The Squat is perhaps the most important exercise an individual can perform during training to improve muscularity and strength. When done properly, the Squat is a full body work out that incorporates a large number of muscles to complete. When ever you hear some one refer to the squat as a “leg” routine, or see you Squatting and comments “Oh, you are doing legs”, that is a sign they do not know how to Squat properly.
Here are 10 quick and easy tips on how to squat correctly. Pay attention, and practise for perfection. This is the biggest key any one can give you to unlocking a stronger, more muscular body, and athletic body. For girls, don’t believe the myth Squatting with weights (and weight lifting in general) will magically turn your body more masculine. It won’t. It will make you look like this…
For the Fellas who need motivations…
Convinced? Good! Now let’s get to work!
1) Feet placement for balance can be critical!
Once a lifter is accustom to the Squat, the lifter will adjust foot placement to their specific liking. Often Powerlifters and bodybuilders who have been squatting for years will develop their own squatting style (whether sumo stance, shoulder width, or narrow for bounce at the bottom). For beginners, I would suggest feet shoulder width apart, with the toes pointing out on a 45 degree angle. This will help the lifter balance during the Squat. The feet point out on a 45 degree angle will also force the knees to flare outwards, instead of bow inwards, during the lift. Knees pushing out helps turn on the muscles up the posterior chain (the hamstrings and glutes).
2) Take a full breath of air and hold it!
I know your gym teacher taught you to blow out when you lift weights. Your gym teacher was wrong. Picture a large balloon. We are going to put a small rock on this large balloon. If the ballon is not fully inflated, the weight of the rock will push this balloon forward or backward, and change the form of the ballon. This is what happens when your body is not tight and full of air during the Squat.
When you Squat, it is important to take a full breath of air to inflate that balloon. Now the small rock will sit on the balloon, and not cause the balloon to pitch forward or backward, or loose it’s form.
3) Wrap the bar around your body!
I know, physically speaking, it is impossible to take the barbell, and wrap it around your body. However, when you place the barbell on the bottom of your traps and prepare to squat, I want you to try your hardest to do just that! Clinching the barbell and pulling inward as if attempting to bend the bar around your upper body will tighten your back and shoulders. Again, picture the large balloon. You need the balloon to keep it’s form and stay inflated to balance the small rock on top of it. If you are loose up top, you will pitch forward in your squat and loose form. This will put stress on the lower back.
Taking a full breath of air and clinching the barbell as if to wrap it around you will tighten your upper body up, and engage all the muscles in your core and back. This will greatly improve your balance, and also help strengthen your upper body and core, during the lift.
4) Point your elbows toward the ground!
After you have placed your feet, taken a breath of air, and tightened your upper body, a lifter should point their elbows toward the ground. The elbows should remain pointing towards the ground at all times. Picture your elbows as the steering wheel, and your upper body as the wheels. If your elbows point to the ground, your upper body is being directed to stay upright. If your elbows begin to point backwards on a 45 degree angle (which is the most common placement for those who Squat improperly), then the upper body will be directed to pitch forward. This will in turn put a lot of pressure on the lower back. The pressure on the lower back will then work it’s way down the chain and cause the body to adjust and put more pressure on your knees.
It is important to keep your chest out and facing forward. Have a friend look to see if your elbows are pointing to the ground or backwards on a 45 degree angle when you squat. Often lifters are unaware of the placement of their elbows. Or they begin with the elbows pointing down, but shift them on an angle as they Squat closer to parallel.
5) Look up on a 45 degree angle!
I see people looking at themselves in the mirror all the time when they squat. The best way to keep balance is to remain upright and tight. The body will naturally want to pitch forward with the weight of the barbell on your back as you Squat. Keeping your head tilted on a 45 degree angle upwards, with your eye sight the same, will help keep your upper body up right. Like a person who is beginning to drive, if they look one direction they automatically start steering toward that direction ever so slightly. This is the same with the Squat. Help direct your body in the right direction by controlling your head placement (wrestlers and other athletes already understand the need to keep your head up when lifting).
6) Break at the hips, not the knees!
Once you have completed steps 1-5, you are ready to start lowering into the squat (I know, you never thought there was so much to do with the upper body when Squatting, but now you see why I cringe when people think Squatting is for the legs only). Perhaps lowering into the Squat is not the right wording, as you are not so much lowering as you are sitting backwards.
Attempt to keep your knees in the same place while you break at the hips and push your butt backwards as if you are trying to touch an imaginary wall behind you with it. You keep sitting backward, not sitting straight down, reaching for that wall. The wall is not there, so you end up lowering downwards the further back you reach. This movement, when keeping your upper body tight, will cause you to feel as though your are coiling a spring. A tight upper body is critical to keeping balance. As is flaring your knees outward and not forward or inward.
