For most individuals, working to grow the leg muscles, specifically the calves, is a great challenge. The seated calf raise is one of the most well-known exercises developed to target the muscles in the calves, primarily the soleus muscle. However, doing this exercise alone will not maximize the potential growth of the calves.

There are numerous alternatives to the seated calf raise exercise that works more than just the soleus muscle. These alternative exercises may be performed with or without the use of weights or machines. Examples of these alternative exercises include jumping rope, standing calf raises, squat hold calf raises, and calf raises on a leg press machine.

Knowing the alternatives to the seated calf raise exercise allows individuals to modify their training program depending on their needs. While alternative exercises target the same area of the body, these exercises help maximize potential muscle growth.

What is a Seated Calf Raise?

Calf exercises are often applied in training programs to increase leg muscle size. However, training the calves also proves to be important in daily activities as this improves the force of plantar flexion. Plantar flexion is a movement required in almost all types of sporting events as well as mundane day-to-day activities such as standing on the tips of the toes and pressing down on the car pedals while driving.

The seated calf raise is one exercise that targets the calves, with primary use of the soleus muscle. It is performed by sitting on a chair, feet placed hip width apart, and heels positioned behind the knees. The heels should then be lifted off the ground, leaving the toes in contact with the floor. This position is briefly held followed by gentle lowering down of the heels. The seated calf raise may be done using bodyweight only, dumbbells placed above the knees, or with the help of machines.

Seated Calf Raise Alternatives

The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles make up the bulk of the calf muscles. Seated calf raises put more emphasis on the soleus muscle due to having the knees bent all throughout the exercise. The following alternatives will train both components of the calf muscles to maximize its growth potential. 

Jump Rope

Jumping rope utilizes muscles that the seated calf raises miss. It builds endurance for the calf muscles, as well as strength and coordination. Furthermore, jumping rope provides endless variations to keep the exercise challenging.

To jump rope, the individual must first make sure that the rope is the appropriate length for their height. Standing with the feet and knees together, the rope is flicked over the head and passed under the feet by pushing the toes into a quick but gentle hop. The knees must remain slightly bent, to land softly and to keep it from locking. Jumping rope is usually performed before a workout for 10 minutes as part of the warm-up.

Single Leg Standing Calf Raises

Single leg standing calf raises work both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles through a full range of motion. This exercise works through the full range of motion allowed by the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.

single leg standing calf raise

A single leg standing calf raise is performed by standing on the edge of an elevated platform such as a step on the stairs, with the hands placed on the railing for stabilization. The heel is lowered to the ground, then the body weight is pushed up until the individual is standing on the ball of their foot. This is held for one to two seconds, and then the heel is lowered down again. This process is repeated ideally 12 - 15 times per set.

Squat Hold Calf Raises

Squat hold calf raise is a great alternative to the seated calf raise. It places the knees in a similar position as in a seated calf raise, but it works the gluteal muscles too. Squat hold calf raises works the soleus muscles more than the gastrocnemius, but a considerable amount of force is still produced by the latter.

squat hold calf raises

This exercise is performed by having the individual assume a squat position, with the feet shoulder width apart, and hands in front or placed on the hips. While maintaining the squat position, the individual pushes up to stand on their tip toes and then back down to the ground. The activity is repeated 12 - 15 times without coming out of the squat.

Leg Press Calf Raise

Using a leg press machine to do calf raises is a good alternative to doing traditional calf raises or seated calf raises. It works both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in a seated position but with the knees only slightly bent. The individual is able to modify the weights to progress the exercise to build stronger calves. 

leg press calf raise

Performing this exercise starts out by adjusting the lock out position of the machine to where the knees are only slightly bent. The individual sits on the leg press machine and places only the ball of the foot on the lower edge of the footplate. The footplate is pushed away by contracting the plantarflexors and slowly brought back down in a span of 3 seconds. This is performed 12 to 15 times each side.

Common Mistakes during Calf Exercises

Temporary plateaus in muscle performance happen when a muscle is not challenged the way it should be. In order to increase muscle size and develop muscle strength in the calves, sufficient muscle contraction, frequency and variation must be incorporated into the routine. The following are common mistakes to avoid to be able to maximize potential muscle growth.

Insufficient Muscle Contraction

One of the most common mistakes individuals make when trying to build calf muscles is not contracting the muscles correctly. A number of individuals tend to contract only up to half of the range, completely missing the isometric contraction at the top of the movement. 

An adequate contraction is required to be able to fully excite a muscle. Stretching the muscle through its full range of motion, and allowing it to contract eccentrically achieves this goal. Eccentric contraction on the calves and taking ample time to perform each repetition places the muscle under tension in a sufficient amount of time, ultimately resulting in muscle growth.

An explosive concentric contraction of the calf muscles with an isometric squeeze at the top of the movement, before a slow release for an eccentric contraction will engage the muscles optimally to induce muscle growth.

Inadequate Frequency

The calf muscles are not usually trained as much as upper body muscles. This is because people usually forget to train the calf muscles due to the inconspicuous action of these muscles. Thus, muscle growth is slowed down due to insufficient training frequency.

