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Squat Bar Placement

Squatting Doesn’t Build The Legs (well, sort of)

Do you smell that? Smells like leg day.

Let me precede this post with a few disclaimers:

  • I love squatting.
  • Squatting makes you strong.
  • Deep squatting requires magnificent mobility.
  • It will build muscle and burn fat.
  • You should squat.

But squatting doesn’t build the legs (sort of).

This isn’t actually a new argument. Ever since Mike Boyle presented this at a seminar, the fitness and bodybuilding worlds have been up in arms about squatting vs. single leg movements and which one is better.

But the truth is that neither one is better, they aren’t even competing in the same category. That would be like asking, “who’s going to win the Super Bowl next year, the Seattle Seahawks or the Yankees?”

It makes no sense.

Here are the facts (and Mike Boyle hit the nail on the head): the core, specifically the low back, is the limiting factor in a squat. That is, you can only squat as much as your lower back can handle. It’s the same for good morning and deadlift variations.

However, when we use single-leg movements, the limiting factor is the leg. This is because even though the low back is weaker than the legs, only one leg is weaker than the low back. Get it?

“What do you mean no squats?”

How To Build Leg Strength

With single-leg movements like split squats, bulgarians, lunges, skater squats, and pistol squats. Not only will they build unabridged strength in your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but they’ll also build stability throughout the hips and core.

Side note: Another terrific option for building the posterior chain is glute-centric movements like bridges and hip thrusts, but that’s a whole ‘nother article!

Single-leg movements force us to utilize smaller weights, which (though the volume will increase compared to squatting with a similar rep scheme) will actually spared your spine and central nervous system and allow you to lift more frequently.

And any time we can do something more often, we’re bound to see better results.

I think single-leg movements work much better in a higher rep range. Whereas squatting for singles and doubles is commonplace, lunging for a max single probably isn’t a great idea. Try staying at 5-6 reps and higher, you’ll still build strength.

How To Build Leg Size

With single-leg movements like split squats, bulgarians, lunges, skater squats, and pistol squats. 

Don’t forget the three components of hypertrophy: tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.

And recovery, don’t forget recovery!

Tension is always related to load and since the load on each leg can be greater during a split squat (vs. a bilateral movement), the tension will also be greater.

And since tension on a stretched muscle is very effective at inducing muscle damage, single leg movements also carry a greater capacity for damaging muscles.

Anddd since metabolic stress is also related to the tension on the muscle, high-rep single-leg movements (vs. high-rep squats) probably carry a greater capacity for stressing our metabolic systems.

So, Where Does Squatting Fit In?

Squatting builds total body strength. It builds the central nervous system’s ability to recruit all of your largest motor units at the right times and at a high rate. It utilizes almost every muscle group of the body, including the legs, hips, core, and upper back.

The systemic effects of squatting are numerous and widespread and squatting becomes infinitely more valuable in the quest for overall leg size because of the hormonal response that we receive from lifting such heavy weights. Don’t forget, if you can lunge with 200 lbs on your back, you can probably squat 300-400 lbs. And the hormonal response to 400 lb squats would be much greater than in the case of the 200 lb lunges.

squats and hormones

Though not scientifically proven, this is accurate. See the direct correlation?

When it comes to fat loss, squatting allows us to perform an explosive movement with volume over a large range of motion. This utilizes lots of energy, increases our body temperature quickly, and creates lots of tissue damage. Higher-rep sets prevent oxygen and blood from escaping the legs, creating a high amount of metabolic stress. And all of these things contribute to an increased metabolism post-workout and, therefore, less body fat.

And all that metabolic stress and tissue damage that I alluded to above? It’ll make you grow (if you want it to), I promise.

Conclusion

So does squatting build the legs? Yes and no.

You see, if you follow the Limiting Factor Theory, leg strength and size is best built with single leg movements like bulgarian split squats.

And even though a weight belt might place a greater emphasis on the quads, glutes, and hams, wouldn’t you rather develop stability and asymmetry at the same time?

In a Westside-style program, you might consider performing single-leg work as your first accessory movement after your max effort work. The second day, which is traditionally dynamic, could be replaced with more repetition-style single-leg movements and then followed up with higher-rep squats.

But squatting still has it’s place. Just follow this simple flowchart:

  1. Are you concerned with your overall squat numbers?
  2. Are you training for performance, including sprinting, jumping, or sport?
  3. Are you concerned with the size of your legs?
    • If yes, include multiple days of single leg work and one day of high-rep squatting (10+). Max effort bilateral work isn’t necessary, but I would do it if I were you.

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If you’re asking yourself what the conclusion is here, it’s this: both single-leg work and squatting are important, no matter what your goals are.

In fact, everything from mobility programs to bodybuilding should include some variations of a squat and single-leg movement. However, if you’re looking for leg hypertrophy, it makes sense to put a premium on single-leg work (vs. machines or only squatting). Plus, you’ll develop mobility and stability as a bonus.

That would be like if you went to a restaurant and your server says, “You can have the chicken or the steak, but the steak tastes better and comes with a side of $100 bills.”

You always order the steak.

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