by Thomas Kurz
In this article you will learn about squats. Doing squats gives great benefits—from strengthening knee ligaments to enhancing your whole body’s strength, from increasing muscle and bone mass to enlarging the rib cage.
I visited a taekwondo school once in which none of the students could do a split, and only three (out of twenty) had usable fighting technique. When I told the instructor that during the seminar I would need a weightlifting bar, he said that there were no weights in his dojang. He said it with an air of certitude implying that weights and taekwondo do not mix. None of his students was familiar with basic lifts and it showed in their poor strength and flexibility. Heaven forbid should any of them be grabbed by a grappler or be called on to carry an incapacitated friend away from danger. Instead of weights they had lots of thin, dried boards to be broken with blood-curdling screams, as if breaking a couple of crumbling boards was anywhere near what it takes to put a man down.
Weights and taekwondo mix very well—taekwondo master Hee Il Cho, famous for his powerful and precise jumping kicks, says, “Weight lifting can help athletes in any sport, including the martial arts. The more strength and size you have, the better you will perform. If two people weigh the same, the one with more muscle can hit harder” (Jeffrey 1994).
There may be exceptions to Hee Il Cho’s rule—someone may have less muscle but use it better. Still, generally it is better to have more muscle mass than less—and especially within the same weight class.
Squats and Martial Artists
People who can’t put a barbell or a partner weighing at least as much as them on their shoulders and easily do a few squats are too weak to learn fighting techniques.
The squat is a part of many fighting techniques. You squat to evade a punch or a high kick and to hit the opponent’s knee or groin, to do a leg takedown, a shoulder throw, or a hip throw. When jumping, you squat (albeit not fully) on both legs or on one leg prior to takeoff. In the thrust front kick with the ball of the foot, the pattern of joint movements of the kicking leg is similar to that of the squat—simultaneous hip and knee extension, with ankle plantar flexion.
Squats, in their various versions, are the most effective overall strength exercises. Their benefits are not limited to developing lower body strength and endurance. Squats without additional resistance (weight), such as Hindu squats, strengthen knee ligaments, develop muscular endurance in the lower body, and improve lung function. This is why these squats, called baithak, together with one more exercise—Hindu push-ups—are an indispensable part of Indian wrestlers’ training. These wrestlers, famous for their stamina, do several hundred deep squats every day (Draeger and Smith 1974). Squats with weights increase muscle and bone mass of your whole body—not just of thighs and hips but of the trunk, chest, shoulders, and neck. This is because squats with weights put heavy stress on a majority of skeletal muscles and most of the bones. The greater muscle mass mobilized in an exercise, the greater are the releases of hormones promoting growth of muscles, bones, and other fibrous connective tissues (Conroy and Earle 1994; Kraemer 1994). Muscle mass grows much less in women who lift weights than in men, so ladies need not worry about becoming bulky.
Breathing squats with weights, in which three or more deep breaths are taken before each squat, in addition to putting on mass very quickly, enlarge the rib cage (Strossen 1989). To learn more about the whole method of training with breathing squats, read Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks by Randall Strossen.
One of the methods for developing jumping ability—the explosive strength of the legs—is performing squats with very light weights (20–40 kg [44–88 lb.] for athletes who can lift 210 kg [463 lb.] in a squat) and doing them very fast—5 meters (16 ft.) per second (Wachowski and Strzelczyk 1994).
Squats without additional resistance
If you are new to weight training you should start with the easiest and, in the long term, the safest form of squats. I believe that would be the Hindu squats. If you are an experienced lifter but your knees are creaky, you may want to stop your heavy squats for a while and do Hindu squats to strengthen your knees.
Hindu squat. Start standing up, back straight, head up, chest up, feet hip-width apart. Feet point forward or slightly out—whatever feels good on the knees. Reach forward with your arms and then pull back as in a rowing motion until your fists are even with your chest. As you pull your arms back, inhale. Start to exhale and squat down letting your arms fall behind your hips. As you squat your heels raise off the floor so you are squatting on the balls of your feet. Squat as low as you can but do not bounce at the bottom. Rise up, simultaneously reaching forward with your arms as you inhale. The breathing pattern is opposite that of standard squats (without those rowing arm movements) and squats with weights. Throughout the whole squat keep your back straight. Repeat the cycle.
Hindu squats should be done fairly fast and in large numbers. One hundred Hindu squats should take less than 3 minutes. At the beginning though, you should do as many as you can do comfortably and go as slow as it takes.