Training frequency refers to the number of times an individual works out, or in this case, a muscle group is worked out in a week. The frequency of training depends on the individual’s needs and primary goal. A beginner will start out at fewer sets while more experienced lifters may benefit with more sets.

No Variation

As stated earlier, the calf is made up of two muscles, and stimulating each muscle requires different positions. Simply doing one calf exercise to enhance muscle performance is not enough. Doing only one type of calf raise would optimally train only one of these muscles. 

Incorporating different variations of the calf exercises (seated and standing) in a workout trains the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles which allows for optimal calf muscle growth.

Final Thoughts

Exercises targeting the calf muscles are beneficial for individuals wanting to increase lower leg size as well as the general population. While the seated calf raise is one such exercise that works the calves, it primarily targets the soleus muscle only, thus it is not optimal for calf muscle growth. Exercises that target both the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles such as single leg standing calf raises and squat hold calf raises, prove to be good alternatives for maximizing calf development.

References

Athletes, especially those who participate in competitive sports, routinely reach the limits of their physical abilities during demanding training schedules. Overtraining syndrome thus develops when the athlete’s training schedule lacks adequate rest and recovery periods. In the bodybuilding community, however, overtraining is commonly disregarded as an excuse to slack off on training.

The overtraining syndrome consists of a spectrum that progresses from functional overreaching and nonfunctional overreaching to overtraining, and is widely tackled by medical journals. It is a phenomenon caused by stress accumulation brought about by training and other life stressors compounded by inadequate rest, hence resulting in long-term deficits in performance. However, the textbook definition of overtraining syndrome is more often seen in high level endurance athletes rather than in bodybuilders.

While overtraining does exist, it is important to understand why this phenomenon is increasingly disregarded as a myth by some bodybuilders and weight-training enthusiasts. Distinguishing between overtraining as recognized by medical journals and reduced physical performance due to other factors is necessary in preventing a plateau in fitness progress and long-term performance decrements.

What is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining syndrome is defined as a medical condition that mainly presents as a decline in performance with accompanying maladaptive responses. This condition is said to be the result of an imbalance in exercise stress load, non-training stress load, and rest.

Recovery from this condition may take months to years. However, before reaching the state of overtraining syndrome, the athlete first enters functional overreaching, nonfunctional overreaching, and overtraining.

Functional Overreaching

Intense training regimens may lead to a decline in performance particularly in the absence of adequate rest and recovery periods. When appropriate rest is present, enhanced performance is observed following a temporary decrease that typically disappears within 3 to 14 days. This is known as functional overreaching.

Functional overreaching is used by high level athletes and coaches due to its benefit in improving performance. Because of the adequate rest periods provided, the body is able to compensate for the stress brought about by training.

Nonfunctional Overreaching

In the event that functional overreaching continues for weeks, the body may enter a state of nonfunctional overreaching defined as a more severe form of overreaching. Nonfunctional overreaching leads to a performance decline with the presence of neuroendocrine and/or psychological symptoms. Although recovery from nonfunctional overreaching also takes several days to weeks, performance decline lasts longer than that in functional overreaching.

Overtraining

When training is further intensified without providing adequate periods of rest, overtraining may develop. Overtraining is defined as a long-term (weeks to months) decline in performance capacity with or without psychological and physiological signs of maladaptation.

This is primarily differentiated from nonfunctional overreaching in terms of the time needed for recovery. An athlete moves from overtraining toward overtraining syndrome with added stress and inadequate rest.

Varieties of Overtraining Syndrome

Overtraining syndrome is divided into a hyperarousal and a hypoarousal form. Hypoarousal, also known as parasympathetic or Addison’s overtraining syndrome, is more often diagnosed in endurance athletes such as swimmers, long-distance runners, and cyclists.

Hyperarousal (also sympathetic or Basedow’s overtraining syndrome), on the other hand, is more common in power athletes including sprinters, jumpers, and weightlifters. While the two forms present with similar symptoms, the hyperarousal form occurs less frequently, thus overtraining is not often seen in bodybuilders.

Symptoms of Overtraining

The most common complaint of individuals who experience overtraining is underperformance. Because earlier manifestations such as fatigue, heavy muscles, and depression are ignored, chronic affectation of performance sets in. Thus, early recognition of overreaching and overtraining is important in preventing progression.

Around 90% of cases report sleep disturbances. This may present as difficulty in sleep onset, nightmares, night awakenings, and feelings of inadequate sleep. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, decreased libido and competitive drive, palpitations, excessive sweating, and mood changes such as emotional instability, anxiety, and irritability.

The most serious symptom is that of recurrent infections including upper respiratory tract infections and other minor infections that occur when an individual attempts to resume training prior to full recovery. Infections are observed every few weeks.

Science Behind Overtraining

There are several hypotheses aiming to explain the pathologic mechanisms of overtraining syndrome. Although there is still no definitive explanation for this condition, the cytokine and hypothalamic hypotheses are two concepts considered in overtraining.

