If you could only pick one movement to gain strength and build muscle SQUATS! is the answer I would give.
It's a pretty powerful movement.
I can feel my legs trembling....
But a few very important elements before even adding weight on to your squats is mobility. Why is mobility so important? I'm going to say it simply... if your myofascia (it's the dense, tough tissue which surrounds and covers all of your muscles and bones) is tight you won't be able to properly activate your muscles. And guess what muscles you need for a squat... all of them. Glutes, quads, hamstrings, core, back/lats, arms, chest and shoulders. Guess what makes your muscles and myofascia tight... training, working, sitting... inactivity and activity. So guess who should properly stretch everyday.... EVERYONE! Now that I got the point across that stretching is essential for squats. I will show you why.
Before squatting you should always stretch. Stretch what? Lets start from the top of your head and go down. Chest you want to make sure you can hold on to the bar and not have a rounded upper back (proud chest but making sure you don't arch your low back). If the front of your shoulder (anterior deltoid) or chest feels like it's being pulled you should stretch it.
Back and Core. Your arms, lats and core should be able to stabilize your barbell during you squat. Next you want to make sure you can properly engage your lats and abdominals.
Right side: this is a common mistake the arch. The pressure will be going to the lower back. In this image the core and lats aren't being properly utilized. (I used to squat like this and I had a lot of lower back pain because I was always told to stick my butt out.)
The picture above shows some common mistakes, The rounded back (image on the right) this happens when you don't properly brace your upper body, lats and core. This also happens when you're unable to engage your glutes often because the hip flexors and low back are tight. This causes pressure in the low back and neck (because that is where all the weight is).
The main mobility demands for a squat are in the lower body. Mainly hips. If your hips are tight you can't properly engage your glutes. And if the glutes aren't properly firing the body uses different muscles... often quads and back.
I personally like starting with a dynamic hip flexor (I also find it effective to stretch the inner thigh (the abductors, brings pressure off the knee and is an important stabilizer for your squats) exercise to warm up the myofascia, then switch to rolling with the la crosse ball.
Click this link to see my dynamic warm up The Inch Worm Flow:
Now time to roll! Step 1 get a la crosse ball (take it with you everywhere!!! Maybe buy a few.) and or a foam roller... just 1 foam roller is fine. I focus on rolling my glutes, IT bands, and hips. I do advise releasing and stretching your quads as well.
Above: This is a great way to stretch out your hip flexor, helping your glutes to fire.
Hint: Squeeze your butt.
Roller Derby Squad Foam rolling their quads.
Slower the better! The more often you roll and stretch the quicker your recovery will be. The first time stretching is the most difficult. But keep it up! It's worth it. This will help with long term results without injury.
Lastly I find it very essential to stretch my calves and hamstrings. This last stretch makes me think about my breathing, hip positioning and of course stretches out my low back, glutes and calves. All very helpful when it comes to our SQUATS.
Keep in mind Squats are a compound movement. A compound lift uses 2 or more muscle groups. So another great way to work on strengthening your squat is to isolate the muscles you use for a squat. Such as GLUTES!!!
Squats are a very complicated movement so make sure to perfect your form before adding weight.
Bracing sequence. This is the proper cuing for a squat starting from the feet and going up.
Feet cues: Set your feet shoulder width apart (the stance can change based on the mobility in your hips). I usually turn my feet out just slightly to better support the weight and engage my booty properly.
You want to evenly distribute your weight on your feet.
Breathing cues: Top of the Squat: Take a big breath pulling from your diaphragm, this gives your body a lot more air than shallow breathing from your lunges. (its okay for your waist to look large!)
Middle of the squat: After you inhale, hold your breath. As you're lowering yourself into your squat brace your core by pulling your sternum towards your belly button.
The effort/from the bottom of the squat: mentally squeeze from your heels, slightly push your knees out to activate your glutes and drive up (bringing your hips forward). While exhaling!
Upper body cues: Think of bending the bar over your back. Keep the bar pulled close to the spine. if you push your elbows underneath the bar you are more able to activate your lats (latissimus dorsi) this will provide more stability.
Important note: Make sure not to exhale early. It's crucial to maintain a stiff/strong position throughout the whole movement.
There are tons of other ways to work on your strength, mobility and form. Any questions please send me an email.