Why is the Squat Called the King of Exercises?

The squat is one of the most popular lower body exercises and is often referred to as the “King of Exercises.”

Have you ever wondered why? In the following article, we cover some common questions on the squat:

  • Why does my lower back hurt when I squat?
  • How is the squat different from the deadlift?
  • The squat hurts my shoulders. What can I do about it?
  • What cues are appropriate in the squat?
  • What are some good supplementary drills and exercises I can do to improve my squat?

Why does my lower back hurt when I squat?
Adapted from Boris Bachmann’s lecture, Squat Talk.

If your lower back is bothering you in squatting, look at your technique, because there’s a really good chance your lower back is rounding at the bottom of the squat.

This could be due to hamstring and hip inflexibility, previous injuries or lack of kinesthetic awareness.

If you can’t squat deep without rounding your back, don’t squat to rock bottom. Only squat as deep as you can while still maintaining proper back positioning. Make sure you don’t lose tension in the bottom of the hole.

To improve your flexibility, practice holding proper posture at the bottom of the squat movement with goblet squats, made famous by Dan John.

Another reason many people develop lower-back pain when squatting is that their hips are rising faster out of the hole than the barbell.

If your core is weak, if you get out of position, if you are not sufficiently strong throughout the hips and hamstrings or if you’re not activating them, oftentimes you’ll accommodate by allowing your hips to rise faster. At that point, you’d be trying to use lower-back strength to get that bar up, putting you in a “good morning” position out of the bottom of the hole. This puts a lot of stress on your lower back.

Fixing this is going to be a combination of practice and kinesthetic awareness. It’s also a matter of driving the chest out.

Another common cause for low-back pain with back squatting is improper positioning for the type of squat they’re doing. Oftentimes, you’ll see people who use a high-bar position drive their hips back to initiate the squat. This puts their back under stress as it creates a longer lever in the torso.

If you’re going to do a high-bar squat, you want to squat down rather than squat back and it’s essential to maintain a relatively upright upper body when squatting in a high-bar position.

You’re not going to dramatically drive those hips backward as you would with a low-bar position. It’s going to be difficult to keep your shins perpendicular to the floor if you’re squatting very upright with a high-bar position.

Remember, outwardly rotating or externally rotating the hips is the key to engaging those hips in the movement. That’s going to help you maintain correct upper body position and help you keep your shins relatively perpendicular to the floor.

How is the squat different from the deadlift?

The deadlift is a hinge movement involving minimal knee bend with maximal hip bend.

The squat movement, on the other hand, involves maximal knee bend with maximal hip bend.

Different types of squats will differ in the amount of knee bend they involve.

Dan John’s Hip Displacement Continuum, as explained on the Perfecting Your Kettlebell Form DVD, explains it nicely.

The Hip Displacement Continuum is a useful concept for categorizing and organizing different lower body exercises according the degree to which they involve the knee.

The squat hurts my shoulders. What can I do about it?
Adapted from Boris Bachmann’s lecture, Squat Talk.

A lot of people have wrist and shoulder pain when they’re squatting. This is a red flag because if the bar is racked across the back properly and securely, there shouldn’t be any pressure on the wrists.

If you are experiencing pain, it could be a flexibility issue, poor bar positioning or worn-out bar.

If inflexibility is causing shoulder pain while squatting, doorway stretches can help. Dislocates with a PVC dowel, stretch bands, cross-bench dumbbell pullovers and bent over lateral raises can also help improve flexibility. Here’s more from Dan John on wrist flexibility:

If you’re using a high-bar position, the bar should rest on the superior angle of the scapula. It shouldn’t be resting on your neck or your spine.

With the low-bar position, the bar should be resting further down on the scapula and rear deltoids. This position is going to necessitate more forward lean as described earlier.

However, as with the high-bar position, the weight should not need to be supported by your hands. If the weight is being supported by your hands, the chances of that slipping down your back and cranking your shoulders is much higher.

Frozen bar sleeves—when the plates won’t rotate freely—will also cause pain in the wrists and shoulders. Make sure the bearings on the barbell are well maintained and oiled. If you have to keep WD-40 in your bag and take it to the gym to use on the barbell, do it.

Bent bars are also common in gyms and they can be real shoulder and wrist wreckers. One thing you might try is sighting the bar. Fix your eyes on a stationary reference point while rotating the bar—look, spin the bar and check to see if the bar is centrally positioned relative to that object. If not, the bar is probably bent and you’re probably going to need to find a better bar.

What cues are appropriate in the squat?
Adapted from Boris Bachmann’s lecture, Squat Talk.

When it comes to coaching the squat, it’s important to remember that cues are not technique. Cues are prompts to move the trainee closer to proper technique.

If you cue a trainee, “Weight on heels” it doesn’t mean to have all the weight on the back of the heels (technique), falling backward. It simply means the squatter is probably coming up on the toes and we want to cue to move the weight more towards the heels.

When it comes to coaching cues, you have to look at what trainees are doing, what they should be doing and then provide cues to move them closer to proper technique.

With this in mind, here are some common cues you’ll hear when squatting:

  • Squat back
  • Sit back
  • Sit down
  • Spread the chest
  • Chest out
  • Be proud
  • Spread the floor
  • Shove out the knees
  • Externally rotate the hips
  • Head up
  • Head back
  • Stomach tight
  • Push your gut into your belt
  • Squat tall
  • Elbows down
  • Weight on heels

If you find a trainee doing a good morning when coming out of the squat, use the cue “spread the chest.”

If you are doing a low-bar squat with hips back: “Sit back.” This will help engage the hamstrings and the glutes.

If the knees are bowing inward, you’ll want to cue “shove out the knees” or “externally rotate at the hips.”

