Natural Bodybuilding Q&A: Squats Don’t Work Your Legs?
Today I got a question from a good friend of mine who stumbled upon a video of a coach talking about how the king of leg exercises in bodybuilding, the squat, is an exercise that only works the back and that it should not be performed as a result.
Squats: Lower Back or Lower Body Bodybuilding Exercise?
So I decided to put my engineering hat on and see if I could make any sense out of the video. When I look at controversial things like this, I always like to keep an open mind. After all, there was a time that everyone thought that the Earth was flat, and the fact that the majority agreed does not mean that the statement was correct.
After paying close attention to the video, the coach says: “The weak transducer, the place where we lose squatting is in the back. Squatting is not a lower body exercise, it is a lower back exercise and at some point the low back does not allow you to transfer more force to your legs and you stop. In no way does it allow you to get maximum work capability out of your lower body.” His conclusion was that we should stop performing traditional barbell squats with the bar over our shoulders.
Again, as I look at the video very objectively, with my engineering hat on as opposed to my bodybuilder one, I think about his thesis and it all comes together for me.
He states that we cannot get maximum work capability from the legs because the back is the one transferring the force. While I completely agree that the conventional squat involves the lower back a great deal, the squat is not an exercise that only targets the back as the legs have to work in conjunction with the back to lift the weight. It is a basic multi-joint leg exercise and that is the nature of the lift. Thus, while the maximum work capability of the legs is not at 100%, to conclude that the squat only works the lower back is erroneous. To me, this is no different than saying that the bench press is a bad exercise for the chest because we cannot get maximum work capability from the pecs due to the fact that the shoulders and triceps have to transfer a significant amount of the force. Again, with all due respect to the coach, all basic multi-jointed exercises have a force transfer factor.
In order to minimize the lower back work of the squat I always advise to choose a weight for the prescribed repetition range that feels comfortable to the lower back. In this manner, you focus on pushing the weight with the legs while minimizing the work of the lower back.
While the lower back plays a large role (and a very limiting factor in the amount of weight that you can do on the squat) this does not mean that the squat is strictly a lower back exercise and that it should be discontinued from your leg workouts. That is where I have a serious disagreement. The legs still play a very significant role in the lifting of the weight.
Now, if a person has serious lower back problems I would not hesitate to modify the leg workouts and substitute the squats for various lunges or a belt squat where you put the weight on a weight belt and do the exercise with your legs on two different raised platforms. Just because I feel that the traditional squat is an excellent leg developer, one thing I do agree with the coach is that there are many other good basic exercises such as the lunges. However, to eliminate traditional squatting on a healthy athlete on the belief that the squat is just a lower back exercise is, in my opinion, a huge mistake. If the traditional squat is just a lower back exercise, then why is it that when you look at the physiques of powerlifters, they have an incredible amount of muscle on their legs? Also, from personal experience in training myself and training others, a traditional squat that is executed properly and with the right amount of weight will never cease to deliver results in the form of added inches to your legs.
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