Illustration of a man doing the barbell front squat

The Squat Guide (for Size)

The squat is the strength training lift. Like the deadlift, it’s a great lift for strengthening your body from your neck down to your toes. In fact, its claim to fame is that squatting stimulates over 200 muscles.

However, powerlifters squat with the goal of improving their max-effort strength. That means choosing the variation with the best leverage, trying to emphasize their very strongest muscles, and minimizing their range of motion.

If our goal is to gain overall size and strength, we’re going to approach the squat much differently. Less like a powerlifter, more like a weightlifter. We’re going to use a large range of motion, we’re going to use it to bring up weak links, and we’re going to choose a variation that develops our quads and hips, sure, but also our core and upper back.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • How to build a stronger lower body with the squat.
  • Whether you should low-bar, high-bar, or front squat.
  • Squat assistance lifts, such as the goblet squats and squatting to boxes.
  • Squat accessories. Do you need them?

This article is bulking: It will grow and change over time. Occasionally we’ll trim off some fat. This isn’t meant to be the final word.

What Muscles will the Squat Grow

The squat is famous for stimulating over 200 different muscles. Most notably, we’ve got:

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Adductors
  • Glutes
  • Spinal erectors
  • Lats
  • Traps
  • Calves
  • Core

However, most of these muscles aren’t limiting factors on the squat. As a result, they won’t be challenged enough to provoke an adaptation, and so they won’t grow.

Let’s take the lats as an example. Your lats will put in work to help stabilize your spine, sure. But they won’t be a limiting factor. Not even close. They won’t be challenged enough to stimulate any muscle growth. If you want to bulk up your lats, that’s where the chin-up comes in.

The squat is best for bulking up just few major muscle groups:

  • Quads
  • Adductors (inner thigh)
  • Glutes
  • Spinal erectors

Note that the hamstrings are off the table. You’ll often hear people say that the squats are a complete lower-body exercise, doing a great job of bulking up both the quads and the hamstrings. However, that’s simply not true. The squat is a terrible hamstring exercise. Yes, the hamstrings are active during a squat, but not anywhere near active enough to bulk them up.

It’s the deadlift that takes care of the hamstrings, which is why you’ll want a good balance of both squats and deadlifts while bulking up your lower body.

Squat Variations

The Low-Bar Squat

The low-bar squat has you positioning the barbell lower on your upper back, usually on top of your rear delts, like so:

Illustration of a male powerlifter doing  a low-bar barbell squat
For those who are man enough to squat in the curl rack.

This “low-bar” position gives your hips great leverage and requires the least amount of upper-back strength. Upper back strength can then be reduced even further by squatting with a wide stance, allowing for a more upright torso. This allows most people to low-bar squat about 10% more weight than they can high-bar squat, and about 25% more weight than they can front squat.

However, this extra leverage comes at a price. With the low-bar squat, people bend more at the waist, less at the knees. Problem is, that extra bend at the waist can cause your hips to jam up against your femurs, reducing your range of motion, and possibly leading to hip issues down the road—a common injury for powerlifters.

Minimizing the involvement of the back muscles also makes the low-bar squat more of a specialized lower-body lift instead of an all-around size and strength builder.

Is the low-bar squat good for building bigger hips? One reason someone might favour the low-bar squat is because they want proportionally bigger glutes. The low-bar squat would allow them to “sit back” into the squat and then muscle their way back up with their hips. That’s going to cause more glute growth with less thigh and upper-back growth.

Furthermore, because there’s so much emphasis on bending at the hips, the low-bar squat would train your glutes through a larger range of motion, which is great for building up a bigger, rounder butt.

Conclusion: This is a great squat for powerlifters and hip growth. However, if you’re not a powerlifter, and if you’re not trying to prioritize hip development, this probably isn’t the squat for you.

The High-Bar Squat

The high-bar squat has you positioning the barbell higher up on your back, on top of your traps. This allows you to maintain a more upright torso, which is great, as it allows you to sink quite a bit deeper. It also reduces your leverage, forcing you to use a weight that’s around 10% lighter. However, most people can still high-bar squat around 15% more weight than they can front squat.

The high-bar squat is a bit harder on your back muscles than the low-bar squat, but not by much, so it’s still a poor lift for your spinal erectors. This means that if you wanted to squat with an emphasis on lower-body development (thighs and glutes), the high-bar squat is a pretty good choice.

Conclusion: This is a good all-around squat, and it’s good for emphasizing lower-body development, but we can do better.

The Front Squat

The front squat has you holding the bar in front of you, resting on the crease between your shoulders and your collarbones, up against the front of your neck, like so:

Holding the barbell in front of you like this forces you to maintain a near perfectly upright torso, allowing you to sink even deeper into your squat. Furthermore, having the barbell in front of you increases the moment arm for your thoracic spine, putting up to 235% more load on your upper back muscles.

Front squats are, hands down, the best squat variation for building upper back strength.

Greg Nuckols, Stronger by Science

This makes the front squat an incredibly lift for not only your legs, but also for your entire posterior chain.

