Why The Back Squat Builds Muscle So Effectively

Written by Dave Thomas

We all know that the back squat is everyone’s favorite darling in the gym, and for good reason. By its nature, physiologically set up to be one of the most effective movements that we can perform for improving all around fitness, getting stronger, and building muscle that we can perform. Ultimately, building muscle is about creating tension and stress in the muscles, and a favorable hormonal environment to support growth.

We know that squatting gets you strong, but why is squatting great for building muscle? Today we’re going to dial in that back squat focus and review specifically why it’s so effective at building muscle in these categories.

Compound Movement

We have single joint movements such as the bicep curl that revolve around one working joint, the elbow. These are excellent for isolating single muscle groups which in this case would be the biceps. On the contrary, we also have compound movements that revolve around multiple joints working at once. Staying in the arm family, an example of this would be the renegade row where we have the elbow and the shoulder working (not to mention the hips and knees extending to challenge stabilizing the core).

Typically speaking, compound movements are more efficient and effective.

Now consider that the back squat involves the ankles, knees, and hips all working and using different muscles. Plus, your upper body working isometrically to hold and stabilize the weight on your back. Now further consider that the muscles they are working are all among the largest in the body (more on this in coming sections), and when we train multiple large muscle groups at once, we get rather profound results.

It’s truly a total body movement.

Tension & Stress

Just like a diamond is created under conditions of high stress, so too is your muscle. We have three primary components when it comes to muscle creation*.

Metabolic Stress – which is the amount of “time under tension” created in a movement.

Mechanical Tension – which is the challenging nature of the load you are lifting.

Muscle Damage – the yield of the first two. When muscles become damaged, they repair and grow larger. That’s literally what building muscle consists of. (Don’t think that you need to experience insane soreness to grow muscle. Muscles can damage and rebuild without that.)

We can create tension or stress with any movement, but only a select few deliver both at exceptionally high levels. With the back squat, you spend a lot of time under the bar in a state of  metabolic stress and you’re also moving what is relatively for you, a lot of weight, which creates mechanical tension. New muscles really, really love movements that demand both of those things. After all, why do you think that are so fatigued or sore after a day of challenging back squats? The movement takes a lot out of you but accordingly, puts a lot back into you, as well.

Anabolic Hormones

Okay, recall from the first section the benefit and importance of training large muscle groups.

Take the benefit of tension and stress, and now add in the fact that the back squat specifically releases lots of anabolic hormones, and muscles aren’t created without them. Because the back squat targets big muscles of the body like the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and lats – more hormones like growth hormone and testosterone will be released creating a perfect environment for developing muscle. The bigger muscles release the highest amount of favorable hormones when trained, so when we have a movement that targets all of them at once, we build. Testosterone is naturally produced by all of us for many reasons and is a crucial hormone for the maintenance of healthy lean body mass and metabolism. Studies have also shown that it can help decrease fatigue and even fight depression specifically in women, so don’t fear it.

Assuming your body can handle the mobility and load capacity of a back squat, regular performance of them at moderate load will produce enhanced fitness for anyone performing them.

*References: “Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy”, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld