Q: My training partner says squat are the most important of all exercises, even though I've use them religiously, my leg development seems to have hit a plateau. Am I doing something wrong?
A: Whenever you opened a bodybuilding magazine, you read that the squat was by far the best thing you could do for leg development. I certainly believe that, physically, the squat is the hardest exercise you can do, which appeals to me because I like the challenge of doing something that's very difficult. After many years of careful analysis, though, I began to conclude that squats weren't a great thigh developer because they're more of an overall body movement.
Squats require that you use your entire body. Even if you're trying to perform them strictly, you're still going to be using your lower back and glutes. The goal of an exercise when training a particular muscle group is to put as much stress on it as possible. You want to work it to its fullest potential, to the point where you can't do any more reps. I believe that even if you go to failure on squats, there will still be something left in your thighs; it's actually your lower back or your lungs that are failing.
To develop your thighs, I think it's more beneficial to isolate those muscles. You can do that with the leg press, the Smith machine or the hack squat. I personally got better leg development when I didn't do standard squats, but your results will depend on your individual body structure. Some people are suited to squatting. When they squat, most of the stress goes to their thighs and they get great results.
Still, squats are a great exercise for power, and they transfer well into other sports because you have to use coordination and balance. Everything's involved there. But if we're talking strictly about muscular development (based on my experience) they're certainly not the best exercise for developing your thighs.
SQUATS AND BODYBUILDING
I wouldn't say that squats don't have a place in bodybuilding. I think there's more advantage to the squat for someone just getting involved in the sport. For instance, If I were training a beginner, I would start him with squats to see how he adapted. At this level, squats are a good exercise precisely because they work so many muscle groups. Squats help you acquire overall strength and power, and they teach you to push your body to its limits. Additionally, it's generally better for beginners to concentrate on free weights rather than using machines for isolation exercises. After using squats for a while, the individual can then decide for himself if they are an effective exercise.
From a technique standpoint, many people don't perform squats correctly, which reduces the effectiveness of the exercise. If you're trying to get the maximum possible thigh development from squats, then you have to have the bar relatively high up on your traps (in line with the top of your shoulders) rather than lower down, where powerlifters place the bar. The powerlifter placement allows you to hoist more weight with less stress on the quads. This is contrary to your objectives as a bodybuilder; you want to put as much stress as possible on your target muscles.
As you squat down, you must try to keep your torso as upright as possible. This removes the stress from your back and places it on your thighs. Go down to the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor. The rep speed should be controlled; move slowly on the way down to keep everything in line. Don't bounce at the bottom; instead, make a smooth transition between the downward and upward movement.
If you are performing squats correctly and still not seeing the results you want, then you may be better suited structurally to leg presses. For more experienced bodybuilders who want to isolate and seriously develop their thighs, I recommend leg presses as the ideal exercise for thigh development, anyway.
Leg presses allow you to push your thighs to their limit. One of the pitfalls of leg presses, though, is that they can become an ego exercise. People want to have a lot of plates on the machine, but then they have to put the backboard so high that their range of movement is only a couple of inches, they can barely bring the weight down before their knees make contact with their chests.
I position the backboard as low as it will go so that I get a full range of movement. Ideally, the backboard should be angled about 30 degrees to the ground, but some of them go only as low as 45 to 50 degrees.
With this exercise, body position is essential to thigh development. You have to concentrate on keeping your back flat and tight against the pad. You want to avoid recruiting your glutes. Rounding your lower back to recruit your glutes places your spine in a vulnerable position and takes the effort off your thighs. With your back locked into position and the focus on your thighs, you can perform reps through a full range of motion, hitting your target muscles until they reach failure. For this reason, leg presses are the ideal exercise for thigh development.
As with all other aspects of body-building, it's important to determine what works best for you. If you're squatting your brains out and getting no results, then you might profit by shifting your leg workout to exercises that better isolate your thighs. Leg presses allow you to work your thighs to their limit, and may ultimately provide the growth you seek.