Ask 100 bodybuilders which exercise they’d do if they could only do one, and 99 would tell you the squat—and the other one probably has chronic knee issues. There’s little doubt that the squat is the king of all exercises, because it adds mass to your thighs and glutes, as well as all over your body via a systemic response to this most difficult of exercises.
When I was competing, I would squat twice per week and go to more than 400 pounds for reps. I would often do my squats bare- foot to grip the floor better with my toes, and my training partners Franco Columbu, Ken Waller, and Dave Draper wouldn’t count a rep until my butt touched the back of my ankles. It was grueling and in the end, quite frankly, I hated the exercise, but I knew that it was essential if I wanted to be the best bodybuilder on the planet.
If you want to be the best bodybuilder you can be, and you don’t suffer from chronic knee or hip issues, then you should make the squat your best friend— whether you like it or not. Below, I’ve compiled some tips to keep in mind the next time you climb under a bar.
Body alignment is key Ideally, your back should be as straight as possible, so that your rear end and the bar are almost in line with each other. Concentrating on keeping your chest out will help you keep your back flat. I also recommend incorporating front squats into your routine to focus in on the quads more than the glutes.
Tailor your stance to your goals Whether your feet should be spaced wide or closed—a common squatting debate—depends on which area of the quads you want to focus on. A wider stance hits the inside of the thighs more, whereas a narrower stance tends to target the outer quads.
Go down to just below parallel To develop strength throughout the entire range of motion, it’s important for your thighs to go just beyond paral- lel to the floor at the bottom of each rep. This is especially important for beginners who are establishing a training base. After you’ve become experienced, it’s OK occasionally to include half squats in your training to allow you to use heavier weight, which adds mass.
Drop the sets and reps for more mass If size is your goal, as it usually is with squats, you must train according to basic power principles: Do fewer sets and reps with as heavy a weight you can handle, and take longer rest periods. That means three or four sets, four to eight reps, and around three minutes of rest between sets. On occasion, include higher-rep sets (10–15) to add variety.
Switch to Smith If your lower back and/or knees bother you during barbell squatting, use a Smith machine instead. That’s what I did later in my career and it took a lot of stress of of those vulnerable areas. Hack squats are another alternative that I found effectively target the outer thigh muscles.
Do supersets and compound sets In 1971, when I wanted to add more definition and separation—not to mention sheer size—to my thighs, I got great results by doing compound sets of leg extensions followed by squats, as well as supersets of front squats and lying leg curls (for hamstrings). The burn was unbearable, but it worked!