The One True Squat

Or “Why my squat is holier than yours,” or “Why my squat is right and yours is wrong,” or “Squat this way if you want to live,” or “The squat jihad!”

Fallacies about how you’re supposed to squat.

In the hard core lifting world and even a good portion of the general fitness world, squats are generally held to be the gold standard of leg and to some extent, whole body training.  Almost no one denies this, save for a few lost souls.

However – how you squat is a topic attached to as much fervor, hate and elite-ism as politics, religion and whether or not cartoons will ever be the same after the Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes era – an important topic for which there is only one answer.  (They will not.  Bugs Bunny and crew is the gold standard.  If you don’t know this you should leave now. LOL)

If you know anything about me, you know that I tend to prefer a very particular type of barbell squat, but I also do many others including some very unusual styles of bodyweight squat.  You might think this piece is to promote my way of squatting, but it is not.  I believe I have very logical reasons as to why I squat the way that I do and it definitely works for me.  While I may touch on a few of those as reference points I’ll really elaborate on that in another article.

I very much like the idea of promoting the squat.  It is what I believe to be a basic human movement and if you really want to attain high-level strength or fitness goals there is no way around it in some form or another.  That however is exactly the point.  The form you use must be a thing individual to you.  The style of squat you use should be the thing that works best for you and for your particular purposes, no one is the end all be all authority on the squat and there are too many valid ways to perform it.   We however live in a world where most of us want authoritative voices to tell us what to do without being questioned instead of thinking for ourselves.  It is a very effective sales tactic.  The strength world is also incredibly full of people who believe that their’s is simply the only way.  They will give you reasons spoken very authoritatively to tell you that.  Also – this is a response to very particular pieces, both written by very nice men whom I happen to highly disagree with.  Let us hope this is not the beginning of a jihad, because this is not what it is meant to do.

The first is a piece by John Coffee – legendary Olympic lifting trainer. He wrote an article that’s re-circulated from time to time, about how wide-stance squats are not a real exercise, only a demonstration of strength.  Narrow stance squats are the only ones that count as a real exercise.  I reference that only because it is a good point to pick up the ideas I want to address, not because it’s Mr. Coffee specifically.

The second piece is a meme/poster that’s taken from an old Bill Starr article that speaks specifically about partial squats.  It asserts one common phrase and a common misconception that there’s no scientific basis for.   The first is the easy to repeat and cool sounding phrase, “Partial reps give partial results.”  The second is an assertion that somehow partial rep movements magically magnify the force exerted on the knees and are therefore significantly or incredibly more dangerous.  Bill Starr is also a legendary strength coach and writer and some people may consider it a disrespectful act to question something they say.  It is not meant to be.  It is a difference of what I believe to be opinion and supportable truth.

There are many voices in the world of squats and we all tend to come across as holier-than-thou.

In fact it’s amazing how much we attach to a particular style both good and bad, mostly for reasons we can’t really support.

  • Olympic lifters and those influenced by Olympic lifting swear that the only squat that will not create tragedy and make puppies cry is a high-bar, close stance, super deep Olympic style squat.
  • This is followed closely by if not completely supplanted by those who come from the monastery of front squats as king of all squatting styles.  Bodybuilders also fall into these two camps usually, but often for the aesthetic reason of, “Bro – this is the only way to squat to really get huge quads!”
  • Powerlifters almost universally favor a wider stance, lower bar and parallel depth squat.  Lord help us if I even bring up the subject of what parallel is or isn’t.  More lives have been lost over that than leaving the toilet seat up in a house filled with ladies.  Much bloodshed and tragedy.

Now within the powerlifting camps you have “the wide-ish, but I need to squat really deep, because I compete in a fed that requires super-deep parallel,” sect.  Then the “actually wide stance because I compete in a fed that has moderate rules,” team and the, “Oh my God that’s wide! Turn up the Metallica and pull my skullcap down,” camp that usually competes in the “ultra modified, nitros drag, super open, outlaw, 17-ply Kevlar and hydraulics, run what you brung,” federations.

