Squats For Strength and Size

Squats are a fundamental human movement as well as a resting position.

To build great strength, mobility and muscle you need to squat.  For strength and muscle mass, squat with resistance; for mobility, squat deeply for time.

The Gaining Strength program may include deep front squats, tuck split squats, or deep back squats for building strong and muscular hips and thighs.  I think the best combination is front squat and some type of single-leg squat, such as the tuck split squat.  

Back Squats

As I explain below, I think front squats are better that back squats in the long run, but if you do back squats , you should do deep high bar back squats.

Deeper squats load the quadriceps and buttocks in their most stretched position, which results in greater muscle activation and loading.1  Deeper squats also take the knees through a full range of motion, which is important for maintaining healthy knee cartilage.2

Deep high bar back squats train the hips and thighs with less external loading than low bar back squats.  A more upright posture and deeper squat translates to less external loading which puts less stress on the lumbar disks and knees while maintaining a high work load on the hips and quadriceps.2  

I review the research in favor of high bar squats here

By deep, I mean as deep as you can manage with a neutral spine.  If you can't squat deeply I recommend working on squat mobility.  

To increase the safety of back squatting, move slowly and avoid locking out at the top.  Take about 5 seconds to descend into the bottom, pause about a second, then squeeze upward, taking about 5 seconds to ascend.  At the top, stop before your knees completely straighten, and smoothly turn around and repeat.  You will not be able to use as much barbell load as if you moved more quickly, but you will actually develop more tension and fatigue in the hips and thighs – and thereby get better results with less external loading on the spine – by moving slowly.

Another way to further reduce the load needed for back squats is to perform them after doing front squats, single-leg squats, or Sisyphus squats. In the video below I demonstrate both how to perform barbell squats safely and use of front squats before back squats in order to reduce the load required for back squats.  

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The slow motion squats battle today, in 3 parts. Front squats AMRAP then immediately back squats AMRAP. 6 front and 4 back so increasing the load next session. 110# this time probably 115 next time. Slow motion removes momentum and Elastic rebound from bottom making the muscles do all the work, increasing metabolic demand and muscular tension while reducing compression load on spine and reducing risk of injury. You'll need much less weight but get more efficient muscular loading. You reduce the rep range to stay in the anaerobic window for TUL. If you're used to doing repetitions that only take 2 seconds each for raising and lowering, a 15 rep set takes only 30 seconds. Here 6 repetitions takes 1:15 about 12 seconds per repetition. #fitafter55 #highintensity #highintensitytraining #squats #timeundertension #homegym

A post shared by Don Matesz (@donmatesz) on

But it is not necessary to do back squats at all.  I have come to recommend front squats over back squats. 

Front Squats

Front squats require a more upright posture than the back squat.  As a consequence, deep front squats may be safer for the lower back and knees than back squats.5  

In addition, the front squat may be superior to the back squat for training the lower back and abdominal muscles.6

Therefore I prefer front squats and tuck split squats in the Gaining Strength program. 

I recommend deep front squats because they develop more mobility than shallow squats, put less shear stress on the knees while training the cartilage through a full range of motion, put more load on the lumbar erector muscles, and require less external load resulting in less wear and tear particularly on the lumbar spine.

Once again, as shown in the IG video above, you can get increase the efficiency of muscular loading and reduce the external load requirement by moving slowly. Take about 5 seconds to descend into the bottom, pause about a second, then squeeze upward, taking about 5 seconds to ascend.  At the top, stop before your knees completely straighten, and smoothly turn around and repeat.  You will not be able to use as much load as if you moved more quickly, but you will actually develop more tension and fatigue in the hips and thighs – and therefore get better results – by moving slowly with less external load.

You can also perform front squats with the X3 Bar.  This has the advantage of variable resistance.  The load is reduced in the deep position where you are most vulnerable to injury, and increases as you ascend.  

Tuck Split Squats

Tuck split squats enable you to intensely train the hips and thighs with a deep squat without putting a heavy load on the lumbar spine.  They also allow you to train each leg separately, which reduces difference in strength between right and left legs.  If you don't have a squat rack or X3 bar, you can even make the tuck split squat your only squatting exercise.  Tuck split squats are also an excellent way to build up strength for the pistol squat if you want to master the pistol squat.  Read my page on the tuck split squat to learn how to perform it.

If desired, you can eventually graduate from the tuck split squat to the pistol squat.  Sometimes I do training phases wherein I do 2 sets of squats in a lower body training session as 1 set of pistol squats followed 3 minutes later by 1 set of front squats, as shown below.

Squats Summary

You must squat hard and progressively to develop your hips and quadriceps.

The Gaining Strength basic program can include either front squats, tuck split squats, back squats, or some combination of bilateral and unilateral squats.  I prefer and most highly recommend combining front squats and tuck split squats or another single-leg squat variation.


1. McMahon GE, Onambele-Pearson GL, Morse CI, et al.:  How deep should you squat to maximize a holistic training response?  Electromyographic, energetic, cardiovascular, hypertrophic and mechanical evidence.  Chapter 8 in Electrodiagnosis in New Frontiers of Clinical Research.  http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/56386.

2. Hartmann H, Wirth K, Mickel C, et al. Stress for Vertebral Bodies and Intervertebral Discs with Respect to Squatting Depth. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol 2016;1:254-268. doi:10.3390/jfmk1020254.

3. DeFOREST BA, Cantrell GS, Schilling BK. Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats. Int J Exerc Sci. 2014;7(4):302–310. Published 2014 Oct 1.

4. Cappozzo A, Felici F, Figura F, Gazzani F. Lumbar spine loading during half-squat exercises. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1985 Oct;17(5):613-20.   

5. Chow, J. (2009). A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 284-292.

6. Comfort, P., et al. An Electromyographical Comparison of Trunk Muscle activity During Isometric Trunk and Dynamic Strengthening Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 2591), 149-154.

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