Do standard squats always leave you banged up? If so, you might not have the right body type for it. Find out here.
In part one and part two of this series, I explained how the term “king of lifts” is generally defined as a movement that’s not only superior to all other alternatives, but also the best exercise for everyone. It means that it stands so high above every other lift that NOT doing it will prevent you from achieving good results.
As stated in both of those articles, such an exercise does not exist.
Much of what determines the relative worth of an exercise depends on your body structure, objectives, and experience. What’s “best” for you might not be the same as for your friend.
For instance, as I laid out in part one, the deadlift will not effectively develop your posterior chain if your limbs are short and you have a long torso. Instead, a person with those physical attributes would do much better with an exercise like Romanian deadlifts or, better yet, with Romanian deadlifts done with a band around the waist.
Part two explained that while the bench press can be a good pectoral exercise for people with longer arms, people with shorter arms will find that it hits mostly the triceps and delts. Consequently, short-armed lifters would do better with something like chest dips or dumbbell bench presses.
Now I’ll explain why squats are also not the best exercise for a good many people.
Just like the bench press, the back squat wasn’t a popular lift until the 1950s. The main reason for this lack of popularity was the actual rarity of squat racks. If you wanted to do a back squat, you’d have to “rock” the bar onto your shoulders.
The lifter would up-end the bar (bar standing up straight, pointing to the ceiling) next to him. Then he would bend sideways to “rack the back.” Then he’d rock laterally into a full back-squat position, bringing the bar with him.
Nowadays, this movement is called the “Steinborn lift.” You can easily see how hard (and dangerous) it would be to use lots of weight.
Squatting did get a little bit more popular by the 1940s, but mostly in the form of front squats. Prior to that decade, most Olympic lifters used a “split style” on their snatch and cleans, and they often used lunges and split squats as assistance lifts. Come the 1940s, though, more and more O-lifters started to use a front squat style instead of the split style.
As mentioned, there was an initial dearth of racks, so they would have to clean the bar and do multiple reps of relatively light front squats. As racks became more and more common, lifters began using a lot more weight on their front squats.
That’s also about when the back squat started to emerge as the “king” of assistance lifts, largely because of Paul Anderson’s gold in the 1954 Olympics. His victory was attributed mostly to his tremendous leg strength. It’s even said that the Russians started building squat racks after seeing him lift.
The point of this history lesson is that plenty of strong, tough-as-nails men never really trained the squat. Accordingly, not doing them doesn’t make you a wuss.
If you told me that I could only do two exercises for the rest of my life, I’d pick the back squat and bench press. But that’s just me.
Because of my leverages, I’ve always been able to grow my legs simply by squatting. In fact, when I trained like a bodybuilder and did lots of different leg work, my legs were significantly smaller than when I was a weightlifter who did nothing for legs other than squatting 3-4 days a week. Squats work for me because I have short legs and a tibia that’s long compared to the femur. My body is built to squat.
Not everybody is like that. Good luck if you have the opposite body type, i.e., long limbs, short torso, and femurs significantly longer than tibias! If that description fits you, your squat will automatically become more of a “hingey” squat. You’ll rely more on the glutes and lower back to lift the load. The quads will take a backseat.
The squat will also be uncomfortable for you and feel awkward if you’re asked to go all the way down (unless you have tremendous hip mobility).
As evidence, I’ve trained tons of athletes with the long-limb, short-torso body type, and they just couldn’t build their quads with the back squat. The front squat and split squat variations were a lot more effective for that specific purpose.
Heck, for them, the hack squat machine and leg press were more effective at building the quads than full squatting (blasphemy, I know). And they also seemed to respond better to back squatting to parallel than all the way down.
Again, an exercise’s goal, unless you have to do it in competition, is to load certain muscles to make them bigger or stronger. If an exercise doesn’t load the muscles you want to stimulate, it’s not the right movement for the job, even if that movement is seen as the “king” of exercises.
If you’re looking to gain size or strength, don’t feel obligated to include certain exercises for fear of being critiqued. I do believe that the big basic lifts – if they fit you – will give you the best bang for your buck and should be the cornerstone of most good programs.
But the key here is, “if they fit you.” If your body is not built to squat, don’t feel bad if you have to rely on the front squat, split squats, or even a leg press to make your legs grow.
People with long limbs will often respond very well to a lower-body program of deadlifts, split squats, and leg presses. Who’s to say that you can’t be hardcore with these exercises?
People with short limbs might not get much out of deadlifting, but they are built to squat. Who’s to say that a lower body program of back squats, Romanian deadlifts, and leg curls can’t represent hard training?
The only thing that matters is getting results, not what some entitled wannabe thinks of your workout. Look for the exercises that allow you to load the muscles the best and allow you to train hard with the smallest risk of injury possible so you can stay in the game for the long haul.