Somewhere in here is the pro-box squat camp or the Little Rascals He-Man box-squat haters camp.

Then there’s the athletic and “trainer,” strongholds.  These usually fall into one of three categories.

  • The first falls directly in line with one of the aforementioned camps.
  • The second falls into the, “I used to play football/coach football and that’s deep enough even though I don’t really know why and what do you mean by talking about foot stance and bar placement? Just rub some dirt on it and squat boy,” camp.
  • Then there’s the, “I got my certification last week in the mail and I’m trying to show off how strong I am even though I’m not and I think a six-inch movement is a full range squat, but I look really cool and sell well to soccer-moms,” camp.  This is actually the same camp as the, “I can only squat 135 even though I’m a 200lb guy, but by God look how super deep and righteous my stance is,” camp.

Then there’s the lesser known, very tiny corner of the squat world where unusual variations like bottom-position rack squats and Zercher squats and other Zombie Apocalypse squat outcasts reside.  Just as crazy, just different.  That’s where I get my mail.

So the question is who’s right, who’s wrong and where does all this come from?

Truth is, most of it comes from a specific set of lifting prejudices installed by a particular lifting set or purpose and the thought that, your purpose is the same as everyone else’s purpose and everyone needs to do it the same way you do.  That somehow because it’s your reason, that it literally makes your style of squat better than everyone else’s and for every reason under the sun. Is that true?  Does someone have the Holy Grail?  Is there one style to rule them all?  Let me state for you the truth here.

No one has the Holy Grail of squats.

No one has the one style that is the absolute best for absolutely everything.

Almost everyone has legitimate reasons for specific styles of squats, however, almost every style has a very specific benefit for the specific way it’s performed.  Also potentially specific drawbacks for the individual person or for the whole of strength considering the qualities you’re trying to develop.  Some are better or worse than others for certain specific requirements.  What really needs to be taken into account is what do you specifically want out of squats?  What really holds up under scrutiny in getting it?

If you go to someone to teach you how to squat, you’re almost always going to get a little bit of prejudice from how they squat or how they learned to squat.  Actually that’s kind of okay.  They’re going to coach you in what they know.  However, the number of people who can legitimately, actually coach a squat at a truly high level is very, very low.  These people are going to take into consideration what you are specifically trying to do with your body.  What fits the actual anatomy of your body and going to adjust things to some mixed flavor of all these styles to get you the best results.  You can debate all day – stance, width, depth and bar placement, but really these are all 50 shades of gray and if you squat hard enough that probably should have the S&M pun I’m making there.

So let’s knock through some of these fallacies and see what the deal is.  Let’s start with Olympic squats.  Now I’m going to hammer and compliment everybody in the multiple installments of this article, but I’m going to pick on the Olympic lifters first, because SOME of them annoy me worse than anyone else.  When I was a young guy I actually had an Olympic lifting coach tell me, “Oh well, you were a powerlifter.  So you’re basically ruined and will never be able to do Olympic lifting.”  This was a high-level, certified, Olympic coach and that is elitest in a way that kills strength sports.

Olympic squats (close stance, high bar squats), actually have their own robe-wearing high priest who judges of whether or not you are worthy – and you’re not. There will be some little Chinese girl who squats more than you and can somehow squat deeper than is humanly possible.  Her butt will actually go below her feet on the floor, leaving those moderates and simpletons who only want to leave a mark on the floor from theirs, in the dust.   They supposedly develop the quads in a much more righteous way than regular width stance or power-squats. Although this has basically been debunked with EMG analysis. Also, supposedly, everyone should be able to squat super deep in this stance and all other forms of squat lessen your mobility.  Modern anatomical discoveries have basically said that mobility and flexibility aside, different people have different hip structures and are only going to be able to safely squat to certain depths.  What’s right for you is the thing here.

