Proper Squat Form: How to Master the Mechanics of Squats
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Arguably one of the most important movements in fitness and in life, the squat is an ultimate full body workout - and an easy one to perform incorrectly.
Think about it: every time you reach down to pick something up, sit down and get up again, or bend over to be with your kid or pet, you are performing a squat.
Therefore, being comfortable and strong in this fundamental body position is key to your functional fitness and your overall health.
A simple squat challenges a huge range of muscles in your body- we are talking quads, glutes, hip abductors, caves, hamstrings, back, core, and obliques.
Because it is such an effective compound movement, almost every athlete, no matter their sport or fitness goals, should strive to perfect their squat form.
Personally, my journey to the perfect squat technique is ongoing. It requires increased mobility, patience, consistency, and honestly a bit of a learning curve.
But don’t fear the process, because in today’s article, I am going to walk you through the key elements of this “king of exercise”, the most common concerns people have about their squat form, and some core squat movements to help you master the mechanics of a perfect squat.
What does a perfect squat look like?
Unfortunately, the answer to the questions is not the same for everyone.
Depending on your body’s capabilities, mobility, and the purpose of your training, everyone’s “perfect” squat will look different.
But before I address those differences, let me first go over the core mechanics of a squat that everyone should be working to achieve.
Before you begin your squat, you want to make sure you are balanced and stable.
Start with your feet positioned slightly wider than your hips.
Some people, including myself, will find squatting more comfortable when their feet turned outwards slightly (at about a 5 to 20 degree rotation).
This slight rotation will depend on your hip mobility so play around to see what is comfortable).
People who squat comfortably in a wider stance will usually have more of an outward foot rotation in comparison to people who prefer a narrow squat stance.
Upright body positioning
During the squat, you want to make sure you maintain a neutral upper body. What this means is that you are staying upright, and not bending too far forward or rounding your spine.
A common cue I like to use to keep my chest up is to “show the logo on your t-shirt”.
Imagine you have a logo on the front of your shirt (and maybe you do) and you want to make sure you are always showing that off to the mirror or whatever is in front of you.
However, you want to make sure you are not overcompensating with this cue, and arching your back, which can also put you at risk of injury. Your goal is to keep your spine neutral.
Your gaze should be neutral as well, meaning you are not craning your neck up or down during the squat.
Look straight ahead. I like to pick a middle spot on the wall in front of me, and maintain that gaze during my squat movement.
How your weight is distributed is especially important when you are performing weighted squats.
Essentially, this mechanic of the squat refers to your balance during the movement.
Leaning too far forward to pitch your chest forward, throw you off balance, and put a lot of strain on your back- not ideal when you have a barbell on your back, as this can really put you at risk of injury.
On the other hand, leaning too far back can throw you off balance as well. You want to find that sweet spot where your weight is equally distributed across your feet.
A lot of “how to” squat guides will tell you to put your weight into your heels, while this can help for people who often fall forward in their squats, having too much weight your heels can create imbalance too.
I like my clients to think of three key points of contact on their feet: the heel, the big toe, and the baby toe. Spread your toes during your squat, as if you are “gripping” the ground with your feet.
Try this with bare feet in your home to get a feel for it. Feeling the floor beneath you can help you achieve proper balance during squats.
Alignment in a squat generally focuses on how your knees are tracking during the movement.
Once your foot positioning feels good, you want to sit down and back to begin your squat movement. There are a couple important cues to think about when you are initiating the squat.
First, imagine that as you are dropping your weight, you have two strings tied to your body. One is around your hips and is pulling your weight back.
Another is around your knees and is pulling them forward. You want to imagine that these strings are getting pulled on at the same time. This will help keep your body in perfect alignment during squats.
Second, when you are squatting, think about sitting your weight down and between your knees.
I have found this cue particularly useful in my own squat progress, and I kid you not, I still repeat the mantra “sit down and back” on my way to a squat. I find this keeps me balanced and aligned. Give it a try.
A key part of squat alignment is thinking about your knee positioning in comparison to your feet. To perform a squat with correct form, you want your knees to track over the direction of your feet, not outside of them, and definitely not inside of them.
“Over the toes” is a good guide to make sure that you are protecting your knees during your squat.
Generally, when you squat down, you are either aiming to hit parallel (when your hips are at the same knees as your hips) or break parallel (performing a squat “to depth”, where your hips are in a lower position than your knees).
Proper squat depth has become a real point of debate in the fitness community.
Certain “fitness” platforms have even gone so far as to shame athletes for not squatting “ass to grass” (or ATG), deeming any squat that is not significantly breaking parallel to be incorrect. I take a firm stance against this perspective, and here is why…
Firstly, not all people have the mobility to perform ATG squats, or even parallel squats.
Squatting takes a lot of hip and ankle flexibility, and many beginner squats are still improving their range of motion needed to squat to depth.
Does that mean that a person who can’t squat to depth should just stop squatting altogether? Absolutely not! People should listen to their body, respect their range of motion, and actively work towards improving their depth without straining themselves.
Forcing people to perform ATG squats who do not have the proper mobility to do so can put them at a high risk of injury.
On the other side of this debate, there are some fitness communities in which squatting below parallel is essential.
For example, in Olympic lifting you are required to perform certain movements with an impeccable below parallel squat. In powerlifting, if you do not perform a squat to depth, your lift will not count in competition.
Meaning, the specifics of how deep someone’s squat is is closely linked to the sport they are training for.
How to achieve proper squat form?
So, you think you have a firm grasp on the mechanics of a squat, and now you want to become a master in proper squat form. Here are some important things to consider.
As I mentioned already, the success and depth of your squat is closely tied to how mobile you are.