Cytokine Hypothesis

The cytokine hypothesis states that the microtrauma acquired from intense training induces an acute inflammatory response. When activation of muscles and joints is prolonged without adequate rest, the acute inflammation shifts to that of a chronic state, thus amplifying inflammation.

Cytokines are immunoregulatory proteins that are released by immune cells and have varying effects on the body. The symptoms seen in overtrained individuals such as depression, fatigue, heavy muscles, and sleep disturbances can all be linked to the action of specific cytokines released during the inflammatory response brought about by muscle trauma.

Although the symptoms of overtrained individuals fit into the cytokine hypothesis, there are limitations surrounding this concept as only few studies have investigated the relationship between cytokines and overtraining.

Hypothalamic Hypothesis

A dysregulated hypothalamus is said to contribute to the symptoms of overtraining syndrome. In particular, the recurrent infections, fatigue, weight loss, and decreased competitive drive all fit into the hypothalamic hypothesis.

The hypothalamic hypothesis claims that the stress causing overtraining affects the hypothalamus leading to drastic changes in hormones, specifically cortisol. Cortisol increases in the presence of stress, causing breakdown of molecules such as proteins. Because there is overwhelming stress in overtraining, cortisol is persistently elevated resulting in muscle breakdown instead of recovery.

However, in chronic states of overtraining, cortisol level may decrease as a result of adrenal insufficiency. This then leads to symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and lack of motivation.

Common Misconceptions on Overtraining

There is a common perception that overtraining is only caused by an increase in workout intensity. However, factors such as poor nutrition, inadequate rest, and other life stressors also contribute to overtraining.

Poor nutrition is either eating less than the body requires or consuming the wrong type of food. In order for the body to keep up with the demands of training, it must be provided with adequate nutrition. A proper balanced diet composed of enough proteins, fats, and carbohydrates allows the body to recover.

Inadequate rest and other life stressors also contribute to overtraining as these dysregulate the endocrine system, thus causing changes in hormone levels. These hormones are required in muscle building and repair.

In the bodybuilding community, overtraining is often disregarded as myth likely due to the infrequent occurrence of this condition in power athletes. Nonetheless, overtraining may still occur in bodybuilders and other power athletes especially when training is done without the use of rest or recovery days.

How to Prevent Overtraining

The main prevention strategy for overtraining is to incorporate adequate rest in training programs. The problem with this idea is that most athletes refuse to rest when advised.

A recommended alternative to a complete recovery day for endurance athletes is a five to ten-minute aerobic exercise at a pulse rate of 120-140 beats per minute. This should be slowly built up over the course of 6-12 weeks. However, a once-a-week complete recovery day should still be applied. During recovery days, the individual should avoid their own sport as there is a tendency to increase exercise intensity right away.

Because overtraining is not very common in power athletes, there are no studies discussing the optimal prevention strategy incorporating rest days. In general, overtraining in power athletes can be prevented by resting for a few days to a week. Aside from preventing overtraining, this also helps the individual overcome plateaus.

Final Thoughts

Because the word overtraining has gained varying definitions outside the medical community, misconceptions are expected. Overtraining syndrome is a medically recognized condition that should be analyzed as a spectrum ranging from functional overreaching to overtraining. While functional overreaching is useful in training programs to enhance sporting performance, coaches and athletes should be mindful not to progress to nonfunctional overreaching and overtraining.

References

The deadlift is a versatile movement that involves picking up dead weight from the floor. Good biomechanics, adequate strength, and power are essential to a good deadlift. Multiple muscle groups come into play when performing a deadlift, and as a compound exercise, an individual’s deadlift will only ever be as strong as the weakest point in the series. 

Deadlift accessory exercises help an individual avoid overtraining while working on breaking through plateaus in strength, referred to as sticking points. Sticking points are weak areas in the range of motion at which a disproportionate amount of difficulty is experienced. Accessory exercises help an individual get into peak deadlifting condition as it involves focused strengthening of inadequate muscle groups. 

Understanding the mechanisms that lead to the occurrence of sticking points will help in determining different training strategies to remedy the associated weaknesses for continued progress and avoidance of injury.

What are Sticking Points?

Kompf, J., & Arandjelović describes sticking points as “the point at which failure occurs when exercise is taken to the point of muscular failure." Moreover, sticking points are points in the range of motion during lifting where some type of weakness is felt. The muscle fails to overcome the resistance, thus failing to complete the activity.

Causes of Sticking Points

Biomechanical factors have long been the focus of numerous literature explaining the sticking points phenomenon. These factors include specific exercise type, differences in anthropometry, motor-unit recruitment, force-length, and force-velocity relationships. Ultimately, sticking points occur due to insufficient muscle force production.

Sticking Points in the Deadlift

Deadlift sticking points may be divided into three phases: low, medium, and high sticking points. These phases use the knees as reference to the points at which weakness is felt as the weight is lifted.

Low Sticking Point

A low sticking point is identified if an individual starting out a deadlift lifts the weights off the floor slowly and a sudden acceleration occurs at the level of the knees. It is often described as “slow off the floor.”

In some cases, even with much effort, the weights do not come off the floor. This is typically seen in individuals with leg weakness, particularly in the position where the quads, hams and glutes are most stretched. 

