When you start lifting weights, you often hear a lot of the same advice over and over again…
“If you want bigger arms, you have to squat.”
“Squats build your entire body, not just your legs.”
“If you don’t squat, you are just lazy, weak, not serious, etc…”
Then they usually go on about some magical surge of hormones and muscle building chemicals that will somehow only be released if you back squat X amount of times a week.
The theory is that doing heavy compound leg movements like squats and deadlifts create a surge in the body’s muscle-building hormones such as testosterone, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and growth hormone.
Here’s the thing…. It’s true.
Scientific research has, in fact, shown that a surge of these anabolic hormones are released into the body after doing heavy lower body exercises such as squats and deadlifts.
The only problem is that this same research has found that these temporary hormone spikes have little or no effect when it comes to actually building muscle long-term.
What this means is that there is nothing magical about doing squats.
Sure, back squats might a great exercise, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to do them in order to build muscle and improve their body in the gym.
In fact, some research has found that people who are given the flexibility to choose their own exercises end up gaining more muscle than those who are given a specific workout to follow. So unless you are planning on competing as a powerlifter, you shouldn’t feel obligated to squat, bench press, or deadlift.
Luckily for the rest of us, there is more than one way to build a muscle.
No mandatory exercises
You may not have noticed, but all of us are built slightly differently.
Things such as our height, bone thickness, limb length, bone structure, muscle insertion points, and joint mobility can all affect the way we move and perform certain exercises.
And even though we may not be the unique snowflakes that we think we are, it turns out that these small anatomical differences can make a significant difference when you are balancing a 275lb barbell on your shoulders.
Add in the fact that many of us are dealing with knee, back, shoulder, or elbow injuries that can limit our mobility, strength, and range of motion.
So to say that everyone needs to squat is kind of stupid.
This doesn’t just about back squats either. It also applies to bench pressing, deadlifts, shoulder presses, pull-ups, or any other exercise that you’ve been avoiding because it hurts.
Hurts vs. Hard
Notice that I said that it “hurts” and it’s not just hard to do.
There’s a fine line between saying I don’t do pull-ups because they hurt my wrists/shoulder, and I don’t do pull-ups because they are really freaking hard to do, and I look like an idiot just hanging there on the bar.
In order to achieve your goals in the gym, you have to be honest with yourself and be willing to do hard things. At the same time, you have to know when to draw the line when a particular exercise may be doing you more harm than good.
Skipping leg day
I know this firsthand because back when I first started lifting weights, I dreaded “leg day” because barbell back squats made my lower back feel like crap every…single…time.
It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I was doing or that my technique was poor. It was simply the fact that I am too damn tall and my ankles lack the mobility to do back squats without having to excessively lean my giant torso forward to prevent falling over (stupid physics).
In other words, tall people with excessively long monkey limbs are not designed to put heavy barbells on their back and squat to parallel.
Now, does this mean that all tall people should avoid doing squats? Not necessarily, in fact, many of the world’s strongest men are over 6’ 5”, but there’s a vast difference between being built like Hafþór Björnsson who is 6′ 9″, and being built like Kevin Durant who is also 6’ 9”.
Again, things like arm length, bone thickness, femur length, muscle insertion points, and height really do matter when it comes to choosing the right exercises for yourself in the gym.
So if I have learned that barbell back squats consistently make me feel like crap, why do I still feel like I have to do them?
Shut up and squat
Probably because virtually every magazine article, personal trainer, and online fitness guru insists that doing squats are essential if you have any hope of getting bigger and stronger in the gym.
So does that mean that I just sucked it up and did squats?
Sometimes, but more often than not, what it meant was that I simply skipped leg day altogether.
Instead of working my legs by doing some alternative leg exercises (front squats, hack squat, split squat, or even a stupid calf raise), most weeks I would simply skip that entire lower body workout in order to avoid squatting and go straight back to my upper body workout where I could go back to bitching and complaining about the bench press.
Obviously, this wasn’t an ideal system, and for years my overall leg development suffered as a result.
Eventually, however, I began to realize that this squats-or-nothing attitude was holding me back, and I began to reintegrate leg day into my weekly workouts. Instead of barbell back squats, however, I began experimenting with more back-friendly alternatives such as front squats, hack squats, goblet squats, and split squats.
Do I still despise leg day, sure.
Let’s be honest, everyone hates leg day because it’s exhausting and hard to do, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid it altogether. Someday when we’re 87 trying to get ourselves off our squatty potties, we are going to be thankful that we didn’t skip leg day.
Doing something is better than nothing
Even though there are no mandatory exercises and it’s not necessary to do back squats, deadlifts, or bench presses to get bigger and stronger—you will need to do something. You may have to experiment and find the exercises that are right for you but don’t take the easy way out.
Do the hard work, lift heavy stuff, and commit to being uncomfortable by continuing to push yourself a little farther each and every workout.
The bottom line…
Despite what you may have heard in the gym or read on the internet, there are no mandatory exercises that everyone needs to do if they want to become bigger and stronger.
Of course, back squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, bench presses, etc… are all great exercises, but if you are not going to do them (for whatever reason) or you’re simply going to half-ass them in the gym, then you’re probably better off finding an alternative exercise.
Before you rule out one of these exercises, however, you need to be honest with yourself and separate which of these movements may not be right for you as an individual, and which ones are simply hard to do.
Rauch JT, et al. “Auto-regulated exercise selection training regimen produces small increases in lean body mass and maximal strength adaptations in strength-trained individuals.” J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Oct 7.
Hayes LD, et al. “Exercise-induced responses in salivary testosterone, cortisol, and their ratios in men: a meta-analysis.” Sports Med. 2015 May;45(5):713-26.
Geisler S, et al. “Salivary testosterone and cortisol concentrations after two different resistance training exercises.” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2019 Jun;59(6):1030-1035.
Cooke DM, et al. “Body Mass and Femur Length Are Inversely Related to Repetitions Performed in the Back Squat in Well-Trained Lifters.” J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Mar;33(3):890-895.Come hang with us!