I also suggest warming up properly before you squat, in order to reduce your risk of injuring yourself. Foam rolling can also help increase your range of motion for squats.
Check your ego
The world of strength training has only become more popular, and more and more people are rushing to the squat rack, ready to push their strength to the limit.
Don’t get me wrong, this drive to be strong is awesome, but boy, if you are not careful, “ego-lifting” can really damage your body, especially when it comes to heavy squats.
Hear me out when I say this: if you cannot correctly perform a bodyweight squat, you are not ready to safely perform a squat with additional weights (barbell, dumbbells, etc).
As I said earlier, squats require patience. If you want to have incredible squat form, you are going to have to be humble enough to start with the basics.
Don’t neglect your breathing
Proper squat form requires intentional breathing, and this is the final stepping stone to the perfect squat that a lot of people tend to forget.
Get into the habit of taking a deep belly breath (expanding your diaphragm) before you perform your squat.
Having your lungs filled with air during your squat helps to keep your core tight and stable. Breathe out as you come up from your squat.
Be careful about holding your breath, as you don’t want to risk feeling dizzy during the movement.
Simply being more intentional about your breath and coordinating it with your descent and ascent will help make your squats strong and stable.
Don’t get too caught up in the knee over toe debate
When you are researching proper squat form, you might come across some (or a lot) of information that strongly warns against letting your knees track past your toes. Let me debunk this theory for you.
Some people, due to limited mobility, cannot squat while letting their knees go over their toes.
This may be due to past injuries, or it may be that they cannot do so without having other parts of their form breaking down.
They will find themselves arching their back or tipping forward to have their knees past their toes.
This is absolutely when you want to take the advice to not let your knees pass your toes during a squat, because you are putting yourself at risk of injury.
On the other hand, some folks have excellent ankle and hip mobility, and they can comfortably sit upright and in a deep squat with their knees tracking way over their toes.
For these squatters, knee-past-toe squatting is safe. Just watch any top Olympic lifter and you will see that at the bottom of their squat, their knees are absolutely going over their toes, and this is no problem for them.
So, don’t let this debate inhibit your squat progress. It is really based on the individual.
As long as you are performing a squat safely and with proper form, you don’t need to worry about how far your knees are past your toes.
Look out for knee collapse
This is a common problem for new and experienced squatters alike: the dreaded knee cave, where your knees move towards each other while you are coming up from a squat.
In all cases, this is considered poor form and puts you at risk of injury. I suggest that people squat in front of a mirror or record themselves squatting to see if this is happening.
If your knees are collapsing during your squat, reduce or remove any weights you are lifting.
Work on strengthening your hip abductors and glutes with banded glute exercises. Make sure you are always doing glute activation movements before your squats.
Squat exercises to train proper squat form
Ready to improve and advance your squat? Here are my favorite squat exercises to increase your overall strength.
#1. Wall Squat
Are you new to squatting and don’t know where to start? Give the wall squat a try. The wall squat is a great air squat variation to help perfect your form.
Place a chair in front of a wall, spaced out enough so that you can comfortably sit down and stand up on that chair without hitting the wall.
Squat on to the chair and stand up using your lower body muscles and core, not momentum (no cheating!).
The idea of the wall is to prevent you from tipping too far forward; it keeps you in an upright position during the squat. Once you have mastered that, remove the chair and perform an air squat in front of the wall.
Focus on form rather than depth. Note that the close you stand to the wall, the more hip and ankle mobility you will need to keep proper squat form.
#2. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is the first step to correctly adding weight resistance to your squat.
Perform this squat by holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, or light plate (that you can easily hold) at chest level (your elbows will be pointing down).
While keeping the weight in place, sit back and low in your squat.
Make sure that your upper body does not collapse with this added weight. Stay upright and engage your core.
Goblet squats can also be an excellent corrective exercise for athletes you find themselves tipping forward during barbell squats.
#3. Deep Squat
The deep squat is an excellent warm up or mobility movement. Simply sit down in your squat (without adding any weight).
Go as low as you can without breaking form, meaning that your spine stays neutral, your full foot remains on the floor, and your chest is upright.
Sit in this position for as long as you comfortably can, before you come up again. Keep your glutes engaged for the duration of the movement.
#4. Barbell Squat
Once a person has mastered the air squat/bodyweight squat with correct form, you are ready to join the big league of squatting: the barbell squat.
The barbell squat is a core movement in weight training or weight lifting sports. Essentially, it requires you to perform a squat to depth while you are under a barbell loaded with plates.
The barbell squat can be performed as a front squat or back squat. In a front squat, the bar is held in front of the athlete, balancing over their elbows and on their hands.
This requires advanced upper body and wrist flexibility to be performed correctly, and it is often seen in Crossfit or Olympic weightlifting.
The back squat is the opposite of this: the barbell is carried on the back of the athlete, either resting on the traps (in high bar positioning) or on the mid-shoulder (in low bar positioning).
Barbell squatting is a more advanced squat exercise, so I highly recommend you get advice from a coach when you begin training with a barbell.
This is especially important as you begin to move into lifting heavier weights. Although, the hard work and learning curve is well worth it, as it can be an incredibly empowering experience to sit down and stand back up with a heavy barbell loaded on your back.
The bottom line
Squats are an essential movement for the overall health of all people, whether you are looking to become more mobile and strong for everyday life or want to advance in the world of weightlifting sports.
When performed carefully and correctly, squats help you build muscle, burn calories, increase your core strength, have better balance, and become more flexible.
Better yet, you don’t need any fancy equipment to perform them- squats can be done anywhere and anytime. Why not start training your squat today?