There are many varieties of squats without weights for developing flexibility, agility, jumping ability, or muscle endurance. In all squats without weights, your back should be straight, and as close to vertical as possible. Generally, these squats are done on the ball of the foot, except those done for increasing flexibility. There is not enough space here to describe these varieties. The Hindu squat will suffice as it is the safest one for beginners.
Squats with additional resistance
Squat with barbell. Put the bar on your shoulders behind your neck (back squat), or across the front of your shoulders (front squat). Grip the bar with your hands at the width that is comfortable for you. Look straight ahead, or slightly up, not down. Place your feet approximately shoulder-width apart and point them forward or slightly out. Feet stay flat on the ground throughout the whole movement. Lean forward from the hips only a little—you should keep your back as close to vertical as possible and “straight” (with natural curves).
Inhale as you squat. Descend keeping your back as vertical as possible. Exhale as you raise up. Do not allow your trunk to lean forward at the start of the ascent and do not let the hips lead the movement up. Do not bounce at the bottom to help with the ascent. Do not descend so low as to make a bounce necessary to raise up.
If you squat with a very heavy weight, take a deep breath at the beginning of the descent, hold it until you start the ascent and start exhaling past the sticking point. Always do heavy squats on full lungs.
You may have heard the myth that deep squats (legs bent until hamstrings make contact with the calves) destabilize the knees. It is not true. Deep squats with weights improve knee stability provided that the feet are placed so there is no lateral rotation in the knees (Tipton et al. 1975). Further, those same people who speak nonsense about the danger of deep squatting advise partial squatting—that is, until the thighs are parallel to the floor—as a healthy alternative. The trouble is that at this angle between the thigh and the shin, patellofemoral stress peaks for both eccentric and concentric muscle contractions (Huberti and Hayes 1984). If you do partial squats, you spend more time at this angle than if you do deep squats. This is because when doing deep squats, momentum carries you through that peak-stress angle, so you spend less time at it.
The front squat puts more shearing force on the spine as compared to a back squat, but neither squat, if done correctly, produces enough force to cause injury to the back (Russell and Phillips 1989). The greater the forward lean in either squat, the greater the shearing force put on the back and the risk of injury.
If you do so-called breathing back squats and take three breaths before squatting down, you will hold your breath all the way down and up to finally exhale as you stand up. Breathing squats performed in one set of 20 repetitions, with a weight permitting 10 repetitions without a strong effort of will and emotional stress, are recommended for enlarging your rib cage and building mass (see Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks by Randall Strossen for the whole method). Yes, in that 20-repetition set the second 10 repetitions get to be very heavy and take much huffing and puffing. You may wonder how it is possible to do 20 repetitions with a weight permitting 10. It is possible—the key to understanding it is the phrase “without a strong effort of will and emotional stress.” What you can lift 10 times without grinding your teeth is not your absolute maximum—it is just your maximum training weight. The exact method of determining your maximum training resistance is given in the book Science of Sports Training.
To stretch and strengthen all the muscles of your thighs and buttocks, and the muscles of the calf that limit the dorsiflexion of the ankle, do deep squats (deeper than thighs parallel to the floor), keeping your feet flat on the ground. Do not bounce, just go down as low as possible and then raise up, tensing the stretched muscles. The deeper you squat the easier it will be for you to achieve splits. Good forward range of motion in the ankle (dorsiflexion) permits you to lean more and reach with your arms further forward in a deep squat—like in a leg takedown.
If your heels come up from the floor and you lean too far forward when doing squats, it is usually due to low range of motion in foot extension (dorsiflexion), which can be caused by shortness of calf muscles. You also could have low range of motion in hip flexion, which can be caused by shortness of your hamstrings (hip extensors). To increase range of motion, do squats with weights at a depth that permits correct form. Also do the “good morning” lift to strengthen and stretch your hamstrings, and do calf raises from a full stretch.
You will find step-by-step instructions on back squats and front squats for both strength and flexibility on Flexibility Express DVD. Here is a short teaser for that DVD:
Fast squats and half squats. The form of movement is the same as for the barbell back squats, except that you rise on the balls of your feet just like in a jump takeoff.
Many years’ experience developing explosive strength for jumps through squats and half squats with a barbell shows that the greatest effects were obtained when the athlete did them very fast in sets of 5 or 6 repetitions. To ensure sufficient speed of movements, these sets were done within strictly determined time limits. It also turns out that such a program of exercises positively influences strength-endurance and sport-specific endurance (Starzynski and Sozanski 1999). The whole method, with progression of difficulty, is described in the book Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports.
Fast squats and half squats are less intensive efforts and put less stress on the body than full force jumps and depth jumps and therefore should constitute the bulk of your work on developing explosive strength and jumping ability. Even though the initial progress is faster, a more intensive exercise leads to plateauing sooner or possible regress caused by overwork or injury. One of the causes of plateauing is repeating an exercise numerous times with maximal speed, which results in “learning” to move with that speed so that eventually you cannot exceed it even though your physical potential may increase thanks to other exercises. The more intense the stimuli, the quicker the learning—that’s the principle. This is one of the reasons it is preferable to derive as much benefit as possible from less intensive exercises and use the most intensive ones for the final touch (Kurz 2001). More information on speed and strength training, and how to combine training for all physical abilities, is in the book Science of Sports Training.
In most strength exercises, increase resistance at such a rate as to perform the exercises while breathing naturally, with calm abdominal breaths and without holding your breath. This forces a slow progression, whether in the number of repetitions or in the amount of resistance, so the slow-adapting tissues such as joint cartilage, bones, and ligaments do not lag behind the muscles. When you lift so much that your breath is disturbed during exercises—you have to hold it throughout the whole move or gasp for air—you may do more or lift more, but your joints may be weakening. Specifically, in the case of squats, increasing resistance too quickly may cause inflammation in the knee joint and around it. Inflamed tendons are easier to rip than healthy ones. Inflamed cartilage, such as that of the inner surfaces of kneecaps, of menisci, or of the joint surfaces of thigh and knee bones, will wear out so every movement will cause teeth-gnashing pain. (Keep in mind that an inflammation of any one structure of a joint spreads to other structures and the weakest or most stressed structure is the one to break down first.) Many athletes are unwilling to lower the amount of resistance at the first signs of trouble, especially while the muscles are still getting stronger and bigger. At first the signs are not alarming—just clicking sounds every time one squats and the day after, a little pain or stiffness around a joint the day after a workout. Pride also enters in—lifting less would mean being a lesser person—and an obsession with meeting some training goals, no matter the pain and the unthought of consequences.
Training Tips of the Article
- People who can’t put a barbell or a partner weighing at least as much as them on their shoulders and easily do a few squats are too weak to learn fighting techniques.
- To stretch and strengthen all the muscles of your thighs and buttocks, and the muscles of the calf, do deep squats (deeper than thighs parallel to the floor), keeping your feet flat on the ground. Do not bounce, just go down as low as possible and then raise up, tensing the stretched muscles.
- If your heels come up from the floor and you lean too far forward when doing squats, it is usually due to low range of motion in foot extension (dorsiflexion), which can be caused by shortness of calf muscles. You also could have low range of motion in hip flexion, which can be caused by shortness of your hamstrings (hip extensors). To increase range of motion, do squats with weights at a depth that permits correct form. Also do the “good morning” lift to strengthen and stretch your hamstrings, and do calf raises from a full stretch.
Conroy, B. P. and R. W. Earle. 1994. Bone, Muscle, and Connective Tissue Adaptations to Physical Activity. In Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, ed. T. R. Baechle, pp. 51–66. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Draeger, D. F. and R. W. Smith. 1974. Asian Fighting Arts. Tokyo: Kodansha International LTD.
Huberti, H. H., and W. C. Hayes. 1984. Patellofemoral contact pressures: The influence of q-angle and tendofemoral contact. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery vol. 66-A, no. 5 (June), pp. 715-724.
Jeffrey, D. 1994. The Master of Devastating Kicks: Hee Il Cho’s Routine for Fast, Powerful Kicks. Martial Arts Training March 1994, pp. 20–25, 62.
Kraemer, W. J. 1994. Neuroendocrine Responses to Resistance Exercise. In Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, ed. T. R. Baechle, pp. 86–107. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Kurz, T. 2001. Science of Sports Training. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
Russell, P., and S. Phillips. 1989. A preliminary comparison of front and back squat exercises. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 60, no. 3 (September), pp. 201–208.
Starzynski, T. and H. Sozanski. 1999. Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
Strossen, R. J. 1989. Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks. Nevada City, CA: Iron Mind Enterprises, Inc.
Tipton, C. M., R. D. Matthes, J. A. Maynard, and R. A. Carey. 1975. The influence of physical activity on ligaments and tendons. Medicine and Science in Sports vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 165–175.
Wachowski, E. and R. Strzelczyk. 1994. Optymalizacja treningu silowego miotaczy (uwarunkowania teoretyczne i metodyczne). Trening no. 1/21, pp. 114–126.
This article is based on Stadion books Science of Sports Training and Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports, and on videos Secrets of Stretching: Exercises for the Lower Body and Flexibility Express. Get them now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs!
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum