How to do Squats

The basics:

1) Get under the bar with your chest high and your upper and lower back tight.

2) Ensure your position is balanced from left to right, grip the bar, ensuring your grip is balanced from left to right.

3) Grip the bar as close to your head as possible. This will test your shoulder, elbow and wrist joint flexibility. The closer your hands are, the tighter your upper back will be, and the better the bar will sit on your back. Use a thumbless grip. You aren’t supporting the bar with your hands. You’re holding the bar DOWN against your back. Your wrist should NOT bend in either direction. It should be a straight line from your forearm across the wrist onto your hand.

4) Place the bar on your back across the rear delts (low bar position), not your traps. Elevate your elbows as high behind you as possible while keeping your chest upright. You should feel some stretch in the pectorals.

Squat Bar Position

5) Inhale as deeply as possible, ensure your back is tight, bend down a bit and squat the bar out of the rack. Do NOT LEAN FORWARD and perform a good morning to get the bar out of the rack. You will lose tightness this way and expose yourself to injury.

6) Stand fully upright with the bar across your rear delts, and clear the bar from the rack in 3 steps:

  • Take 1 step backward with one foot to clear the rack
  • Take 1 step backward with the other (trail) foot so that your feet are even
  • Take 1 step sideways with the trail foot so that you get your heels to proper stance width.

Do NOT perform a “backward walk” with the bar. No more than 3 steps are necessary, total. Squats are difficult enough as it is, no need to tire yourself needlessly prior to exercise execution with needless steps.

7) Make necessary adjustments so that stance width is proper; heels at shoulder width, feet pointed in a “neutral” manner, “neutral” because as you widen your stance, your toes need to point outward in order to maintain proper patellar alignment with the thigh bones. When your heels are at approximately shoulder width, your toes will need to be pointed 30 degress outward.

8) Keep your chest high and the bar balanced above the midfoot. Take a deep breath, hold it, and squat down all the way. Do not look up, do not look down, do not look side to side. Keep your eyes focused on a point that is 6 to 10 feet in front of you on the floor, or if you have a wall close enough, focus on a point a few feet above the floor along the wall.

9) 4 basics of execution:

  • Sit back (stick your butt out!)
  • Squat down (bending/flexing the knees)
  • Keep your chest and shoulders upright while your upper body leans forward slightly to keep the bar above the midfoot
  • Don’t relax your quads and simply drop into the bottom position, keep your thigh muscles tight throughout the motion

Squat bar over midfoot

10) Once you have squatted down all the way down, ALL THE WAY, without pausing or bouncing, stand back up.

11) As you raise up, you will be doing 4 basic things almost simultaneously:

  • You will be pushing your butt upward
  • You will be pushing your shoulders upward
  • You will be extending your knees
  • You will be forcefully contracting your upper and lower back muscles isometrically to maintain tightness in your torso

Do not begin to exhale (blow out) until you are near to completion of the repetition. This will cause you to lose tightness.

Question – What kind of squat should I do? ATG? Olympic? Front? What stance should I use?

The athletic squat is a back squat performed with the feet at a width that is generally just slightly wider than the shoulders. The feet are angled out in line with the knees. This foot positioning will be the one with the most carryover to the majority of athletic endeavors, and does the best job at ensuring full thigh development, both in the front of the thigh (the quadriceps) and the rear of the thigh (the hamstrings and glutes). The athletic squat is a basic, medium-stance squat.

  • It tends to do the best job of developing the entire thigh (quad, hammie and the “little thigh muscles”) evenly and in proportion. Front and Olympic squats tend to be a bit quad-dominant, powerlifting and especially box squats tend to be more ham/glute-dominant
  • The medium-stance “athletic” squat has the most natural carryover to athletics and sports. Rarely will you purposely use a stance that is extremely wide or close while playing any type of sport.
  • The medium-stance “athletic” squat will give you the most “bang for your buck” as far as overall strength development. You might be able to lift more with a powerlifting style stance, but that is due to physics, not additional muscle involvement (in fact, one could say it involves a reduction in muscular involvement)

The Olympic squat is a back squat where the foot positioning is closer than shoulder width and the toes typically point nearly straight forward. These tend to be more quadriceps-dominant, and are very useful for Olympic lifters (hence the name). This is an excellent exercise as well, but shouldn’t be used used until the trainee advances further and chooses to specialize in Olympic lifting or physique competition.