If you’re having trouble with a client maintaining thoracic extension, again, that “head back” cue is a good one.

If you are cuing “stomach tight,” it’s a good remedy for someone who’s too loose at the bottom of the squat. If you see a person in a good morning position, you really have to cue to keep that core tight.

“Squat tall” is another good one to maintain a good upright position at the bottom of the squat.

“Keep those elbows down” is going to help engage the upper back, and again it’s going to help with thoracic extension.

“Weight on heels” is a great one for engaging the posterior chain.

What are some good supplementary drills and exercises I can do to improve my squat?
Adapted from Boris Bachmann’s lecture, Squat Talk.

The snatch-grip stiff-legged deadlift is a great supplementary drill. There is something about the Y grip that really hammers the upper back in addition to the increased range of motion and stretch on the glutes and hamstrings.

If you’re having a hard time engaging the lats when you do this, remember to try keep your chest out. Pull with the intention of keeping the bar close to the body and with the intention of bending the bar into an upside down U. The act of trying to externally rotate the arms while holding the static bar will also engage those.

The Bulgarian split squat is another good exercise. The Bulgarian split squat provides both a stability and a mobility challenge. It’s a great exercise for getting the hips engaged and helping with hip mobility.

Cross-bench pullovers are another option. Doing this exercise cross-bench as opposed to along the bench allows you to get the hips off the bench. This lets you sink the hips as you lower the barbell behind the head, which increases the stretch. But be careful with this exercise. It’s easy to go too heavy or too far . . . too early. This can be bad for the shoulders. Make sure to keep the lats engaged throughout the pullover movement and when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

“Skin the cat” is another idea. Line up in front of a barbell and turn your back toward it. Then, reach behind with both hands. Hold the barbell behind you, providing a gentle stretch throughout your pecs and biceps. You can lower your body while holding onto the barbell behind, and this will increase the stretch.

The bent over lateral raise is an exercise you don’t see a lot of people doing anymore, but it’s a great one. They will help posture, scapular mobility and rotator cuff strength. They will also help maintain a proper rack position when doing heavy back squats.

Wide-stance good mornings are another exercise to consider. They will help develop flexibility if you can do them properly. When you perform wide-stance good mornings, focus on really driving the hips back. Keep the chest out throughout the movement. Don’t lose the lower back arch. Maintain the lower back arch to keep the tension on the  hips, hamstrings and glutes.

Manta Ray squats are another great exercise to consider. Generally speaking, pads have a tendency to roll on the barbell. Manta Rays are a lot more secure than pads. They also put the barbell at a much higher bar position than even a high-bar squat. This will change the bar’s center of gravity and is a great way to train the upright movement for the squat.

Put this information to use and you may get even more out of the squat and find a new appreciation for the King of Exercises.

Click to continue to Part 2 of this article.

If you found this article useful, here are some additional resources you may be interested in:

Boris Bachmann: Squat Talk

Squat Rx, Problems Squatting, Fixing The Squat

This lecture answers the seven main questions people have about squatting: why squat; low back pain from squatting; shoulder pain when squatting; deadlift strong, but squat weak; weak out of the hole; squat cuing; supplementary drills.




Dan John Intervention

In Intervention, Dan John explains the system he developed over the course of 35 years of training and coaching athletes. The Intervention system consists of 10 questions and 5 principles that can completely change the way you work with clients.

In this book, you’ll learn about—

  • The Four Quadrants for assessing and training athletes
  • How to get to Point B: 10 essential questions to help every athlete or trainee get to where they want to be
  • Step-by-step progressions for the five fundamental human movements that make up a person’s athletic base
  • The five principles of effective program design
  • Applying the Intervention system to real athletes and trainees
  • Training year-round: Smart programming to minimize burnout and maximize long-term results
  • Applying the Intervention approach to diet and nutrition
  •  . . . and much more.

You’ll walk away armed with a toolkit that will help you train any client, from sedentary elderly people, to 40-year-old moms, and high school or professional athletes.

Click here to learn more about Intervention.


Advances in Functional Training

Mike Boyle Advances in Functional Training

Over the past 30 years, Michael Boyle has coached athletes in every major collegiate and professional sport. His clients have come from the MLS, MLB, NHL, NFL, PGA, Olympic teams and many others.

In Advances in Functional Training, Mike unveils the insights he’s learned about training  athletes in all major sports, from the junior level, all the way up to the professional level.

Advances in Functional Training is a comprehensive guide that brings together a volume of information on current athletic training trends and concepts. Inside you’ll get the latest insight from a top coach who’s spent decades carefully thinking about and testing better ways to train his clients and  athletes.

You’ll learn how to—

  • Reduce and prevent common problems like low back pain, knee pain, neck and shoulder pain by identifying compensations, improving mobility and flexibility and focusing on movement patterns
  • Minimize the risk of common injuries like lifting-related back injuries, tendinitis, upper-body injuries, ACL injuries and sports hernias
  • Unlock greater power and performance by learning how to properly train the hips and core
  • Help your athletes stay in top shape all season long with the right conditioning methods in the preseason, offseason and inseason
  • Develop explosiveness to improve forty-yard dash times and overall game speed
  • Select the right equipment for your gym room—Mike gives his recommendations of the equipment you do and don’t need to improve strength, conditioning and overall athleticism
  • Select the right exercises for your athletes—Learn to pick the exercises that have the biggest payoff and minimum risk
  • Build safer, more effective programs for your athletes—Mike provides insight into how to program for speed, power, strength, hypertrophy, and more. He even gives sample programs and templates so you can see how he puts programs together, so you can go from there to build your own.

. . . and much more.


Click here to learn more about Advances in Functional Training.