How to squat Properly – Guide to good squat form
You found your way to this article, which means you want to know how to squat properly. So, I’m guessing you are thinking the squat could be a pretty good exercise to add into your program.
Well, you would be wrong! The squat is an AWESOME exercise to add into your training program.
I honestly feel like anybody who has the goal of getting stronger, building more muscle, being healthier, increasing athleticism or basically any other gym-related goal, should be performing some type of squat.
This article will teach you exactly why the squat is such a great exercise as well as teaching you how to perform the squat with good technique.
You may want to bookmark this post if you don't have much time to read right now. I wanted to create something super in-depth and at over 4000 words, I think I did it.
The benefits of squatting
Of course, you have to learn how to squat properly in order to get all of the benefits. That will come later. For now, here is a quick run-down of just some of the reasons that many refer to the squat as the king of exercises.
Squatting uses a heck of a lot of muscles
The squat is a compound movement in the truest form. If you haven’t heard of a compound movement before, it is an exercise that requires movement at more than one joint in your body.
Exercises that require movement at more than one joint, require multiple muscles to be activating. Working multiple muscles at the same time can only be a good thing.
More muscles worked means more calories burnt, greater overall muscle building stimulus and usually, more weight lifted in a given exercise.
Full range squats increase mobility
Lately, it seems that everybody wants to be more mobile or more flexible. There's all kinds of crazy stretching routines around and massage devices that look like they belong in the 50 shades of grey books.
In all seriousness, some of those mobility routines and tools are brilliant and really can help increase your flexibility.
Squatting should certainly help to improve mobility in those areas over time. I mean, look at the stretch the guy below is getting!
Of course, if you lack the mobility to reach a full-depth squat with good technique, you may need to look into those other tools first.
Squats are “functional”
I’m not overly keen on the term “functional training” or “functional strength”. I mean, surely all training and building any type of strength is functional at some point.
It can all be transferred over to daily life in one way or another.
However, I do understand what is most people mean by the term functional and squats fit right in there.
Squatting is a very natural movement pattern.
It is the way we would defecate if the toilet hadn’t been around.
It is also the default position a baby or toddler takes up when they pick anything up from the ground.
Modern day-to-day life has rather robbed us of our ability to maintain such immaculate squat form as we grow older. Since we sit in chairs so much, our muscles adapt to that seated position, which makes the deep squat harder.
Damn you comfy but un-natural, mobility ruining sofa!
Getting your body back into the routine of being able to squat properly and getting strong will help to stay flexible and injury-free throughout your daily tasks.
Heavy squats build mental fortitude
Putting a heavy weight on your back, sinking down into a nice, low squat and the driving yourself back to standing is damn hard!
The bottom position of a heavy squat is not the most comfortable position to be in and the thought of getting stuck down there under such weight can be daunting.
All of that sounds awful and might make you think twice about squatting, but those things provide all the more reason to squat.
If you can overcome all of that in your mind on a regular basis, I feel like it can be transferred to your everyday thinking.
Now, I don’t want to get too deep or wishy-washy here. But, I do feel that lifting has many parallels to your life in general.
One of which is the fact that to progress, you are going to need to push and be uncomfortable. You are going to need to overcome and do some stuff that scares you, in both lifting and in life.
I think pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a learnable skill. A skill that you can begin to learn in the gym.
There is no better exercise to teach you that skill than squatting. It is probably the most uncomfortable and difficult exercise to perform. Therefore, requires real mental toughness to push through your limits and get stronger.
What Muscles do Squats Work?
I just mentioned above that squats are awesome because they work sooo many muscles in your body. But, which ones are actually being used?
There really are so many. Obviously, the entire leg is involved in some way or another during a squat. So, that covers your quads, hamstrings, adductors, abductors, I will throw the glutes in this part too, your calves, anterior tibialis (front of shin muscle) all the way down to the small muscles of your feet.
Your entire hip musculature gets involved too, so that all of your hip flexors and extensor muscles.
Pretty much your whole back is being worked, especially if you are performing a barbell back squat and need to lock the bar in place.
Your abs and the other muscles all around your trunk are being worked to keep you stable and your spine safe.