Medium Sticking Point

When the weights stall just below the knee during the transition as the leg drives towards the lock-out position, a medium sticking point is identified. The neutral extension of the lower back required to do deadlifts is not maintained, and the lumbar spine may appear rounded. Insufficient glutes, spinal extensors, and inability of core muscles to stabilize the trunk causes medium sticking points. 

medium sticking point muscles

High Sticking Point

High sticking points are seen in the lock-out phase of the deadlift. The weights are effortlessly lifted off the ground, past the transitional phase, but considerably slows down past the knees. With sufficiently heavy weights, the bar might ride the thigh going into the lock-out. The primary cause for high sticking points is hip extensor weakness.

high sticking point deadlift muscles

Accessory Exercises to Overcome Sticking Points in Deadlifts

Sticking points in the deadlift occur when an individual is no longer capable of lifting the weight past a certain point. This can happen at any point in a lift’s range of motion due to weakness in the specific muscle group responsible for that motion. Isolating muscles to be strengthened proved beneficial to overall deadlift performance.

Accessory muscles are ROM (range of motion) or muscle-specific exercises that engage a certain group of muscles more. These exercises help target weak points in the deadlift to improve deadlift performance.

Seated Box Jumps

Seated box jumps are performed by having an individual seated on a bench jump on a box situated 1 to 2 feet away. This variation of the traditional box jump eliminates the innate stretch reflex of the muscle, thus working to improve the active concentric contraction only. 

This is particularly helpful in lower body force generation as it begins at a position where passive forces cannot contribute to the total force production. It develops explosive power through the legs by isolating and training only the active component of the activity. Seated box jumps help address difficulty in breaking the bar off the floor.

Deficit Deadlift

The deficit deadlift is beneficial to those who struggle with pulling the weight off the floor in the initial phases of the lift due to inadequate strength or speed to accelerate the barbell towards the latter aspects of the lift. Deficit deadlifts increase the involvement of the hips and legs by increasing joint flexion range, made possible by increasing the range of possible motion. 

deficit deadlift

Performed by standing on a platform 1-4 inches high, an increase in knee flexion is seen in the initial stages of the deficit deadlift, which in turn increases quadriceps involvement. This works well in improving leg strength and drive which are essential in moving loads off the floor during a deadlift.

Pause Deadlifts

Weakness felt around the knee area when lifting may be addressed by doing pause deadlifts. Pause deadlifts, as its name suggests, is pausing at a certain range in the lift just below where the sticking point is felt.

The pause is usually done just below the knee, with the muscles responsible (gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps femoris) contracting isometrically. However, the pause deadlift may also be used to address high sticking points by pausing just before the lock out. 

Bent Over Rows

Bent over rows are performed in the hip hinge position under heavy load, while keeping the spine in neutral extension. This accessory exercise works on the spinal extensors, developing upper and lower back strength in a certain range in the deadlift. The upper back is trained through concentric and eccentric contraction, while the lower half contracts isometrically. 

bent over row

This exercise is especially helpful for medium and high sticking points. The strengthening of spinal extensor musculature helps remain the neutral extension of the lumbar area required to do deadlifts. The upper back strengthening assists in maintaining the integrity of the lock-out by keeping the shoulder retracted.

Banded Deadlifts

Attaching a band to the bar increases the demand as the lift progresses. This engages the muscles at mid-lift more as the weight is lifted. Banded deadlifts activate the gluteal muscles to a greater extent, with the resistance forcing the lifter to drive harder through the mid-range of motion. This accessory exercise is particularly helpful in improving medium and high sticking points.

Hip Thrusts

A variation of the glute bridge with the upper back on an elevated surface, the hip thrust is usually done with a barbell across the hip for added resistance. The hip is thrusted in an upward motion, activating the gluteal muscles. This exercise works the hamstrings, quadriceps muscles, and adductors as well. 

barbell hip thrust

Targeted hip extension work, like hip thrusts, mimics pulls that accentuate finishing off the lift. Strengthening the gluteal muscles addresses high sticking points through sufficient engagement of the hip extensors (gluteal muscles and hamstrings).

Final Thoughts

Deadlifts will only ever be as strong as the weakest muscle in the link. With that said, working on these sticking points through the use of accessory exercises will help with deadlift progression. However, these accessory exercises cannot replace the traditional deadlift, rather these exercises are done in conjunction to a traditional deadlift strength training. 

References

The squat is a type of resistance training that strengthens the lower body as well as the core muscles. This exercise has been widely used in training programs with the two main types being weighted squats and bodyweight squats. While the weighted squat is often seen as the more superior type, the bodyweight squat also proves to have its own benefits.

Studies have proved that bodyweight squats enhance the strength, power, and endurance of lower body muscles. Additionally, this exercise strengthens the core, reduces the risk of injury, and helps improve mobility. There is also the added benefit of being able to perform the exercise anywhere because no equipment is needed.

Understanding the biomechanics, proper form, and benefits of bodyweight squats is important in attaining fitness goals as well as progressing to weighted squats.

What is a Bodyweight Squat?

