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There are dozens upon dozens of effective leg exercises you can perform in the gym, but one stands above the rest -- the squat. No single exercise is more effective than this exercise for building the overall mass and shape of the legs. You see, the squat is a compound exercise that involves movement of the hip and knee, thus recruiting a large number of muscles. Since a multitude of muscles are at work, you are able to move a large workload during the motion. By doing so, you largely recruit the muscle fibers that grow the most, over time increasing their mass and bringing out the shape of your legs.
The squat is a movement in which you hold a resistance, typically on your upper back region, and lower the resistance by bending your hips and knees until your thighs are about parallel to the ground, and then return back up to the starting position. The muscles you work as a result of the hip movement are the gluteus maximus of the rear hips, adductor magnus of the inner thighs and, to a smaller degree, three of the four hamstrings muscles of the rear thighs. These three muscles are the biceps femoris long head, semitendinosus and semimembranosus. The muscles you work due to knee movement are the rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis and vastus lateralis. These four muscles are referred to collectively as the quadriceps and make up the largest portion of front thigh mass.
The Different Squat Variations
The most popular form of the squat is called the rear squat. The term rear refers to the placement of the resistance, such as a barbell placed on your upper back region. The second most popular squat variation is the front squat, in which you place the resistance in front of your shoulders. Other squatting variations are the neutral squat (resistance by your sides), the overhead squat (resistance overhead) and the sumo squat (wide foot stance, resistance placement varies).
Due to the complexity of the squat as a result of multijoint movement, a lot of things can go wrong when you execute the motion. To minimize your risk of injury, there are three things you need to avoid doing. First, your back should never be rounded at any point during the motion to avoid injury to your spine. To ensure you maintain a straight-back position, isometrically contract your abs and erector spinae muscles. Another common mistake when squatting is the tendency to rise up on your toes. This causes your body to shift forward and could result in a forward collapse. To avoid this, keep your heels firmly on the ground at all times. The third mistake when squatting, and you may have heard this before, is restricting your knees behind your toes. This is a big no-no, as you should not be restricting your natural biomechanical motion. If your knees go past your toes when squatting and your heels are placed firmly on the ground, then don't worry, as this is normal.
Sets and Reps
To best increase the size of your legs, and thus bring out their shape, you should do three to five sets per exercise, and eight to 12 reps per set using the heaviest workload and best possible form. Do one to two squat exercises during your leg workouts, and then perform other effective leg exercises such as the lunge, leg press and leg curl.