The powerlifting squat refers to the extremely wide “sumo” stance that powerlifters favor while performing the squat. It generally allows them to use more weight, but this is due to mechanical advantage rather than even, overall muscular stimulation of the thighs.

The box squat is a phenominal exercise for an aspiring powerlifter. Details of this exercise and its execution are outside the scope of this write up. They are outstanding, but not appropriate for the purposes of the general lifter.

The ATG squat (ATG = ass to grass/ground) makes reference to ANY of the above squat variations whereby the trainee lowers his body as low as he possibly can. This can be both advantageous or dangerous, depending upon the individual. Generally, hamstring flexibility will limit the absolute depth because, in the lowest portion (the “hole”) of the squat, the hamstrings get stretched hard, and will pull the hips under the body, which can cause severe strain to the lumbar area. That being said, you should ALWAYS go as low as you can without causing that hip rounding to take place, because this will stimulate the best overall gains.

“ATG” is a term that will be different for each person due to hamstring flexibility and structure, as well as overall musculature. Endeavor to stretch your hamstrings frequently to avoid lower back injury, and to allow for the most complete ROM (range of motion). Also note that some people say they do “ATG squats”, when in reality, they barely hit parallel. The opposite end of the spectrum are those that go incredibly deep as an excuse for using very light weight.

The front squat is an outstanding variation of the squat, except that it is performed with the barbell resting across the FRONT of the shoulders, in front of the neck. It is a variation which will maximally stress the quadriceps, but can be very difficult to perform from a mechanical perspective.

Question – Do I really need to squat if my legs are already big?

If you want to be as large as you possibly can, all over, then yes, you need to squat, even if you already have big legs.

Question – What about the leg press?

The leg press is an excellent tool for an intermediate or advanced physique athlete to use for quad and/or glute and/or hamstring development. However, it has NO place in the routine of a novice trainee.

Question – Are deep squats bad for the knees?

Deep, controlled squats not only are NOT bad for the knees. They are, in fact, good for the knees. Properly performed, they evenly and proportionately strengthen all muscles which stabilize and control the knee. When the hips are lowered in a controlled fashion below the level of the top of the patella, full hip flexion has occured, and this will activate the hamstrings and glutes. In doing so, the hamstrings are stretched at the bottom of the motion and they pull the tibia backwards which counteracts the forward-pulling force the quadriceps apply during the motion. As a result, the stress on the knee tendons is lessened since the hamstrings assist the patellar tendon in stabilization of the knee. A muscle supporting a tendon which supports the kneecap is going to be better than the tendon having to take up the entirety of the strain by itself.

Think about Olympic lifters. They squat VERY deep all the time, frequently 5 or 6 times weekly, with very heavy weight. If deep squats were so bad for their knees, they wouldn’t be able to squat that deep, that often, and that heavy.

Question – Can I use a back pad while squatting?

No. Don’t be a pussy.

If your back hurts excessively while squatting, then chances are good you aren’t flexing your upper back muscles sufficiently to “pad” your skeleton. When you grip the bar, you must keep your hands in toward the body as closely as possible while gripping the bar BEFORE you unrack the bar and start squatting.

In other words, get under the bar, bring your hands in as closely as possible along the bar, grip the bar with a thumbless grip, lift your elbows back and up, and step under the weight. By keeping your hands close and your elbows back and up, the muscles of your entire shoulder girdle, as well as your trapezius muscles, will all “bunch/hunch up”, which will provide significant padding for the bar. Ensure the bar is kept in the “low bar position” at the lower-rear portion of your traps and rear deltoids, and you should be fine.

