If there is to be a bodybuilding analog to the infamous Shakespearean quip, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” I think it’s safe to say that, “To squat, or not to squat? That is the question,” would find itself atop the list.
Classic literature references aside, barbell squats are undoubtedly one of the most potent strength and muscle building exercises one can perform when it comes to weight training. Yet, many bodybuilders and gym-goers shy away from them in favor of lower-body isolation exercises and machine-assisted garbage. Don’t get me wrong, there is some merit to doing things like leg extensions, leg curls, and leg presses, but nothing builds a solid set of wheels (and testicles) like some good ol’ fashion barbell squatting does.
So why is it then that so many physique competitors dodge squats when it comes to leg training? Is it fear of injury? Lack of drive to get under the damn bar and build some manhood? Maybe it’s both, maybe it’s neither, but whatever it is, it’s probably not a good excuse to avoid this time-tested leg and strength building exercise. Read on as we take a deeper look at barbell squatting and why it almost always should be part of your leg training routine, especially if you’re after a stronger, well-rounded physique.
*Note: the term “barbell squat” used herein refers to the barbell back squat exercise, not to be confused with other variations like front squats and overhead squats.
What the heck is a barbell squat?
I would hope that if you’ve managed to find your way to this article and have actually set foot in a gym before you are at least somewhat familiar with what a barbell squat actually is. Alas, here’s the gist of it for those who are aloof—with a barbell resting across your traps, lower your hips so that they break parallel with the top of your knees at the bottom of the movement, and then simply stand back up.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well it gets a bit tougher when you have 600 lbs of iron and gravity waiting to bury you alive, but that’s what makes squatting so fun…if you’re a masochist.
Alright but seriously, many people over think the heck out of the basic biomechanics of squats when the reality is humans have been naturally inclined to squat for eons. Yes, barbell squats are indeed a technical lift and take much practice to perfect, but at the end of the day it really does just boil down to having a bar on your back, squatting down and standing back up again.
Nevertheless, there are many resources on Muscle & Strength to help you perfect your squat form, so to prevent this article from getting off track and convoluted I will refer some of those articles at the end.
The world’s lamest excuse to avoid barbell squats
I’ve also come across my fair share of people who actually have fairly well-developed legs but still avoid squats due to their rather irrational fear of injury. So the question is, why do people assume that barbell squats are so likely to cause injury?
I have to assume it’s because, despite their willingness to admit it, they just don’t know how to truly do a barbell squat properly and they’re too lazy to actually take the time and effort to learn. You see, many people who have trained for years and avoided barbell squats may look strong and well built, but if you put them under a bar with 135lbs on it they’d probably crumble. So part of me has a suspicion that these people who avoid squats for fear of injury are just taking the easy way out and don’t want to put themselves through the paces of developing true squatting strength.
Moreover, many individuals just simply can’t leave their ego at the door when they walk in the gym and end up trying to squat with weights that are simply beyond they’re capacity. I can’t even begin to count how many people I’ve come across in the gym who load way too much weight on the bar and perform squats with 1/8th of the proper range of motion. Of course you’re going to get hurt doing them like that! Any exercise can be dangerous when you think you’re the Incredible Hulk and use half-assed form.
Think how dangerous a barbell bench press is when you use 100lbs more than you’re truly capable of pressing off your chest…you can literally kill yourself that way if you don’t have a spotter.
The reality of barbell squats and their safety
At the end of the day, unless you have a pre-existing medical condition/injury that prevents you from performing a proper barbell squat, there is just simply no reason to avoid them if you really want to develop a stronger, better lower body (and whole body for that matter).
If you want to avoid injury from barbell squats, simply do these four things:
- Warm up properly
- Take the time to learn proper technique
- Use a weight that you can actually handle
- Have a spotter and/or safety catches in case you fail
If you’re really concerned, you can go the “extra mile” and invest in things like knee sleeves to help cushion your joints, a lifting belt to help stabilize your core, and even special “squat” shoes that many companies make to help with foot angle.
Still not convinced you should squat?
It’s always nice to have some real-world testimony behind an argument in favor of something, so let’s take a quick look at some famous physiques and lower bodies that were founded heavily upon basic barbell squats:
- Arnold Schwarzenegger—7x Mr. Olympia
- Lee Haney—8x Mr. Olympia
- Ronnie Coleman—8x Mr. Olympia
- Branch Warren—2x Arnold Classic Champion
Wrap-up and further resources
Before concluding this article, I should mention that I am not arrogant enough to claim that people who don’t squat can never build a solid physique and lower body since a fair share of top-level physique competitors rarely, if ever, do them. That being said, I would make the argument that those individuals could in fact benefit from doing barbell squats, but it’s their decision to avoid them if that’s what they feel is best.
For the majority of healthy, able trainees out there, I see little reason to not include barbell squats as part of their lower-body training regimen. As alluded to before, barbell squats really aren’t “dangerous” if you’re doing them properly with a weight that you can actually handle. Just like any other exercise, you need to focus on practicing the technique first, then worry about adding weight to the bar.
If you’re new to barbell squatting and looking for a place to start learning, check out these resources from Muscle & Strength:
- How to perform the barbell squat
- Squat form tips for size and strength
- 8 week build a bigger squat workout
Now stop making excuses and get under the bar…unless you like having toothpicks for legs!