Also known as air squats, the bodyweight squat is a type of squat that does not make use of external weight or equipment. Although it only uses the individual’s body weight in performing the exercise, the bodyweight squat is considered ideal in strengthening the lower limbs for sporting activities and activities of daily living.

body weight squat

Phases of the Bodyweight Squat and Muscles Targeted

The two main phases of the bodyweight squat, or squats in general, are the descending (lowering) phase and the ascending (standing) phase. The descending phase requires moving the body from a standing position into a squat while the ascending phase involves movement from a squatting position to an upright position.

During the descending phase, there is hip flexion, knee flexion, and ankle dorsiflexion. As the hip joint flexes, the trunk bends toward the legs producing eccentric contraction of the hip extensors. This involves the controlled lengthening of the gluteus maximus, semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris muscles.

The knee extensors (rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and vastus lateralis) also undergo eccentric contraction as the knee flexes. For ankle dorsiflexion, the gastrocnemius and soleus counteract the pull of gravity as the body is lowered into a squat.

As the individual moves to the ascending phase, concentric contraction occurs in order to produce hip extension, knee extension, and ankle plantarflexion. The same muscles are activated during the descending and ascending phases. The difference between the two is the type of contraction occurring in the muscles.

Eccentric contraction occurring in the descending phase is essentially the lengthening of the muscle as it contracts. Concentric contraction during the ascending phase, on the other hand, is the shortening of the muscle as it contracts.

Throughout all phases of the squat, spinal extensors contract isometrically to maintain a neutrally extended spine. The core muscles such as the abdominals and obliques work to stabilize the trunk all throughout the activity.

Typical Form and Movement Pattern

Although there are variations to the bodyweight squat, the typical starting position consists of a shoulder width stance with toes pointing straight ahead. As the individual enters the descending phase, the hip is translated backward while the knees and ankles are bent. It is ideal to keep the chest up, shoulders back, and the neck at a neutral position.

The squat should be lowered to a depth that avoids movement compensations such as knee valgus, rounding of the lower back, and external foot rotation. During the ascending phase, gluteal contraction should be done to bring the hips back to a standing position while placing pressure through the heels. Full contraction of the gluteal muscles is necessary at the end of the ascending phase for maximal muscle recruitment.

Benefits of the Bodyweight Squat

Benefits of bodyweight squats include muscle hypertrophy, increase in lower body strength,  and improved mobility. It is an ideal exercise to strengthen the entire lower limb for both sporting and daily living applications. 

Increase in Muscle Strength

Increase in muscle size and strength is possible even with body weight training only. Bodyweight squats can induce muscle hypertrophy with progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual increase in weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in a strengthening routine.

In the context of bodyweight squats, progressive overload may be achieved through an increase in training frequency, increase in number of repetitions, or applying technique variations to make the activity more difficult. This challenges the muscles in play, allowing for an increase in strength.

Strengthens Core

Core muscles are responsible for keeping the trunk upright and stable at all times. A study published in 2018 concluded that “squatting resulted in greater erector spinae activation, but similar rectus abdominis and oblique external activation as the prone bridge.” These findings suggest the use of squats to target back extensors and core muscles for avoiding injury risk and boosting athletic performance. 

Improves Mobility

Since squats are both hip and knee-dominant activities, the exercise builds and maintains mobility in the aforementioned joints. Due to its ability to imitate various functional activities of daily living, squats are ideal for general health and fitness training programs.

Prevents Injuries

Aside from the muscles primarily working to complete the activity, other structures such as ligaments, connective tissues and stabilizer muscles contribute to the integrity of a squat. With the right technique, squats help strengthen these supporting tissues, thus helping in injury prevention.

Factors Affecting Bodyweight Squats

Having an adequate available range of motion is required to be able to do proper bodyweight squats. Limitation of motion is the most common restriction for individuals in their squat performance. 

Ankle Mobility

The ankle joint is capable of moving in all three planes of motion, namely sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes. Because of this, the ankle joint can perform dorsiflexion, plantarflexion, inversion, eversion, and axial rotation.

Ankle mobility contributes to a balanced and controlled motion in performing a squat. Good ankle dorsiflexion, in particular, allows an individual to maintain a flat and stable foot position during the descending phase of the squat when the knee is flexed. The presence of stiffness in the ankle joint results in poor dorsiflexion, possibly causing movement compensation in the foot and the knee joints.

One movement compensation in individuals with ankle stiffness is heel raising. During the ascending phase of the squat, the center of pressure in the foot moves toward the heel. If the heels are allowed to rise off the ground during a squat, the center of pressure becomes restricted affecting squat technique. Additionally, the force created by raised heels is greater than when the heels are flat on the ground which may lead to unnecessary wear on the joints.

Knee Stability

The knee joint is a modified hinge joint allowing flexion and extension movements. This joint is considered a stability joint due to its structure and limited movement ability. Because the knee joint functions for stability, the ideal position for the knees during a squat is one where they are aligned with the hips and feet. In the event that knee alignment is not maintained, the stabilizing ligaments and tendons of the knee are compromised.

