The squat is the king of lower body lifts. If you’re looking for a lift to inject power into your stroke and build a pair of thighs worth having out on race day, look no further. However, this is also a lift that can be intimidating for the beginning lifter or athlete. Familiarize yourself with the lift, how I teach it, and what cues I focus on first in my “How to Train Your Rower: The Squat” article, then check out my answers to some frequently asked questions about this awesome lift.
Front squat, back squat, or single leg squat, does it matter?
I like to use a variety of squats with my rowers as I think all variations have different merits.
Front squat: Tend to be easier for tall athletes to learn and get to parallel depth. Bar placement puts a high demand on postural muscles of the upper back and abdominal muscles, making it very applicable to rowing.
Back squat: More athletes have prior experience with back squatting than other variations, so they often come in already knowing this lift and can perform it proficiently. High demand on all lower body muscles, excellent developer of gluteal muscles. Should be done in high-bar placement on top of traps, not a low-bar placement, with an emphasis on keeping torso as upright as possible.
Single-leg squat: Excellent unilateral exercise, promotes even development of left/right legs. Requires less loading (weight) than front squat or back squat, making it useful in-season and as an assistance exercise, as well as useful for an athlete with back problems or anything preventing them from heavier loading.
I’ll often use the following rotation:
- Week 1 / Day 1: Front squat
- Week 1 / Day 2: Deadlift and Single-Leg Squat (lighter, higher reps)
- Week 2 / Day 1: Back squat
- Week 2 / Day 2: Single-Leg Squat (heavier, lower reps) and Romanian Deadlift
Don’t squats hurt your knees?
Every lift has the potential to cause injury if you don’t learn or demonstrate proper form. The squat is an exercise that most people need taught to them, rather than just naturally being able to learn on their own. Many people are reluctant to seek out qualified coaching, so a lot of people end up squatting incorrectly. 9 times out of 10, when someone says “squats hurt my knees,” I can find a correction to their form that alleviates the pain. However, if you have a prior injury or if correctly performed squats truly do hurt your knees, experiment to find a variation that doesn’t. Maybe the higher loads of back squatting hurts your knees, but the lighter single-leg squats don’t. Maybe an above-parallel close-stance box squat is necessary for you. At the end of the day, you want to find some way to strengthen your legs in a manner that doesn’t cause you pain.
How often should I max out? If I don’t max out, how will I know I’m improving?
I very rarely have my rowers test 1-rep maxes (1RMs). In the fall and winter seasons, I will often have them do 3-5-rep maxes or max reps at a set percentage, usually 90%. This gives me a good idea of where they’re at and it’s a more sustainable test (not as much recovery required from the lower percentage) and it’s more similar to rowing (five heavy strokes to start, in the case of a squat/deadlift, rather than one). I think a few rep max tests per year is a good way to gauge progress.
The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) chart is very useful for selecting weights and tracking progress. If you’re selecting weights, 8.5 RPE = 85% 1RM, 8 RPE = 80% 1RM, etc. If you’re tracking progress, the same weight done at a lower RPE equals progress. If 225 x 1 was a 9.5RPE and now it’s an 8.5RPE, you got stronger.
Is it better to go heavier or go deeper? How deep is deep enough?
Range of motion is more important than maximum weight lifted. I’ve seen coaches use the box squat with new athletes to teach them to squat, but I think that the box becomes a crutch rather than a teaching tool. It supports the athlete at the bottom of the lift, the hardest part, and removing it can make athletes panic and go back to cutting the lift high. I think the box squat has utility for injured athletes, but that’s about it. With new athletes, I will often set up a light band across the power rack to give them a depth measurement, like this. This has the advantage over a box because it provides a depth check without taking any weight at the bottom. It’s just an indicator and saves coaches and athletes from wondering if every rep was to depth.
A lot of new lifters struggle with the mentality of a full depth squat. I don’t think “butt to heels” is necessary, but parallel depth is attainable for everyone and is a good compromise of requiring a baseline level of mobility and still being able to load the exercise appreciably. In my experience, rowers who can reach a good catch position can usually squat to parallel depth (top of thigh parallel with the ground) with minimal extra instruction. Those who can’t reach parallel on a squat probably aren’t getting to full catch either. Check out Mobility for Rowers to figure out what’s limiting them.
Should my stance be as narrow as it is in the boat? Is it OK if I turn my toes out?
Regarding foot positioning on the squat, it is different than in the boat. For back squat, I advocate for a stance just outside shoulder width with individual modifications made for athlete comfort. For front squat, a little closer. There’s a lot of variation in athletes’ hip shapes, particularly from girls to guys, so I don’t think a “one size fits all” approach is effective. As I general rule, I encourage athletes to be as narrow as they can while still achieving parallel depth and as upright of a torso as possible. This tends to be just outside shoulder width. If athletes have to turn their toes out more than about 45 degrees, there’s something limiting their mobility and that will show up in the boat too. I’ve noticed that rowers who really splay their knees out at the catch tend to turn their toes out too much when squatting as well, and this tends to be an ankle mobility restriction. Check out Mobility for Rowers to figure out what’s limiting them.
Part 2: Deadlift FAQs
Part 3: Overhead Press FAQs
You can also download the complete “How to Train Your Rower” guide for free! This PDF manual contains the 3-part FAQ series as well as my 3-part instructional series for each lift.