Question: I have been training for a few years and my physique has improved measurably. I love to train, but I have a problem with squats, which I need to do because I have skinny legs. Every time I squat, my lower back gets very sore despite the fact that I use a belt for support. Also, I don't really get a pump or feel any stimulation in my thighs. My lower back and glutes seem to do the most work and get the most stimulation. I've read articles about the importance of keeping the back straight and as upright as possible during squats, but I find that impossible. My upper body just naturally bends forward and my back rounds over as I descend to parallel. What am I doing wrong? Do you have any advice on how to squat so thighs get the hard work, not just my lower back and glutes?
-- First, I can tell that you're doing your squats improperly for what you want to achieve. What you're experiencing is actually a pretty common problem among novice and intermediate bodybuilders. It's also the reason Vince Gironda was so against back (power) squats and why he didn't have squat racks in his gym. Gironda felt that back squats did more harm than good, and he didn't want his members doing them. He argued squats, done the way most people do them -- and that includes you -- overdevelop the glutes and widen or thicken the waistline by working the obliques and spreading the hips, which reduces the V-taper. Vince also thought back squats overdeveloped the upper thighs but did not develop the lower thighs enough, which created what he called ugly "turnip-shaped" thighs. Vince said that squats destroyed symmetry and ruined the aesthetic quality of the physique. The only people who should squat, he said, were those trainees who had flat glutes and needed to improve them.
It doesn't surprise me that you experience no thigh pump and no thigh stimulation as you squat, because the way you squat doesn't work the thighs. You're just working mostly the lower back and glutes.
When a bodybuilder tries to squat with a really heavy weight, the natural tendency is to bend forward at the waist, which leads to rounding the back. The head ducks down between the legs as if you were doing a good morning. When you ascend to the erect position, you start upward, with your head still down, bent forward at the waist and often with your back rounded.
The first half of the ascent is almost entirely a good morning. That puts tremendous pressure on your lower back and glutes. It's one thing to work the lower back with a moderate weight doing good mornings. It's another thing to ask the lower back to support a weight that's meant to be lifted by the thighs. Then, about halfway to two-thirds up you try to straighten your back again. It's that rocking back and forth, with the lower back rounding over partially as you descend and the straightening near the top of the rep, that really overloads the low back and spinal erectors. I've seen some guys so rounded over at that bottom of a squat done as described that the bar is no longer on the shoulders or traps; it's on the neck and even partially on the lower part of the head!
So, what's the solution?
First, reduce the weight you use by at least 25% and increase the number of repetitions you do each set. Next, change your mindset from trying to see how much weight you can squat to trying to see how hard you can stimulate your thighs on each rep. You want to experience thigh isolation and all the sensations of innervation in your thighs, not your back or glutes. Squats are a compound exercise, so you'll never get 100% isolation and innervation, but the majority of the overload should be felt in your quads to achieve the desired effect in this case, not in the secondary and supporting muscle groups.
I suggest that you forget about trying to keep your back completely flat and upright. Do that when and if you choose to do Smith machine squats, not on barbell squats. Place the bar a little lower than you're probably used to, say, across the upper traps, not your shoulders. As you get under the bar, make sure it's centered before lifting it off the racks. Be sure the bar is evenly balanced across your traps before stepping back. Keep your feet no wider than shoulder width. You may want to squat with a narrow stance, with the heels of your feet only six inches to a foot apart. You can point your feet slightly out to the sides or straight ahead, You'll have to experiment to find the position that feels the best and works the quads hardest.
Now you're ready to squat.
First, however, we're going to change the way you squat. Rather than trying to keep your back completely straight and upright, bend forward at the waist 10 to 15 degrees. Make sure your lower back is arched, not rounded. Keep your abs tight and lock your upper body into that slightly bent-forward position. It's vital that you maintain that position throughout the entire set, on both the descent (negative) and ascent (positive).
Lower slowly to parallel with control, try to feel as if your lower body and legs are coiling. Then explode upward with primarily thigh power to the starting position. Never drop into the low squat position quickly and try to rebound up, as that's a likely way to damage your knees, as well as lose avoid working the thighs as much as you could otherwise.
What's the point behind locking into the 10 to 15 degree bent position and the arched lower back? It ensures that you don't bend forward too much and get into that undesirable good morning position at the bottom of the descent. It also ensures your lower back doesn't round over. That will prevent your head from ducking down between your legs or your glutes coming up first as you start your ascent. If you stay locked into the starting position there will be no rocking back and forth as you do your reps, which will greatly reduce the strain on your lower back.
