Fitness Friday: How to do the squat

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In terms of overall mobility, athleticism and strength, there may be no more essential move than the squat. This goes for everyone: the professional athlete, the novice lifter and your grandmother. You can tell a lot about a person’s future health by how well they can drop into a deep squat and pop back up.

If you can, chances are good that you will be able to move well as you age. If you can’t, it’s something you need to remedy before you lose your ability to run, climb stairs or even walk.

So yes, it’s that important.

In terms of fitness, the squat is fundamental. Anyone looking to build lower body (and really, full-body) strength needs to program squats into their routines.

Squats come in many forms. The bodyweight squat, or “air squat,” is done without any weights involved. Other basic forms include the back squat (where a loaded bar is placed atop your shoulders and behind your head) and the front squat (where a loaded bar is held just above collarbone level in front of the head). There are others (dumbbell squats, Zercher squats and more), but what I want to focus on is the most used weight training variation, the back squat.

This form is the most basic and has the capability to offer the highest potential for moving a lot of weight. That’s why it’s a staple for lifters and athletes worldwide. But just like last week’s post on deadlifts, the squat requires good technique to be effective and safe. So, let’s go over it.

What you’re aiming for: The idea is to be standing with the weight on your back, lower yourself down to where the crease in your hips is at or below parallel to the top of your thighs, and then to stand back up (I’ll go a little more into squat depth toward the end of this post). Your thighs, glutes and back will all get worked hard doing a loaded squat.

Foot placement: It’s going to vary for most people, but generally speaking, your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, with your toes angled out slightly. The reason for the toe angle is simple: You need your knees to remain stable throughout the lift (not caving inward), and you need space for your belly to go as you get into the deepest part of the squat. Some people choose a wider stance, which will mean toes will be pointed out more. The downside to a wider stance is a decrease in hip mobility. But find a stance that works for you and go with it.

Setup: As you’re approaching the bar in the rack, get under it with both feet squared up. The bar should be loaded at a point on the rack where you can unrack it by standing underneath it without having to rise on your toes. If you have to go up on your toes, the bar needs to be racked a level down. Grab the bar tight, with your hands past shoulder width. Now squeeze down on your armpits. This will engage your back muscles and have you ready to receive the full weight of the bar. Now that you’re ready, stand up to lift the bar off the rack, take a step back with each foot and assume your proper stance. Take in a good breath and hold it, letting your midsection expand to brace your core. Now you’re ready to lift.

Descent: From here, you will unlock your hips, sit back slightly and break at the knees while lowering yourself and the weight down. Your back will not be vertical, but rather, it will be angled forward. Do not lean too far forward, however, as this will act to fold you in half and put too much strain on your lower back. Descend under control until you reach proper depth, being careful to hold that breath in and not let it out – you definitely want your core braced to protect the spine. Keep your head in a neutral position, not looking too far down or craning your head up.

Not bad, but in this pic, I’m craning my head up too much.

Ascent: Keeping your breath in and core braced, drive upward, with your weight centered over the middle of your foot (if you drive too far back on your heels, you risk pitching backward and possibly losing control of the weight; too much toward your toes and you’ll pitch forward and fold yourself in half). Concentrate on powering your lower back up as you straighten your hips and knees. This will help you mentally engage/connect with all the muscles needed to lift the weight. It’s important to remember that you are executing the lift by powering through your hips, and not trying to lift solely with your legs. Once standing straight up, exhale a bit, take another good breath and repeat.

A FEW TIPS

I mentioned not letting your knees cave inward during the lift. This is called valgus and it’s no bueno. You fix this in a few ways. First, make sure those toes are angled out. Second, as you lift, try to think about driving your knees out as the weight comes up. And last, if your knees are caving inward it may mean you’ve got too much weight on the bar for your ability at this time.

I also mentioned body lean. This is going to differ based on your physique. People with shorter legs and a longer torso will not have that much forward body lean, and their back angle aspect will be more vertical than average. Conversely, people with shorter torsos and longer legs will have greater body lean and a more horizontal back angle aspect. You can guess which body type has an easier time with this lift!

LET’S TALK SQUAT DEPTH

This one is critical, because you want to get the most out of the lift as possible. But you also don’t want to push depth to the point where you get injured. So let’s discuss it.

As I said earlier, the goal is to drop down to where the crease of your hips is at or below parallel. This puts your hips and knees into a full range of motion, which is ideal for building the maximum amount of muscle, strength and mobility.

Some people go further. They call it “ass to grass,” or ATG, which has your butt hovering just inches above the floor at the lowest part of the lift. If you can do this and not get hurt, more power to ya. But most people can’t, and for various reasons.

Hip mobility, or a lack of it, is one hindrance to squat depth. And something that surprised me, so is ankle mobility. If you have issues in these areas, the ATG squat probably isn’t gonna happen, and hitting/breaking parallel might be a challenge.

If this is you, your goal is to reach the maximum depth possible, and even for people with these compromises, that’s going to be at or extremely near parallel. Do the best you can without breaking form or causing a lower back injury. But also, if you ever plan to compete in a powerlifting meet, you’ll be required to break parallel.

For the rest of you (like, 95% of all exercisers), here’s this admonition: Every time you squat, you should be squatting deep. Afraid it will hurt your knees? Stopping short of a full squat is actually worse. And if you’re piling on weight and throwing out “squats” that are a half-rep or a quarter rep, swallow your pride, peel off some weight and do it right. Trust me, we admire the person getting quality reps with 135 pounds. The dude half-squatting 350? Or 400? We think that guy’s a joke. Nobody believes your half squat at 405 is a legit PR because it’s not even a legit squat. You’re just cheating yourself if you half-ass this exercise.

Wrapping it up, if you have the ability to do barbell squats, you definitely should. Build your strength, athleticism and mobility by programming this lift into your workouts a couple times a week. As a bonus, you’ll never be accused of skipping leg day.

Here’s a video with more great advice on doing the squat…

Next time: Let’s talk bench press.

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