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7 Best Squats To Build Strong Legs & Bulletproof Knees

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 11 July 2017
Hits: 30338

If you have been going to gym for some time, or if you have a knee problem you will know all about the importance of being able to SQUAT. The squat, along with the deadlift, is one of the most common leg exercises to the strength and conditioning world, and regarded as one of the "king" movements in the gym. It is also very popular in the rehabilitation field, for the amazing benefits it can provide to not only your legs, but your entire body with regards to posture, core stability and better movement control. When you develop a great movement pattern with the squat you improve any movement sharing the same timing, such as jumping which is why it is a favorite of sports coaches around the world. But it also improves the strength of muscles around the knee and the timing of standing up out of a chair, or climbing up stairs and many everyday tasks which are usually very difficult for people with knee pain, explaining why the health and rehabilitation field love it so much. There are so many ways you can do this great exercise, which one is the best? Well there is no one that is good for all of us, (besides maybe the single leg squat), there is only the best one for you and knowing which one this is, can be just as important as learning the execution and technique. This article we look at 7 of our best squats to use to help build strong legs that will be bulletproof to injury.

Why Learn To Squat In The First Place?

Learning to squat is actually a primitive skill you learn as a toddler, and it is where your body first finds the skill to be able to stand. Along with the lunge it is also a key foundational movement pattern essential to our ability to function in life. Without this ability we would have great difficulty in performing even the simplest everyday tasks and be reverted back to a toddler and forced to crawl! A person with limited ability to squat struggles to get out of a chair, finds getting off the floor almost impossible and will find stairs even harder. As this movement is faulty the person has no choice but to find new ways to move to pick objects up off the floor and complete many day to day tasks with compensation.  Due to our sedentary lifestyle we develop tight joints, poor posture and dysfunctional movement patterns that limit our ability to squat, leading to inevitable problems at the back and the knee. In the gym environment it is great to see people using the squat, however, understanding of technique or variety of squat to use based on what your body needs is the key to getting the most out of the exercise. For if you choose the wrong version you could potentially exacerbate problems or dysfunctions speeding up the process of ending up in pain, or worse create a new problem altogether!

So where do you start?

The best place to start is to learn the fundamental skills, technique and ensure you have the optimal MOBILITY and STABILITY to perform the exercise. A toddler did not need to spend time isolating quads on a leg extension, or building muscles on the leg press to learn how to stand up and squat. The missing ingredient was not strength either, it was coordination and stability. The same is true for most adults, but we also need to improve our mobility as many have lost this due to sitting and poor training techniques whereas the toddler still has great mobility. Fundamentals, stability and mobility is where you need to start, and in 99% of cases it is a problem in any one of these areas that people end up in pain, or never reach their potential in sports and performance.

For all clients, sports, rehab and general fitness we always follow a process called the Success Formula of working in order of mobility, stability, strength and last power.

Our first 3 exercises are going to address the first 2 points of mobility and stability, with numbers 4 and 5 addressing strength and lastly number 6 and 7 for power development.

1: Body weight Squat

This exercise sets the foundations for all the other varieties to follow. Our objective with this exercise is to find ways to enhance our ability to achieve full range of motion within the squat maintaining perfect leg alignment and a neutral spine and pelvis. Sounds easy doesn't it, and you are probably thinking this won't build much strength, but trust me when I tell you most people find this exercise much harder than the weighted exercises! Not everybody can go "ass to grass" due to hip limitations, ankle stiffness or thoracic stiffness. It is these areas we must focus on to assist in creating a much more efficient squat pattern. Just stretching specific muscles will help to some small degree, but is unlikely to change the movement pattern itself. This is where we use several mobility drills in between sets of the body weight squat and actually use the squat to loosen these tight areas. Some people might have stiffness more at the ankle so we will spend more time there, others it may be the hips or the thoracic spine. The key is to find where exactly it is you are breaking down, and use a strategy to improve the mobility at these joints. Also you cannot disregard the fact that the lumbar spine needs to have "stiffness", and this also needs to be developed using good breathing methods to generate strength through the stabilizers. Training with body weight helps you to really focus on all these things and enable you to teach the system how to do the most efficient squat.

Below is some videos of some great mobility drills to use between sets.

