If You Want Bigger Arms: Squat
At the expense of sounding like an uber meathead, squats pretty much solve anything. You want to be stronger? Squat. You want more muscle? Squat. You want to lose fat? Squat. You want to beat Captain America in an arm-wrestling match? Squat.
About the only thing squats can’t do is help you grow hair, make you an omelet, and cure cancer1.
There’s a reason squats are a staple in most weight training routines, and today’s guest post by strength coach, George Kalantzis, breaks down the proper progressions most people should consider when starting for the first time.
“If you want bigger arms- squat. Squatting makes everything grow.”
Sergio Olivia, 3 time Mr. Olympia, on offering advice on how to get bigger.
Squatting has been around for centuries. It is one of the primary movements that Dan John says can impact your life, and also one of the best movements for mass strength and muscle development. Yet unfortunately squats are still one of the most neglected and butchered exercises in the gym.
Squats are tough and working hard separates the strong from the weak. Squatting heavy stresses the entire body and it takes a lot of will power and strength to put something heavy on your back, drop down, and stand back up. Therefore most people neglect them altogether.
Then you have some people who claim squats are bad for your knees and stick to leg extensions and leg presses. While it is true that squats can place a lot of stress on the knees, it is typically the form and amount of volume that is the cause of knee pain.
In fact, from a exercise science point of view leg extensions can actually place more stress on the knees than squats because they are an open chained exercises. Open chained exercises like leg extensions cause the quadriceps to contract and pull on the knee ligaments and surrounding muscles without counteraction of the hamstrings. Squats actually recruit both the hamstrings and quadriceps.
Research (Escamilla, 98) supports that squats generate twice as much hamstring activity as leg presses and leg extensions. That same research suggests hamstring recruitment is advantageous to enhancing knee stability and functional capacity of the hips. Squatting does not sound that bad now does it?
Ok, I’m Ready Where Do I Start?
It is always important to start with an assessment to figure out where the you will stand in reference to squatting. Tony wrote an in depth post on that HERE.
After establishing a baseline, it is time to begin start preparing the body to squat. Starting with some light soft tissue work and warm-up drills will help prepare the body for full ranges of motion needed to squat and prime the nervous system.
Most people have a hard time reaching full depth in a squat and I have found that it is usually a lack of mobility in the areas of the hips and ankles often leads to compensations in the squat..
Core Engaged Deadbug
A deep squat requires proper pelvic position. If you arch your back to hard during a squat , your femur will have a hard time moving around in the hip socket. This is often the cause of the butt-wink.
A core engaged deadbug will help you learn how to keep the ribs down and control the pelvis which are needed for a good squat pattern.
Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization
This drill really teaches you how to keep your glutes tight, extend the hip and flex the knee at the same time to get a deep stretch in the quads. You should focus on getting the range of motion through your hips and not lower back.
Kneeling Glute Mobs
I love this mobilization drill because it really looses up the posterior chain and allows you to safely work on hip internal rotation without cranking on the knee.
Ankle Mobilizations Drill
An often-overlooked area of squatting tends to be the ankles. In order to squat to full depth the ankle needs around 4 inches of dorsiflexion. If the ankle is lacking the appropriate mobility, you may see yourself coming up n your toes, or not hitting appropriate depth.
Squat To Stand With Reach
By the time you have complete the other drills your body should be primed to squat. The squat to stand synchs the entire body and recruits all the muscles needed to perform a good squat. If you have a hard time getting into this position, you may no the ready to squat to full depth.
Assuming no pain or restrictions are present a great place to start is an assisted version of the squat. There are many ways you can do an assisted squat, but I like using a suspension trainer for assistance.
Holding a suspension trainer allows the trainee to work on static stability and groove a great pattern. Make sure the trainee maintains a neutral back position and uses as much assistance as needed in order to get to the bottom position.
Bodyweight Squat Versions
Once someone has mastered the assisted squat, it is time to move onto a bodyweight squat. Here you can really learn how to squat to full depth and drive up under control.