7) Do not let your knees go past your toes!
A good indication you are not sitting backward, and are in fact sitting straight down too much, is if your knees are drifting past your toes. If that is the case, you are no longer loading up your hamstrings and glutes properly, your upper body is pitching forward too much, and your are putting extra pressure and strain on your lower back and knees.
Just like the elbows, ask a friend to watch you squat and to pay attention if your knees drift over your toes. If they are, a red flag should be set off that your are doing something wrong. Likely you need to tighten your upper body and sit further back in your Squat.
A good way to practise sitting back with the Squat is to grab a bench and to place it directly in the middle of the Squat rack. Your feet will be placed straddling the bench, and you will sit backward onto the bench. You do not sit down onto the bench! You never even touch the bench with our butt. You actually are aiming to touch the bench with your inner thighs. This will make you push your butt out and activate your glutes and hamstrings (which powerlifters call “the seat of power”). You merely touch the bench with your inner thighs as a marker for sitting backward, and rise back up as soon as they do touch.
Some times spreading the knees at the bottom of the Squat helps the lifter to achieve the proper depth while not letting their knees drift over their toes. It is at the bottom of the Squat that most lifters have problems keeping their knees back.
8) A flat back is not enough, a proper Squat is an arched back!
Most males Squat with a flat back when they first start. I have noticed it is not natural for them to arch their back when sitting backward into the Squat. This will limit the activation of the posterior chain (“The seat of Power”), and ultimately limit the strength and gains the lifter will get out of the lift. It will also put stress on the lower back. Arching the lower back will help the glutes and hamstrings turn on, and also keep the upper body tight and flexed. A flat back limits all of the above by taking the brunt of the lift. If mastering the arch in the lower back is a problem, I would suggest the lifter practise squatting onto a bench as mentioned in step 7. The lifter will be able to tell if they are squatting with the arch in the lower back or not by what hits the bench they are squatting over. If they touch the bench with their butt, they need to arch their lower back more. If they are touching the bench with their thighs, they are on point (again, you are not sitting onto the bench, you are just touching it and then coming back up).
9) Drive upward when in “the hole”!
“The hole” is what powerlifters and bodybuilders call the bottom of the squat. It is important to understand that “the hole” is not a quarter of the way down, or halfway down. “The Hole” is just below parallel. That means you need to squat so the upper part of your leg is parallel to the ground, then the dip just a bit lower so the crook of your hip breaks parallel. That is a full Squat. No less. Any less than that, and you are training partials. Partials are also useful (even lock outs), but should never be mixed up with calling them Squats.
Once a lifter is in the hole, they are at the most vulnerable part of the lift. They are also at the part of the lift that makes them work the most and in turn gives them the most gains and benefits. That is why it is important to always Squat into the hole, and break parallel with the crook of the hip. Like mentioned before, get a friend to see if you are Squatting low enough (along with if you are keeping your elbows pointing toward the ground, your knees back from your toes, and your head up, chest out).
Once you hit the hole, fire with everything you got to drive upward. Do not pitch forward. Concentrate your force to drive upward. Keeping your chest out, your elbows down, and your head pointing upward will all help with the direction of your drive. If you are looking forward, and your elbows are pointing backward on an angle, than your body is going to be pitched forward slightly. This makes it a lot harder to drive upward for your body. It makes the lift inefficient, and stresses the wrong parts of the lifter.
10) Wash, rinse, and repeat!
Once you have completed the lift, you go through steps 1-10 all over again for every single rep of every single set. That is the rule. That is the unspoken law. The one rep you get lazy can be the one time you injure yourself (especially when you start to move up in weight). Getting lazy with your set up will result in diminished results. Properly Squatting will increase muscularity and strength for your whole body, not just your legs! Your arms are flexed pulling on the bar. Your back and shoulder blades are tight and flexed from the pull on the bar. Your chest is out and head up, activating your core and midsection. Your sitting back on the Squat activates the full lower part of your body correctly and efficiently.
When you have mastered the Squat, these 10 steps will not take long to do. In fact, a lifter can set up a squat with all 10 points in a second between every rep once they have them down. However, it is important for a lifter to rehearse these steps with light weight until they have them to memory. To do so, have a friend watch your Squat from the side and to look for the following…
-Is your head up?
-Is your elbows pointing down?
-Did you take a big breath?
-Is your knees drifting over your toes? Are your knees flaring outward like they should in the hole?
-Are you breaking parallel with the crook of your hip?
Thats it for now. Now go Squat and you can thank me later when you see the results!!!
****The author, 6 Pack Lapadat, is a National Powerlifting Champion and Guinness World Record holder in the Squats. See bio section for more info on him!****