With knee pain clients it is very difficult for them to achieve full range with the knee not happy bending to full flexion. Use of hip mobility drills and quadricep loosening drills with foam rollers and PNF stretching is very helpful. We also like to use heel plates to assist the ankles and help people "feel" what it is like to be in great body position. In terms of VMO strength using heel plates and even the Decline Board Squat is a great way to increase the firing of what is a very important muscle in terms of stability for the knee. Below is a video of how to do this.

In summary for this exercise

  1. Assess your technique of body weight squat
  2. Determine where your lack of mobility is and implement mobility drills and stretches
  3. Use tools like heel plates, TRX, or sticks to assist in learning how to improve your body position

Good articles to read to assist you in this phase are below

Stability Training What Is It Really & How To Do It Correctly

Mobility & Flexibility Drills

Functional Training Movement Patterns

Also make sure you download our Free Report on Functional Training below as this includes 3 regression programs for the squat pattern, as well as lunge, bend etc so you can slowly learn how to put all this together. This includes exercise descriptions, pictures and explanations of how to design a strength program to enhance functional movement. Click here to find out more and get your instant copy.

2: Single Leg Squat

I mentioned at the beginning I would argue the single leg squat is the best exercise and one we ALL should do, and for good reason. The single leg squat requires significant more posterior chain gluteal activation than the traditional two leg squat, for the glutes need to control the alignment of the leg and also provide hip extension at the same time. This is important for many people are quadricep and hip dominant with their movements, that create all the unwanted stiffness leading to postural and movement dysfunction, and ultimately pain! With regards to sports, even running for that matter, the single leg stance is where we see 95% of injuries occur. When running you are on one leg 100% of the time, so if you have a problem with a single leg squat, you will have a problem with running and jumping. ACL injuries for example which are season ending injuries, sometimes career ending are often non contact injuries caused from poor landing on single leg or a pivot that was performed in poor alignment. Both of these could have been prevented with a program that had a heavy focus on single leg squats. (see article What To Do If You Tear Your ACL to see more on this). So it makes perfect sense to make this exercise as close to perfect as you can get it, and raise the level of performance with it to exceed what you need in life.

Patella tracking, ITB friction syndrome, plantar fasciitis and just about every single lower limb injury will benefit greatly from this exercise. A lot of people look for VMO specific exercises for treating knee pain, when the single leg squat does a better job than any of these if performed correctly. The VMO will be dictated by what the glutes and the ankle are doing, so this exercise includes all 3 which is why it is so great. This exercise is the cornerstone of our Knee Pain and Hip Pain rehabilitation programs for we know if we can help the person to execute this perfectly with loads and great range of motion we are one big step in the right direction for correcting all of their problems! If you are someone with knee pain or hip pain you can check out these extensive programs  that we have online as video downloads and PDF reports below by clicking on the image.

 

Again you can use various methods to assist you in learning how to get this right and the same mobility drills from the body weight squat apply here. The key addition you might need to add is some strength work for the glutes. Use of isolated glute drills is needed for most people have significant weakness in this area and will be unable to generate the necessary strength in the integrated version. Add on top of that a lack of balance and you can begin to see how this exercise can be a real tough exercise for most. Make sure you get this right before trying the advanced progression at the end!

We also like to use this as an assessment tool and below is a video example of how you can do this. You can read more about how to do that in this article The Single Leg Squat Is The Best Exercise For Rehab & Injury Prevention

Key technique points are

  1. Begin the movement by flexing at the hip and continue bending the knee and ankle until your thigh is as close to parallel to the ground as you can get it.
  2. Keep hands in front of the body.
  3. Keep trunk as neutral as possible, preferably neck above toes, avoiding excessive lumbar and thoracic curvature.
  4. Heel must stay in contact with the ground at all times.
  5. And MOST IMPORTANTLY make sure you ankle, knee and hip all line up in a perfect straight line.

A quick word on the difference between pistol squats and traditional single leg squats with the trailing leg in the air. I have no problem with the pistol squat if you have the ability to maintain the neutral position of your lower back, the natural curve when at the bottom. I would say 95% of people cannot do this, due to poor hip mobility and doing the exercise with a rounded back poses huge risk to your the discs in your lower back, not to mention the fact you are likely to wind up your hamstrings more than your glutes, which defeats the whole point of the exercise. So if you are able to get in position as in the picture above of the girl with the kettlebell above her head the go for pistols, if not complete the single leg squat with the leg behind you.

You can also use single leg deadlifts and split squats to assist you in generating stability and control within this movement in the early stages. Although deadlifts are not as upright as the squats, they build tremendous glute strength and of course balance.

