The barbell squat allows you to use more weight, and thus develop more strength and mass, than any other variation. But for many lifters—those with unusually long legs, or limited hip mobility, or lingering knee or lower-back problems—it can create more problems than it solves.
Solution 1: Anyone can do a goblet squat. The goblet squat, with a dumbbell or kettlebell, is the ideal entry-level variation, and is a great choice when returning from a layoff or injury. It helps you figure out your natural range of motion with minimal risk of injury.
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Solution 2: Try a variety of foot positions to find the best one for you. The width of your stance, and whether you turn your toes out or keep them pointed straight ahead, is a matter of personal comfort. Keep in mind that your stance doesn't have to be perfectly symmetrical. You may find it feels better to turn one foot out slightly more than the other.
Hip structure can also affect your ability to lift a heavy weight off the floor. With limited hip mobility, your lower back may flex—that is, go into a deeper arch—instead of remaining in the neutral position. Rather than risk injury, Somerset says you need to find a way to shorten the range of motion. Your options include:
Solution 1: Lift from blocks. You can start with a loaded barbell set up on one or two weight plates on each side, cutting the distance you have to lift by an inch or two. If that isn't enough, you can put it on boxes or the bottom rails of a squat rack, raising it to mid-shin level.
Solution 2: Use the high handles of a hex bar. With a 45-pound plate on each side, a barbell sits about 9 inches above the floor. Same with the low handles of a hex bar. The high handles cut the range of motion by 3 to 4 inches.
Solution 3: Use the sumo deadlift. The wide stance, in effect, shortens your legs, while also allowing you to lift from a more upright posture.
Everything you just read about the hips also applies to the shoulders. Structural anomalies in the glenohumeral joint, which connects the ball at the top of your upper arm to a shallow socket in your shoulder blade, can make pressing exercises unproductive at best, injurious at worst.
At the top of the shoulder blade, directly above the joint, is a piece of bone called the acromion. Forty percent of us have what's called a type 3 acromion, with a sharp hook that appears designed to stab anything that tries to get past it. It's linked to a higher risk for shoulder impingement and rotator cuff tears. Years of heavy bench and shoulder presses can you leave you with chronic pain.
For performance, Cortes says, the length of your arms and the width and thickness of your torso can make a huge difference. The guy with a barrel chest and alligator arms may struggle to find a suit that fits, but "pressing is generally going to be a strong pattern." The shortened range of motion helps with chin-ups and dips as well as bench and overhead presses.
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At the other end of the spectrum is a guy with long arms and a narrow torso, when viewed from the side. The arm length increases the range of motion on all upper-body exercises, and the two traits conspire to make bench presses an exercise in frustration.
But long arms give you a big advantage in the deadlift. Your hands are closer to the bar, which shortens your range of motion because you don't have to bend over as far. And on pulling exercises like rows, Cortes notes that the longer range of motion can actually be an advantage: "With long arms comes increased time under tension," he says, with minimal joint stress.
And although this is subjective, Cortes believes longer-armed lifters can get a better sense of their back muscles working on pulls, leading to more complete muscle activation.