Do You Need to Squat to Grow Your Quads?Feb 02, 2023
Some people love to squat, and it seems like they are born to do it! Yet other people will hate the squat and it feels like everything rep is crushing their soul.
But do you need to squat? Yes and no!
I’ll now unpack in greater detail what I mean by this above statement, to help guide your own training. Plus, I’ll support my rationale by showcasing a few of my clients who have built amazing legs with us but have used vastly different training programs too.
So, in answering the question of whether YOU specifically need to squat, I’ll focus on 3 key considerations to determine the most appropriate answer for you. They are:
1/ Movements versus Exercises
2/ Client Goal and Context
3/ Client Needs and Preferences
Movements Versus Exercises
Now, if you’re trying to build amazing legs, the squat is as an awesome movement you want to prioritise as it challenges key lower body muscles, in particular your Quads, Glutes and Adductors. Performing the movement builds lower body strength and aids muscular development, whilst it also helps improve our overall functionality and quality of life.
Yet, whether you need to barbell squat is a completely different story! This is because the squat is one of our major movement patterns, whilst the barbell squat is a specific exercise.
So, if you’re seeking superior quality training, you want to prioritise performing our main movements (squat, hinge, lunge, press, pull). However, you want to customise the exercise selection used to suit your needs, goal, ability, and preferences. So, in short:
- The squat = movement pattern
- The barbell back squat = exercise
In terms of exercise demands, classically the squat will challenge the Quads and Glutes in a more lengthened position, whereby these key muscles are more stretched. This can have important implications for muscle building potential as range of motion is an important factor for hypertrophy. Plus, when training muscles at a longer length, tension will also be high due to the stretch achieved.
Though, training key muscles at longer lengths doesn’t automatically translate to hypertrophy either. This is because to optimally grow and build muscle, we also need sufficient training effort and continued progressive overload, to recruit and fatigue as many individual muscle fibres as possible. Plus, we need to combine our training stimulus with the right amount of recovery too, along with sufficient dietary calories and protein to truly trigger muscle growth potential pathways.
So, whilst performing the barbell back squat has a lot of benefit and can help build your lower body, there are no compulsory lifts you must do! Unless of course you are a competitive strength sport athlete (powerlifter or weightlifter). Understanding this is crucial to aid your goal achievement and helps to liberate you to customise your training as desired!
Also, it’s key to remember that the barbell back squat has many different exercise variations itself. It can be performed with either a high bar or low bar placement, plus it can involve different barbell options too (conventional, safety bar, buffalo bar etc.). Different variations will suit different people and scenarios, so don’t be afraid to experiment here.
So, the key takeaway here is, you don’t need to barbell squat, but you want to perform the squat pattern! The key is simply opting for the right variation and protocols to suit you. Speaking of, let’s now dive into client related factors.
Client Goal & Context
What is your priority goal and context?
Is it strength development, muscle gain, fat loss, a body recomposition, performance? Identifying this is crucial as it impacts the specific programming you’ll need along with the nutritional protocols too (calories, macros etc.).
Note the emphasis above on priority too, as it is essential you don’t get stuck in a limbo scenario. By this I mean you want to avoid having a million competing goals, yet you haven’t identified a true priority to focus on for the coming months. So, want to avoid a scenario whereby you try to do a bit of everything, but achieving a lot of nothing.
This is because the concurrent pursuit of some goals can stunt the development of other goals. A classic example is always trying to gain muscle and drop body fat at the same time. Whilst you can potentially build muscle when dieting and in a calorie deficit, your ability to optimally achieve hypertrophy will be more limited relative to when you are consuming superior calories.
Now, if your goal is lower body hypertrophy, whilst you want to do the essentials you do have flexibility with your training. Plus, you can go through different training cycles which prioritise different training qualities and exercises, to achieve different training adaptations.