The main problem with the pad, in addition to making you look like a pussy, is that it tends to throw the center of gravity off. For an experienced trainee, this won’t be a problem, they can compensate. For a novice trainee, this can be VERY detrimental to proper technique and balance development inherent in the learning process of the squat. So, all joking aside, the pad might help your upper shoulders feel better while squatting, but once you get to heavy weight, that little pad won’t do jack squat, except for throw off your technique.

Question – Should I use a block under my heels while squatting?

No, for a variety of reasons. When you raise the heel substantially during a squat, you shift the weight of your body forward, and as a result, your knees can end up taking a disproportionate share of the load.

Experienced physique athletes sometimes do this so they can get better development in their quads, although they generally will not perform squats this way for long. The average joe does this because they lack the flexibility in their hamstrings to perform a squat to depth without rounding their lower back, and by keeping their heels on a block, they are able to reduce the stretch in their hamstrings.

Here’s a little test for you…if you have lower back pain when you try to do deep squats wearing a flat soled shoe (i.e. Chuck Taylor’s or wrestling shoes), and you DON’T suffer this same lower back pain when you wear work boots (with a heavy heel) or you squat with your heels up on a block, then guess what? Your hamstrings are too tight. Don’t use a block. Stretch your hamstrings instead. Your knees will thank you in the end. By using a block, you merely mask the symptoms without treating the cause.

Question – Should I be leaning forward a little bit during the squat, or do I try to stand straight up and down?

Some amount of forward lean is natural, and in fact, is necessary. It is impossible, with a free weight barbell, to keep your upper body at a 90 degree angle to the floor. You cannot maintain any form of balance this way and if you try, you will fall onto your rump.

The bar, as it rests on your back, must remain above the midfoot area throughout the range of motion. It is common for a new trainee to lean back too far or, more commonly, lean forward too far. However, some amount of forward lean IS NECESSARY in order to keep the bar over your midfoot. The lower on your back you hold the bar, the more forward lean will be necessary.

The problem is that people have a tendency to lean so far forward that their heels come off the ground, or they end up putting far too much stress on the glutes and lower back and their squat turns into an impromptu good morning. Keep the bar tracking above the midfoot area, and you will be fine, as long as you don’t round your back.

Your lower back is rounding because your hamstrings are inflexible and your lumbar spine is weak. Maybe only one is true, but for most new trainees, both are true. Your heels came off the ground because you allowed the weight to pull you forward. Again, weak spinal erectors and tight hamstrings are the most frequent culprits.

Sometimes, you simply lose your balance. Until you can correct these issues, don’t add weight to the bar. Stretch your hamstrings.

Question – Should my knees stay in, or should I push them outward as I squat down?

Most people will need to think about forcing their knees to stay outward during the up and down motion of the squat. It almost feels unnatural for the novice trainee to keep his knees tracking along the proper groove when the motion is very new. Your knees, technically, should track at the same angle that your toes do.

Question – I did squats for the first time and my legs are insanely sore, I can’t even walk normally now, what should I do?

Go home and tell your Mom that you’re a man now.

Question – How come my glutes get sore, but my thighs don’t when I squat?

This effect is relatively common, and it can generally be attributed to one of a variety of things.

  • Weak glutes
  • Too much forward lean (inflexible hamstrings and/or a weak lower back are frequently the culprit here)
  • A stance that is too wide
  • Physical structure that simply is not conducive to squatting

Far too many people jump immediately to #4 and decide that they aren’t “built for squatting”. This is a convenient excuse which makes them feel better about the fact that they are, in reality, just cowards afraid to squat.

Stretch your hamstrings, close your stance a bit (just outside of shoulder width or slightly closer) and work them squats!

The video below demonstrates pretty decent squat form, but, as always, I have comments:

1) Don’t squat on a free standing racks – they can tip over

2) Squat in flat soled shoes, like wrestling shoes, not running shoes or shoes with a thick heel. A think, soft heal is less stable and changes the angle of your leg. Even a tiny change in the angle can cause a big difference in form. Better to squat bare foot than in running shoes!

3) When they show the first guy from the front, you can see the bar is riding high, up on his traps. Set the bar lower, on your rear delts, life the picture up at the beginning of this page. The second guy has the bar set much better.


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