When I was first learning how to train, I used to do full squats. I did them exclusively for the thighs. I labored under the belief that if I did my full squats faithfully on a firm reps and sets basis, I would get everything I needed in the way of thighs. Over the years my thinking has changed considerably.
Everybody does squats: weightlifters, bodybuilders, football players, track athletes and even ballet dancers. The squat increases the power, speed and spring of the legs. When practiced with heavy breathing, it permanently expands the rib cage. It can help you gain weight. It can help you lose weight. with these multiple benefits, the squat goes on record and the best all-around exercise.
Well, if it could do all these things, how come I even bothered to change my style of squatting? My business is bodybuilding, first of all. It’s nice to have all the capabilities of the athlete, and I accept them as a side effect of doing squats. However, I am more directly concerned with defining and shaping my thighs for the purposes of some things from my standpoint, and other things from yours which I think everybody should know.
The full squat, all the way down and all the way up, has the advantage of working a lot of other body parts besides the thighs; like back, glutes and chest. They certainly developed the lumbar muscles of my lower back, That was a terrific advantage. The disadvantage was that 50 percent of the effort worked my thighs, and at least 30 percent worked my glutes. I found that the first third of the movement of coming up from a full squat worked my glutes. The final two-thirds of the movement worked the entire thigh, but no particular part. So, what happened was my rear got big, and my thighs got bulky and shapeless. Nether of these two effects served my purpose for bodybuilding.
There are several ways to do squats. The most conventional of these remains the regular squat with the barbell resting on the shoulders behind the neck and a movement consisting of a full deep knee bend with return for the fully erect position. There is the half squat – half way down and all the way up — that may also be done astride a bench of protection against going too deep. Another is the tension squat where you don’t lock out your knees at the top. You drop three-quarters of the way down and return to a position three-quarters of the way up. The movement is performed through the middle half of the entire range of movement. There is the jump squat which is excellent for weightlifters and other athletes interested in getting extra spring and starting power. Front squats, where the weight is held across the chest, is done with a straight bar. The sissy squat involves only the front quadriceps and is done with the hips held forward, dipping low using knee flexion only. The hack squat is done with the barbell held behind the legs, or on the specially designed hack machine. The one-legged squat rounds out the basic list of the most familiar forms of the squat.
For me, the only advantage of the full squat was that it built my back along with my thighs. As a result I was able to deadlift 700 pounds. If you want power, the full squat is the way to get it. If it’s shape and size you want, then there are several different and better ways, such as I described.
Position of the feet exerts different pressures and enables you to concentrate on different areas of the thighs. For instance, when you put your feet close together and parallel, all the effort of the squat goes into the quadriceps and gives the thigh a front sweep look. It should be done with a block under the heels for better balance. A friend of mine, Karl Schranz, world champion skier to many years, worked his legs that way using as much as 400 pounds. Skiers everywhere are now doing this exercise.
With the feet a normal width apart, say, about 18 inches, every area of the thigh, outside middle and inside, is worked in the regular squat movement. With the feet farther apart, toes pointed out, the effect of the squat is felt on the inside of the thigh. The heels may also be moved closer together with the toes still pointed out, and the inside thigh continues to be effected. The position of the feet largely determines which part of the thigh will work.
I have reverted to using the vertical sliding Smith machine for my squats. This machine enables me to concentrate on my legs. I can place my feet forward of the vertical line of my body, and I can’t fall back, like I would using a barbell. Thus, with my back straight, feet about 10 inches apart, and my knees straight ahead. I do tension squats, going three-quarters of the way down and coming up to a position a quarter of the way form the top. The movement gives my thighs an incredible burn and gets the more lateral muscles. I always do this one before a contest. I burn out as many reps as I can, never completing a movement If you lock out, you give your muscles a chance to rest, and that ‘s not what you want. you have to torture the muscle with unusual training so that it will respond.
I used to use a lot of weight on the squat. Not anymore. I find now that concentration lends its own form of resistance. By thinking I can direct the effort, I can make every movement count, not only the sets. By doing the sliding squat on the sliding Smith machine, I am able to concentrate using less weight. I direct my attention to what the thighs are doing. I literally think the definition into them. The pleasure of my thought overrides the pain. The positive aspects of cuts and veins and shape spur me on, and the whole thing become a labor of love.
I would always have a beginner start with the parallel squat, five sets, starting with 20 reps and decreasing the number on subsequent sets, finishing with six reps. For the beginner I would increase the amount of weight only as I perceived his increased muscle size. I wouldn’t try to rush his strength. I would experiment with him, vary his squatting post ion, try to find what was best for him. People have different structures, therefore they must utilize the “instinctive” training technique. A great bodybuilder like Frank Zane squats narrow while another great one like Ken Waller squats much wider, and both of them have sensational thighs. Everybody beginner, intermediate and advanced., alike, should all experiment with various foot positions to determine what favors them.
I usually warm up with 135 pounds, 30 reps, I drop to 20 reps on my second set, then down to 15 and 10 for the others. As I go down in reps, I go up in weight, peaking at about 400 pounds for eight reps.
I prefer to start out with leg extensions. I get more definition when they precede squats. By the time I get to the squat my legs feel numb, like I couldn’t use another pound on anything. But after my first couple of squat sets the numbness goes away. The lingering transition makes my squats doubly effective in getting definition.
I wear a lifting belt for squats, but not tight. For guys who are afraid of getting sore, or who can’t walk or exercise for a couple of days following leg work, I’d suggest they use the sauna or steam room and whirl pool after their workout. I let the heat penetrate me, and that usually relaxes me and dissipates any soreness.
I personally like the pain form training because it indicates I’ve worked hard enough for things to grow. It’s a great satisfaction.
Some bodybuilders like to squat without a mirror in front of them. I like the mirror. It helps me keep in the groove. In order to see myself in it I have to keep my head up. That forces me to come up with my back more vertical which shifts the weight all to my legs. It allows me to see if I am twisting to the side, which is a bad habit to get into for the questionable pressures it puts on the spine.
You can guess by now that I have gotten away from using monstrous poundages on squats of any kind. My needs have forced me to find ways or doing leg work that develop cuts and definition along with size. I am still experimenting. Just remember, you have to apply the technique of quality training to your legs the same as the rest of your body. That means more sustained tension, shorter rests between sets, no rest between repetitions and, finally, total concentration. Do that, and you’ll end up with great legs.
Obligatory Arnold Squatting Video…
Reposted from the excellent bodybuilding repository: Ericsgym.com