WHAT IT IS: In the gym, the most common version you'll see is the one with the barbell across a guy's shoulders. You can also do the exercise with dumbbells held down at arm's length, although that version's a bit awkward, since you have to hold the dumbbells slightly out to your sides to keep them from bumping into your knees. If you're using challenging weights, you end up using your upper-body muscles a bit more than you want.
MUSCLES USED: The great thing about the squat is that it uses virtually all the muscles in your lower body in one movement. The biggest challenge is to your
quadriceps, the muscles on the fronts of your thighs. These muscles are responsible for straightening your knees when they're bent. (There are some caveats to this muscle-use explanation, which you'll find in Chapter 8.)
But the exercise also works the big, powerful muscles surrounding your hip joints. These include your gluteals (buttocks) and hamstrings (rear thighs). The lower you go on the squat, the more these muscles engage.
Your lower-back muscles also play a role, mostly to keep your torso upright while you're squatting down and straightening back up. Many muscles help keep your body stabilized, from your feet to your calves to those in your inner and outer thighs, on up to your abdominals and middle back.
REAL-LIFE USES: Strength coaches know that if they want to increase an athlete's jumping ability, the squat is the most important exercise. It's not the only exercise, of course, but the fact that it's been shown in many studies to increase vertical-jump height shows how important the squat is to a very basic human movement.
So how important is jumping? After all, most of us don't jump at all once we get past our jockstrap days in high school and college.
Imagine a 90-year-old you. It's 2065, and you're sitting in a chair in front of the TV. It's a comfy chair, and you think you could spend the rest of your days sitting there, watching 125-year-old Alex Trebek wheezing questions to centenarians on Geriatric Jeopardy. ("Senior moments for five hundred, Alex." "Eh?" "What?" "Sorry, the answer is 'Metamucil.' Pick again.")
Suddenly, nature calls. You try to get up. Nature calls again, louder this time. You try again to get up, but your atrophied lower-body muscles just can't summon the strength and power to get you out of that chair. Nature gets tired of calling, and just shows up. In your lap.
I know you aren't going to hit the gym today to avoid soaking your favorite chair sixty years from now, just as I know you don't go through life worrying about lion attacks. But you don't just wake up one morning without the ability to get up from a comfy chair. There's a slope—with age, you gradually lose strength and power until you have trouble walking up stairs, playing with your grandkids on the floor, and, yes, getting out of bed or a chair.
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The use of dumbbells gives you a much more comprehensive strengthening effect because the workout engages your stabilizer muscles, in addition to the muscle you may be pin-pointing. Without all of the belts and artificial stabilizers of a machine, you also engage your core muscles, which are your body's natural stabilizers.