Squats are a staple of any serious muscle building program, and there are many great reasons for that: they’re incredibly versatile, they can develop total body strength, help you build powerful legs and a rock solid core and they create an anabolic environment essential to body-wide muscle growth, so it’s really no surprise that the internet is flooded with tips on proper squatting and opinions about which version of this classic exercise offers the biggest benefits.
After all, no matter how good you are at something, there’s always a way to advance your performance and earn superior gains, so in this article we will uncover how you can get a bit more out of your squatting routine and reduce your risk of injury at the same time.
Eliminating the confusion
In general, during a squat, you want your hips, knees and ankles to flex adequately and lower the body to the desired depth, while not allowing the spine to change in curvature during the entire movement (known as keeping a neutral spine). In order for this to happen, several joint and muscular systems must work as one and produce a sustainable, safe movement, which isn’t an easy task at all.
With that in mind, it’s safe to say that while squatting, your stance is everything, as it serves as a vital base of stability and also determines the level of activation of different body parts. Therefore, changing the stance changes the entire movement. Wider or narrower? Feet pointed forward or outward? Which position can be blamed for causing knee pain and which can help you put a greater load on the muscles? Make no mistake – if you don’t squat safely by following some simple basic rules, this exercise can turn from your best friend into your worst nightmare, so consider putting an effort into maximizing your squat potential.
But here’s the most important thing to remember when trying to work on your squat: everyone has their own unique anatomic advantages and limitations that will ultimately dictate which will be the best squat position for their body type, and no amount of practice can change that so don’t force your body to do something that it isn’t comfortable with. For example, hip socket anatomy is unique to each individual and this means that some individuals will have greater success squatting with a very narrow stance while others will be best off squatting with wider stances. As long as you try to minimize the tension on your knees and protect your lumbar integrity by keeping a neutral spine all throughout the motion, you’ll be fine with whatever you choose to do. So whenever someone informs you that you’re not squatting the right way, take his opinion (even if he’s an experienced coach!) with a grain of salt. Listen to your own body and never take any squat pattern as a must, especially if it’s painful. Also, you don’t have to always squat the same way – feel free to experiment with different positions and become as strong as possible in each one of them until you find your sweet spot.
So, since there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the best and safest ways to squat, we’ll try to clear the air and provide some guidance by explaining a few basic bio-mechanic principles which could help you take your performance to the next level.
The best stance width: wide or narrow?
According to some studies, a stance wider than shoulder-width provides the same level of muscle activation as the traditional narrow stance in some muscle groups involved such as the quads and adductor major. However, the wider stance seems to offer some additional benefits such as recruiting more muscles to perform the task, developing your hip muscles more effectively (while the narrow stance keeps the hips closed and limits their involvement) and protecting your knees from injury.
Since the hips are multidirectional joints that can produce force in three planes of motion, the wide stance squat provides a superior possibility to train the hips in all three planes and develop stable hip joints by producing larger hip extension movements and greater hip flexion than narrow stance squats. Additionally, wide stance squats produce greater abduction and adduction and greater internal and external rotation of the femur.
One group of researchers from the University of Abertay in Scotland found that taking a wider stance allows for better activation of the gluteus maximus, and many other studies have also come to this conclusion (for example, McCaw et al. found that a stance that’s 140% of your shoulder width stance leads to maximal glute activation). In addition, since reaching a deep squat with a wide stance requires you to maintain a more vertical shin position than a narrow stance, the wider stance places less stress on the knees and helps you reach greater depth easier, while offering the same muscle building benefits of its narrower counterpart.
Also, reaching depth in a narrow stance squat requires tucking the lumbar spine under the torso in order to facilitate hip flexion, which can be bad news because spinal flexion under a load will place undue pressure on certain segments of the spine and contribute to bulging discs and other issues. Taking a wider stance can fix this issue and contribute to a more neutral back positioning.
All of this doesn’t mean that the narrow stance is always a terrible idea and it should be banned, but it’s a fact that without consistent improvement, over time, the recessive forces exerted on the knee and/or lower back during a narrow stance squat can lead to injury in a big part of the squatting population. On top of that, many lifters find that squatting with a wider stance and knees flared outward allows them to lift heavier loads. Anyhow, a general rule of thumb for bodybuilders is to vary their stance in order to maximize muscle recruitment and minimize leg development imbalances and we couldn’t agree more with that.
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