When it comes to the lower half of the body, the squat is the perfect go-to exercise. It works the glutes, the bottom of the spinal erectors (which help hold the spine upright), the thighs, the calves and even the ankles. It also works the core. Plus, the squat improves balance and athletic coordination.
But when doing this movement with a loaded bar on the shoulders, there are two important things to remember. The first is to balance the bar. Have your hands placed equally on each side of the bar – either where the knurled part starts for a close grip, or with each hand the same distance away from the smooth area if you want a wider grip. Face a mirror when squatting so you can check that you're holding the bar level as you go through the movement.
At the same time, you don't really need a gym or a weight-filled bar to do this exercise. Variations on the classic squat can help build the weaker side of your body to be as fit as the stronger side. But first, a brief discussion on technique.
Lots of folks make the mistake of doing a partial squat. They don't allow their thighs to go parallel to the floor. But in fact, the thighs should actually go even lower than parallel, so that the butt is lower than the knees. If your body is not yet accustomed to this depth, don't start doing it while using weights. Let your body get familiar with the correct position by practicing doing it unweighted. That way, your muscles, tendons and ligaments will be stretched out naturally to the desired depth, without forcing still contracted tissues and potentially causing microtrauma.
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If the squat is a new movement for you, start your body weight customization by supporting yourself between a wall and a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a desk or solid table. This support will help keep you from collapsing into a deeper posture than your knees, ankles and hips are ready for. Don't keep your butt over your heels as you squat. Push your hips back, so you don't end up standing on tiptoe. However, if you have tight Achilles tendons, you may not be able to squat with your feet flat on the floor at first. You may have to start out with your heels on small weight plates, like the two and a half pound plates.
Now for the variations. Go back to the furniture and wall support system used at the beginning of your squat training. Lift one leg off the floor in front of you, then squat down with the other leg. Lower yourself on the one leg and extend back upright slowly. Switch legs and repeat. Do five reps on each leg. Is it harder to do the one-legged squats on one side? If so, that's your weaker side. Pay more specific attention to form on that side, and include one extra rep on that side.
Now do the same process again, but this time, lift the leg to the back. If this position is difficult, bring a stool or low chair to support the leg being lifted to the back. Be careful to keep all your weight on the squatting leg, don't allow the supported leg to absorb any of your body weight.
If (and when) the supported body-weight squat variations become easy, you can begin adding weight to the exercise by putting on a weight belt (one is easily made by taking a pair of ankle weights and fastening the straps together with strong safety pins).
If you want to do the one-legged squat variations with a bar in a gym, don't use a free-weight bar. Use a Smith machine. That way, the bar is supported for you, though you are still lifting both the bar and the weight you've added. It's a safe way of doing the squat variations that create more strength, tone and muscle bulk for your lower body and core.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly , which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.