3: Balance Board Squats

This exercise will create some controversy in some circles as many believe these types of exercises are abused and create more problems instead of developing strength. I have found that learning how to execute this exercise perfectly before progressing to the strength exercises invaluable, not for the balance though. The huge benefit to learning this exercise is two key things

  1. Developing the ability to maintain trunk posture and stability
  2. Correcting any leg strength difference between left and right leg

This exercise is unique in that in order to achieve a squat without the board hitting the floor you must be precise with your posture, stability in every joint and be even in your weight distribution. On the floor you can get sloppy and get away with it. With the balance board you cannot as the exercise provides constant feedback as to how you are going. The risk of injury is minimal as there is no load being used, as opposed to a barbell that can exacerbate problems and even cause pain if you compensate too much. I find using this after the previous two exercises invaluable to then prepare you for the following more advanced exercises where you will need more intra abdominal pressure and stabilization of the spine.

I like to use a holding tempo when doing this exercise, 5 second hold at the bottom without the board touching the ground. Reps of 6-8 is enough and by this stage most people are feeling the quads big time. A great exercise for any sportsperson looking to improve balance on the field or court, and one we use a lot in our sports specific programs for snowboarding, tennis, basketball and football.

Watch the video below to see how to do this.

4: Back Squat

At last I hear you say. Out of the strength squats the back squat would be the most popular in the gyms. This is where the barbell is placed behind the head on your shoulders. Massive loads can be moved with this exercise which is usually why it is so popular. The big difference between this version and the previous three apart from the obvious being the load, would be the breathing required. Due to the increase in load the breath now needs a much greater activation in order to create the necessary stiffness in the body to prevent any unwanted flexion or extension in the spine, and all the stabilizer muscles involved in the movement. If you do not understand how to breathe correctly during this exercise you will be in trouble. Either you will get injured or you will create compensatory methods of moving which eventually will create pain. Plus you just never will achieve your true potential with this exercise.

Again as with all exercises technique is critical. I rate this as easier than the front squat for the fact you can get a bit sloppy with this and get away with it for a while, whereas the front squat you will not. The same mobility problems we saw in the body weight exercise at the start will be magnified here. So you can use the same drills and even the body weight exercise as a drill between sets to improve this.

WHAT IS PERFECT FORM FOR THE SQUAT?

Firstly this is what we are trying to achieve with technique of the squat. The angle of the shin bone (tibia) must be parallel to the spine. There must be weight evenly distributed over the foot. Often we see people place far too much weight in their heels due to avoidance of pain or poor technique. Their squat form looks more like a deadlift than a squat, so it is important to understand how to position yourself correctly by going back to the first exercise and using a stick on your back instead of a bar before progressing to the weights.

Technique:

  1.  Standing with a barbell resting on your upper back hands slightly wider than shoulders
  2. Lift your chest up to activate your upper back muscles and drive the elbows forward.
  3. Take a comfortable stance wide enough that allows you squat down between your legs.
  4. Take a deep diaphragmatic breath then gently draw your belly button inward.
  5. Lower down into a squat as low as you can keep the natural arch in your low back.
  6. Exhale through pursed lips as you return to standing.

This exercise will build tremendous strength into all of the leg muscles - quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors and abductors, even the calves and the core are involved. A total body exercise that improves strength in line with stability and coordination which is why this is superior to any machine exercise like the leg press. Read our full article Squats vs Leg Press to see more about this.

One other issue with using the back squats is it requires the shoulders to be externally rotated and abducted. I have had countless number of people who had no problems through the lower body but either due to poor kyphotic posture or shoulder joint problems they were unable to place the bar across their shoulders. Anyone with a rotator cuff tear will find this position very painful so this is a consideration for this exercise.

5: Front Squat

 

Now why do we rate this exercise harder? In general, front squats require much more flexibility than back squats. The thoracic spine needs to be able to provide extension and be strong enough to stay like that which for most people is the most difficult part of this exercise. If you are doing this with a clean grip, you will also need great mobility at the wrists and fingers to properly rest the bar. You can use tools like the stingray to assist you in this stage which we do use with a lot of people when first trying this exercise.

Finally, as with all the other squats, exceptional ankle mobility is paramount and allows you to keep your feet flat, and along with perfect core stabilization and breathing to prevent your lower back from rounding you will need a lot of practice to get all these moving parts in sync with each other. Many will find that they can lift much more with a back squat as the back squat is so much easier. If your form is good with the back squat, I encourage you to try to progress to the front squat and learn the necessary skills. It is well worth the effort and enables you to progress to Olympic Lifting like hang cleans, power cleans and clean and jerk!

