In this training talk, we discuss the barbell back squat. Is the exercise really necessary to build muscle? Or can you get away without having to do them?

Oh, this one is going to be good.

This is one of those topics that has no middle ground. You’re either all in or all out.

It just got real here at M&S because the topic for Training Talk this month is about the squat.

Now I know that you’re already tempted to just scroll to the bottom of the page and give us your opinions but I ask that you stay with us here because we’re going to present some topics that you might be interested in.

Then by all means, talk to us loud and proud about how you really feel.

The Squat We All Know & Love (or Hate)

It might go without saying that the version of the squat we’re talking about is the basic barbell back squat but just in case it isn’t clear to some of you, that’s the one. We’re going to get into other variations as well so stay tuned.

The barbell squat we’re all familiar with is obviously the first of the big three so like the bench last month and deadlift before that, if you’re into powerlifting, then you gotta squat. It’s everyone else in the iron community that will be getting all hot and bothered about it.

To Squat or Not

For some of us, there’s nothing like stepping inside the rack, getting under the bar, positioning it just right on your shoulders, standing up, and knowing you’re about to take some serious weight for a ride that will impress the spotters, witnesses, and all other lifters in the weight room.

Related: Training Talk - Training Traps with Shoulders or Back?

For others, it just isn’t worth it because of the soreness that lasts for days after and possible injury risk to the back, hips, and knees. There are other ways to train the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings like the leg press, lunges, extensions, leg curls, and others.

These movements target the muscles with minimum risk and a better chance of being able to move properly the next day. I won’t go as far as to say that no one is in the middle at all but I haven’t met many of them.

M&S Female Athlete Squatting to depth

This isn’t just a topic for the everyday gym athletes either. Elite, world-class bodybuilders talk squatting as well. Ronnie Coleman, eight time Mr. Olympia says he wouldn’t have been as successful as he was onstage if he didn’t work up to squatting 800 pounds. Yes, he’s recovering from surgeries now but as far as he was concerned, squats were a must to make it to the top.

Conversely, six-time Mr. O Dorian Yates never squatted with a barbell as long as he was Mr. O. He thought other movements served him better. Other champions like Arnold, Franco, and Lee Haney did squat.

Then, there are other champs like current Mr. O Phil Heath who doesn’t squat regularly or maybe at all now. So the debate isn’t settled here. Those lifters that do swear that going at least parallel is a must might have a plan like this.

Exercise Sets Reps
1. Barbell Squat 4 20, 15, 10, 5
2. Wide Stance Leg Press 3 20, 15, 10
3. Leg Extension 3 20
4. Platform Lunges 3 20
5. Standing Leg Curl 3 20

Do You Have to Go Parallel?

Let’s continue with the discussion for those of you that decided that squatting is a requirement and commandment of growth. The next topic isn’t any less controversial. In regards to training, some athletes feel that if you’re not squatting to parallel, then you’re just wasting reps, energy, and time.

To these folks, it’s better to squat 200 to parallel than 500 short of it. Have you ever heard the phrase “depth before dishonor”? This is where that came from.

There are others within that group that feel you must go even deeper. This is known as ATG (@$$ to grass). They feel that to maximize flexibility, range of motion, and full development, this is a must.

On the other side of that coin, there are other lifters who feel going down to parallel takes the emphasis off the quadriceps and makes the movement less effective for overall leg development. Instead, they will go down to ¾ parallel or even half.

While they can likely do more weight this way, their overall goal is to place as much stress on the quads as possible and try to make this compound movement more of an isolation exercise. Those folks might work with something like this.

Exercise Sets Reps
1. 3/4 Squat 3 12, 10, 8
2. Single Leg Press 4 15
3. Wide Stance Leg Press 4 15
4. Lying Leg Curl 3 20

Do Other Versions Count?

Even though we’ve been talking about the basic barbell squat, we all know that isn’t the only way to do it. There’s the dumbbell squat, goblet squat, and hack squat machine which can all be great for building the legs. (Yes, I know I left one out, I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

Plenty of people have made great gains with movements like these but not the barbell version. Are they any less “hardcore” than those who choose to squat with the bar? Are they fulfilling their potential or are they leaving growth on the table by avoiding the rack? Someone who’s doing these other versions might have a routine like this.

Exercise Sets Reps
1. Single Leg Extension 3 20, 15, 10
2. Goblet Squat 4 20, 15, 10, 8
3. Hack Squat Machine 3 25
4. Stiff Legged Deadlifts 3 15
5. Single Leg Curl 3 20

Do You Even Front Squat?

Then there’s this version. It matches the intensity of the basic squat and then raises it. The front squat is more difficult because the weight is in front of you.

Related: Training Talk - Should Arms Have Their Own Training Day?

It can be tougher to balance since it isn’t resting on your shoulders. It’s also directly over your quads when you go down so it hits them a little harder than back squats.

There are lifters who like to use both versions and there are those who feel like the front squat is the only way to go for them. If you’re a front squatter, then this might be a routine for you.

