Squats are undoubtedly at the top of the list for butt exercises and lower body exercises as a whole. Being a heavy compound movement (If you go heavy), the mechanical overload principle applies here which leads to mTOR activation and satellite cell activation, then leading to increased protein synthesis and muscle tissue repair.
The real question isn’t whether or not squats work, it is how should I squat to get the best results?
To answer this question we can look at the amount of muscle fiber activation in different squat forms. Muscle activation and muscle hypertrophy do not go together exactly hand in hand, however muscle activation is a great indicator for muscle hypertrophy.
There have been a number of squat studies done on male test subjects, but very few on women. This is a problem. Due to differences in anatomy and center of balance between the sexes a squat is not the same. The all around motion, although very similar, is nonetheless different and the muscles are activated differently .
So, for accurate literature on squatting for women, women must be studied. Luckily in the recent years this is
becoming more known and squat tests on women are surfacing.
A very recent study of this kind was conducted by Bret Contreras et al. and publish in Journal of Applied Biomechanics in 2015. Bret Contreres aka “the glute guy” is an expert on glute activation and his information has been featured in articles on Bodybuilding.com, Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Health, and more. He and his team realized the difference of squatting between the sexes and with this in mind they studied different squat variations with women and the muscle activation that occurred with each.
Study of Muscle Activation in Varying Squat Forms
The subjects of this study were 13 women all with at least 3 years experience in weight training. All 13 subjects had a 10 rep max front squat of 86.4 lbs, 10RM full squat of 103 lbs, and a 10RM parallel squat of 117 lbs.
The testing was simple. Each test subject performed their 10RM with each squat variation. Prior to this they all had at least 72 hours of lower body rest and performed dynamic stretches for better muscle function upon testing. Subjects performed their 10RM’s in ramdomized order for a counterbalanced fashion. Feet and bar placement was the same for all test subjects relative to their bodies.
Muscle Activation Analysis
To measure muscle activation electromyography was used. Electrodes were placed on the upper gluteus maximus, lower gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, and vastus lateralis to test muscle activation in all areas.
The results may surprise you. There was no distinct and significant difference in muscle activation between the different squat variations .
How is There No (Significant) Difference?
Parallel Squat Weight > Full & Front Squat Weight
Suggested reasoning behind this has to do with the “relative” load of the different lifts. Parallel squats, as you may guess, are able to be performed heavier than full or front squats. By doing a 10RM for each lift you are going to be able to go the heaviest with parallel squats, as the women did in this study. So front squats as well as full squats give you the same amount of muscle activation with a lesser weight load than parallel squats.
What is most surprising to me is that muscle activation is very similar for front squats as it is for the two variations of back squats. I would expect less glute and more quad activation for front squats, but according to the EMG results there is no significant and notable difference.
So What is the Best Variation for Hypertrophy?
I, along with most, would have to go with full back squats. Full back squats are better for knees than parallel squats and more natural than front squats. Going below parallel brings about the “wrapping effect” which distributes forces more evenly on the knees.
Also, due to a larger range of motion, a full squat will require more time under tension than a parallel squat. Increased time under tension has been proven to lead to increased protein synthesis as shown in a study published in the Journal of Physiology in 2012, conducted by Nicholas A Burd et al. . This increased protein synthesis in theory means increased hypertrophy.
Besides science, most experienced weight lifters who have tried different variations of squatting would recommend full squats. Not only do they seem to bring about more hypertrophy, but they are the healthier form when it comes to taking care of your knees.
Have you any input on this matter or questions?? Comment Below.
1. McKean M, Burkett BJ. Does Segment Length Influence the Hip, Knee and Ankle Coordination During the Squat Movement? Journal of Fitness Research. 2012;1(1):23-30.
2. Bret Contreras , Andrew D. Vigotsky , Brad J. Schoenfeld , Chris Beardsley , and John Cronin. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis EMG Amplitude in the Parallel, Full, and Front Squat Variations in Resistance Trained Females. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. Aug 6, 2015
3. Nicholas A Burd, Richard J Andrews, Daniel WD West, Jonathan P Little, Andrew JR Cochran, Amy J Hector, Joshua GA Cashaback, Martin J Gibala, James R Potvin, Steven K Baker, and Stuart M Phillips. Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15; 590(Pt 2): 351–362