Let’s start at the top, with the so-called “King of All Exercises.” For advanced bodybuilders, this is more like the “King of All Back Breakers and Butt Builders.” Like most trainers, I did squats for years, and I’m of two minds regarding their effectiveness. It’s a good fundamental exercise for some, if kept in check. The problem is that too few people keep them in check, and many people just aren’t built for them.
Along with the bench press and the deadlift, the squat is one lift in which guys really pile on the plates for low reps. The bottom line is if you’re always going heavy, eventually there will be a straw that breaks the camel’s or, in this case, the bodybuilder’s back. It happened to me. Heavy squatting was the primary reason I had lower back surgery in 1998.
Consider what you’re doing when squatting. You have a heavy weight on your traps, sometimes more than 500 pounds, pressing down on your spine. Then you bend down, putting your lumbar region in a vulnerable position, not to mention the strain on your knees and even your shoulders, from holding the bar. All of this is compounded if you’re my height or taller. If you’re Lee Priest or Dexter Jackson, you can do squats all day with good form and little discomfort, but if you’re over 5’10”, it’s tough to do them without bending forward too far.
Gym rats blindly worship at the squat racks because that’s how it’s always been. The funny thing is I know guys who’ve been training more than 10 years who still squat because they say they need the legs. They haven’t figured out that if it hasn’t worked by now, it ain’t gonna work. The longer you’ve been training, the less you should squat. In addition to the injury factor, once you have a foundation of mass, the squat can harm your appearance. It expands your hip flexors, glutes and upper thighs, which aren’t typically areas in which experienced trainers need more size. Over time, I think squats outlive their usefulness.
Instead of traditional squats, I do hack squats and leg presses. They’re better than squats for muscling up the quads and targeting different areas, and they’re safer, too. I believe in full ranges of motion, all the way down and all the way up for these movements, and for leg presses, I take a relatively wide stance. The taller you are, the wider your stance should be.