Basically, the squat works quite a few muscles.
For you visual learners, here is a little video I found that shows each muscle involved with a squat and how it serves the body during the exercise.
It’s a bit weird, I didn’t really know what was going on at first but then I worked it out.
The skeleton is trying to perform a squat but doesn’t have the muscles to do so. So, the little guy attaches the muscles one-by-one so you can see exactly how each muscle affects the squat.
It’s a pretty cool way of giving a visual for how the muscles are working during squatting movements:
How to squat properly
If you have actually read all of the text thus far, well done to you. You are now a relative expert on the theory behind squatting. Now, you will finally learn how perform a squat with the proper technique.
I will say, that this is a generalised guide that will provide a solid starting point for the majority of people to get squatting.
It is impoirtant to understand that everybody is built differently, has different mobility levels and has varied areas of strength.
That means everybody’s squat will look slightly different. Everybody’s optimal squat technique will probably also be a bit different. This is all stuff that you will have to play around with and learn over time.
This squat guide will teach you the main principles of a good squat, most of which remain true no matter what style of squat you eventually end up doing.
If you are a beginner or haven’t squatted much, then following the steps in this guide will give you a solid technique that you can build upon. So, let’s get to it.
My co-coach for Online Strength Academy, Brandon, is the one squatting in the video. He has a naturally great looking squat. It’s a pretty detailed video and I will post the written steps below it.
I hope you enjoyed the vid and learned a lot from it. Just to recap, the general steps are:
1. Bar position.
Create a shelf for the bar on the muscles of your upper back. Squeeze your shoulder blades tight and keep them back and down. The upper back needs to remain tight throughout the whole lift.
Don’t worry too much about high bar or low bar for now, just get in in a comfortable and stable position on you back.
2. Walking the bar out of the rack.
Think about what you are doing when you walk the bar out of the rack. Get tight under the bar before you un-rack it and walk out with it.
You should aim to take as few steps backwards as possible to conserve energy for the actual squat. I like a three-step walk out, some people prefer to do it in two.
Toes will probably be pointed out slightly. Commonly around a 30-degree angle. Again, this is something you can play around with.
3. Proper breathing.
Proper breathing is key to keeping your torso rigid and in a good position throughout the squat. It will also help to keep your spine safe.
Take a big breath into your stomach when you are ready to squat. The breathing into your stomach is key.
As you breathe in, your stomach should expand. Whilst pushing your stomach out, you need to then brace your abs and squeeze your glutes.
To brace your abs, tense them as if something is about to hit you in your stomach and hold that tensed up feeling for the duration of the rep.
Bracing your abs and squeezing your glutes, will bring your rib-cage down slightly and will tilt your hips forward a little. All of this creates a neutral spine from the beginning of the lift.
A good lifting belt can be used to as a tool for increasing the intra-abdominal pressure and helping you to lift heavier weights. To choose the right belt, check out my weightlifting belt guide.
4. The descent.
As you drop down into the squat, you should aim to break at the hips and knees simultaneously.
Some people will bend their knees first, others will tend to bend at the hips and shoot their butts back behind them. Doing either of these often shifts the bar-path backwards or forwards on the way down.
By breaking the knees and hips at the same time, you should have an easier time keeping the bar in a straight line as you squat down.
5. Reaching proper depth.
A good squat should aim to reach below “parallel” in depth. Parallel, in squat terms, is when the top of your knee-cap is in line with your hip crease as you look at it from the side at the very bottom of your squat.
Below parallel, which is what you should ultimately be aiming for, is when your hip crease is below the top of your knee at the lowest point of your squat.
You should be able to reach at least a parallel squat without your technique breaking down or your back rounding.
If you are unable to reach that level, you may need to work on your mobility (I will cover a bit of that later on) or you could have certain weaknesses that need to be addressed.
If your mobility is ok, a weakness in the core or upper back could be causing your technique to falter as you reach good squat depth.
I have written a complete tutorial on how to squat lower, click here to read it.
6. Open your hips, knees in line with toes.
In order to hit proper depth and keep as upright as you can, you need to create some space between your legs for your trunk.
