By Steve Zarriello B.S., CSCS,- Cranston, Rhode Island
Have you ever seen the guy in the gym who doesn’t do legs? How about a speed and power athlete without strong legs and glutes? My guess is you have seen plenty of the former, and none of the latter. You see, for most of us our athletic careers are short lived and don’t go beyond high school or college, and our level of performance is dictated by natural ability and the skills that we practice. Some see the importance of strength and power in sports and seek out a professional for help, some have it forced on us by a high school coach, and some decide to learn by trial and error with their friends (probably the least effective method). Those who go on to play sports in college are introduced to Strength and Conditioning for their own benefit, whether they like it or not. However once our “glory days” are behind us, most people begin to work out for aesthetics rather than performance, and this is where the importance of the squat becomes lost on us.
You may have thought that they were just making you squat to run faster, jump higher, or hit harder, but whoever had you squatting in the first place was doing you a favor that will last a lifetime. They not only made sure that you weren’t “the guy who doesn’t do legs”, but they reinforced a fundamental movement pattern that you will use for the rest of your life. As a baby we start off doing things the right way, moving through our hips and squatting down to pick things up. Don’t believe me? Watch a kid who recently learned to walk pick something up off the ground (and stop them before they try to eat it or put it up their nose). Our bodies are built to move through your hips, but as we get older and spend more time in a seated position, we create bad habits and posture, and begin to move through our backs. There’s a reason that we always hear the phrase “lift with your legs and not with your back”, the reason being that by lifting with your back you’re slowly destroying it and in the mean time putting yourself at risk for an acute injury.
Think of your body as a house, and your legs as the foundation. The house is only as strong as the foundation allows it to be. In any structure, each part plays an integral role and the whole is as strong as the sum of its parts. Your legs are your foundation, and every aspect of that foundation needs to be strong. This is where the importance of squat technique comes in to play. When done properly, (keeping the feet flat with pressure on the heels and outer portion of the feet, squatting down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, maintaining a tight core and proper back position, and driving the knees apart throughout the movement) the squat works the core and every muscle in the lower body. It will also trigger an increase in growth hormone and testosterone production within the body (this is a good thing). Unfortunately with many people it becomes about the number and not about the movement. Putting 500 pounds on your back and bending your knees slightly does not mean that you squat 500 pounds, it means that you’re trying to make yourself and others believe that you squat 500 pounds. By doing this you are merely training your quads and ego and continuing to neglect your glutes, hamstrings, and calves in a movement that is truly one of the most functional exercises out there.
Those of you who I just described will find it difficult at first (especially on the ego), but will benefit greatly in the long run by taking some of the weight off and re-learning how to squat to parallel with good form. If you are unsure of your form or are just beginning to lift weights seek the help of a professional and don’t be afraid to start off small with just body weight squats. Once you have the form down the possibilities are endless. It will open up a whole new treasure chest of exercise variations like the front squat, overhead squat, and single leg squat to name a few. But remember, you have to master the basics first and build up from that foundation.
Steve Zarriello B.S., CSCS, TPI Certified, is the owner of The Way Human Performance Institute in Cranston RI. He has worked as a Strength Coach for almost 10 years training people of all ages and ability levels.