The back squat is often referred to as the king of all exercises, especially by those who frequently squat — and those who like a nice booty. But does it live up to the hype? And, more importantly, should you be squatting to get you closer to your fitness goals?
That's what I call full-body stimulation. Even the face gets a workout...
(Photo by Senior Airman Alyssa Van Hook)
The squat is touted as that exercise which recruits the most muscle mass with the most weight possible.
You may immediately think of thrusters as an exercise that proves this previous statement false. The problem there is that, strength-wise, the upper body lags behind the lower body. So, a weight that may be difficult for you to press overhead will likely be very easy to squat to depth with.
The back squat, on the other hand, isometrically engages the upper body without impacting the work of the lower body.
The barbell back squat actively works just about every muscle from the ribs down if performed correctly, and it also works the shoulders and upper back isometrically.
If you're one of my clients, you are familiar with the cue, bend the bar over your back. This cue engages the pulling muscles of your back and arms even more, since you are literally trying to bend the bar over your back with your hands. This cue also has the benefit of locking your core into a tighter contraction, so that you can transfer more force from your legs into the weight.
This is the same concept as trying to push a button with a noodle vs a rod. If it's a really light button, you may be able to do it with a noodle, but it'll be a lot harder because much of the force is being lost. The rod directly transfers all your energy straight into the button efficiently.
There isn't another exercise that allows you to move as much weight as the back squat with so many muscles. It can be considered a true test of total strength. Not only that, but it can save you time.
If you only have 45 minutes for a workout, you will be able to hit more muscle groups faster by chunking them into compound exercises like the back squat. Five sets of squats will always be faster than 5 sets of leg extension, 5 sets of leg curl, 5 sets of calf raises, and 5 sets of glute bridges.
For the average trainee, this efficiency approach is more than sufficient for satisfying your need for muscular stimulation. If you are a bodybuilder, a different more isolative approach may be required. Remember, everything is dependent on your goals.
More muscle mass equals more testosterone. The squat is highly effective at building lower-body mass.
(Photo by Sgt. Roger Jackson)
The typical bro-scientist states that the back squat is superior in raising anabolic hormones, like testosterone and growth hormone, which then act like a systemic steroid that boosts your muscle-gaining ability throughout your whole body. This is true to an extent, specifically when you are training at 90% intensity with heavy weights. The boost lasts for about 15-30 minutes.
A 15-30 minute spike of testosterone is enough to make you feel awesome, boost your mood (it has been shown to positively affect both anxiety and depression), and help you keep on gettin' after it in the gym. 15-30 minutes isn't enough to boost whole body muscle growth to any considerable degree though. Don't worry, though — it still helps.
I'll let that sink in…
You don't need growth hormone to get huge. You do need it to keep those muscles on the bone though.
(Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Rullo)
Growth hormone, despite its name, doesn't help grow your muscles at all. Its name is super misleading and will probably continue to confuse people — at least until we start communicating via telepathy and no longer have a use for words.
Growth hormone actually grows connective tissue, like tendons and ligaments. It's still super important, because without it, your huge muscles would tear right off the bone when you flex.
350+ lbs on your back will stimulate growth and your desire to be strong.
(Photo by Airman BrieAnna Stillman)
The real benefit
This spike in testosterone that you experience from heavy squats is enough to make you hungry for more weight, more reps, and more gains, which will result in higher motivation to continue getting in the gym.
The more consistent you are with your lifting sessions, the more muscle mass you will put on. That increase in muscle mass directly correlates to an increase in overall testosterone throughout the entire day, not just during your workout. It raises your testosterone baseline. That means you will have more energy, feel stronger in general, and have a higher capacity to burn fat in general.
We discussed the fat burning effects of resistance training here.
Staying consistent with the barbell back squat will have a huge effect on your overall progression towards being a better, stronger, and sexier human.