Done right, it's the only lower body lifting you need. Done wrong, it's the last lower body lifting you'll do. It works your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, and core muscles in a single rep, but a single rep can put you out of the gym for a long time. "It" is the squat, the best and most controversial leg exercise in the gym.
Most of us know that a poor squat can result in back or knee injuries. What we don't know is that the squat is easy to learn (see below) and its benefits are significant.
Benefits of the Squat
No exercise encourages more muscle growth. More muscle growth means a faster metabolism, which means more fat is burned as energy, which means muscles popping everywhere. Is your six-pack hiding? Start doing squats.
Speaking of abs, proper form demands a stable core—with squats you'll be engaging your core to keep your lower back safe.
With a range of motion that incorporates many different muscle groups, squats strengthen the tendons and ligaments that connect those muscle groups.
Learn the Form
Ready to get started? Great. But first consider the two most common mistakes among those trying squats for the first time: too heavy, too fast. Form and range of motion are the most important components of a successful squat, so you should start out light and slow, establishing good form before you approach the rack, courtesy of bodybuilding legend Dave Draper:
- Stand in front of a mirror with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointed at eleven and one o'clock.
- Grab your lower quads/upper knees—right grabs right; left grabs left.
- Take a deep breath to puff your chest and straighten your back from neck to butt.
- Raise your arms so that they're parallel with the floor.
- Keeping your weight on your heels and your feet flat, lower yourself another foot.
- With your arms remaining outstretched, extend your legs to press yourself upright.
That's it. Simple? You bet. It's a glorified deep knee bend, nothing more. Keep that in mind as you prepare for the same motion with a bar on our shoulders:
- Set the rack with the bar three inches below shoulder height.
- Step under the bar with your feet just wider than shoulder width apart.
- Grab it. Most bars have a rough grip area that helps you centered your body under the bar.
- Position your hands a foot wider than your shoulders.
- Take a deep breath and press your shoulders into the bar so that it sits on the shelf created by your traps and your shoulders.
- Straighten your legs to lift the bar from the rack.
- Back away from the rack.
- Now move through the same range of motion you just performed with the deep knee bend.
- As you move down, keep your core muscles engaged to stabilize your lower back.
- As you move up, press from your heels to activate your glutes first and keep the strain away from your knees.
Add weight as long as you can without sacrificing form or range of motion. Buy new jeans as necessary.
Topher Bordeau is a correspondent for the Rowing News and has written for Men's Edge, N'East, and other magazines. He also makes his living as a collegiate rowing coach and currently works at Dartmouth College. You can reach Topher at