It’s a magical lift:

  • Deeper range of motion: Front squats are done with a more upright torso, which makes it easier to use a larger range of motion, and makes it less likely that you’ll jam your hips into your femurs.
  • Better for your upper back and core: Because the barbell is help in front of you, front squats do a better job of bulking up your upper back, which is going to have greater carryover to your deadlift. They also do a better job of strengthening your core, which has great carryover to your push presses.
  • It forces better squatting technique: Because poor technique can lead to the barbell falling off your shoulders, front squats must be done with better technique, even when lifting heavy, and even when approaching failure. This keeps the lift safe even as you push yourself hard.
  • It’s better for your posture and shoulders: A typical back squat requires developing shoulder mobility so that you can crank them backwards, which is fine, but it won’t improve your shoulder health. Front squats, on the other hand, require developing t-spine mobility so that you can get into a proper rack position, which improves your upper back (t-spine) mobility and posture. It’s a better shoulder adaptation.
  • Just as much quad and glute development: front squatting means lifting less weight, but since you’re lifting through a larger range of motion, it still produces the same overall amount of muscle growth in your quads and glutes (study).
  • It’s easier on your knees: the front squat is easier on your knees (study). Admittedly, that doesn’t matter for most people, but it’s certainly an advantage for those who already have cranky knees.
  • It’s less demanding on your lower back: this would be a bad thing if we weren’t also deadlifting, given that we do want the benefits of greater spinal loading (such as denser bones and a more resilient spine). But since we’re already training that area so hard with our deadlifts and rows, the front squat gives your lower back a well-earned break.

The front squat is also by far the lightest squat variation, with most people front squatting about 25% less than they can low-bar squat, and about 15% less than they can high-bar squat. Part of this is because of the extra range of motion, part of this is because the front squat is so challenging for the upper back muscles.

Still, even though you’ll be lifting less weight, and even though there’s less hip involvement, a study by Bret Contreras, PhD, found that front squats stimulate all of your lower-body muscles just as much as high-bar squats.

However, the front squat is a brutal lift with a rough learning curve. I’d say it’s a lift that only a mother could love, but we’ve asked plenty of mothers to try it. They don’t like it either.

The front squat looks like a painfully awkward way to strangle yourself with a barbell.

–Michael Matthews

It gets worse, too. Most people don’t have the wrist mobility to hold the barbell properly when they first start trying to front squat. They try it, can’t get into the right position, feel like they’re being choked to death, and abandon it forever.

Don’t abandon it. If you do some wrist stretches during your warm-ups, you’ll probably be able to get at least a couple fingers under the bar. That’s enough to start with. And yes, it might feel awkward up against your neck, but that pain will pass after you get used to the lift.

Give it a chance. In return, it will give you tremendous gains.

Conclusion: The front squat tends to be the best variation for building overall muscle mass, improving posture, and gaining all-around strength. It’s also hard to learn.

Finding Weak Links

Your squat will fail for one of three reasons:

  1. Your back will round because it’s not strong enough to support the weight. To fix this, we need to strengthen your back. We could strengthen your back with extra front squatting, but it’s usually easier to strengthen your back with: deadlifts, bent-over rows, and good mornings. Using a lifting belt and improving your bracing technique can also help.
  2. Your hips will shoot up at the bottom of the squat because your quads aren’t strong enough to lift you up. To fix this, we need to strengthen your quads. We could strengthen your squads with extra front-squatting, and in this case, that’s often a pretty good approach, given that the quads are the prime mover in the front squat. However, you can also use the leg press, hack squats, step-ups, and split squats.
  3. Your form doesn’t crumble, but the bar won’t rise because your hips aren’t strong enough. This is more likely to occur with the hip-dominant squat variations, especially if you “sit back” into a low-bar squat. You can bring up weak hips with more hip-dominant squatting, but you could also use glute bridges, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts.

Assistance Lifts for the Squat

Assistance lifts are similar to the main variations, but they’re specifically designed to help us double down on a strength or strengthen a weakness. Adding in this extra variety will also give our joints and connective tissues a break from doing the exact same movement over and over again. Furthermore, they’ll work our muscles in a slightly different way, stimulating new muscle fibres, and helping us to develop fuller muscles.

  • Squat-to-a-box: if you’re having trouble consistently squatting to your target depth, it can help to put something there. That way you can squat down until your butt touches the box, then spring back up. This can help correct our tendency to squat with a shorter range of motion as the weight gets heavier.

Accessory Lifts for the Squat

A study came out May 2014 that looked into the muscle development of people doing just squats compared with doing squats, leg presses and leg extensions. The volume was equated, so both groups were doing the same amount of lifting overall.

Both groups gained the same amount of muscle mass, but the greater variety of exercises resulted in more balanced muscle growth—all heads of the quads grew proportionally. Surprisingly, the greater exercise variety even resulted in a greater increase in squatting strength.

The list of accessory lifts for the squat is endless, but we’ll go over our favourites.

  • Good morning: if your squats (or deadlifts) are limited by your back strength, good mornings are great for bulking up your spinal erectors. They’re good for your hips and hamstrings, too, making them a great all-around accessory lift for the squat (and deadlift).
  • Leg press: if your squats are limited by your lower-body strength, the leg press is a great lift for bulking up the same muscles that are involved in the squat (such as your quads). The leg press is fairly heavy while also limiting the stress on your back muscles, making it a great way to strengthen a lower body that’s lagging behind.
  • Step-up: this is another great exercise for bulking up your quads. Step-ups tend to be a bit easier and lighter than the leg press, allowing you to toss them onto the end of a workout without much trouble.
  • Leg extension: this is another good way to bulk up your quads. However, leg extensions only bulk up your quads, making them fairly inefficient.
  • Split squat: this exercise is a form of torture invented by sadistic strength coaches.

If your hip strength is limiting your squat, you could always switch to a low-bar squat position to emphasize it a bit more. As far as accessories go, though, you may want to use your deadlift accessories for that instead: deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, glutes bridges, and hip thrusts.

About Shane Duquette

W. Shane Duquette, BDes, is a science communicator with a degree in design and visual communication from York University. He co-founded Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, where he specializes in helping ectomorphs, hardgainers, and skinny-fat people bulk up.

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9 Comments

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