For good reason the squat is known as the “king of exercises”.
There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.
From a bodybuilding point of view utilising various squat variations is highly beneficial. Additionally by utilising a variety of feet placements and squat variations different aspects of leg development can be emphasised.
In order to optimise development by using any of these squat variations the range of movement should be as full as possible. This not only ensures as much muscle activation as possible but also negates potential injury incurred over time caused by braking at the knees when cutting squats short.
This heinous habit is unfortunately commonly seen in gyms as is the predominance of trainees doing half squats and claiming the weight as a full squat. If a weight cannot be squatted from parallel it is too heavy to put on your back.
The place to stop a squat is at the bottom of the movement, at or below parallel, stopping at an unnatural point above this in time will damage the knees. I learned this lesson the hard way. Additionally full development will never be attained by performing partial movements. Take heed.
Partial movements admitedly have their place, and can help with sticking points and assist with strength increases in some compound movements. However if partial movements are utilised on back squats for example, spinal compression and excess joint strain needs to be factored in if using poundages far in excess of those used for your full squats.
Full squats are hard but they do not injure the knees. Additionally whilst all compound movements will elicit increases in growth hormone and testosterone – squats precipitate the greatest gains in size and strength plus the greatest hormonal elevations. Generally hormonal activation increases are elicited by moderate intensity exercise with short rest intervals.
Anyone who trains with weight is likely to be familiar with the standard back squat, but many may not have used some of the following squat variations:
Safety Bar Squats
The unique design of the bar (with a padded section enclosing your neck and two handles extending in front of the shoulders) enables you to grip the handles directly out in front of your body. For those with compromised flexibility or injury there is no requirement for external rotation of the shoulders, a problem for many with a traditional bar.
When squatting with the safety squat bar, your spine position will actually be more vertical than when back squatting. This type of bar provides a unique weight distribution somewhere between the front squat and the high-bar back squat.
Additionally it preserves the shoulders which is important if you are overhead pressing regularly and even if you are not I know you will be bench pressing regularly and so your shoulders will thank you.
Depending on the extent of your shoulder flexibility you may find these hard to perform. They are however a wonderful quad exercise. The bar is held close to the neck and the frog like upright stance must be maintained in order to keep stable when performing this movement. It helps to imagine your back maintaining contact with a wall.
The grip adopted can be like the finish point of a clean(standard grip) or the arms can be crossed over. If you choose the crossover method you will be compromising safety and stability however.
My personal preference if the clean position is unobtainable due to lack of flexibility, previous injury etc is to use straps. Attach them around the bar and hold them above the shoulders. this is a far more comfortable position for the shoulders wrists and forearms.
For front squats your rep range will likely be less than that of your usual back squats. This movement with the load in front of the chest places stress on the lumbar region of the back and is difficult to maintain for high repetitions – 5×5 works well. Don’t be surprised if your upper back is sore the next day if you’ve not performed these before.
Many strongman competitors use this movement rather than the back squat as they believe it has greater and more effective carryover to their strength events. They’re probably right. Being a purer quad movement and the lack of back involvement means there are less leverage advantages however, and the load used will be significantly less than that used with the back squat.
These are named after Ed Zercher, a lifter in the 1930’s, best known for his style of squatting and a 3.5 x bodyweight deadlift, in 1934 (536lbs deadlift at 155lbs bodyweight ).
These got short shrift from Charles Poliquin recently on one of his live broadcasts but I have seen a few lifters performing these on a regular basis for a very long time. They are admitedly uncomfortable as the load is held in the crook of the arms. Consequently unless you have a masochistic bent your reps will not be high if you are using any appreciable weight.
Aside from developing insane hip strength, the quads, upper back and biceps get a workout too from Zerchers. Additionally the glute activation indicated by electrical contractile testing (EMG) is superior to any other exercise.
Dipping Belt Squats
These are a great movement. Additionally due to the mode of loading (the weight is below the waist) spinal compression is avoided.
Belt squats are a useful alternative to circumvent upper body injury, or to deload spinal compression following a considerable time of heavy back squatting. They should be performed by placing two sturdy boxes an appropriate distance apart. I’ve seen benches used when boxes were not available but would advise that this is not particularly safe due to compromised stability.
This movement is quad dominant and again lacks the leverage advantage provided by the back in the conventional back squat, so the training load utilised will be less.
It is however easier to maintain form and you have the additional security of using your arms to assist should you run into problems completing a rep.
A favourite of powerlifters over many generations, these are extremely effective at building posterior chain strength. Exploding out of the dead stop position builds great starting strength. Using the box squat as an assistance to regular back squats has helped athletes produce numerous world records in the squat. The box helps improve strength in the glutes and hamstrings, which in turn benefits your squat.
The propensity for injury is only there if these are performed incorrectly, so they should be used judiciously by inexperienced trainees, under supervision.
There you have it, 5 very useful squat variations. Bear in mind that you will need continuity of exercise in order to measure strength progressions. If your goal is purely hypertrophy this may not be as important and you can switch these moves around more often as you wish. Power athletes however will need consistency for progress.
I know Brian Shaw is an advocate of the safety bar squat and utilised it almost exclusively in his power training. His performance on back squat in WSM indicates they have great carryover to conventional squats, but we knew that of course.
Give these a try