To illustrate this, here is my long-time client, elite WBFF bikini competitor and fellow Atlas coach Kimmy Duong. Whilst Kimmy’s off-season goal is to build muscle, she loves heavy barbell work and crucially, also trains at home.
Whilst her home gym is extremely well equipped, we are still more limited with machine options available, with the only real quad machine available being a Leg Extension. This is why I have programmed some form of barbell back squat in every phase over the last 2-years.
Crucially though, the back squat is always programmed as her A-Series lift due to the complexity of the movement, greater loading and higher motor unit recruitment involved. However, whilst I’ve primarily used a classic high bar back squat probably 95% of the time, I have also used other variations too. These include a low bar squat, 1 & 1/4 rep variations, plus numerous different tempo manipulations too featuring pauses.
Yet if Kimmy trained in a commercial gym, I would have also used some phases which prioritised the Hack Squat, Pendulum Squat, plus Leg Press. So, whilst Kimmy’s goal is hypertrophy, her context dictates the use of more barbell squats.
Contrast this to my awesome former client Hattie Boydle who is a WBFF Fitness World Champion, and we have a different scenario. With Hattie, she also loves to barbell squat and her goal was muscle gain with me. Yet Hattie trained in a well-equipped gym which opened up which exercises I could prescribe her.
Plus, Hattie was trickier to program for as when she initially came to me, she was unfortunately struggling with key injuries. So, even though I would have normally prioritised using the barbell squat with her, we had to pivot to more machine options with higher stability to better control her training. This primarily involved the use of the Hack Squat machine and multiple banded variations.
So, the key takeaway here is - there are many ways to achieve muscle growth with the barbell back squat just one variation which we can use to achieve it. Yet, how and when we program any exercise matters, with it dictated strongly be the context and goal.
Client Needs and Preferences
As muscle gain can be achieved using numerous different types of training stimuli, with many different exercises and rep ranges effective, we have a lot of flexibility as to how we attack hypertrophy.
Yet, we also must carefully balance a client’s needs versus wants to ensure we optimally aid their continued progress. For instance, you may enjoy barbell squats or be great at them, but your preference may be to avoid them due to a certain risk versus reward. Sometimes this may simply be to disliking the exercise, other times it may be due to past injuries.
This is exactly the case with my former client Phoebe Taylor who was a WBFF Pro but had a long history of back injuries from her powerlifting days. In this scenario, Phoebe’s goal with me was to build muscle but her preference was to avoid the barbell squat to ensure she could better stay injury free. So, with every exercise programmed I was always factoring in her priority goal and context, whilst balancing her needs and preferences.
With Phoebe, she was already strong and had a great squat, but she didn’t need to barbell back squat. So, whilst I did still regularly program the squat pattern to Phoebe, with her the primary variation I used was a Hack Squat machine; along with a heap of lunges, split squats, leg press and leg extensions used too.
This worked brilliantly as the Hack Squat provides far greater stability relative to a barbell variation. This allowed Phoebe to push extremely high efforts and grind through some hard but highly stimulatory reps for hypertrophy and achieve mechanical tension overload. Plus, as the Hack Squat works in a fixed path you’re not as concerned about technical failure, which allows you to push that extra bit more to aid growth potential.
Yet, if I ignored Phoebe’s need and preferences and just said “I’m a barbell squat guy, so all my clients barbell squat”, the likelihood of her staying injury free, happy and progressing over time would have been drastically lower. This is also why personalised online coaching and programming matters so much!
So, the key takeaway here is – we never want to overlook one’s needs and preferences, with there being many different potential strategies available to achieve your goal.
So, by now I hope you can see that you don’t have to barbell squat, unless you’re competing in a strength sport which requires you to do that exercise. Though you can still opt for either a high or a low bar style squat too!
Yet, you typically do still want to perform the squat pattern no matter what your goal, simply due to how well it challenges the Quads and Glutes. However, it’s key to remember that you have the flexibility to use the variations you prefer, along with the ideal protocols too.
Thanks for reading,