The Benefits of the Barbell Squat

Back Squat TechniqueCredit: embhooWikimedia Commons

Are you guilty of using the squat rack for barbell curls?  Do you do arms and chest twice a week in hopes of getting an upper body like Arnold?  Is the extent of your lower body work dominated by leg extensions and leg curls?  Wonder why you’re not making progress?  It’s because you don’t know squat.  Or, more accurately, you aren’t doing squat.

 The barbell back squat is obviously an excellent exercise for lower body strength and development.  However, it is also excellent for the overall physique, including the upper body and arms.  Many physique and strength athletes consider it the best overall movement for developing the whole body. Back Squat ExecutionCredit: RexwarWikimedia Commons

The Barbell Squat – Do It

Proper form and execution of the squat depends on numerous factors and is beyond the scope of this article.  Taller individuals with long legs may have a different setup and execution than shorter, stockier individuals.  Variations of flexibility in the hips, glutes, hamstrings (and even the shoulders and chest) will affect squat depth and bar placement.  However, in general, the performance of the squat consists of the following steps:

  • Place the bar on your upper back/traps and support it with your hands.
  • Stand with feet approximately shoulder width apart or slightly wider, with toes pointed outward slightly.
  • Squat down in a controlled manner, with the back arched and the buttocks out.  Keep the weight back, focusing on your heels.
  • Go down until the upper legs are parallel to the floor, or deeper if flexibility permits, making sure not to round your back.
  • Power back up by driving your hips forward and up.

Again, this is a very simplified description of the exercise.  It is highly recommended that you find an experienced and competent trainer or lifter to help you with your form.  Also, put your ego away and start with lighter weights.

The Benefits

Lower Body Strength and Hypertrophy

Let’s start with the obvious.  Squats help build stronger and bigger legs.  The primary beneficiaries of the “King of Exercises” are the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.  Although it is possible to build impressive legs without squatting, it is far from ideal.  Many world-class bodybuilders have built their monster wheels primarily with squats.

Upper Body Too?

Although the muscles of the lower body are the primary movers, the upper body must work hard to stabilize the weight, especially with heavier loads.  The chest, shoulders and arms must be involved to keep the bar in place throughout the movement.  The back and core muscles, including the abdominals, need to remain tight and flexed to stabilize the weight.  Exercises like the leg press do not require nearly as much upper body involvement. 

Hormone Heaven

Compound movements that involve large muscle groups stimulate the most hormones and growth factors.  The resulting response from the body is growth.  The squat is arguably the best compound movement of them all.  This is why all areas of the body, including the arms, will respond (either directly or indirectly) to the squat.

Sprinter Leg DevelopmentCredit: Eckhard Pecher (Arcimboldo) Wikimedia CommonsAthletic Performance

Squats develop leg and hip power and explosiveness—resulting in faster running speeds and higher jumps.  Of primary importance in the area of speed is the development of the glutes, hamstrings and hip extensors.  Just look at a world-class sprinter and it is obvious how important these muscle groups are.  The squat movement itself, mirrors the vertical jump, and so logically translates to higher jumps.

In addition to speed, increases in power translate to better performance in sports like football, hockey, wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Increased Flexibility

Full squats (squats to parallel) and deep squats (below parallel) require significant flexibility in the hips and hamstrings.  Consistent performance of the squat, with proper form, will build this flexibility.  The myth of the powerlifter or bodybuilder losing mobility and flexibility as their strength and size increases is just that, a myth.

Injury Prevention

Squats have often been unfairly accused as a dangerous exercise that is bad for the knees and lower back.  This can be true if done improperly.  Done properly, squats actually strengthen the core, lower back and knees.


The benefits of the barbell squat go far beyond developing the legs.  The “King of Exercises” is a full body compound movement that builds strength, size, speed, power, flexibility and stability.