In our experience, we often come across people looking for one quick and simple answer to a question they have always had about exercise, and one of the most popular of these questions we seem to always get asked is “what is the one version of the squat I should do when I am at the gym?” Typically their confusion arises from the fact that they know that squats are good for them, but, 1) they’ve never been taught how to do a proper squat in the first place, and 2) they see a multitude of variations of the traditional squat done by others in their gym, but don’t know what the benefit of those variations are, and wonder if they are missing out on something.
The answer to the question “what squat should I do?” unfortunately doesn’t have a simple answer, because the three main variations (back squat, front squat, and overhead squat) all have different benefits that will help an individual in different ways based off of the muscles that they each activate and the additional flexibility and stability challenges that they offer. Therefore, the best thing to do is to break down each movement, understand their individual benefits, and then decide for yourself which one you should implement based off of your given needs and wants.
The traditional version of the squat, the back squat, is one of the most intuitive movements that you will do in the gym because of its relatively basic movement pattern, and its functional transferability to many other athletic movements. Starting by walking your body under the center of the bar inside the rack, rest the bar on the meaty part of the top of your shoulders just under your neck-your trapezius muscle. Then, keeping your abdominals tight, and back straight, push your hips back and down toward the floor, staying on your heels, until your thighs reach just below parallel to the floor. Finally stand back up by driving through your heels. This exercise is perfect for building strength and size in the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps muscles, as well as engaging the core and spinal erectors.
The next most popular squat type is the front squat. This movement is rapidly becoming more visible in gyms due to the fact that it is an imperative teaching tool when practicing for the Olympic lift the power clean. To set up for the front squat, you approach the bar, position the center of the bar underneath the front of your neck, separate the hands slightly wider than armpit-width, swing your elbows under the bar to the point where they are facing directly forward, and allow the bar to rest on the anterior deltoid portion of your shoulder muscles. Your hands will be in an open-palm position, with your fingertips in contact with the bar to disallow it from rolling forward off your shoulders as you go through the range of motion. From here, follow the same movement pattern of the regular squat by pushing your hips down and back until the thighs are below parallel, and then drive back up through the heels to standing. The benefit of having the bar in front of the shoulders, puts more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings, and also requires more core and back strength to stabilize the torso.
The third classic squat variation is the overhead squat. As was the case with the front squat, this version has also gained popularity concurrently with the other Olympic style lift, the power snatch. For this exercise, start with the bar behind your neck as in the back squat start position, and separate your hands into your snatch-grip position (wider than shoulder-width). Press the bar overhead so that the elbows are locked out, and your arms are in direct line with your torso. Maintaining the bar overhead the entire time by stabilizing your shoulders, and keeping your shoulder blades (scapulae) squeezed together, complete the squat movement, again, by pushing the hips down and back, and then driving through the heels to stand back up. This movement is very advanced and should be supervised by a professional (preferably a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist if possible) until you feel comfortable to do the movement on your own. Once mastered, however, the overhead squat is the perfect exercise to train upper back and hip mobility, in addition to core strength and general total body muscle control.
After taking a look at three of the classic versions of the squat movement (and if you’re interested in a fourth, learn about the Zercher squat HERE [link to Frank’s article]), it’s easy to see that there is no “one ring to rule them all” when it comes to training the lower body. Even if you spend all your time getting one of these variations perfect, you would still be missing out on a multitude of benefits that the others have to offer. Our advice? Try them all! The body is not a one-dimensional machine, therefore, you shouldn’t train it with a one-dimensional workout! So, take a long hard look at what you need to work on, figure out what movements best fit those needs (never be afraid to ask for help firstname.lastname@example.org), and get squatting! Your dream body is counting on you.
Joe Gernetzke CSCS