The squat is by far one of the most essential, functional, all-arounder exercise invented. It is a the greatest compound lift along with deadlift and bench press. No matter how much the research grows, the squat will still make it in the top three exercises for the whole body, always.
- Squat – The Foundation
- Proper Squat
- Barbell Back Squat: Step by Step Guide
- 5 Golden Rules for the Perfect Squat
- 1. Neutral Spine
- 2. Knees in Direction of your Toes
- 3. Intraabdominal Pressure
- 4. Controlled Eccentric Contraction
- 5. Push Through the Heels
- Most Common Mistakes
- Benefits of squats
Squat – The Foundation
As one of the most basic exercises, squat lays the foundation for the development of your whole body, especially lower body strength. This is why it is important to learn the correct squat form. Contrary to popular beliefs that squat can only grow your legs, the strength of your whole body can highly progress when you increase your squat.
The reason for this is because you are not simply just pushing with your legs, but a lot of other muscles get engaged, including the core, lower, and even upper back.
Why is Squat Important?
Look at babies, how natural and painless they are able to squat. When picking things up they squat deep, with a neutral spine, and pick the object up, without tilting.
This is a natural movement, we should practice on a daily basis, instead of hinging in the hip to pick up an object or tie our shoes.
Who Should Squat?
Everyone should be able to do a deep squat while keeping the spine neutral. Exceptions are people with disabilities and injuries, specific to muscles and joints we activate during the squat.
But physically healthy people, whether adults, elderly or teens should be able to perform a correct and deep squat. The squat form and depth tell us a lot about one’s physical health, including our client’s hip and ankle mobility, muscular strength and flexibility, spine curvature, as well as specific tightness or imbalances that might show up on our way down.
In fitness, we often see the word compound or functional, so what does it mean?
- Compound exercise refers to a movement that indulges more joints. We prefer to call it a multi-joint movement because during the exercise we involve multiple joints and muscles around them. An example of this would be pull-ups, dips, deadlift, squat, and bench press. Think of it as the opposite of Isolation movements, where the hinging pattern occurs in only one joint.
- Functional exercise, on the other hand, is an exercise that uses similar movement patterns to ones we often use in our life. The point of the word is that the exercise is functional, practical, and helps us do the exact specific movement better in our life. Think of exercises such as torso rotation, unilateral barbell pull, or the squat and push press overhead. Exercises that would help you tie your shoes, open the door, lift a box on the shelve, or twist to the right to answer the phone call.
There are 7 main characteristics of an optimal squat, which can differ for the individual.
A Perfect Squat isn’t necessarily describing all the angles in the hip, knee, and ankle joints, or the degree of the Spine in relation to the ground. A perfect squat doesn’t have one optimal measurement for bar height or feet width, because it depends on the individual.
Since the anatomical built of every human being is different, we cannot set the same measurements for everyone. Some of these factors we need to take into consideration include:
- Shoulder Mobility
- Hip Mobility
- Ankle Mobility
- Core Strength
- Knee Stabilization
- Legs Strength
- Legs Length
- Key Imbalances
- Spine & Posture
- Muscle Mass
However, a lot of the same principles can apply to one’s squat, in order for us to get a better, bigger, deeper, optimal squat with proper posture. There is a certain list of rules, which we should predominantly follow, to ensure a proper squat form.
Just to clear the air, there are many different types of squats which will be covered in the next article. In this one, we focus on the bodyweight squat for proper setup, then progressing into the back squat with weights.
Bodyweight Squat – Setup, Posture, and Exercise
A proper bodyweight squat is a must for starters. If you cannot manage to properly squat with no weights, you shouldn’t put extra weight on your body, because you can increase the risk of injury or cause joint, muscle, or tendon deterioration.
Squatting Stance, Posture, Position, and Exercise
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart
- Set your hands in front of you, palms touching
- Turn your toes outward 5-20 degrees
- While standing up tall, inhale
- Push your chest out, Spine is Neutral
- Flex your core muscles and hold your breath
- Squat Down slowly, weight is even on the feet
- Push your hips back, while keeping a neutral spine
- Push your knees outwards (in the direction of your toes)
- Squat as deep as you can without ruining the posture
- Push against the ground up
This is what a squat looks like, congratulations.
What if I can’t do it properly?
Chances are, if you are pretty stiff, haven’t squatted in a long time you might be experiencing these issues:
- Too Wiggly, unstable, and unbalanced
- Excessive Anterior Pelvic tilt
- Center of Gravity is Forward
- Heels Lifted, You Stand on your Toes
- You push your Knees inward
- You flex the spine in kyphosis too much
For these common problems, you can improve your squat form by improving your hip and ankle mobility, glutes and quadriceps strength, core and knee stabilizers. But all of this takes time so while you are working on it you can try these 4 simple steps to improve your squat while progressing in these areas.
- Put 1-2 inch plates under your heels and squat again
- Pick a spot in front of you to focus on, so you don’t tilt the head
- Squat as deep as you can with proper posture
- Squeeze your glutes, quads, and hamstrings when going down.