The last consideration for the front squats place is the shoulders. As the bar on the front of the deltoids it can cause problems if you have any type of shoulder pain. A healthy shoulder can hold this position, but injuries like shoulder impingement can be irritated by it. The front squat puts the elbows in full flexion and the wrists in full extension. Any previous injuries in either of those joints can be aggravated when front squatting.

In terms of muscle development all squats will build strength into the entire leg.

Front squats will emphasize the quadriceps and the upper back due mainly to the more upright posture. Core stabilization is much greater. Back Squats will focus more on the gluteals and lumbar spine, and are a better choice with demanding supersets and endurance workouts as the stabilization is not as great as the front squat. The Single leg squats will be more focused on glutes and stability.

6: Box Jumps

Plyometrics are great fun, but they are also very risky if you have poor squat form. It is not the jump that is the problem, instead it is the landing. Again this is where most of the serious knee injuries occur, but it is also why you should learn how to do this exercise correctly so you can develop the necessary skills and strength to avoid injury. I am not a big fan of the people who love to do the highest possible jump, sure it looks impressive but often you see the person go for this insane jump only to land extremely poorly. I would prefer to see the landing perfected and the height compromised for this instead of the other way around.

Again if you play sports learning how to do this exercise is not a luxury, and you should not look at it as only a way to improve vertical leap, instead look at it as a way to improve deceleration and braking skills. There are many types of Box Jumps you can use but I always like to start with the easiest ones first and then work my way up to the harder more difficult versions. Below I have listed in order of easiest to hardest a series of box jumps. Below is the video of the simple version on the left, and then also the progressions in the video on the right.

Other Variations Of The Box Jump

Box Jump To Soft Landing
1. Standing on a box with good posture.
2. Drawing your belly button in towards your spine drop from the box landing in bent knees and hold still.

Box Jump To Single Leg Soft Landing
1. Standing on box with good posture.
2. Drawing your belly button in towards your spine drop from box landing on one leg with bent knee and hold still.

Box Jump To Vertical Tuck
1. Standing on a box with good posture.
2. Drawing your belly button in towards your spine drop from the box landing on the balls of your feet and immediately jump high drawing your knees up.

Box Jump To Single Leg Land & Vertical Tuck
1. Standing on a box with good posture.
2. Drawing your belly button in towards your spine drop from the box landing on the balls of one foot and immediate jump high drawing your knee up.

Again these are all great exercises but you must not attempt these if you have problems with any of the previous exercises.

7: Lateral Single Leg Squat Hop

This last squat is the first time we start to move laterally (sideways). This places enormous strain on the stabilizers of the entire body, especially the ankle and the hips that have to absorb the landing and provide instant stability, mobility, strength and then power to jump back off the ground. Again this action is used all the time in sports and is what the athlete will use to change direction explosively. Really a combination of balance, strength, power and agility. Read our article The 8 Must Have Abilities For Sports to see more on this. A weakness in this exercise is a red flag for future injury, usually the knee, but also reduced performance. Poor timing and deceleration skills make the athlete appear slow, and vice versa if they have exceptional braking skills an athlete who is average to slow running in a straight line now is lightning fast in close contests requiring multiple change of directions for evading or chasing. All the previous exercises have culminated in developing this one, that now demands highly advanced movements, strength, posture, stability, mobility and coordination to execute perfectly.

Watch the video to see how it is performed and also how it relates to a sport like basketball.

Summary

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and it gives you some great ideas on how to use the squat in your training. This is so much more than just an exercise to build strong legs. It is a movement, not just an exercise and it relates to so many of the daily tasks we do in life so by spending the time to get this right will pay off in loads as it prevents dreaded knee injuries but also enables you to do almost anything in life right up until your 90's! We have set these exercises out in the order we suggest you learn them and master them before moving to the next progression. Using mobility and simple stability and isolated strength exercises between sets is a great way to assist in the learning stage so you can move through the progressions faster.

For more ideas on different programs and even more progressions you can grab a copy of our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets with 101 programs ranging from strength to rehab and sports. Click here to see more or on the image below to get your copy now.

And if you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about any of our rehab, sports or personal training programs fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule an appointment.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
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  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
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  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
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  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek