"Just Squat" is a common prescription for building legs, as is the classic "squats and oats" for overall body development.
However, there are numerous reasons why a squat may not be the best tool in the toolkit for training your legs.
Even when it is the best tool in the toolkit, the squat shouldn't be your only leg developer.
Updated 10/28/18 - I have heard some feedback by some considering this post to be “non-scientific”. While the major claims in this post are supported by the research linked in this post (and I would think that the claim “you should use more than leg exercise in your training program” is pretty uncontroversial), it was clear that not everyone was bothering to click through the links to follow the research, or seemed to think that they didn’t exist. I have updated this post slightly to reduce confusion on that point, and made links to supporting evidence more prominent.
It’s commonly believed that in order to get world class legs, you just have to squat.
I hear this all the time. Weak quads? Just squat. Glutes? Just squat. Bad knees? That’s fine, just squat, but with better form.
The reality is that the squat, while it’s an amazing exercise, isn’t a necessity. Really, it isn’t.
I know that some people will get out the torches and pitchforks now that I’ve said that, but there really are a lot of reasons why the squat may not be the best tool in the toolbox for you. Hell, I still squat regularly because I have to as a powerlifter, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hate every second of it. I’d just deadlift every day if that was all I had to do to develop my lower body.
Let’s go over the reasons.
Squatting Alone Isn’t Enough - You Need Variety
While squatting is an excellent exercise that builds a lot of muscle and uses a lot of muscle at once, it’s not a perfect solution. One study found that a program of squatting alone was inferior to a mixed program containing squatting, deadlifting, lunging, and leg pressing. Likewise, while the squat works a lot of muscles at once, studies have shown that it doesn’t activate the hamstrings, or the rectus femoris muscle, as much as other exercises. So, at a bare minimum, we should mix in other exercises which preferentially target these muscles. A squat, like any lift, isn’t a perfect solution, and has weak points which require the supplementation of other exercises in order to maximize your leg development (and thus, your strength).
So already, it’s clear that you can’t *just* squat - there’s a lot that it does for you, but you also need to supplement your squatting with some other work to get optimal, well-rounded leg development. This means mixing in your standard squats with other squat varieties, with single leg work, or with hip hinge work like the deadlift or the hip thrust. Your back squat may be the majority of your leg training (and I agree, for many people, it probably should be), but it shouldn't be everything.
If your goal is to build a big booty, then the squat is far from the best option - and exercises like the deadlift and hip thrust will be a much bigger contributor.
Some People Can’t Squat
The sad reality is that some people just can’t really squat well - they can squat, but they may not be able to go as deep as someone else, or may not be able to do it with good form. This is due to anatomical differences, and there may not be anything you can do about it.
Likewise, when I injured my knee two years ago, I was completely unable to squat but I was still able to use leg machines, because squatting anything over about 50% of my max would make my knees mad for days on days. This isn’t uncommon - Dorian Yates is also known for using machines because he felt that the squat didn’t agree with his body, and it worked out well enough for him, I imagine.
Take that, squats!
I also know many clients, just starting out, who lack the proper stability or mobility to get into a deep squat - and rather than force them, and risk injury, it’s better to start off carefully and work forward from there. Who would have thought?
Squatting Is Tough On The Spine
While the deadlift gets the bad rap for being hard on the spine, it’s less common to remember that, while the squat also is quite hard on the spine, it’s just hard on the spine in a slightly different way.
The deadlift represents a great deal of shear force - force which is horizontal to the spine, and which tries to separate the spine in a horizontal direction. The squat represents a great deal of compressive force - force which is vertical to the spine and pushes the discs together. Think of the spine as a giant spring - compression is the part where you press on the spring from the ends, and shear is like bending the spring from side to side.
The above image uses the knee joint as an example, but the same principle applies with spinal discs.
While shear force gets the bad rap, it’s important to remember that compression force places a great deal of stress on the spine as well - and that means that it requires recovery time. If you just kept squatting, your back would probably tire out before your quads do, especially if you're regularly training the deadlift in your training routine. This is a problem, because it means that you’re not training your quads as hard as you could.
Enter the beauty of the leg press and the leg extension. While these exercises alone won’t build your squat due to lack of specificity, they can provoke an additional stimulus and thus additional size growth, leading in the long run to better strength. They also have the great advantage of being performed seated, with minimal shear or compression forces on the spine. This means that you can tire your spine out from squatting, and then immediately follow it up with more spine-friendly exercises like the leg press or leg extension for additional growth by fully exhausting those quads.
People hate on the leg press and leg extension all the time - but yes, they are staples that have been used by many bodybuilders to get bigger and stronger for decades.
Likewise, if your spine is already tired out from another workout (say, you deadlifted a day or two ago), then clearly you’re not going to want to squat again - but maybe you can get away with some non-squatting leg exercises.
Tying It All Up
The squat is an excellent exercise, don’t get me wrong. I squat regularly, because as a powerlifter I need to train the movement. Most of my clients, particularly those training for strength, also use the squat.
However, when the goal is general fitness, or pure hypertrophy, or more well-rounded muscular development - well you probably shouldn’t just squat. You’ll want to mix it up with a variety of other leg work for maximum results. Different tools are better for different tasks, and there's no "universal tool" that does everything. If all it took to get a world-class physique was a single lift, everyone would still be sitting around doing bicep curls.
The squat should still be a staple in your toolkit. The squat is one of the movements that almost everyone can benefit from learning and mastering. For most people, it should make up the majority of your leg training. However, squatting alone is unlikely to be enough.
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