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It’s commonly thought that a bodybuilder should squat with a narrow, shoulder-width stance, while powerlifters should use a wide-footed stance with the barbell low on the shoulders. Many bodybuilders believe that the quadriceps are activated more with a narrow-stance squat than a wide-stance squat. But what does research say? Researchers measured well-trained subjects with different types of stances: shoulder-width as well as 75% (bodybuilder squat) and 140% (powerlifter squat) of shoulder-width. The researchers examined two training loads: 65% and 75% of a 1RM. Ready for the shocker? The muscle activation of the legs changed in relation to the amount of weight used, not the width of the stance. Adductor (hip muscle) activation has been shown to increase with a wide stance. This is because the thigh shows increased abduction and lateral rotation during the descent with a wide stance and during the ascent; the adductors are therefore activated to draw the thigh back to the midline of the body. But the activation of the quad muscle was determined by the amount of weight, not the stance position.
Half Squats for Half the Results!
Nothing is worse than seeing a guy load up the bar and squat about 3 inches! Researchers examined the muscle activation of the quad when subjects did “partial or quarter squats” and full squats. The subjects using the partial squat were able to squat more weight than the group doing the full range of motion. As expected, the partial squat at 83% and the parallel squat at 67% produced the greatest peak force. It should really come as no surprise that partial squats resulted in inferior muscle activation compared to full squats, so check your ego at the door and lower the weight and do full squats if you want the best results for your legs.
Free-Weight Squat Remains King!
Many bodybuilders look at the empty squat rack and just can’t stomach the pain, so they head to the Smith machine and do the squat there. Researchers examined the muscle activation of the legs and compared the Smith machine squat to free-weight squats. The Smith machine squat group was able to squat 31–51 pounds more than the free-weight squat group. However, the free-weight squat group elicited 43% more muscle activation of the leg muscles compared to the Smith machine squat. So if you’re a bodybuilder wanting to get the most from your leg training, choose the free-weight squat over the Smith machine squat.
Ronnie Was Right!
Eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman did not have much variation in his leg routine—he generally did just squats and sometimes changed the exercises, but free-weight squats were his staple exercise. Many bodybuilders will change up their leg routine and use leg presses because it is believed to recruit the same muscles. Researchers examined muscle activation in the legs and compared leg-press exercises and full barbell squats. The squat produced the greatest leg activation for all the muscles recorded. Although it is commonly thought that exercises such as the leg press can be effective for activating the quad, the squat is still the king of leg exercises.
References: McCaw, S. T., et al, Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 31(3):428-436, 1999; Drinkwater EJ, et al, J Strength Cond Res., 26(4):890-6, Apr 2012; Schwanbeck S, et al, J Strength Cond Res., 23(9):2588-91, Dec 2009; James, M., wr L, School of Medicine & Health Sciences | University of North Dakota, retrieved May 1, 2010.