To do this, you have to open your hips as you reach the bottom of your squat. Opening your hips, is achieved by actively pushing your feet outwards against the ground.
The mental cue for this is to imagine you are pulling the ground apart with your feet by driving them outwards. Or, if you were standing on top of a sheet of paper and wanted to rip it in two with your feet.
You must keep those glutted engaged the whole time. If you relax them at the bottom or on the way up, your knees will probably cave inwards.
Knees caving, or valgus as it is known, is not good for your knees at all. Your knee caps should be kept in alignment with your toes for the entire squat.
7. Stand up.
Now that you have reached proper depth safely and with good technique, all that left is to stand back up.
It isn’t quite as simple as that, though. There are way more teaching points for the start and descent of the squat, but there are still a few things to be mindful of on the way back up.
The first one would be to keep your abs braced and maintain that pressure that you created at the start in your trunk. This will serve to keep your spine position constant.
Aim for the position of your back to be the same on the way up as it was when you came down.
Many people just think about pushing up with their legs, which can make their hips move up and backwards before the bar actually starts rising.
Think about driving your back into the barbell. This cue can help you to make sure that the bar starts rising at the same time as your hips.
If you are competing and they are allowed in your federation, a pair of knee sleeves can make the initial drive out of the bottom easier. Have a browse through my knee sleeves guide to find the best pair.
There you have it. The step-by-step guide to performing a proper squat. The only thing you can do now is practice, practice and practice some more. You should treat squatting just like any other skill, perfect it over time by performing it frequently and you will do just fine.
Common Squat Mistakes
This inforgraphic shows 3 common squat errors with a few tips on how to fix them. I go into more detail on each, plus an extra one, below. Feel free to share use the infographic for your own website by copying the code below it!
3 Squat Mistakes Infographic
Shooting the hips back way too far
This is usually caused by breaking at the hips way before you bend your knees. It's primarily done by people that want to get their back and posterior chain involved in the movement more.
Often times, people feel more comfortable leaning forwards and throwing their hips backwards at the start of a squat, as opposed to bending the knees at the same time and staying more upright.
Squatting this way makes it more difficult to achieve a good depth squat and increases the likelihood of your squat resembling a "good morning" on the way back up.
It also causes the bar to get out in front of your mid-line (if you were watching from a side angle), which puts the weight over your toes and can pitch your body forwards at the bottom.
You can remedy this by focusing on bending your knees much earlier during your descent. Remember, you should be aiming to break at the hips and kneed together.
It is quite common for people to be confused by how to brace or tense the abs properly. A cue I sometime here is to “draw the abs in”. I hate this cue.
While technically, the abs will be drawn in and your rib cage will be set downwards when you brace, this cue usually makes people suck their stomach in like they are trying to squeeze into an old pair of jeans.
Bracing correctly involves drawing a big breath into your stomach, pushing your stomach out to increase pressure around your trunk (think about creating a belly like a Buddha) and then tensing your abs hard as if something is about to hit you in the stomach.
Proper bracing is so important for keeping your spine in a safe, stable position during your squats.
Sometimes, people’s heels may rise as a result of breaking with only their knees and trying to stay ultra-upright by not bending at the hips at all.
If you squat this way, you will normally find that your heels lift up as you get lower into the squat. You can fix this in the opposite way as the first mistake, by trying to break at your hips earlier in the movement.
Again, knees and hips should break at pretty much the same time.
Another cause of heels lifting off the ground is a lack of ankle mobility.
It happens If you lack range of motion in your ankle, more specifically dorsiflexion (the ability to bend your ankle upwards by bringing your toes towards your shin). Tight calf muscles will very likely be the cause of this one.
If you know you have tight calves, take a look at this detailed and very useful article on how to fix them: http://www.lisallc.com/blog/are-tight-calves-ruining-your-squat
Alongside improving your ankle mobility, you may also find that a pair of weightlifting shoes could help you out. Here’s my complete guide on buying weightlifting shoes and reviews of the best ones.
Knees caving in or collapsing
This is the final common mistake that I wanted to cover, it is actually extremely common.
