Get under that bar and squat
Not long ago, I was a terrible squatter. It was uncomfortable. It bothered my knees. It seemed to produce little in the way of strength gains. I had resigned myself to the idea that I just wasn't built for squatting — after all, there are some trainees for whom squatting seems to come very naturally. I, on the other hand, struggled to squat over 200lbs. So rather than embarrass myself with weak and unproductive squats, I decided I'd be better off focusing on machines instead.
Nonsense. If you're a human being, you're built to squat. It's one of the most fundamental movements our bodies are designed to do. Hip and knee flexion combined with ankle dorsiflexion while preserving a neutral spine — that's basically it. If, like me, you have found yourself avoiding squats because you find them difficult or unnatural, it's not the movement that's the problem. It's you. And you can fix you.
It's worth pointing out that there are some tremendous athletes who don't squat — or at least do not do free-standing back squats with a barbell. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates famously built his massive legs doing Smith Machine squats and leg presses. I'm certainly not one to spread the myth that machines are ineffective; in fact, for hypertrophy (muscle size), I think that they are sometimes superior to free weights simply because they allow continuous tension and maximal effort without balance and stabilization, leading to greater stress on the muscles.
But you're not Dorian Yates. And the problem with avoiding free-standing squats is that machine-based movements have very little transfer to other activities, precisely because most physical activities require some measure of balance and stability integrated with strength and power delivery. If, like many athletes today, you are training for general physical preparedness — that is, you are trying to be a well-rounded, functional athlete — then squatting is an absolute must.
Variety is the spice of squat
Free-standing barbell squats are great for overall strength, power, and even conditioning. But you shouldn't just squat with a weight on your back; you should squat with a weight in front of you (as in a goblet squat or front squat with a barbell), and even a weight above you. You should be able to do a pistol squat, also known as a 1-leg squat. You should be able to hold a barbell directly overhead in a full squat, and do the same with a single-arm overhead dumbbell or kettlebell squat.
These movements are difficult. They're limited by strength, certainly, but also by mobility and skill — and that's what makes them so worthwhile. A well-rounded athlete ought to be prepared to engage in a variety of functional movements at a variety of loads across a variety of time parameters. If you're primarily concerned about how your legs look, you may be able to get away with leg presses. If, however, you want to be able to run faster, jump higher, master Olympic lifts, and move the most weight your body is capable of, then squatting is paramount to your training program.
Why can't you squat?
In my experience, squat technique is limited primarily by three deficiencies:
- Weakness in the glutes and quadriceps
- Tight Achilles tendons, limiting ankle dorsiflexion
- Tight glute-complex muscles, limiting hip flexion
The good news is that the first is not a problem for most people, and the second two are relatively easy fixes. I have a client who became so accustomed to wearing four-inch heels that she could barely squat to 45°, much less to parallel or below. Daily stretching of her Achilles tendon produced rapid and dramatic improvements in her technique. Tight glutes can be fixed with simple stretches like the "pigeon" used in Yoga. Limitations in flexibility do not generally take long to correct if the trainee is diligent about daily stretching.
Strength is another matter. In my experience, it's rare that strength deficiencies prevent a proper bodyweight squat. More commonly, the deficiencies manifest as poor execution of the front or back squat. The glutes are naturally a bigger, stronger group of muscles than the quadriceps, so inexperienced trainees tend to default to those stronger muscles. This results in a tell-tale squat mistake wherein, from the bottom position, the hips rise up before the chest (resulting in increase bow) before the trainee does something resembling a good-morning to return to a standing position. Fortunately, as with mobility, this deficiency can be fixed with front-loaded squatting, though it may take several months before the strength carries over to the back squat.