A History of the Back Squat and How the Squat Benefits You
Remember your first time performing the squat?
It was that awkward excursion in the weight room where you tried to squat. What really happened was that you kind of bent your knees and rounded over with a barbell on your back, and stood back up with it. It was cringe-worthy as it was dangerous. But that’s all in the past now, and you get to experience the cringe-worthiness of other people’s first attempts at squats.
Or, are you a beginner and are just learning the squat?
Well, your back squat probably looks like crap, but keep working on it and it will be up to par in no time. Make sure you study the lift’s technique thoroughly and seek guidance if needed. (Note: Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength and the Starting Strength forums are excellent resources for learning lifts as a beginner).
It’s funny seeing so many misguided folks either intimidated by or uninterested in the back squat. Reguar ol’ people love exercises such as the bench press or anything else requiring a machine. However, the act of using the lower body to move really heavy weights either scares or bores people. Is it because perpetual sitting has ruined people’s ability to squat, or is it because people in general are cowardly and avoid hard work?
How unfortunate it is for these “everyday” folks to forgo the squat. Heck, plenty of weekend warriors and meat-heads will not perform this exercise either (But if it’s because of injuries, I guess I can’t blame them). An exercise such as this has so many benefits for the trainee, the squat is almost too good to pass up.
Let’s examine all of the benefits of the squat – more importantly, the back squat – shall we? But before we do that, here’s a quick history on the squat.
The History of the Squat – from Common-Resting-Position to Modern-Muscle-Builder
The squat has an interesting history, with its relevance dating back to ancient times. Long before it was an exercise, the squat was a position of rest. What most people find incredibly difficult and tiring, ancient people found relaxing.
In the non-Western world, people in both modern and indigenous societies can be found squatting instead of sitting. For some reason, us Americans and Europeans love our chairs. Such a discrepancy between the East and the West has even resulted in the term “Asian squat” for act of of squatting for relaxation.
Arguably, the squat position seems to be how humans were designed to defecate. It’s common knowledge that the same people (i.e., non-Westerners) who squat to relax, also squat to take a dump. Heck, check out the toilets they’ve got over in China!
Constipation and gastrointestinal issues run amok in the West, and interestingly enough, we also love to sit while we s**t. Researchers have examined the issue and have determined a few things. First, the rectoanal angle is much more “streamlined” in the squatting position compared to the sitting position (Sikirov BA). Basically, the path of the rectum to the anus is straight while squatting, and is crooked/angled while sitting. Second, defecation requires more time and perceived effort while sitting than while squatting (Sikirov D).
So, if squatting: a) is a traditional resting posture, b) straightens the path that feces must travel to exit the body, and c) seems to make defecating easier; then squatting is arguably the position we were designed to dump from.
This takes us to our next point: the squat had pretty much only been a resting posture up until recently. As I mentioned in the previous edition of Keep On ___, lower body strength was historically developed and tested with stone-lifting. When the barbell came around in the late-1800s/early-1900s, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, curls, and presses were the norm. For ancient people and old-time strongmen, squats just weren’t used for strength feats. One guess as to why is because squat stands and power racks are fairly recent inventions.
This all changed when Henry “Milo” Steinborn came to America in 1921. This German-born weightlifter and wrestler was able to back squat 550 pounds for reps using his famous “Steinborn lift” (Boff V). His technique essentially involves hoisting the barbell from the ground onto the back with zero assistance. Here’s the USAWA’s description of the lift:
The rules of performance for the squat apply, except that the lifter has to take the bar from the floor to the shoulders, using a series of movements to get the bar in position, and be ready to receive the signal to squat. Following the completion of the squat and receiving the referees signal to replace the bar, the lifter must again use a series of movements to take the bar back to the lifting surface, under control. To get the bar to the shoulders the lifter will stand the bar on end and move into a position against the bar so that the bar can fall or be rocked onto the shoulders. The bar can be brought onto one shoulder if desired, but must then be pivoted around and into position across the shoulders at the back of the neck. An aide can assist the lifter by placing a foot against the bottom of the up – ended bar to stop it sliding, both before and after the squat lift (Myers, Al).