If you are an Olympic lifter you actually do need to squat this way and do front squats at least part of the time, because the end squat goal of Olympic lifting is to be able to come up from a clean or snatch, from the lowest possible position you can get in to, because that requires you to not pull the bar as high.  The lower you have to pull the bar to catch it, the heavier the weight you can pull, therefore the more weight you can stand up with from the lowest possible position facilitates a lower pull and a heavier clean or snatch.  However, does that make it right for everybody?

It makes it no more right or real world applicable than other styles.  Even if there is less quad activation with other styles the fact that you can move more total weight compensates.  If you can squat super deep with narrow stance with 400lbs or 500 to parallel with a moderately wider stance, the quad stimulation is the same.  All styles of squat are both a exercise as well as a demonstration of strength.  The idea that you’re doing one without the other simply doesn’t hold water.  The mechanical stress may be more on your quads and for some people it may fit you better, almost everyone because of the way the human hips are built will be able to get deeper with that stance, however that is a consequence of human anatomy not a sign that that squat is the most effective way.

Almost everyone on the planet can squat deeper in this style, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing in the world for your hips and knees or potentially the worst depending on your individual anatomy. I would also argue if you can’t squat to decent depth with a wider stance, it is not the flaw of a wide stance, it’s that you’re immobile in a wide stance and need to work on it.  Here is the point that super deep depth doesn’t fit everybody because our hips function differently.  Not wrong – just different. Some people just won’t be able to squat to a super-deep depth without sacrificing spinal alignment.  You can make adjustments in tissue mobility, but you can’t undo bone structure.

It’s also told that if you squat this way you can just jump to a wider stance and demonstrate your strength, but that you don’t need to do that on a regular basis.  False.  You will lift more, but you will not lift what you can if you do not practice.  For my money, using a style that has the greatest effect on the most muscle, inclusive of the hams, hips, quads and back working together is going to be the most effective.  In the real world you’re going to use a stance or position that allows for the greatest leverage and muscle involvement.  For my money most of the time, the narrow stance squat cuts that off.  It is simply not your mechanically most advantageous position.

Here I want to throw in the too often used, “Lift the car off your kid in an emergency,” analogy.  In the real world, you don’t do something that requires the most advantageous and most muscle by jumping to a narrow stance usually.  Nobody tells their kid, “Oh well, can’t lift the car off of you, because that would require me to get into a wide stance and that is un-holy!”

Think of it in other terms:  Compare it to a bench press. Most people will move the most weight in a bench press with a wider grip.  A closer grip targets the triceps a little more and also moves a little less weight.  The cautionary thing here is that a super deep close stance squat can be akin to a tricep extension.  Dependent on your personal style, to get to depth with a super close stance, your knees my push out very far over the toes.   Essentially taking the push movement of a squat or in this analogy of bench press, out and turning it into the extension movement and effectively locking the other muscles out of the movement and putting an entirely inordinate amount of stress on the joint.

Some people can get away with it and some can’t.  Your structure or previous history may dictate much of this.  It is said that this is the “athletic” way to squat.  The way that makes you faster or jump higher than other styles of squats.  There really is no proof of this and you certainly cannot tell on the field who squats in what style. This is the correlation versus causation argument.  Most great Olympic lifters or athletes who squat in an Olympic lifting style were great jumpers and runners before they started and would have be augmented by any style of strength that they started.  It’s like saying, “Playing basketball makes you tall.”  No – it just happens that most basketball players are tall.

I’m going to cut this article here to start another part, but I don’t want you to think that I’m being overly critical of ONLY Olympic style squats.  Everyone has their good and bad points – it’s just this article is getting quite long and I will tackle the other styles in the next installment. I am going to jump to the end conclusion and then finish those thoughts in a future article.

Here it is:

Find the way that fits you and doesn’t create damage.  Find one main style that you work on, on a regular basis, because you must get good at something by practicing it to have real strength.  Then use other styles for their benefits and augment your whole strength with them. 


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