Exercise Sets Reps
1. Front Squat 4 10, 8, 6, 4
2. Dumbbell Jump Squat 3 15, 12, 10
3. Walking Lunge 3 15
4. Seated Leg Curl 3 15

Speak Your Mind

All right, I believe that is enough talking from me. Now it’s your turn.

Yes, you, the dude reading this while trying to look like you’re really working. Your opinions aren’t only encouraged but they are being requested.

Here are the questions we’d like for you to answer for us.

  1. Do you really have to squat to have great legs?
  2. Is squatting to parallel a must and why?
  3. Is the basic barbell squat the end all, be all or do other versions serve the same purpose?
  4. What else do you want to add?

You might be thinking to yourself, “he didn’t talk about this.” This is called Training Talk for a reason. It isn’t much of a conversation if it’s one sided, right?

If you think something important should be shared, share it. This is about you sharing information. That’s what makes the M&S community so special.

Rose Rye
Posted on: Sun, 11/17/2019 - 21:09

having just left the CrossFit world due to burnout, it was always below parallel...front squat, back squat, dumbbell, thruster, wall ball, air squat...and for time or rounds/reps. often 80-120 or more reps over rounds. i totally see the benefit in only going parallel or above...and am glad to not be on the clock anymore!

Posted on: Sun, 11/17/2019 - 12:25

I do squats, atg, mostly for the added flexibility and bragging rights, if I'm being honest. :-)

I do front squats because I had spinal surgery a few years back and I can't rest heavyweight across my back in that location anymore. They are definitely harder to do, but I feel the back squats are better simply from a balance and therefore safety aspect.

Posted on: Sat, 01/19/2019 - 17:07

As with most movements, I think it depends on your goals. For bodybuilding or fitness models, where shape and definition is key, I don't think squats are necessary. Leg extensions and curls will isolate the muscle and, in my opinion, give a better shape. If you're looking for strength, squats are a must. I do parallel squats to go heavy but I've recently started dropping the weight and going ATG. I find this strains the muscles more and makes walking up the stairs more difficult, which is town know I've had a good workout. I like to throw in Bulgarian split squats as this really burns my whole thigh. I then throw in Romanian deadlifts and finish off with walking weighted lunges.

Robert Vincelette
Posted on: Sun, 09/03/2017 - 12:30

Reading how there is no consensus among such well qualifier people who have earned their authority and accepting that I do not know, I try all of them, lighter squatting with fundament to the floor, heaver with upper legs parallel to the floor, front squat, and back squat in an attempt to get the advantages of all of them. I do not go for the very low rep range where the risk of injury is excessive at least without a spotter, but in the 8 to 12, or higher rep range I am not using enough weight to hurt myself.
If someone who knows more than I do can show me a better way I am always eager to learn something new.

Posted on: Thu, 08/03/2017 - 22:30

Have always used the back squat once a week but started doing squats twice a week and have really added muscle not just in my legs but my whole body . I do my squats by first doing a jump up on the bench and doing air squat step down in the rack and do back squat then back the jump then air squat back to back squat . I do 7 or 8 sets the reps are 15 ,15 , 12,12,12, 10,10, 8 . Like I said I reallybut some size on doing this .

Y O Allen
Posted on: Mon, 06/26/2017 - 22:21

Some form of squatting is better than not squatting at all. There are other benefits to be made when squatting with a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell (core activation, calf engagement, hip flexors worked, spinal erectors worked, etc.). Now if you're someone like me who has experienced a lower back injury, then back squatting can become a bit hairy when getting up to the heavier weights (5 or less reps).

It's all about exercise rotation and stimulus IMHO. When back squatting starts to bother my lower back (compressive force), I switch to a front squats (& may superset with a back squat on the last set or front squats for a nice burn out) and build up a new base from front squats.

I also use some machines (when the squat rack isn't available) (hack slide, hack press, vertical squat) and they (machines) serve their purpose and are great tools in anyone's workout arsenal.

Learn to lift wisely with proper form and listen to your body and you'll be just fine!

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:28

Thanks for sharing your opinion and experience, Y O Allen.

Ben Blue
Posted on: Mon, 06/26/2017 - 09:57

You don't need to squat to build leg muscles. But squatting with proper form is still the best way to maximize lower body and back growth and build strength. If you're young without any debilitating injuries, i'm of the opinion that you're just taking the easy route if you choose not to squat. Avoiding squats should be saved for people with injuries or older people just looking to maintain health without any concern for growth or strength. If you're a strength athlete and/or concerned with growth, you should be squatting.

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:29

Hey there Ben Blue. Thanks for joining the discussion. Mind sharing your favorite leg routine?

Posted on: Sun, 06/25/2017 - 22:50

I do legs twice a week by splitting quads & hams. My main lifts are back/front squats for quads & sumo deadlifts for hams.

But I find that back squat put a bit stress on my spine so I decided to stick to front squat... just that i have to reduce the weight for front squat. The best thing is that now I see my quads starts to develop faster compared to when I was doing back squat.

The question is should I just stick to front squat or maybe should at times alternate it with back squat since I can do way heavier with it?

