Dr Emil Hodzovic is an emergency-room doctor who’s competed in both physique contests and strongman sport. He’s a Reflex sponsored athlete and the author of High-Intensity Functional Training
People like to use things that seem super-complex in the gym, but as any serious lifter knows, it’s the basics, done consistently, that produce most of your results. The squat is about as basic as it gets, but if you’ve been doing it the same since the first time you hit double bodyweight, there’s a chance you could be getting more from the movement – especially if your focus is building muscle. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting the most out of the king of all exercises.
Get your glutes involved
Squats are predominantly thought of as a quad exercise, but if you’re not activating your glutes – a common mistake – then you are selling yourself short in the gains department. If you’ve been squatting without consciously bringing the glutes into the movement for a long time you may find that you’re not bringing your hips through at the top of the movement and you’re not actually contracting your glutes – in which case you need to do it deliberately. You may also find that at the bottom of the movement (in the hole) your knees will be collapsing inwards. This are signs of underactive glutes and that you need to do something about it. Consciously squeezing the glutes at the top of the movement is a great place to start as well as really concentrating on pushing the knees outwards (in line with the toes) at the bottom. You’ll need to accompany this with more glute specific exercises such as lunges, hip thrusts/glute bridges and the glute ham raise to really get the most out of your glutes in the squat.
Be creative with tension
Everyone wants to add weight to the bar, but as long as you’re aiming to hit technical failure around the 8-12 rep mark, the poundage almost doesn’t matter. Autoregulate your sets by slowing the reps down, pausing at the bottom, or squeezing the contraction harder at the top of the set. If the volume is the same but you’re increasing time under tension, you’re going to drive hypertrophy even.
An easy fix while squatting is to play around with sumo style stance as these will bring the glutes and adductors into the movement automatically and take some emphasis off the quads. For most people, a sumo squat is also essentially the most biomechanically advantageous squat. Your toes are out, your feet are wide, and so what you’ll find is that by the time you’re getting to the bottom of the movement, everything is really, really tight. That’s just perfect for powerlifting because you drop into the hole, and you don’t really go too low before every single muscle is trying to fling you back out of it – but it also means you’re bringing your adductors into it, bringing your lower back into the movement, and making sure you can lift efficiently. They’re just great as a big full-body exercise. Even a narrow stance, high bar squat should be recruiting some glute, though – you’re missing out if it isn’t.
…or just do every variation
What I do when I can’t decide on what to train is a squat progression. I’ll do overhead squats with an empty bar and work up to 60kgs, then do front squats for 80-100 and high bar back squats with 120-140kg. Finally, I’ll move onto back squats with a low bar, shifting out to a sumo stance – using roughly the same reps, but upping the the weight. You’re targeting different parts of the muscle, but also different parts of your upper body – perfect for hypertrophy.