Misalignment of the knee with the hips and feet has been said to occur due to weakness in the joints and muscles directly above and below the knee. The most commonly reported movement pattern contributing to knee dysfunction is excessive anterior motion.

Excessive anterior motion is the movement of the knees past the toes during the descending phase of the squat. This should be avoided as it creates increased shear and compressive forces on the knees. However, an increase in forward lean is observed when the knees are restricted behind the toes which results in an increase in force on the lumbar spine. Thus, slight movement of the knees past the toes is still considered necessary for a proper squat.

Hip Mobility

The hip joint is a ball and socket joint which allows for movement in all three anatomical planes. This degree of motion available in the hip joint makes it a mobility joint.

The main function of the hip joint is to transmit loads from the pelvis to the lower extremity such as in squatting. When there is limitation in the range of motion of the hip, this may hinder the individual from reaching appropriate squat depth.

In order to increase hip range of motion, the body compensates through posterior rotation of the pelvis during the descending phase and lumbar flexion at the squat's lowest point. This strategy should be avoided as it puts greater stress on the lumbar spine. 

Lumbar Stability and Thoracic Mobility

When doing squats, the position of the trunk in relation to the ground must remain constant with the thoracic spine placed in neutral extension all throughout the activity. This would indicate trunk stability and control. Inability to stabilize the lumbar spine and maintain slight extension of the thoracic spine places excessive compressive and shear forces on the lumbar spine.

Head Position

Available literature discussing the effects of head position to the squat kinematics have described a significant increase in trunk and hip flexion when head position and gaze were directed downward. Because excessive hip and trunk flexion cause excessive compressive and shear forces on the spine, these movements are contraindicated in the squat. 

To decrease the amount of lumbar and thoracic flexion, holding a proper gaze direction, head position and minimizing head movements must be maintained.

Final Thoughts

Doing bodyweight squats come with an array of benefits such as increased core strength, improved balance and posture, and better mobility which help with activities of daily living. Working this functional exercise helps develop strength and power which are essential in athletic performance as well. With proper form and technique, bodyweight squats also help prevent the risk of injuries.

References

The squat is a dynamic strengthening exercise used in multiple facets like hypertrophy training, sports training, and even rehabilitation as it replicates functional movements utilized in day-to-day activities. Conventionally, the squat is performed with a foot stance at shoulder width but studies have mentioned that a wider stance activates a variety of muscles that are not engaged in narrower stances.

The specific stance used in performing a squat depends on the goals of the individual with particular attention to the muscles targeted and joint mobilization. While a narrower stance makes for a more functional application as it better mimics daily activities, taking a wider stance puts emphasis on developing posterior chain muscles and activates the gluteal muscles more.

Varying leg positions in performing squats target different muscles and affect the range of motion of the hip, knee, and ankle joints. The biomechanics involved in doing wide stance squats require understanding to optimize performance in targeted muscles and engage the same muscle groups in a manner that would avoid injury.

What is a Wide Stance Squat?

The typical squat form includes placement of the feet at a shoulder-width distance with the movement targeting the quadriceps muscles, hamstrings, and hip adductors and abductors. A wide stance squat is typically performed with the feet placed 1.5 to 2 times the width of the hip with the toes pointed slightly outward. Assuming a wider stance causes more glute and adductor magnus activation as a result of greater posterior hip displacement.

Muscular Recruitment

A common misconception in muscular recruitment in relation to stance width is that assuming a narrower stance is more knee-dominant, while a wider stance is more hip-dominant. There are currently no studies to show that a narrower stance activates the quadriceps to a greater extent than wider stances do. However, a study by Escamilla, et al. (2001) demonstrated that both narrow and wide stance squats are knee-dominant, but wide stance squats were the most knee-dominant in all phases of the activity.

Paoli, et al. indicated a significant difference in EMG activity of the gluteus maximus muscle when back squats were performed in a wide stance. No significant differences in activity were noted concerning other muscles. Nonetheless, it was concluded that a large width is necessary for a greater activation of the gluteus maximus, thus allowing for the development of the muscle.

Biomechanical Factors that Affect Stance Width

Hip Joint Mobility

An individual’s hip anatomy varies from one to the other and this affects how much motion is available in a joint. Regardless of stance width, an almost full hip flexion range of motion is required to be able to perform squats safely.

In addition to hip flexion mobility, the adductors play a huge role in how wide a stance can go. Tight adductor muscles limit how much abduction can occur at the hip joint resulting in having the knees pulled inward. 

Knee Strain

While the idea that a narrower stance activates the quadriceps muscles more than other stances is not supported by any study, most individuals believe in this concept due to the tension felt in the knee. Narrower stances require anterior tracking of the knee placing greater stress on the patellofemoral joint. Insufficient training in this manner may lead to tendonitis as a result of recessive forces acting on the knee. Assuming a wider stance helps the lifter reach the same degree of depth while maintaining the tibia in a vertical position, putting far less stress on the knee joint.

Ankle Mobility

Narrow stance squats demand more dorsiflexion than any other stance width. As the individual goes deeper in a narrow stance squat and knee flexion increases, the knee translates forward in relation to the ankle. If there is a limitation in the ankle’s range of motion in a narrow stance squat, then the squat depth may also be limited. 

