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This article is shared with permission from our friends at dralisonchen.com.

Weak, stringy limbs don’t do it for me. Being toned and strong is what I aim for. If you’re like me, read on.

Some people are sole cardio trainers and avoid the ‘heavy lifting’ so they don’t get BULKY. This is a huge myth. Developed muscles are not bulky. They’re functional, healthy and sexy.

If you’ve gotten stuck in a cardio rut and want to start strengthening your body but don’t know where to start, I’m going to show you one of my favorite leg exercises:

  • The Squat

It is versatile and all-encompassing when it comes to building fabulous and sexy strong legs. Let’s walk through this exercise and see why I’m such a fan. I’ll be covering the following with many videos to help guide you:

  • Benefits
  • Proper technique
  • Myths
  • Common mistakes
  • Variations to the exercise
  • Using weights
  • Advanced variations
  • How to build them into your exercise

The Squat

Benefits

Squats are awesome because they work so many large muscle groups, including:

  • Quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis and vastus medialis)
  • Gluteus maximus (aka your booty)
  • Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus)
  • Back (erector spinae and latissiumus dorsi)
  • Core (rectus abdominus, transversus, obliques, low back stabilizers, gluteal muscles, etc)
  • Calves

These muscles are necessary any time you squat to sit down and stand up. For example, from a chair, couch, out of bed, from a toilet, in your car, etc. You sit and stand all day. Have you ever stopped to think about your posture or if the proper muscles are working? Probably not.

But all that repetition throughout the day could be injuring your body. After many years of bad form, your knees and back may start to bother you.

Proper Technique

  1. Straight back, lifting chest, eyes forward
  2. Knees following over your 2nd toe (no matter if your feet are straight or turned out)
  3. Shoulders down and core activated (find out how to activate your core in this post)
  4. Square feet, hips, and shoulders (all 6 points should create 3 parallel lines to the front)
  5. Heels (and toes) pressing into the floor
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Myths

These past facts have been proven false for the average healthy person. Even your doctor, personal trainer or physical therapist may not be up-to-date with these facts, so make sure you speak with an expert if you have questions.

  • Knees Can’t Fall in Front of Your Toes
    — If you are falling into your squat and letting your heels rock off the floor and bouncing at the bottom with your knees almost touching the ground, then YES, this could be dangerous. For most people, a controlled squat with the knees just beyond the toes is ideal for strengthening the quadriceps.
  • Knees Can’t Pass 90˚ Angle
    — It’s all about watching your hips and low back. If you notice that your back starts to round and your pelvis is rocking, then you should always finish the squat just about that point. It doesn’t matter if you’re at 90˚ or 45˚ or 110˚. It’s more about your form than the depth.
  • Squatting is Bad for the Knees
    — If you have a physical deformity or limitation in your knees then squatting may be bad. If you have sore knees and it isn’t a structural issue, squats may be exactly what you need. The quadricep muscle is attached to the patellar tendon and is responsible for controlling the movement of the knees during flexion. If a knee is wobbly or misaligned, you may be causing repetitive stress and injury. Strengthening the quads will allow better control, more strength and less repetitive damage.

Common Mistakes

These are the ones that happen the most. Having a personal trainer evaluate your form is always a good idea.

  1. Knocked knees and wobbly knees
  2. Rounding back (especially lower) when you squat too deep without proper technique
  3. Chest hinging forward — don’t be confused with a Deadlift exercise, which is similar to a squat
  4. Instable, tight, and twisting hips that cause unsymmetrical squat of the left and right legs
  5. Heels unintentionally lifting off the ground
  6. Lack of control leading to falling into the squat and bouncing on your heels
  7. Not going low enough to get the full benefits of the squat
  8. Going too low or with too much weight with poor form

If you think you suffer from any of these common mistakes, watch the following videos to identify and correct imbalances.