Like the squat guide and the video above explained, you must aim to keep your knees in line with your toes during your squats. What you certainly do not want is for them to cave inwards as you rise up from the bottom.
The main cause of knees collapsing inwards is relaxing the glute muscles at the bottom of the movement or barely using them at all.
I already mentioned it earlier, but you should be imagining that your feet are pulling the floor apart while you are squatting. Using that cue should help you to keep your knees driven out and your glutes turned on.
A good little warmup drill is to place a mini resistance band around your knees and do a few reps with it there.
The band will be forcing your knees inwards and you will be forced to use your glutes to keep them out. It’s a nice drill to do if you have trouble feeling or engaging your glute muscles in a squat.
One other fairly common cause of the knees caving inwards is the collapse of your foot arches. If your arches collapse, your feet will angle inwards and your knees will follow them.
The arches usually collapse because your body is trying to find for a stable position under a heavy load.
Your body is very clever and does this kind of thing automatically. It flattens your feet by collapsing the arches because a flat foot equals greater ground contact and a more stable base.
Good in theory, but it causes problem further up the chain, at the knees.
If you find your arches collapsing, you can combat the problem by using the “spread the floor” cue and strengthening your feet arches.
A good exercise for that is to stand on a towel that has been laid flat on the ground, then use your feet to scrunch the towel up by grabbing it with your toes and bringing it towards you.
Helpful Squat Variations
As you can see from the picture, a goblet squat is performed by holding a weight in front of you at your chest.
Having the weight in front of you means that you are forced to engage your abs quite strongly. If you don’t use them, the weight will pull your forward and you will be off balance.
Any squat where the weight is in front of your body is also going to put a bit more emphasis on your quads. So, if you need to strengthen your quads, try a front-loaded squat variation like this.
I personally like using the goblet squat as a teaching tool or a corrective exercise for the squat. Having an easy to hold weight like a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of you acts as a bit of a counterbalance. The counterbalance is great for getting into a nice deep and upright squat position.
I use goblet squats in my own training as a warmup exercise for every squat workout. I like to use a weight as that counterbalance and just hang-out for a while in a very deep squat. It’s great for getting stretching out the hips and increasing comfort in the bottom position under a little bit of load.
Box squats are very much as they sound. You squat on top of a box.
Box squats are great for learning a squat pattern if you don’t yet feel comfortable in the bottom position. You could also use them to improve your squat depth over time if you have trouble reaching below parallel.
You would start by squatting to a box that is at the height of the deepest squat you can perform with good technique. Over time, you can then lower that box height bit by bit until you are squatting to a box that is below parallel.
Another great use for box squat is for athletes or sports people. Box squats tend to be more hip dominant and strong hips are super important to an athlete.
Squatting to a higher box also mimics the action an athlete would take if they were jumping. You wouldn’t squat all the way down and then jump, you perform a much faster and shallower squat before you launch yourself into the air.
Squatting to mimic that kind of athletic movement pattern is probably the only reason for somebody not to hit below parallel in a squat on purpose.
I love and hate front squats. I love the benefits but hate how much they make me feel sick when I do them.
Front squats are hard.
They are especially hard for lifter like myself, who naturally squat with a bit more forward lean due to my build and tendency to try and the stronger muscles of my back involved in the squat.
Front squats work in pretty much the same way as the goblet squats, they are both front-loaded. Being front-loaded means that you will be forced to maintain a much more upright torso position.
Maintaining that upright torso position puts a huge demand on the muscles of your core. Heavier weights can be handled with a front squat than with a goblet squat.
Heavy weight held in front of your body during a squat really does demand a lot of your core and your upper back strength. That’s why I love them so much.
Whenever I focus more on front squats in my program, my back-squat technique improves almost right away.
Give them a try if you need some extra core work or if you want to shift a bit of extra focus on to your quads.
Get to squattin’
I think that was a pretty in-depth article on squats. I’m not one to brag but I feel like it covered a s**t-ton of useful information, feel free to disagree in the comments and I will do my best to include anything I might have missed.
Also, feel free to hit one of the share buttons below to spread the squat love with your pals.
After you have commented and shared it, get yourself in the squat-rack and put it to good use!