How to Strategically Use Different Squat Variations to Maximize Muscle Activation and Reduce Overtraining and Injury
Some lifters and coaches scoff at focusing on developing good technique. They see a contradiction between technique and strength. However, although good technique affects the way a movement looks, it’s not the foremost definition of technique.
Good technique is a way of moving that permits the athlete to use his or her physical abilities to the fullest without injury.1
In the context of lifting weights, good technique allows you to lift the heaviest weight possible with the least energy expenditure and with minimal risk of injury or placing maximal/optimal tension on selected structures of the body.
In powerlifting, the focus is to find a way of lifting that makes the lift as easy as possible, which allows the lifter to handle the greatest possible load. The low bar position in squats and the arched back in the bench press are both examples of technique modifications that have the purpose of making the lift easier to handle more load.
In bodybuilding, the goal is to find a way of lifting that places maximal tension on target muscle groups in order to stimulate strength gains and gains in muscle mass.
Technique can be rated on a scale from 1 to 5.2
RTE 1: You repeatedly perform the movement with substantial to small deviations from the optimal technique that inhibit performance and pose a significant risk of acute or chronic injury.
RTE 2: You repeatedly perform the movement with small deviations from optimal technique that may inhibit performance, but pose no or low risk of injury.
RTE 3: The initiation, execution and ending of the movement is in alignment with optimal technique. There is neither lack of nor excessive movement in any joint, in any plane of motion.
RTE 4: You perform the movement with RTE 3. Further, you perform the movement with optimal breathing patterns and optimal application of high tension or relaxation techniques (depending on the specific nature of the movement).
RTE 5: You perform the movement with RTE 4. Further, you make optimal use of your mental/ emotional faculties. This includes but is not limited to
- complete awareness of the entire body at any point in the movement,
- deeply enjoying the movement in the presence of high effort and possibly severe fatigue, and/or
- courage, joy, confidence and no fear even under the heaviest loads.
In this article, it is assumed that your squat technique is at least 3 out of 5.
With that assumption, the article covers different aspects of squat technique that determine which muscles are activated and how much. The article also covers aspects of squat technique that are related to lifting heavy safely.
The following factors, all related to good form, are determined as you create the program or even before: shoes, width of stance, bar placement (high/low, front/back), how the movement is initiated and how deep you go (partial, parallel or below).
#1: Effect of shoes
Powerlifters often prefer to squat in Chuck Taylor shoes because they aim to press outward with their feet both during the lowering and the lifting phases.4 The pattern of pressing outward during lowering and lifting phases may increase activation of the gluteal musculature. Chuck Taylor shoes are low and have good lateral stability. Thus, they are a good fit for the lifter who uses a style of squatting that involves pressing outward.
Olympic weightlifters use so-called Olympic weightlifting shoes that have a stiff, non-compressible sole and a slightly raised heel. Squatting in Olympic weightlifting shoes may help you maintain a more upright posture as well as increase activation of the knee extensor muscles.5 Squatting with a more upright posture decreases shear forces on the low back area. Thus, upright postures place less stress on the low back.14
Empirical evidence shows that most lifters are able to squat deeper while maintaining a straight back when they wear weightlifting shoes.
#2: Effect of stance
What is the “right” squat stance? The simple answer is that the “right” squat stance is a stance that allows you to squat to the desired depth with the center of your kneecap tracking your second (approximately) toe while keeping your back as straight as the bar you are lifting.
To find the stance that works best for you, stand in front of a mirror. Imagine a plumb line hanging from the middle of each shoulder joint (that’s approximately where you see the anterior deltoids) and down to the ground. Adjust your stance so this plumb line falls right inside your heels.
Now try to squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or lower). How does it feel? Turn 90 degrees to the left so you can see yourself from the side in the mirror. Adjust your stance if you have to, both in terms of distance but also the direction of the feet. Pointing the feet slightly outwards can often help increase squat depth.
- If you lack range of motion in the ankle joint, knee joint and hip joint, you won’t be able to squat to parallel regardless of which stance you use. Find the stance that allows you to squat as deep as possible and increase the work on flexibility.
- If you have relatively long thighs compared to the rest of your body, you will find that you have to widen your stance to keep your back straight while still being able to squat to parallel.
- You might find that you need a wider stance for the hip break squat (powerlifting squat) compared to the knee break squat (Olympic weightlifting style). See below for a discussion of the hip break versus knee break styles of squatting .
A research study tested the effect of stance width on muscle activation on the quads, hamstrings and gluteus maximus muscles during full-range-of-motion squats at zero, 30 and 70 percent of the maximal load the participants could lift. Although there was no effect of stance width on the activation of neither the quadriceps muscle nor the hamstring muscles, there was a significantly increased activation of the gluteus maximus with wider stances (1.5 to 2 times the distance of the person’s trochanter major, a bony point on the outside of the top of the thighs).6
#3: Effect of bar placement
Overall there are five options for bar placement in the squat:
- The hands: overhead squat
- The elbows: Zercher squat
- The anterior deltoids: front squat
- The upper traps (“high bar”): back squat (knee break, Olympic style) or back squat (hip break, powerlifting style)
- The posterior deltoids (“low bar”): back squat (hip break, powerlifting style)
For simplicity, this article focuses on the front squat and back squat variations. With respect to the three possible bar placements for front squat and back squat, it is key that the bar is resting on the torso (shoulders or traps) and not the hands. For squats to be productive, you must use a load that is high enough to stimulate the legs, and such a load is way too heavy for the hands.