Apparently Milo’s back squat was so impressive that it inspired Mark Berry, one of the editors of Strength magazine as well as the head coach of the USA Olympic weightlifting team in the ’30s, to use squats himself. After much success in increasing his strength and size, he recommended them to everyone within his influence (Randy R).
Post-WW2, lifters started to play around with back squats, it seemed. Improvised squat stands were used, and the original power rack became popular circa-1960s (Rader P).
Earlier in his career, Doug Hepburn squatted 560 pounds (Kiiha O). Paul Anderson squatted 760 pounds in 1953 (Murray J). Reg Park, Mr. Universe, was said to have squatted over 600 pounds in the 1950s (RegPark.eu). John Grimek, Mr. America and Mr. Universe, was able to squat over 300 lbs in his 70s (Brainum J).
Good ol’ Bill Starr, one of the first ever strength coaches for a football team (circa 1969), recommended back squats for athletic development (Starr B). Bill Starr’s stuff was the precursor to Mark Rippetoe’s popular Starting Strength Program, which involves squatting heavy thrice weekly. Finally, when the International Powerlifting Federation was founded in 1972, you can say the back squat had pretty much etched itself into the mainstream (Unitt). From Milo Steinborn’s performances onward, it was pretty much a “domino effect” for the popularity of the back squat.
Fortunately for us, the back squat is chock-full of positive qualities and is sure welcome to stay in our toolbox of exercises. Here are some of the benefits of the squat.
Benefit #1: Squats Completely Strengthen the Lower Body and Core
There is a reason that many people claim the squat is KING of all exercises. The back squat is the best exercise for strengthen the legs, bar none. It taxes the quads, hamstrings and glutes, and also involves the lumbar erectors (significantly), the abdominals, and the calves (to an extent). On top of that, the squat also allows for an incredible amount of weight to be used in a large range-of-motion. No other exercise does this.
Why? Because the squat involves simultaneous flexion-extension of the hips, knees, and ankles in both legs. Sure, other exercises sort of achieve the same movement. Examples include lunges, split-squats, and front squats. However, those exercises don’t quite accomplish what the squat does.
With lunges and split-squats, not only is there reduced loading due to only one leg being used, but there is an added challenge of balance. Ultimately, less weight can be used, and I suspect it’d be even less than 50% of the weight used in a back squat because of the balance required for unilateral movements. So the core/back is strengthened less because the weight is less than 100% of what’s used in the back squat, and the legs are strengthened less because the weight is less than 50% per leg.
EDIT: I has been brought to my attention that it is indeed possible to overload the leg in a unilateral exercise with more than 50% of the weight used bilaterally. Studies have observed this before by comparing the force production of one leg vs two legs, and the phenomena is called “bilateral deficit”. I still believe that unilateral exercises can inhibit how much weight that can be used because of the issue of balance. But, if someone has a badly injured back, uses a much less balance-heavy exercise such as the Bulgarian split-squat, and practices the said unilateral exercise, that unilateral leg training will be more practical and allow for heavy weights to be used.
As for front squats, because they require a completely upright torso and knees-forward stance, the posterior chain bears less of the load. This means that the lumbar erectors, the glutes, and the hamstrings – especially the hamstrings – aren’t strengthened as much as they are in the back squat. Once again, less weight can be used because of a lack of muscular involvement. I can’t say that I dislike front squats – I think they’re awesome, especially if you’ve got back pain. They just don’t offer the same bang-for-your-buck that back squats offer. They’d require you to couple them with something like glute-ham-raises or hyperextensions to get the same effect as back squats.
Furthermore, because squats strengthen all of the muscles of the lower body simultaneously, they are the most efficient exercise of leg hypertrophy. They are the all-you-can-eat-buffet of muscle building exercises. Remember how I said Reg Park once back squatted over 600 pounds?
Benefit #2: Squats Protect the Knees from Injury
Something worth noting about the hamstrings-involvement in the back squat is how it protects the knee from injury. When the quads are engaged – as they are in the squat – the muscle pulls the tibia forward away from the femur. If the hamstrings are engaged, they pull the tibia backwards. Any type of “shear” movement such as these are stressful to the ligaments of the knee, because the ligaments passively resist these motions. Thus, if the hamstrings and quads are engaged simultaneously – as they are in the squat – they counteract each other’s “tug” on the tibia. This makes the back squat a knee-friendly lower body exercise. (If squats still bother your knees, check out some resources I have for squat-related knee-pain, found here and here.)
