically. If you have ever run programs that contain very high frequency and accrue a lot of volume and fatigue throughout the week, you know how draining focused squat training can be. Similarly, if you’ve ever ran a high intensity squat program that relies on sheer effort and will to progress, such as Super Squats or run-of-the-mill bodybuilding protocols like Doggcrapp training, you know that you are doomed to mediocre results unless you come in with the right psychological approach.
Living through these programs conditions you to very hard workouts, sure, but it also teaches you that daunting obstacles can be overcome and your fearful association with them can be changed. Eventually, your palms stop sweating and the butterflies stop fluttering. After so many sessions, forcing yourself to deal with such an oppressive and intimidating force, it eventually just becomes another work day. And learning that that is the end result of stubborn commitment is a very empowering lesson in life.
Squats, ultimately, are at the top of the exercise list because they get the best result. Yes, squats target a lot of muscles at once, allow for a lot of load to be moved and do so while taking the lifter through a pretty wide range of motion. All of that is a recipe for a lot of growth in a short period of time. But there are a lot of exercises that do that. The primary reason that the squat wins out against all of these exercises is because you can experience this substantial amount of stress without it being especially detrimental to your recovery. That is ultimately where the squat wins.
For a whole host of reasons, most of which are probably rooted in evolutionary biology, the squat is a very friendly movement to human beings. We’ve all seen the pictures of infants as they sit into a natural squat stance and we are familiar with the cultures who regularly squat and kneel passively when there isn’t a chair in the room. We are biomechanically built to squat in the same way that we are built to walk and run. This means that we adapt to the movement extremely fast and that even hard efforts with the movement don’t tend to run us into the ground the way many other unnatural movements might.
We can look at the physics to get a little bit of insight into why this is the case. When you squat the main pivot point, which is your hips, stays relatively close to the load. This means that the moment arm, which is the horizontal distance between a pivot point in the load, is kept as short as possible. This eases the stress on the muscles of the midsection and the upper back as they don’t have to work quite as hard to maintain positioning. Even if you do tip forward quite a bit as you squat, it is still a fraction of the stress that you might experience during any type of hip hinge or deadlift type movement.
That means that the large muscles that move the knee and hip can be worked substantially without the less hearty muscles of the upper back and midsection serving as a barrier. And it happens in the context of skill work as we refine a movement pattern that suits us mechanically, The result is a ratio of productive stress to recoverability that doesn’t seem to exist in any other movement. The fact is, you can squat hard and squat frequently without having to worry about hitting the wall the way you might in a pressing or deadlift type movement. There is no way around it; the squat is the easiest to program, comes with the least number of pitfalls and, ultimately, gives the most bang for the buck.
To quote Jesse Marunde whenever he was given a question about strength training; if you’re stuck with your training and don’t know what to do, “Squat more.”