Barbell Back Squat: Step by Step Guide
Now we will go to the more advanced version, a back squat with weights
Not being able to properly squat with no weights is a big no for squatting with them. So you want to make sure you practice all the other areas of the ankle, hip, or shoulder mobility, stabilizers of the knee and the core, and strength, or your legs, especially gluteus and quadriceps muscles. Also, make sure you help yourself by investing in lifting shoes with ¾ inch heel offset or place some plates below your heels.
Step 1: Starting Point
Step 2: Prepare
Step 3: Squat
Step 4: Set the Barbell Back
Step one is about picking the barbell up and moving until you get to the place where you will squat.
- Go under the bar, in a facing direction. Your head and neck are below the bar, which is resting on your upper back muscles. Use a medium-strong grip and raise your chest.
- Unrack. Your next move is to lift the barbell pushing through your feet, placed below it, knees are fully extended, hips are locked you walk back and set your feet to shoulder width.
- Activate the main muscles: your core, your legs (quads and glutes), raise your chest up, squeeze the shoulder blades together.
- Inhale in the belly and hold it. Flex your core to increase intraabdominal pressure, which secures the lumbar spine and reduces the risk of injury and compressive forces.
- Slowly squat down while being focused on three main things: pushing the hips back, pushing your knees outwards, and keeping the Spine neutral.
- Keep on resisting the weight eccentrically in a controlled manner, until you go to your desired depth, pause, and hold your breath.
- Push back up. Once you achieved the desired depth, activate your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, and make sure you push through the whole feet, especially on the heels to drive the weight up.
- Lock and Exhale. When arriving back up, lock your hips without overarching your back, push through the heels and squeeze your glutes. Exhale and prepare for the next rep.
- Slowly walking forward – facing your squat rack supporters go straight in a controlled manner and set the bar on the supporters of the squat rack.
- Leave the barbell. Once you are finished with your reps, you have put the barbell onto the squat rack supporters, and you are free to go and take a rest.
5 Golden Rules for the Perfect Squat
These are the top 4 Rules for Performing a Good, Proper Squat
1. Neutral Spine
The spine must have its neutral curvature, not any excessive pelvic tilting, not excessive lordosis or kyphosis since this can cause serious compressive forces on the vertebrae and chronic pain or injury in the future. To check if you have a neutral spine, you should do the Stick exercise. Try putting a wooden stick behind you, while doing the squat movement, and make sure that three points of your vertebrae are touching the stick, on your way down which means the neutral spine curve is correct. These three points are: head, thoracic spine (mid-back) and bum should touch the stick.
2. Knees in Direction of your Toes
When Squatting, one of the worst things you can do is push the knees inward while having a huge load on your back. This can significantly damage your medial side of the knee meniscus and is probably caused by tight adductors (the muscles on the inside of your thigh) pulling the knee inward. Foam rolling, stretching and hip mobility can help.
3. Intraabdominal Pressure
You most certainly have seen bodybuilders and powerlifters wearing belts. The reason why is to increase intraabdominal pressure and reduce compressive forces on your vertebrae. But studies have shown that your breathing can be equally as effective, in individuals with a strong core. So what you do is inhale before you squat, hold it in and flex your core, squat down hold it and exhale when you push up.
4. Controlled Eccentric Contraction
The squat is both concentric and eccentric exercise. When you are going down (resisting the barbell) your quadriceps and gluteus are eccentrically contracted (stretched). To ensure proper muscle growth and prevent injury, you must go down slower and not just let the weight push you down while stopping it in the last phase. This means going down slowly, and pushing up more explosively.
5. Push Through the Heels
The biggest instability you don’t want to push is through your toes while having a bunch of weight plates on your back. Pushing through the toes can increase the risk of knee injury because these forces are transmitted on a lower surface (toes instead of the whole foot) which increases the force on your ankles, tendons, and knee joints. Make sure you stand on your whole feet and push mainly through the heels, distributing your weight on a bigger surface. If you can’t put weighted plates or buy higher heel shoes.
Frequently Asked Questions
How deep should I squat or what squat depth is optimal?
A good squat would be the one that is deep enough to break the parallel, so your thigh goes lower than being parallel to the ground. The deeper, the better but not after you crush proper posture. If going too deep makes your Butt wink, pulls your knees forward and inward, or enforces unnatural spine posture, stop before that happens.
How Many Sets and reps to do on Squats?
If you want to build muscle, you should aim at 3 sets of 8-12 reps with 60-80% of your Rep Max.
If you want to build strength, you should aim at 5 sets of 3 reps with around 90% of your Rep Max.
How Can I increase my Squat?
Practicing the squat up to 3 times per week properly and consistently can ensure you get better at it. If your goal is to squat more, we should look into strength gain and not muscle building. That would require 5 sets of 3 reps (explosively) with 90% of your Rep Max, allowing for neural adaptation.
How many times per week should I squat?
The squat can be performed every day, but not with high loads. If you are interested in building strength or muscle mass, 2-3 times per week around 5-10 sets in total is needed to progress or keep yourself in the “squat shape”.
How can I improve my Squat Posture?