As for hamstring, I fell better engagements especially on glutes & hams compared to conventional deadlifts. Conventional deadlifts put way too much stress (compared to back squat effect) on my back so I'm sticking with sumo. Same question to the above, should I alternate between these 2 deadlifts variations?

One thing for sure with squats & deadlifts, I can feel very good pump to the upper body & that's why I keep on doing squats!

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:34

Hey Rimy. Thanks for chiming in. The answer to your questions are determined by your goals. If you want bigger and better developed legs then front squats and the sumo deads. I can see why you would want to change it up and use back squats (especially since you're stronger) as well as conventional deads but is the stress you feel worth it? I wouldn't think so. If you can deal with the stress and want to shock the muscles occasionally then yes, switch it up from time to time. If the stress feels like it's too much then my suggestion is to avoid them.

Posted on: Sun, 06/25/2017 - 15:22

It was a year ago but I lost 6 inches off my waist so I wanted more defined quads so I was doing 5x5 or 5x8 plus other excercises to equal 10 sets but then I switched back to jogging but took carnitine which is illegal here muscle meds phenbuteral and NCAA's and egg whites and dieting so now I can see the serated muscle in my legs and arms which is what I wanted I don't have much Adams Apple or like views

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:36

Hey Jason. Thanks for taking part and congrats on seeing your results. If you don't mind me asking, where is "here"? Never heard of carnitine being illegal.

Andrew Phillips
Posted on: Sun, 06/25/2017 - 13:52

Great article. I do squat, every Wednesday. Right now I'm overloading and trying to get as heavy as I can. I'll do roughly 7-10 sets hitting no more than 8 reps working up to those heavy 1-3 rep sets. Gotta hit depth excuses. If my knees hurt, I'd just do something else

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:38

Right on, Andrew! Mind letting us know how much you can lift? Or what you're working to get to?

Sean Gravier
Posted on: Sun, 06/25/2017 - 12:13

You know I have lost more fat with squats, deadlift, and bench than any long state cardio ever has. I believe the squat should be at least parallel to get full activation of all the muscles flutes Hans etc. maybe you can't lift as much but your calorie burn will be so much more!

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:39

Congrats on your success, Sean. How much fat have you lost? You planning on competing?

Posted on: Mon, 06/19/2017 - 20:15

I've taken to going ATG for 5x5 on a glute focused day and more like 3/4 on ham focused day for a heavier 3x5.

I just simply cant manage a front bb squat. Ill do high rep 3x20 goblets mixed in every few weeks.

Maybe its bullshit or what but never saw any real upper gains till I squatted. Lots of research seems to back this up.

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/20/2017 - 21:38

No, Culdeus, that isn't BS at all. I've seen many guys struggle with upper body gains until they committed to squatting. Thanks for being a part of the conversation.

Posted on: Mon, 06/19/2017 - 17:48

I'm jumping on this thread because I'm very curious about others opinions on this! I am having the "to squat or not to squat" internal conflict right now. I am a novice lifter and was squatting twice a week while prepping for my first fitness show. Then I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and 3 slipped discs :/ I've been modifying my training with Bulgarian split squats, goblet squats, single leg deadlifts, leg press, leg extensions, hamstring curls, and other isolation movements that take pressure off of my spine & low back but am wondering if I will still make the gains necessary to compete. Thanks in advance for any feedback!

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Tue, 06/20/2017 - 21:43

Hey Kelyn. Thanks for jumping on. If you're seeing progress with what you're currently doing I would say stick it out. I don't know how long it's been since you modified your program but I suggest giving it a few weeks. You want to share your current routine regarding sets and reps? Sorry to hear about your injuries but I admire that you're not letting it stop you from preparing.

Posted on: Wed, 06/21/2017 - 11:15

Hi Roger! I've been modifying my training for a couple months now but was officially diagnosed just a week ago. I follow a DUP training program so my sets/reps are around 3-4 x 10-15 on the first day of the lift and 3-4 x 5-10 on the second heavier day of the lift. For other isolation movements like single leg extensions and single leg press I do higher reps around 20. Definitely open to feedback or suggestions :) And thank you! I think its possible to prep for a show without squatting, just have to get creative!

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Thu, 06/22/2017 - 10:07

As long as you make it a priority to feel each rep you're performing then you can get benefits from that plan. Just focus on making the reps count. This is especially true when it comes to your heavier day. Make sure you control the weight you're using. Don't let the weight control how you lift it. Best of luck.

Posted on: Mon, 06/19/2017 - 14:15

I definitely think squats are important to anyone serious about lifting, however I will only incorporate it into my routine every other week. I have hip flexibility / mobility issues from years of sports injuries, as well as a cracked kneecap, thus I have to take an extra wide or sumo stance to get to parallel safely.

I think Box Squats are an effective alternative to help those with injuries and flexibility issues. It lets me get to parallel, takes pressure off the knees, and puts my hips in a bit more natural position.

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Mon, 06/19/2017 - 14:49

Hey Frankoman. Thanks for joining the discussion. Box squats are a great alternative. Do you do anything else to help with mobility like foam rolling or stretching that you found helps you squat?