Squats are often described as being the king of lower-body exercises, and with good reason -- they use just about every muscle in your legs and also replicate many everyday movements. Squats are used by athletes looking for improved leg strength, general exercisers trying to tone up and bodybuilders who want to build bigger thighs. As good as squats are, they're not without drawbacks and there are other exercises that may be just as effective for building your thighs, depending on your own personal circumstances.
Squatting is a very natural movement that most people perform multiple times per day. Sitting down and standing up, walking up flights of stairs and getting in and out of a car are all variations of the squat. The squat exercise mimics these common movements, and so strength and muscle developed by squatting has a positive carryover to everyday life -- the very definition of functionality. Squats, being a compound or multijoint exercises, train your leg muscles how they commonly work in nature -- together rather than in isolation. This is the best way to build muscle, but squats are not the only way to perform a compound leg movement; there are other options to consider.
The anabolic hormones testosterone and growth hormone play a vital role in building muscle. While men naturally have higher levels of testosterone than women, heavy squats and other compound exercises such as deadlifts and power cleans have been shown to elevate the production of these important anabolic hormones, which may be part of the mechanism that results in increased strength and muscle size. Isolation exercises such as leg extensions and leg curls don't elicit such a powerful hormonal response and can't be considered as effective as squats for developing muscle size and strength.
Squatting without using a squat rack or power cage can be very dangerous -- even if you have a spotter on hand to help. If you get stuck at the bottom of a squat or are otherwise unable to complete a repetition, you could suffer a serious crushing injury unless you have a squat rack to catch the bar in the bottom of the movement. Also, getting the bar into place can be very tricky without a squat rack. If you don't have a squat rack, trap bar deadlifts, leg presses, dumbbell squats or rear-foot elevated split squats would be a safer option than barbell squats.
Squats can be hard to master. Despite being a leg exercise, virtually every muscle in your body gets in on the action with squats. That means there are a lot of muscles and joints that have to be coordinated to perform a squat with mechanically sound technique. Poor technique, such as rounding your lower back or letting your knees drop inward, can lead to injury. If you don't have access to a qualified personal trainer or coach, learning to squat on your own is a risky undertaking. In addition, squatting, particularly with weights heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth, is hard. A lot of stress is placed on your knees, hips and lower back. Tight muscles, previous injury or a weak link in the kinetic chain significantly increase your risk of suffering an injury. If you're unable to squat using correct, safe technique, a similar if simpler exercise would be a better choice for developing your thighs.
When squatting, the barbell rests on your upper back. Heavily muscled individuals have a fleshy shelf on which the bar will naturally rest -- the upper trapezius muscle. Slender men and women in general don't usually have such well-developed upper traps. This can make squats very uncomfortable. While you can use a foam pad around the bar to alleviate this discomfort, these devices aren't always effective or available. Tight shoulder and chest muscles can also make it hard and uncomfortable to get the bar properly in position. If you find squats uncomfortable, it's unlikely you'll be able to use sufficient weight or perform enough reps to trigger muscle growth. Leg presses, trap bar deadlifts, lunges and heavy step ups may be better, more comfortable, exercise choices.
While everybody should exercise, not all exercises are suitable for every body. Squats are very good for building your thigh muscles but only if you can perform them safely and in relative comfort. If you can't squat because of equipment, technique or comfort reasons, seek an alternative that uses a similar movement pattern.
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.