Film yourself and talk to a kinesiologist, he will assess your imbalances or mistakes. In general, improving your hip and ankle mobility can do a lot for your proper squat form. Make sure you consciously keep a neutral spine, flex your core, squeeze your glutes and shoulder blades, and you are halfway there.
Most Common Mistakes
When it comes to squatting mistakes, there is a plethora of advice, myths, and misconceptions you can reach on the internet. As a kinesiologist, I have had many debates on this with professionals, which lead me to see that everyone has specific needs, anatomical build, and strength to perform a squat. This means the proper squat will differ in each person a bit, and while there are some rules about proper squat form specific numbers cannot always apply.
It happens in individuals who push up through lifting the hips up while pushing their glutes back, also known as the exercise good mornings and after that, they straight their back. This makes the center of gravity shift back which can be detrimental for your knees and lower back. The goal is to squat up by extending your legs, driving the hips up and forward, not back.
One of the most common knee injuries that come with the squat is continuous, repetitive inward knee placement which increases the stress and compressive forces on your medial ligaments, deteriorating it and increasing the risk of overuse or injury.
People think squat is all about the legs, which is not true. If you don’t know how to use your core, during any compound movement, you can increase the risk of spinal injury. Before the squat, we inhale and hold it, push down and squat. We shouldn’t exhale on our way down, but hold it and flex the core, to increase intraabdominal pressure which can reduce spine compression.
When we are squatting down a lot of people can experience a butt wink, which is basically your pelvis tilting posteriorly. Some experts say this isn’t going to contribute to any injury, but others do not agree. The best is to finish at the end where the butt wink is not happening and your spine has neutral curvature.
Many people extend their necks up, and look to the ceiling thinking they should keep their head up. Excessive extension in the cervical spine can cause other problems and compression on your vertebrae which can lead to injury, so to stay safe make sure your head is within the length of your torso, keeping a neutral spine curvature.
The squat is a very complex compound movement that activates your full body, including parts of your upper body. As we all know, the main focus is on the legs, but the core is also pretty activated in a proper squat.
- Quadriceps: Vastus Medialis, Vastus Lateralis, Rectus Femoris, and Vastus Intermedialis
- Adductors: Gracillis, Adductor Brevis, Magnus and Longus, Pectineus
- Gluteus: Gluteus Maximus and Minimus
- Hamstrings: Biceps Femoris (short and long head) Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus.
- Calves: Gastrocnemius, Soleus
- Tibial muscles: Tibialis Anterior
- Abdominal: Rectus abdominis, Transverse abdominis, Internal and External Oblique
- Lower Back: Quadratus Lumborum, Latissimus Dorsi, Erector Spine and Serratus Posterior Inferior
Even though the squat is movement dominantly working the legs and core, upper back muscles such as trapezius, deltoid, triceps, latissimus dorsi, erector spine, rhomboid minor, and major are also active.
Benefits of squats
The benefits of a squat are endless. As a compound exercise squat can impact many different aspects of our physical health, so without further ado, let’s look at the main benefits.
1. Strength Gain
one of the most obvious benefits of any weightlifting program is strength gains. Squat as one of the main exercises in the realm of both weightlifting and bodyweight fitness can improve one’s lower body strength significantly.
2. Libido & Testosterone Boost
Squats as well as other compound exercises, as dips, pull-ups, and bench press can significantly raise testosterone levels and increase your libido as a result. Especially in new weightlifters, there is a significant change in libido and energy levels.
3. Burn Fat
By boosting your metabolism and burning calories, squats can improve your body composition. The complex exercises that use bigger muscle groups such as this are very good for weight loss not just because of the higher content of burned calories, but also for their efficiency in using new calories.
4. Calorie Efficiency
When building more muscles, all the calories that you eat are taken by your body in a more efficient manner, which implies storing more of that calories (whether proteins or carbohydrates) in muscles rather than fat. Putting muscle mass might be smarter than doing loads of cardio to lose weight if you do it in the long run.
5. Hip Mobility
Squat is not just a muscle-building exercise but can significantly improve your hip mobility. Think about that, with weights on your shoulders you are going down squatting deep every time, which stretches your adductors and enables you to go deeper.
6. Posture & Spine Health
While squatting excessive loads of weight with improper form will definitely hurt your spine, overall a healthy individual with proper squat training (weights + form) can increase the mass, activation, and strength of the key muscles that keep our spine erect, pushing our chest up.
7. Confidence & Looks
Undoubtedly, weightlifting can improve your confidence both by increasing testosterone and improving your looks. Aside from this, you will stand up straight, be stronger and look better overall.
- Squat is one of the most important physical movement patterns we are programmed with from birth, which everyone should be able to do.
- Proper squat Form focuses on the neutral spine, pushing the knees outwards, knees pointed in toes direction, driving through the heels up, and core activation.
- Individuality must be respected when squatting, this is why all measurements cannot apply to everyone, it depends on their: anatomical build, strength, mobility, and experience.
- Most common Squat mistakes are butt-wink, inward knees, improper breathing, foot placement, good-morning squat, and neck extension.
- Main muscle activation in squat includes: Knee extensors and flexors, hip adductors and abductors, abdominal and lower back core muscles, hip extensors, flexors, and calves.