Sometimes people will have trouble with their heels coming up of the ground. If that is the case, you can create a little heel lift with plates or shoes to help the body recognize how to sit back onto the heels and reduce coming up off the floor.
Another common error for someone just learning to squat is a knee collapse. A great trick for that is to put a mini band around the knees. The bands feeds into the bad movement pattern by pulling their knees farther in and the body reacts by correcting the movement.
For most people, a goblet will be the basis of a squatting program. Legendary coach Dan John says that goblet squat is all a lot of people will need and there is a good reason behind that.
Grab a Kettlebell or dumbbell and hold it close to your chest. With your elbows pointing down, lower your body into a squat. Allow your elbows to be inside your knees and put pressure on the outside of your heels to help keep your knees out. Return to the starting position.
Many people are under the assumption that the Goblet Squat is just this plain ol’ vanilla squat variation that offer no variety. Au contraire! There are any number of ways to make it more challenging.
Goblet Squat Against Wall
Cannot seem to keep your back straight and knees from caving in? Try the goblet squat against the wall. Face a wall with your feet around 6-12 inches away from it and work to actively pull down into the squat.
Start further away and work closer to the wall, as you get more comfortable with the position.
Goblet Squat With Pause
Mastered the regular goblet squat? No problem, try a pause in the bottom of the squat. Pause reps will keep you honest, and really challenge your strength because you cannot rely on the momentum to pop back up from the bottom.
Goblet Squat With Heartbeat
This is one of my favorites to use with people, and it is one version that is not used that much. I first saw it from Mike Robertson when I was learning progressions for group training. It is great for people who have shoulder issues and really challenges the core.
Offset KB Squat
Holding a kettlebell on one side of the body will expose any asymmetries from side to side and really teach the body to own the position. Try to really focus on driving through the entire foot rather then shifting to the side of the kettlebell.
Double KB Front Squat
It only makes sense that once you have mastered the above it is time to load up. The double KB front squat is a great squat version because it really teaches you to sit down rather than back and down.
Essentially what you get is all abs and quads without demanding mobility requirements. It can be very humbling if you have never tried this before.
If you have become comfortable with the KB front squat and are ready for more of a challenge it is time to move on the barbell front squat.
Just like the KB, barbell front squats are all abs and quads. They are great because you have to really sit down into the squat rather than sit back or you’ll loose the bar. Due to the position of the bar your body must learn to stabilize the core instead of using back muscles to stand up. If you constantly get stuck hitting depth on a back squat this is a great exercise for you.
At this point, we have covered a lot of information on squatting. The back squat requires tremendous strength throughout the quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, abs, and back. There is a reason why most people mess the exercise up or neglect it all together. If you have truly mastered the above exercises then it might be time to try a back squat out.
If you want to learn how to set-up, Tony wrote an awesome post HERE.
Squatting is a lot tougher then it seems. Consider hiring a coach for help on some of the barbell work, and if you are just starting out, goblet squat variations will surely get the job done. Try not to be a hero and start with something that is in between.
Quick things to consider before squatting:
- If it hurts, you should hire a coach for an assessment and or see a qualified physical therapist.
- Not everyone is made to squat to full depth or made to squat.
- Squatting with a bar is not for everyone
- When you first start out, you will not need that much weight, typically 45-55 % of your true max. Working on technique and conformability with the different squatting positions should be your first goal before trying more advanced versions.
1) Escamilla RF, Fleisig GS, Zheng N, Barrentine SW, Wilk KE, Andrews JR. Biomechanics of the knee during closed kinetic chain and open kinetic chain exercises. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998 Apr;30(4):556-69.
About the Author
George began his time at Cressey Sports Performance as an intern in the fall of 2013, and returned in 2014 as CSP’s Group Fitness Coordinator, overseeing all Strength Camp coaching and programming responsibilities.
George is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and was awarded an honorary discharge after eight years of service. He possesses an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently attending massage school to become a licensed massage therapist.
Outside of CSP, George maintains a fitness-related blog that can be found at www.sgtkfitness.com.
He and his wife Shawna reside in Manchester, NH.