Tight Hip and Shoulder Flexibility

Wobbly Knees and Falling Into The Squat

Rounding Back and Poor Mobility with a Deep Squat

Variations of the Basic Squat

It’s always a good idea to try different variations to your squat stance, weights, and movement patterns so that you continue to challenge yourself and avoid boredom.

1. Foot Position

foot

Each position has its own benefits. They target slightly different muscles and stabilizers. Most people can get a deeper squat with a slightly turned out stance. I personally love sumo squats to feel my inner thighs (adductors) work.

  • Narrow – feet touching or closer than parallel
  • Parallel – feet facing forward and in line with your shoulders
  • Turned out – heels in line with your shoulders, feet turned out 30˚
  • Wide – heels outside of shoulder, feet turned out ~45˚
  • Sumo – maximum external rotation of hips, with knees and feet in line
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But no matter what, have your knees following over your toes to avoid aggravating your knees.

2. Squat Depth

We’ve already discussed that the depth in which you squat is based on the proper form you can maintain. I like to put a chair or step just at or below the deepest you are able to squat with perfect form. This ensures you don’t go too low, and it gives you a reminder to engage your core and external rotation of the hips as you reach the marker.

As you continue to strengthen and increase your flexibility, you will be able to go deeper and start to carry weight. Your form, however, may change as you add weight. Here’s a video by personal trainer, Nick Tumminello on the issue.

3. Unstable Surfaces

I like to challenge myself with a warm-up on a wobble board or Bosu ball before I get into my heavy squats for the day. These should be done with body weight or very light weights only to engage your core and stabilizing muscles.

4. Machines

Using the leg press or leg extension will isolate your quadriceps and remove the full body and core engagement. Machines are good for isolating muscle group but I’d recommend free weight squats if you had to choose one over the other. Ending your squat workout with machines is a great finisher when you can’t concentrate on perfect form.

Variations with Weight

1. Goblet Squats

myfitnesspal-goblet-squat

Goblet squats are one of my favorite ways to start a beginner off. Hold the weight up at your chin with help to lift the chest, maintain a flat back and keep your attention forward.

2. Dumbbell Squat

Holding 2 dumbbells by your sides is a typical free weight squat. Make sure your chest is lifting since the weights can cause your shoulders to rotate forward and round your upper back.

3. Barbell Squat

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This is the best way to squat heavy weights. Having the barbell sit either in front or behind your body is a preference based on your form, shoulder and wrist flexibility, and experience. Dean says front squats are the best in this article here. If you have inflexible or injured shoulders and wrists, use towels or straps to hold instead of the bar.

Advanced Squat

There are infinite variations. These are some of my favorites.

1. Single Leg Squats

2. Jumping Squat Variations

3. Cossack Squats

4. Plyometric Box Squats

5. Combining Upper Body Exercises

There are far too many variations to go through, so here are a couple videos.

Numbers Game

Building your squat variation into your exercise routine depends on which squat you do. Generally, you are either doing:

1. High Rep and Low Weight

  • These are either body weight, light weight, or plyometric movements that can be worked into a routine as ‘active rest’ for 10-20 repetitions or a time duration (ie. 30 seconds)
  • High repetition as a metabolic activator of fast twitch muscle fiber
  • Form is not as critical to safety, but still important due to the high repetitions

2. Low Rep and High Weight

  • High weight in repetitions of 3-10 and sets of 3-6 with an adequate amount of rest
  • Strengthens slow twitch muscle fibers to build and tone quads and glutes
  • Form is absolutely critical due to the heavy weights that could cause serious injury

Please Note: These exercises are great for building muscles, toning and improving lower body strength. However, if you want to target your endurance and cardiovascular system, then these exercises may not be for you! Please consult your physician before beginning any strenuous exercises and find out what type of exercise is best for you and your body.

If these exercises are given the all clear by your physician and you’re feeling good about taking on ‘the squat,’ then get started! You’ll see and feel the results in no time!

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Dr. Alison Chen
Naturopathic Doctor
Contributor to The Hearty Soul.
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