Squats and upper-body strength
February 19, 2012 1:21 AM   Subscribe

Do squats really help with building your upper-body?

I've been trying to follow Starting Strength, which really emphasizes the importance of squats. But while my legs seem to be getting thicker and thicker, my arms and especially chest just seems to be lagging way behind, and I've always had a more muscular lower body anyway. I'm thinking about dialling back on the squats (which I don't enjoy, to be honest) and focusing more on bench and overhead press, dips and pull ups. Some people say that squats release growth hormones etc, and that you're wasting your time and can't develop your upper body without them, but at the gym there are always plenty of guys with really big upper bodies who never seem to do squats at all. Are they really that important?
posted by moorooka to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My husband has been weightlifting for nearly 20 years, and has almost never done squats because of old knee injuries. His upper body is nicely muscular and he has got very strong. But his legs really do look out of proportion by most standards.

Also, as a female who carries weight around her backside and hips, I found that squats slimmed me down quite a lot around that region (well, maybe in general), and helped balance the muscle I built on my upper body.
posted by lollusc at 1:24 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, you're starting out by talking about two different things; first you say 'upper-body strength' and then you say you want to be bigger. Strength and size are not actually interchangeable or the same thing.

Squats do a lot to increase your core (abdominal, back, hip, upper leg muscles--the major muscles of the body) strength, which is pretty vital to a bench or press or pull-up in the first place, as well as just generally necessary for any movement that requires power (e.g., if you're weak in your core and you think you're getting stronger because you're doing a lot of bench presses, you're kind of missing the point, because strength comes from the core before your arms, not just your arms).

The front rack position in a front squat also works your arm flexibility, which is important not to just ignore in favor of bulk/size. You'll still want to be able to USE your arms effectively once you get them "big," right?
posted by so_gracefully at 1:34 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Starting Strength is NOT a bodybuilding workout. It is a strength workout. These are not the same thing. That's probably the most important point to address.

As for squats, so_gracefully is right on about their benefits, plus the common wisdom (that I've never found an actual cite for but I've never cared to go looking) is that because they're such huge muscles, stimulating them is the fastest way to trigger growth hormone production and other favorable changes in your body. That might be bullshit, I dunno, but for sure the core strength is a huge benefit if you want to get stronger overall, and the posterior chain work is great for a ton of functional reasons.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:22 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

(And to be totally clear: yeah, squats suck. I've been doing them for at least fifteen years, and they have never gotten any more fun. But there's a certain satisfaction in a really heavy ass-to-grass squat, and there's a lot of satisfaction in having a really tight ass.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:28 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing I didn't mention above is that while I also find squats unpleasant, there are two things I have done to make them less so, which might also work for you.

One is to be really consistent in using the protective side bar things on the squat cage and using them at the highest position I can without them being in the way. This helps because one of the things I find least pleasant about squats is the fear that I will get to the bottom and not be able to get up again, and fall flat on my face and kill myself with the bar. Knowing the spotter bars are there helps a lot with that. (And the one time I DID fall and they caught the barbell, I squatted much more comfortably for weeks after, because I REALLY knew I was safe).

The other is that I find small reps with heavier squat weights less unpleasant. If I am doing more than seven or eight reps, I feel like the limiting factor is actually cardiovascular rather than strength. I am panting and sometimes get tunnel vision and my heart is racing. So I try to alternate with a heavy squat day and a light squat day. On the light day I do three sets of eight-ten on 75kg or so. On the heavy day I do five sets of three-five on 100 kg. (Or at least that's where I was before I got slack over the holidays and my strength decreased a bit. I'm not admitting to what I've been doing the last few sessions.) Anyway, I actually love the heavy day and even look forward to squats on that day. I still dread the light day, though.
posted by lollusc at 4:06 AM on February 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Restless_nomad is right. It sounds like your priority is getting a particular physique, which is great, but there's a difference between a bodybuilding workout and a strength workout. I couldnt' tell you because I've never done a bodybuilding workout.

I will say that doing squats sensibly, with the correct form and spotters who can tell you when you're off, is fantastic for injury prevention. I HAAAATE them because they're terrifying, but I wouldn't trade the health benefits for anything.

Also, how are you warming up for squats? For reference, my typical warm up (if I'm doing, say, a set of 8 x 3 of 50-60% of my one rep max) is 15 of bar, 10 at 40% of that day's weight, 8 at 60%, 6 and 80%. IMHO, warming up correctly for squats is super important for safety.
posted by nerdfish at 7:33 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Squats don't build your upper body. Scroll halfway down on this page to read about a study demonstrating as much. Squats are still one of the most useful exercise for both strength and physique purposes. And if you want to get bigger you most likely need to get stronger.

Do your upper body movements before your squats if you want to focus on them more. Consider taking a look at Greyskull LP, which is a modified Starting Strength program and may be more to your liking.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:56 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The relatively low volume in SS works well for lower body exercises. Not so much for upper body, especially if you are interested in hypertrophy (size) at all. For aesthetic work, you would probably do well to add some isolation-type work--dumbbell rows and close-grip lat pulldowns for the back, bicep curls for the biceps, close-grip bench and dumbbell bench for bench and triceps. Not necessarily all of those exercises, of course! You may also want to bump up the number of reps on your bench and press work to 6-8.

Squats are going to help strengthen your core and back (once you're doing heavy enough weight). But don't fall down the hole of thinking it is the only exercise you ever need, will release hormones, etc etc. They are an integral part of a strength training program but are not the only part.
posted by Anonymous at 11:12 AM on February 19, 2012

Exactly what schroedinger said. Squats are an important part to your workout because they do so much for your core, balance, and lower body, but they're not a panacea exercise; they're part of the bigger picture.

One workout plan I've used on and off to great impact (both size and strength) is the Stronglift 5x5, which centers on squats, but pulls in a lot of the other exercises that you're talking about. I'd highly, highly recommend checking it out!

(And yeah, as restless_nomad said, squats suck now, will continue to suck in the forever future, but nothing makes for a great-looking ass like squats.)
posted by liquado at 2:22 PM on February 19, 2012

« Older Lesson Differentiation: PE Filter.   |   this belly fat is stubborn! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.