Do you squat?

Alexandra Ellis

Most training styles offer participants a specific type of body change, whether it’s slimming, lengthening, or building strength. Clients come to fitness professionals with specific goals in mind of what they want to achieve, so how do we best help them reach their goals? In my experience, most clients need to increase their strength to support their structure before beginning more intense workouts because of sedentary lifestyles. When strength is the goal, are weight machines always the most efficient?

A recent study1 compared the hormonal response to squatting with a barbell versus a decline leg press. Following blood testing, researchers concluded that squatting elicited the greatest change in levels of circulating growth hormone and testosterone (both are required for the growth of muscle and skeletal mass). This study was not perfect, as the squats and leg press were not full range and, if the subject could not finish their set, a spotter aided them. However, it does bring up interesting points to consider as a personal trainer or group fitness instructor.

You may have clients who are completely sedentary and your time together is their first exposure to fitness. Throwing a newbie into the weight room with a barbell may not be the best idea. Mobility and flexibility throughout the body should be considered first. Does the individual have the ability to get into a squat position (or any movement) that you are asking for? In addition, to properly perform a squat with or without weight, the individual must be able to manage and maintain support of their spine, torso, hips, knees, and ankles. For an individual who spends 10+ hours a day sitting, the ability to stabilize their joints and sense their position may be jeopardized. Building the foundational blocks of a movement first will allow your client the tools they need to scale across any movement.

So how do you make the call? When is it ideal to use a weight machine versus free weights and whole-body movements? For a fit person looking to increase their strength, I would firstly be sure they could do basic movements (without weight) without movement errors. I would begin similarly for a newer exerciser, but would start them on weight machines, which can be very helpful to build body awareness and control. Let’s take the leg press, for example. While a person must maintain integration in every joint of their body when squatting, on a leg press machine they only need to stabilize the lower body, as the torso and spine are supported by the structure of the machine. This regression of the squatting movement can be helpful for a new exerciser or someone recovering from injury or surgery, as they can then better sense their position across the fewer joints associated with the movement.

You may have heard the statement ‘regress before you progress’, which suggests that teaching clients the basics of movements sets them up for success when progressing to more challenging movements, just as mastering the movement and strength required for a leg press will then allow a client to potentially be more successful and controlled with squatting.

If a squat is too challenging, you could regress further by introducing it as a static stretch (to help your client sense their position) such as the Yoga Tune Up® pose Half Happy Baby (shown in the picture), and then progress to the leg press. Once the client has perfected maintaining joint position throughout the movement, they can graduate to the more challenging version with a barbell or free weights. In fact, even progressing from a barbell to free weights provides more of a challenge, as the body now has to stabilize two weighted objects instead of one.

Regressions and progressions are a key component to any training regimen. They allow clients to master movement and proprioception with a few joints at a time rather than overwhelming their nervous system with the responsibility of many joints during one movement. If you are working with someone who is having difficulty perfecting the movement or absorbing the cues you are offering, perhaps it’s time to break the movement down into its parts with a regression. Remember, regression will help with progression in the long run. Your clients will get stronger from laying the foundation for healthy, precise movement patterns that will cross over into all activities. It’s a win for the trainer and, more importantly, a win for the client!


  1., accessed on 18 September 2014.


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