How to: Squat
This guide will take you through the progressions and intricacies of how to squat. I will also explain the differences between a front squat, a high-bar back squat, and a low-bar back squat.
The squat is one of the most primal and essential movements a human being can do. If you were to study a child at play, you would see just how natural a movement it is for us to squat down low, back flat, knees wide, and then stand back up picking something up off the floor or ground.
Unfortunately, many of us lose the flexibility and mobility over time to be able to squat safely and effectively, and it ultimately becomes an "impossible goal" to be able to squat safely. Many actually complain that squatting to depth, or even partial squatting hurts or damages their knees. This is actually untrue. In fact, squatting to depth may in fact be beneficial to those with poor knees. Squatting to depth and with proper form trains our bodies to properly engage our posterior chain including our hamstrings, glutes, etc. in order to stabilize and strengthen our knees.
In my experience, most people I come across (in a training environment) have 2 main problems when it comes to incorrect or troublesome squatting. Either they are far too anteriorly dominated (strong quadriceps, weak hamstrings), or they do not have the flexibility and mobility to maintain proper form throughout the full range of motion of a squat (tight hamstrings, tight calves, tight hip flexors, etc.).
Although it is such a core and essential movement, the squat can be very technically difficult for most people. In fact, the squat may very well be the most technically-difficult of all the 5 main strength lifts (bench press, barbell row, deadlift, overhead press, squat). Hopefully this guide can take you through the progressions on how to improve and perfect your squat as well as offer some advice and suggestions on how to focus on and improve your deficiencies.
Safe and effective barbell training is designed to distribute the load being lifted above our centre of gravity in order to use our bodies in the most mechanically advantageous way possible. A movement such as the overhead press, although appearing to be dangerous, can actually be a very safe and effective way of lifting, targeting the shoulders, triceps, upper chest as primary movers as well as your legs, back, abdominals, and traps to help stabilize.
Keep in mind, however, that as with any form of exercise, there are inherent dangers associated with lifting weights, and if you have a history of injury or are unsure about a specific movement, it would be best to speak to a qualified medical professional such as your doctor to seek their opinion on whether or not you should partake in a particular exercise or program.
The Air Squat
Before we even begin to think about adding additional resistance to our squat, we must first focus on correct form using only our bodies and gravity as the resistance. The Air Squat is a fantastic place to start as we can begin to ingrain the movement patterns of our bodies into our brain so that when you start to add external resistance, your movement patterns should remain, regardless of whether you are squatting 3 or 300lbs.
Here are some valuable cues to squatting:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Toes are turned out slightly.
- Head remains up throughout, gaze slightly above parallel.
- Back is "flat," maintaining the natural S-curve with arch in the lumbar region
- Core and abs are tight
- Initiate the squat through the hips, pushing the hips back and down
- The knees will naturally bend as your hips begin to move
- Knees bend and track towards middle toe
- Consciously drive and maintain wide knees throughout the full range of motion
- Weight is distributed through the heels and outside of the feet
- Sit back into the squat, delaying the knees travelling forward as long as possible
- Use your arms as a counter-balance, lifting your hands high as you squat
- From a side-view, your ears should travel straight up and down as you squat
- Even at the bottom of the squat, focus on keeping the flat back and lumbar curve. This may take a conscious effort to force the back to stay neutral
- Squat so that your hip creases are lower than your knee
- Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to drive up throughout your hips, ascending in the same path that you descended
- Imagine spreading the floor with your heels to help drive your knees wide and keeping your weight on your heels and outside of feet
- When standing, stand as tall as you can squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward at the top
I can imagine that if you are fairly new to squatting, looking at this checklist of things to think about when you're trying to do something as simple as squatting can seem daunting. How come we have such a long list of things to think about when something like squatting is supposed to be so simple? Well, to be honest, because most of us live a lifestyle that has made us forgotten how to do something so inherent to our nature. We sit in chairs, we sit on toilets, we sit in our cars, we sit at work, we sit at school, etc. We live a life of comfort and luxury and are forgetting how to move properly.
Do you remember the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car? You likely just got your licence. You were probably extremely nervous. You had either mom or dad (or a driving instructor) sitting there explaining all of the things you have to do when you're driving. Put on your seatbelt, check your side mirrors, adjust the air vents, signal, brake, gas, parking brake, etc. That doesn't even take into account how much more complex driving a manual transmission can be! Anyways, my point here is that driving was probably quite stressful and taxing on you when you first started because there were a number of things that you were constantly trying to focus on and remember. After you spend more and more time driving, a lot of these cues and points of focus become more habitual.
The same should happen for squatting. I recommend you read the list above, and then re-read it, and then read through the materials below to learn how these very same techniques and points of interest can and will be applied to squatting with weight. The more you squat properly, the better you will become. Not only that, but the move you squat, the more comfortable you will become doing this very natural movement pattern. I don't want to give you a sense of false hope, however, as this will take time to learn and master. I have spent years focusing on fixing, perfecting, and re-building my own personal squat form. I have taken several courses, literally watched hundreds of videos on squatting, and read as much as I can on what to watch for and how to perfect my squat. I am still learning.
The Goblet Squat is a fantastic exercise to bridge the gap between doing air squats and barbell squats. What's great about goblet squats is that they immediately force you to keep your chest up by focusing on keeping the dumbbell or kettle bell hugged to your chest. Once you start to lean forward, the weight will start to swing away from your chest letting you know that your form is failing. Goblet squats also allow you to build up strength with loads greater than body weight but less than a standard 45lb barbell.
Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell and perform an air squat, using the 17 cues listed above, except rather than raising your arms, you will hug the weight close to your chest.
Common causes of a bad squat:
|Not deep enough||Poor flexibility, weak hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings), quad dominance, lack of discipline||Box squats, straight leg deadlifts, consistent stretching|
|Knees caving in||Lack of required strength||Wrap resistance band around knees to mentally focus on driving knees wide|
|Dropping head||Lack of focus, weak/lack of control of upper back||Strengthen upper back, choose target on wall to look at in front of you|
|Losing lumbar extension||Tight hamstrings, potential weak glutes/hamstrings||Core strengthening, focusing on keeping pelvis tilted forward, use of Coach or video camera to assess neutral spine throughout range of motion|
|Dropping shoulders||Lack of focus, weak/tight shoulders||Active upper body, focusing on either bending bar over your back (low-bar) or pulling the bar apart (high-bar)|
|Heels coming off of ground||Quad dominance, poor achilles/calf flexibility||Achilles/calf stretching, mentally focusing on driving weight through heels throughout, weightlifting shoes|
|Incomplete hip extension||Lack of focus on one of the most important parts of the squat||Squeeze glutes together and drive hips forward at the top of every repetition or else rep didn't count|
Bar racking locations and bar paths
The front squat, like the high-bar back squat, is a bit more quad-dominant (when compared to the low-bar). The hamstrings and glutes are involved, especially during hip extension, but the less acute your hip flexion is (increasing in flexion from left to right in the pic on the right), the more hip drive you should and will experience during the concentric phase of your squat (standing up).
Take note, regardless of where the bar is racked, the goal is for the bar to path straight up and down over the mid-foot. One of the best ways to analyze your own squatting form can be accomplished by either having a Coach or friend (with a keen eye) watch your form from the side. If you are on your own, you can use a video camera, like the ones found on virtually any smart phone for example, to view the bar path. There are even some apps you can download that can help you.
The Front Squat
Using the squatting cues from above, the difference here is that we are adding external resistance "racked" on the front of your shoulders. The most common way to rack the bar is to use a minimum of 2 fingers (just outside of shoulder-width) by stretching your forearms back, bent at the elbows. The upper arms should aim to be at least parallel to the floor (elbows can be even higher if you have the required flexibility).
Lots of people actually have trouble with the flexibility to keep the bar racked on the anterior shoulders and maintain high elbows throughout the entire range of motion. Due to this, people oftentimes either shy away from the front squat and instead just use back squats or use various other racking techniques such as crossed arms, thumbs only, or even straps to help hold the bar in place.
I highly recommend you practice the proper racking technique and work on the required flexibility due to the direct application to the explosive Olympic lifts like the clean.
Areas of focus with the front squat:
- The bar should rest on your upper chest and anterior deltoids "racked" in place using a loose, open grip (at least 2 fingers).
- Squatting mechanics are the same as the air squat.
- You may find you need an even more upright and diligent posture versus the air squat due to the external resistance racked on your shoulders.
- The hardest part will be to not only acquire the necessary flexibility to get your elbows high enough for a safe rack, but to also keep your elbows high throughout the range of motion. The toughest section is the lowest part of the squat when the elbows tend to start to dip towards the floor. This places far too much stress and strain on not only the wrists but pulls the lower back and hips away from optimal form
The High-Bar Back Squat
Once again, we are using the same curing techniques for the actual squatting action. The bar rack for the high-bar back squat is very similar to the front squat however the bar will rack on the back of the neck/trap area. This time, however, you will want a full closed grip on the bar. Do not use only a few fingers like a front squat, instead, you want a good tight grip just outside of shoulder width.
Areas of focus with the high-bar back squat:
- The bar should rest on your upper back, high up on the back of your neck and traps.
- You should have a tight, closed grip on the bar, just outside of shoulder-width.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades to help maintain a neutral spine and high chest throughout. Your upper body is not passive during this process!
- Your hands should pull on the bar like you are trying to separate it behind your neck.
The Low-Bar Back Squat
The low-bar back squat is more than likely going to be the technique used for you to move the most overall weight. You are able to recruit even more muscle in your posterior chain and really promote proper hip drive, however, the low-bar may not be as popular with majority of the squatting population, especially new squatters due to its somewhat funny position to get into.
Similar to the high-bar back squat, you want a good, tight grip on the bar. This time, however, your hands are wider apart and the bar sits a few inches further down on your back. The bar should rest on your posterior deltoids rather than your upper traps and neck.
Other areas of focus with the low-bar back squat:
- Bar rests on your posterior deltoids. You definitely need an active upper body here. Your hands help hold and keep the bar in place. Think about bending the bar over your back.
- I prefer using a "suicide grip" on the bar with my thumbs on the same side of the bar as the rest of the fingers. This helps to flatten the wrists and push the bar into my back.
- The upper back should be engaged, attempting to bend the bar over your back.
To supplement all of this, Alan Thrall has a fantastic video on YouTube explaining not only how important squats are to overall health, but also goes into detail the differences between the high-bar and low-bar squat. There really isn't any point in me trying to correct what he has already done because it is pretty much a perfect source of information.