The low bar position is typically used with a powerlifting style squat (hip break, see below). In the low bar position, the bar rests across the posterior deltoids. If a lifter tried to do an Olympic style squat (knee break, vertical torso – see below) with the bar in the low bar position, the bar would tend to rest on the hands and not the torso. Thus, the low bar position is not recommended for an Olympic-style squat.
The reason behind the low bar position is to decrease the lever arm from the bar relative to the hip and the low back. When the lever arm from the bar relative to the hip joint and low back decreases, the torque generated by the bar decreases and the bar can be lifted with less force, or by the same token, a greater load could be lifted. Thus, the purpose of the low bar essentially is to make a lift easier rather than placing maximal tension on certain muscle groups. Thus, the low bar position does not seem to be the most obvious choice for the bodybuilder who is looking to place maximal tension on the involved muscles.
With the powerlifting-style squat, the change in position of the bar from the traps to the deltoids results in a relatively large change in the lever arm from the bar relative to the hip joint and low back. With an Olympic-style squat, the change in position of the bar from the traps to the shoulders would result in a relatively small change – almost none – in the lever arm relative to the hip joint and low back. Thus, even if a low bar position worked well for the Olympic-style squat, which it does not, the benefit of the low bar position with this style of squat would be low.
While the Olympic-style squat must be executed with the bar in a high bar position, the powerlifting style squat could be executed with either a high bar or a low bar position. Theoretically, the powerlifter could use the high bar position to overload the back and the hip extensors.
#4: Hip break vs. knee break
Squatting with a hip break means that the downward movement in the squat is initiated by bending the hip joint (“sitting back”).3 With a hip break squat, you theoretically increase the stretch and involvement of the glutes, the hamstrings and the low back because the hip break results in more hip flexion (and a greater trunk angle relative to vertical) relative to the amount of knee flexion. This is the way many powerlifters prefer to squat because they believe that the glutes, hamstrings and back – the posterior chain – together are stronger than the quads.4 This style of squat is typically executed with a wider stance and places less stress on the knee joints, and more stress on the low back and hip extensors.7
Squatting with a knee break means that the downward movement in the squat is initiated by bending the knee joint (pushing the knees forward). With a knee break, you theoretically increase the stretch and involvement of the quadriceps muscles because the knee break style results in more knee flexion relative to hip flexion as well as the opportunity to keep the torso more upright throughout the downward phase of the squat. Olympic weightlifters squat this way because they have to maintain a more upright torso in the bottom position of the front squat (or the bar will roll off the shoulders) and the overhead squat (or they end up trying to control the weight with the upper back and shoulder muscles). This style of squat is typically executed with a narrower stance and places less stress on the back (because of the more vertical torso), and more stress on the knee joint (because of the greater bend).7
The third way of squatting is a nice medium where you aim to bend from the hips and knees simultaneously and at the same rate.
#5: Effect of squat depth
“Only squat to 90 degrees” is one of the most famous pieces of advice that – generally speaking – is not valid. Parallel or even deep squats are not dangerous when done correctly. On the contrary, parallel or deep squats are the most productive types of squat there is!
Bone-on-bone forces in the knee joint do increase with increasing flexion, as the thighs glide and rotate in relation to the lower legs, creating so-called shear forces. These forces increase with increasing anterior displacement of the knee. The shear forces in the knee joint also increase when the lifter “bounces” in the bottom of the lift. Overall, it is considered safe to squat to parallel or lower, if you don’t bounce and if the forward movement of the knee joint is restricted. The knees can move slightly past the toes, and no further.8, 9, 10
One research study found that mainly the gluteus maximus increases its relative contribution to the total muscle activity during the lifting phase with increasing squat depth. The greatest relative contribution from the vastus medialis muscle (the teardrop-shaped part of the quads on the inside of the thigh) is seen with partial squats.11
Another study looked at muscle activation in a slightly different manner and found the “relative muscle effort” (muscular force required relative to that muscle’s maximal strength) increased mainly with increasing squat depth for the quadriceps muscles and both with squat depth and load for the gluteus maximus muscle.12
Yet another study showed a greater total workout output with full range compared to parallel squats with moderate to heavy loads. The study points to the importance of full range and heavy loads as total work output is associated with a greater anabolic response to the training session.13
The Strategic Squat Plan:
Depending on the role of squats in your program (quads only or quads and glutes, etc.) and your individual strengths/weaknesses (e.g., hip/back issues), here is a short list of squat variations that you could rotate into your program.
If you really want to emphasize your leg training, you would benefit from varying your squat frequency. The change in frequency gives an effective balance between “shocking the body” and allowing it to rest.
Week 1: Squat once per week. (Program A or Program B)
Week 2: Squat twice per week. (Program A and Program B)
Week 3: Squat three times per week. (Program A, Program B and Program A or B)
Repeat the sequence two more times in combination with a balanced program for the rest of the body.
Squat Program A
Powerlifting-style squat to parallel (relatively wide stance, high bar) with Chuck Taylor shoes, 6 × 3–5
Rationale: Target glutes, low back and give knees a rest.
Full-range Olympic-style squat (the optimal stance for full depth, high bar) with Olympic weightlifting shoes, 2–3 × 8–12 with a 2-second pause in the bottom and explosive lifting.
Rationale: Target glutes, quads and low back.
Squat Program B
Full-range Olympic-style squat (the optimal stance for full depth, high bar) with Olympic weightlifting shoes. Lower the weight in a medium tempo, decelerate the weight using muscular control – don’t bounce – and lift the weight as fast as possible. 4–5 × 6–8.
Rationale: Target glutes, quads and low back.
Partial-range Olympic-style squat with Chuck taylor shoes, 2–3 × 12–20.
Rationale: Target the vastus medialis muscle.