Additionally, back squats further fortify the knees against injury, because the hamstrings-involvement strengthens the said muscle. Reduced hamstrings strength have been correlated with a higher incidence of ACL tears in female athletes (Myer GD). Coincidentally, the ACL resists the tibial shear movement produced by the quads. This begs the question: do strong hamstrings resist the strain placed on the ACL during “real life” movement, while weak hamstrings don’t resist it quite as well?
Benefit #3: Squats Increase Explosiveness and Athleticism
In my Keep on Deadlifting article, I discussed how deadlifts improve explosiveness and athleticism, because: a) powerful hip extension is paramount for athletes, b) deadlifts strengthen the hip extensors, and c) increasing strength increases power. Afterwards in my Changing Fiber Type article, I examined the ability of our bodies to “transform” muscle fibers from one type to another. Namely, I was trying to find evidence of transformations towards the “explosive” type, for the sake of increasing explosiveness. It seems that our muscles will transform fibers into anything but the type IIX “explosive” fiber type. However, the hypertrophy of type II fibers via strength training, as well as actually practicing explosive movements, increases explosive ability.
With the back squat, the hips, knees, and ankles act together in unison to push our bodies plus additional weight into the standing position. This is known as triple-extension, and it matches the same joint-action used in sprinting, jumping, and other athletic movements. By squatting, you are increasing the strength of triple-extension, and in-turn increasing the power of triple-extension. Athletes will be served well with heavy back squats.
Benefit #4: Squats Offer a Test of Mental Fortitude
Have you ever performed your 10- or 20-rep-max with the back squat? Let me tell you that there is hardly anything exercise-related quite like performing high-rep back squats until near-failure.
With deadlifts, performing your 10-rep-max for a set of 10 is absolutely insane. You move heavy-ass weight for what seems like an excruciating long-period of time. BUT, you technically get some rest between each rep. The weight of the barbell isn’t crushing your body for the entire time – only when you’re actually lifting it during a rep.
With back squats, you’re not given any rest until either you rack the bar or your muscles fail on you. Standing there between reps with the bar on your back may technically be easier than performing the rep, but it sure ain’t easier than letting the bar rest on the ground. Heck, recently I attempted my calculated 10RM for a set of 10 – successfully – and it was like eating glass. My body was telling me to stop after the 5th rep, but I kept going. I took my time between reps 6 through 10, but I was still feeling crushed. After finishing the set, I immediately had an exercise-induced headache, which I had never experienced before with squats.
It was a unique experience and I can easily say I’d dread high-rep heavy squats more over high-rep heavy deadlifts. Those 10 reps of 10RM back squats were the ultimate mental test – dare I call them Crossfit-esque? – and I will definitely try them again when I’m in the mood for a self-flagellation. Give them a try, seriously.
Appealing to Authority: Awesome People Who Squat Heavy Weight
As if the old-timer examples I listed before weren’t enough, here are some more awesome people squatting heavy weights. Let’s be awesome. Let’s squat heavy.
- Stan “the Rhino” Efferding squatting 905 lbs raw in competition.
- Dmitry Klokov high-bar squatting 530 lbs for 10 reps.
- Mariusz Pudzioanowski high-bar squatting 685 lbs (after an entire squat workout).
- Rich Froning high-bar squatting 395 lbs after maxing out on front squats and overhead squats, at a weight of 195 lbs lean.
- Jamie Lewis, author of CNP, squatting 633 lbs raw in competition (in the 165-lbs weight class, I believe – this isn’t even his back squat PR).
- Frank Yang squatting 405 lbs back in 2008.
- Camille Leblanc-Bazinet high-bar squatting 295 lbs for a double.
Squats have an intriguing history and relevance to human living and are an incredibly useful exercise. Barring that you haven’t destroyed your back or knees, it would be prudent to make good use of them in your program. Squats increase the strength, power, and hypertrophy of your legs like no other, and can be used to test your mettle and grit.
Get under something heavy and hoist it up. It’ll do your body some good.
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