Squats- What exactly are you training?

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Squats are touted as one of the best exercises for fitness and by all means it’s a good one. However, if you are doing squats for your glutes then think again! The next time you do squats I want you to pay attention to what muscles are actually being used. Most people doing squats simply go through the motions blindly which means that the body is free to compensate right left and center and none of the important big muscles are actually activating efficiently. It’s basically cranking your joints along with all its ligaments while the muscles are still asleep. That’s dangerous and foolish.

Let’s wake up, pay attention and make each squat count by looking into its nuances!

This was during Covid when most of us took to home workouts. I was training with my friend at home with our common trainer as she was just recovering from a knee injury (that I was treating and had given her the blessing to start training again- with me supervising obviously!). As I did my squats worrying about what muscles I was using, she happily squatted away leaning away from her injured side. What she was doing subconsciously was avoiding loading the injured knee and hence not recruiting ANY muscles on the left leg, totally overloading her right leg. If I had not made her (and our trainer) aware of this she may have blissfully done thousands of squats thinking she was making herself stronger and at the same time giving herself an injury on the other knee! This is not unique. We all do this with all workouts, but with squats-because it is such a compound movement that involves so many muscles and joints– we can be especially prone to compensating and not even know it.

 

Researchers have studied muscle activity scientifically using EMG (electromyographic) studies to record what muscles primarily activate during squats. It shows us that glute activity ranges from as low as 17-70% MVC (muscular voluntary contraction) whereas you can see the outer quads (vastus lateralis) range from 47-100% MVC for activation during the squat. This means that, despite glutes being important to perform a squat effectively, glute EMG activity is much lower in comparison to other leg muscles!

Now that you are equipped with this info think about why exactly are you doing squats. Is it to walk or run better; is it to develop and tone lower body muscles, to become generally fitter or to cycle longer without getting fatigued?

Either way, knowing what muscles you are training during a squat and paying attention neuro-muscularly to what muscles are activated during each squat is the key to all these goals. But there is a subtle difference. If you are a cyclist or trekker where your quads need to be strong and steady then quad focused squats are perfect. But for most activities like walking, long distance running or intense dance (or to live life without pain) glutes need to mimic steel so our legs (and the rest of us) can remain injury free. Squats can get you there provided you pay attention!

So, how can you actually isolate the glutes while performing the movement?

  1. Activate The Glutes Prior To Squatting (both and single glute squeeze- isolated)
  2. Keep your body weight on your heels instead of your toes during the full range of the squat
  3. Turn The Toes Outwards
  4. Maintain A Neutral Pelvis
  5. Maintain Tension In The Bottom Position
  6. Coming back to the top push up from the heels instead of using momentum or relying on quads.
  7. At the top, squeeze the glutes and hold for a few seconds prepping them for the next set.

Let me leave you with this food for thought. After a leg day or intense “squat workout” what is sore the next few days? Glutes anybody? I doubt it. Because the glutes are happily asleep while the other muscles make up for it. In clinical practice I cannot get people to activate one glute at will- or even after many attempts-so I highly doubt that during squats their squats are working at all. The key is to awaken the glutes from their deep slumber so your squats can be super effective and give you the results you desire and deserve!