Squats are great for your legs and butt. Athletes use them to increase leg strength, bodybuilders use them to make their legs bigger and gym goers do them to make their legs look good in shorts. There are two main types of barbell squat -- collectively called back squats: the Olympic squat and the powerlifting squat. While similar, these exercises are sufficiently different that it pays to know which is which and what variation is best for you.
Squatting in General
Squats involve standing with a weight on your back, bending your knees and descending until your thighs are level with or below parallel to the floor. Both a training exercise and a competitive lift in powerlifting, squats are often called the king of exercises because they not only work your legs, but they work many of your upper-body muscles too. A heavy squat not only requires and develops strong legs but a strong core, too -- core being the collective term for the muscles of your abdomen, waist and lower back. The main differences between Olympic and powerlifting squats are stance width and how the barbell is positioned on your back.
The Olympic Squat
Olympic squat is a bit of a misnomer as the squat does not currently feature in any part the Olympics. However, this version of the squat is popular with Olympic weightlifters, hence its name. In the Olympic, or high-bar, squat, which should be considered a training rather than a competitive exercise, the bar is positioned on the top of your trapezius muscle, just below the C7 vertebra, and your feet are placed around shoulder-width apart or slightly less. This setup promotes a relatively upright torso position which results in your quadriceps, or thigh muscles, doing most of the heavy lifting.
To further promote an upright torso, some lifters wear shoes with elevated heels or place a thin plank of wood under their heels. Olympic squats are favored by bodybuilders who want to maximize thigh development and Olympic lifters who want to gain strength and mobility for competitive lifting.
The Powerlifting Squat
Powerlifters rest and hold the barbell as low as possible on their upper backs -- around or below shoulder level if flexibility allows -- and use a much wider than shoulder-width-apart foot placement. Lowering the bar shortens the distance between the weight and the hips, which means that less weight is on the lifter's lumbar spine. The wider stance means that powerlifters can recruit more muscles to lift heavier weights and also shorten the range of movement.
Where Olympic squats are considered to be a quadriceps-dominant movement, powerlifting squats use the hamstrings, glutes and quads more-or-less equally. This allows for greater weights to be lifted. For this reason, the powerlifting squat is the type of squat used in powerlifting competitions where it is the first discipline contested.
Which to Choose?
Both types of squat are good lower-body exercises but with their notable differences, one exercise will probably suit you better than the other depending on your fitness goals. If you want to develop thigh-muscle size, develop muscle tone or enhance strength for Olympic lifting or general muscular endurance, the Olympic squat is your best choice. The high bar position is relatively comfortable and the upright-torso position quite forgiving. If, however, you are looking to develop maximal strength or compete in powerlifting, the powerlifting squat may be a better choice. The wide stance and low bar position allow you to lift heavier weights, which means you'll get stronger faster.
Patrick Dale is an experienced writer who has written for a plethora of international publications. A lecturer and trainer of trainers, he is a contributor to "Ultra-FIT" magazine and has been involved in fitness for more than 22 years. He authored the books "Military Fitness", "Live Long, Live Strong" and "No Gym? No Problem!" and served in the Royal Marines for five years.