Wider stances may be of benefit in allowing individuals to attain deeper squats without compromising ankle health. This is because in a wider squatting pattern, the posterior tracking of the hips places the tibia more perpendicular to the ankle, thus requiring less ankle dorsiflexion.

Ideal Squat Stance Width

There are no studies showing that one stance width is superior to the others in terms of quadriceps activation. The main takeaway of doing wide stance squats over other variations is the slight increase in gluteal muscle activation.

Due to variance in anthropometry, inherent differences are present in ranges of motion, joint mobility, joint stability, and neuromuscular control. Subsequently, an all-encompassing statement regarding squat width for all individuals is ill-suited at best. 

Playing out a squat with exemplary form is expected to improve muscle activation and limit hazard of injury. A typical stance in doing squats will be around shoulder width, with a slight degree of toe-out. However, considerable variations exist. Of all variations of the squat, the ideal squat stance is the one that provides an individual the greatest range of motion without compromising the integrity of the squat through the development of compensatory movements. 

A compensatory movement is the body's method of looking for the easiest course of action to play out a specific activity which does not benefit the individual in this case. Development of compensatory movements does not maximize the activation in the targeted muscle groups, and in turn accompanies poor functional outcomes.  In any case, individuals lacking optimal joint mobility, joint stability, or neuromuscular control regularly show compensatory movements.

Final Thoughts

Squats are a good exercise to develop posterior chain and overall lower extremity strength. Although wide stance squats recruit the gluteal muscles more, no significant difference is seen in quadriceps activation. Ultimately, leg positioning for doing squats is heavily dependent on the individual’s physiological variance and the goal for which the squats are done.

References

Deadlift is a compound exercise used for strength building and muscle growth. The exercise requires lifting “dead weight” off the floor without the use of momentum, hence its name. The activity involves the use of various muscle groups working together to complete the lift.  

Performing a deadlift works several large muscle groups including the glutes, hamstrings, back, and core. The first half of the lift consists of bringing the barbell from the floor to the knees -- primarily targeting the quadriceps femoris muscles. The latter half of the activity involves bringing the bar from the knees to a lock-out which engages the lower and mid-back muscles, as well as the gluteal muscles and hamstrings. 

The various muscle groups involved in performing deadlifts require understanding in order to optimize the workout. Engaging the right muscles in a deadlift also allows avoidance of injury. 

What is a Deadlift?

barbell deadlift

A deadlift is a weight lifting exercise wherein a loaded bar is lifted off the ground until the trunk is upright and perpendicular to the ground, weights held at the hip level, before being placed back on the ground.  

Along with squat and bench press, the deadlift is a type of resistance training. This exercise is usually used for improving physical fitness with the primary benefit of strengthening the posterior lower limb muscles. However, muscles of the core, back, and upper extremities are also involved in the movement. 

What Muscles are Recruited in Doing Deadlifts? 

From the beginning to the end of the movement, a properly performed deadlift requires rigid extension of the vertebral spine.  

The initial stance begins with the lifter flexing the hips, knees, and shoulders going into an upright position demanding full extension of each of those joints, and recruiting different muscles throughout the movement. 

Back Extensors 

One of the main components of the deadlift is being able to bring the torso upright to a lock-out position. The muscles responsible for this movement are the back extensors which allow the spine to move from a horizontal to an upright position. The primary back extensor involved here is the erector spinae muscle group composed of the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. From the beginning of the deadlift, these muscles are engaged, preventing the spine from rounding. These muscles pull the spine into normal extension and contract isometrically throughout the activity. 

Core Muscles 

While the back extensors pull the spine upright as the weight is loaded, the trunk engages the core muscles (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, and internal and external obliques) to stabilize the spine, thus preventing hyperextension. 

Hip and Leg Extensors 

The most prominent movers of the deadlift are the hip and knee extensors. These muscles contract concentrically, producing enough force to counteract the bar’s weight and pull the legs into a standing position. 

The quadriceps femoris, namely the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris, are the muscles responsible for extending the knee. The knees simultaneously extend with the hips until the lifter is in a standing position. 

Hip extension is primarily achieved through the contraction of the gluteus maximus muscle, assisted by the hamstring muscles (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus), and the adductor magnus.  

Shoulders and Arms 

A technical principle in doing deadlifts is maintaining contact between the bar and the body. This is achieved as the lifter progresses into the lift where the latissimus dorsi pulls the upper arm to extend the shoulder and keep the bar against the legs. This movement acts against the downward pull of gravity acting on the bar to pull the arms straight. 

The stability of the shoulder girdle is vital when doing deadlifts. The trapezius, a postural muscle which acts to prevent scapular depression is critical to the strength and stability of the shoulder complex. As the weight is held in the upright position, the trapezius muscle helps hold the shoulders in a neutral position. 

The rhomboids assist the trapezius muscles in keeping the shoulder neutral while in the lock-out position. It retracts the scapula, preventing the shoulders to hunch forward. 

Grip 

The deadlift is an exercise that works on the strengthening of big muscle groups, but it is a grip exercise as well. The intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the hand that contribute to grip strength, contract isometrically to hang onto the bar. 

Deadlift Variations and Muscles Activated 

Each variation of the deadlift will engage certain groups of muscles more or less than the others.  These variations alter muscle activation to allow focus on areas that need development. 

Sumo Deadlift 

sumo deadlift

The sumo deadlift is performed with the feet set very wide with the toes slightly pointed out. It is considered to be a knee-dominant movement because the hips start closer to the barbell with the trunk more upright.  

This deadlift variation relies on the hip musculature with less emphasis on the spinal extensors as compared to a conventional deadlift. The deeper initial squatting position puts more focus on the gluteus maximus and adductor magnus muscles. Because of the wide stance of this lift, the sumo deadlift requires strong external rotators of the hip (gluteus medius). The muscles at the inner thigh (vastus medialis) are activated to avoid tracking of the patella off the center of the knee. 

Romanian Deadlift 

The Romanian deadlift starts out with the lifter holding the bar at hip level with the feet shoulder width apart. The bar is lowered to the knees by moving the hips backward while keeping the spine straight. Upon reaching the knees, a concentric contraction of the hip extensors occurs to bring the lifter back to the starting position. 

romanian deadlift

This variation engages the gluteal muscles the most. The gluteus maximus eccentrically contracts to control the descent of the weight as the hip is flexed when bringing the bar down to the knees. The hamstrings work with the gluteal muscles to extend the hip as the weight is lifted back up to the hips. 

Stiff Leg Deadlift

Unlike the Romanian deadlift where the barbell is lowered down to the knee level only, the stiff leg deadlift is performed until a feeling of stretch is felt in the hamstrings and gluteal area.  

barbell stiff legged deadlift

The stiff leg deadlift engages the hamstrings greater than the other variations. Although the gluteal muscles still work to aid hip extension, the hamstrings contract to facilitate hip extension more when the knees are straight. The hamstrings also act as synergists throughout the full movement of the activity since the knees are kept only slightly bent.  

Trap Bar Deadlift 

The trap bar deadlift is similar to a conventional deadlift in terms of stance, but a trap bar deadlift is performed using a specialty bar that allows for a more neutral grip. This modification reduces the demand on back extensors. This primarily engages the gluteus maximus muscle with assistance from the quadriceps and adductor magnus. 

trap bar deadlift muscles

Deficit Deadlift 

A deficit deadlift is performed while standing on a short platform usually 1 to 4 inches high. It can be done using a conventional deadlift or a sumo deadlift, and targets the same muscle groups for each variation.

deadlift deficit

The increased range of motion recruits more of the posterior chain muscle group and the quadriceps femoris. The additional joint flexion on the hips and knees helps develop maximal tension and strength at the end ranges.  

Factors Affecting Deadlift Performance 

Deadlift performance is affected by a number of intrinsic biomechanical factors. The biomechanics varies from an individual to another as it is dictated by physiological features unique to that person. To be able to perform a deadlift correctly and without pain, these components must be considered. The most important to note of these physiological differences is that of varying body proportions. 

There is a greater distance between the shoulders and hips of an individual with a longer torso. This makes the lever arm longer, requiring the lower back muscles to exert more effort to keep the torso upright.  

Another aspect is an individual’s ape index (or ape ratio), which is a measure of an individual’s wingspan relative to their height. The typical ape index is 1. A number greater than 1 signifies that an individual’s wingspan is greater than their height, and a lesser number means that their height is greater than their wingspan. 

A higher ape ratio would make it much easier to set-up on a deadlift as lesser movement would be required from the hip and knee joint to reach the bar. Lesser ape indices would make a conventional deadlift set-up more challenging as more mobility from the hip and knee joints is required. 

Risk of Injury 

Because deadlifts involve carrying heavy weights, there is a great possibility of injury that comes with the exercise. However, the weight of the barbell may not be the inherent cause of injury. 

Hyperextension of the spine is one cause of injury when doing deadlifts because this movement increases the weight placed on the lumbar spine, thus increasing disc pressure. On the other hand, placing the barbell too far from the body may also cause injury as this recruits the wrong muscles for lifting. 

Overtraining and lifting weights that are too heavy may also be sources of injury. The former does not allow ample time for muscles to recover leading to excessive fatigue that makes injuries more likely to occur. The latter, however, may lead to poor technique creating an imbalance in the load carried by the hips and the lower back. 

Generally, the risk of getting injured due to deadlifts may be lowered by simply performing the movement using proper form and staying within the body’s limitations at a certain point in time. 

Final Thoughts 

The deadlift is more than just a lower extremity exercise as it engages major muscle groups in the hips, knees, back, core, shoulders, and arms. Breaking the bar from the floor would require more engagement from the knee extensors while bringing the hip towards the bar would utilize more of the gluteal muscles. Regardless of deadlift variation, the back extensors contract isometrically, stabilized by the core muscles to keep the spine in a neutral extended position. Proper engagement of all the muscles used helps in achieving optimal workout outcomes and preventing possible injuries. 

References: 

Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2021