As you begin the ascent, try to feel as though you're pushing up with the heels of your feet. That forces the overload mostly on the quads, not the hips, glutes and lower back. Concentrate on trying to feel the overload and stimulation in your quads. Use higher reps -- 12 to 20 -- for the first month until you get the movement down. As your thighs gain strength and your muscular endurance increases, you can use more weight and do lower-rep sets without compromising form.
I'm not saying don't squat heavy. You must train progressively -- always trying to use more weight -- but squat heavy in good form.
I have two other suggestions that should help you "quad-squat" heavier without compromising form. You've heard the phrase, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." No? How about, "Using the mind to achieve peace is akin to driving a hammer with a nail." Hey, how witty is that! And doesn't it just kindle your ever-insatiable desire to mask overall sadness and disappointment with perceived achievements. Wonderful. But nonetheless, that chain/link saying definitely holds true for bodybuilding. Weak abs and weak spinal erectors will affect how much you can squat. Your erectors often fail before the quads have been worked hard enough to cause growth. I suspect your lower back is pretty strong from the way you've been doing your squats, but you must make it even stronger. The stronger you abs and lower back, the more weight you can squat in good form and the harder you'll be able to work your quads.
I remember Henderson Thorne telling me in an interview early in his career, after he'd been training for several years, that his squat poundage was stuck at 405 pounds for 10 reps. That was as heavy as he could go, and it went on for many months. Then he began doing heavy deadlifts as part of his back routine, an exercise he never devoted much time or effort to before. Henderson quickly realized there was a direct relationship between how much weight he could deadlift and how much he could squat.
After he did heavy, low-rep deadlifts once a week for about six months, his squat poundages just zoomed up. Soon he was doing squat with 500 pound for 10 reps, then over the next couple of years 600 and beyond.
To this day Henderson still performs heavy deadlifts as part of his routine, but he makes a max attempt only about once a month. He feels that, for his purposes, it takes too much out of him and too long to recover from. The other three weeks he does deadlifts in sets of 6 - 10. If his lower back is sore and he feels he hasn't recovered enough from his previous workout, he drops the deadlifts and does some hyperextensions instead. I suggest you do the same, and let your body be your guide.
The second recommendation sounds like a contradiction to what I just said above, but it's not. I suggest that on exercises such as the 45-degree leg press and hip belt squats you do sets of high repetitions. By high I mean a minimum of 20 reps for a set, up to 100 a set. High-rep leg presses or belt squats will force a lot of blood into your thighs and give you a great pump. They will increase red muscle fibers and capillaries. The high-rep work will also help improve the neuromuscular pathways to the thighs, enabling increased thigh innervation.
Using Henderson as an example again, he usually does leg press sets with a heavy 30-rep weight. Sometimes he'll have his training partners strip off plates so he can do drop sets to continue the set. He usually does triple drops.
I know from personal experience that high reps work great for both building size and improving muscular endurance. Try it after your heavy squats, and you'll see very good results over the period of a few months.
You can also do pre-exhaust sets for the thighs. For example, do leg extensions or 20 reps and then go directly to squats as described. Try that on your light squat day. Or you can do leg presses for 50 reps and then go right to squats. Your thighs will be fried but your lower back will still be fresh and strong. Then, when you fail with he squats, it will be because your thighs give out, not your lower back.
If you're a beast for punishment, you can do a pre-exhaust tri-set of high-rep leg extensions, 20 reps; leg presses, 50 reps; and squats, 20 reps. One or two tri-sets is all you'll need, and believe me, your thighs will feel like mush and you'll have a hard time walking right for a while. Don't worry if you have to use what appear to be light weights by the time you get to the squats. That's par for the course.
Even the great Sergio Oliva collapsed on the floor the first time after one of these tri-sets taken to the max. He'd gone down to Florida to train with Casey Viator and P.T. Barnum, I mean Arthur Jones. Sergio was following Casey and trying to use the same weights and reps on his pre-exhaust thigh tri-set. He got through the leg extensions and leg presses okay, but after only a couple of squats he barely racked the bar before fainting. It if was too tough for Sergio, don't feel too bad if you find it overwhelmingly difficult the first few times through.
John Parillo told me that virtually every bodybuilder he's trained in the past decade has blacked out and/or heaved the first time he had to do 100 hard reps on the hip belt squats. That type of training is not for the faint-hearted, but if you've got the guts and desire to do it, it can be very effective when applied appropriately.