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.


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!


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.

Three reasons to avoid using the Smith machine

You’ve probably read somewhere that if you really want to get strong, you need to do squats.

You may also have wondered how you can do that difficult and taxing exercise with the highest degree of safety. And heading into your gym, you saw a couple of things: a standard free-weight squat rack and a different sort of setup that looks a lot like it — a Smith machine.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it's not.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it’s not.

Upon closer inspection, you notice that the bar is attached to the machine on vertical rails, and racking it is mostly a simple matter of a turn of the wrist. The weight won’t move around, and because of its fixed nature, you won’t be pitching forward, backward or to the sides, even if it’s heavily loaded.

Slide a bench in there, and you could say the same thing for a bench press or shoulder press inside the Smith.

And then you might be tempted to conclude that the Smith machine might be a safer way to get in a few of your bigger lifts.

And you couldn’t be more wrong.

Let me say from the outset that you are highly unlikely to have a disastrous weight-dropping failure doing exercises on the Smith. Conversely, many too-proud lifters have had their fair share of mishaps with a heavily loaded barbell on their back or hovering over their chest. Bench press accidents, on very rare occasions, have killed unlucky solo lifters.

And it’s for this reason that many smaller gyms or corporate fitness centers buy these things instead of settling on a decent squat rack or bench press. Aside from “safety,” they also can forgo the cost of buying a squat rack, bench press and incline bench for the price of a Smith and an adjustable bench, and save some space in the process.

I truly would like to eradicate this type of thinking from people who run gyms and fitness centers. I was dismayed that a company where I used to work included a Smith machine in its dramatic renovation of its fitness center. And at the gym in the building where I live, I’ve lobbied in vain to get managers there to clear out some room for a real squat rack.

Thankfully, I also have access to another gym that has the tools I prefer. But just so you know where I’m coming from, here are three reasons why you should forgo ever using a Smith machine:

The motion of the machine only works in a straight line, whereas you naturally squat and bench press in an arc. When squatting, your hips go back as you descend, the bar takes a slight sweep back following the hips, then does it again in reverse when you rise back up.

Similarly, a proper bench press starts with a descent to the lower pecs, then goes back up slightly toward your eyes to finish the lift. Most Smith machines are straight up and down, a very unnatural motion. Even angled Smith machines still stay on a track, limiting overall muscle recruitment.

Lifting on a Smith machine puts increased strain on your joints and back. When you’re doing a big lift like a squat, a whole slew of muscles get used: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, and many other, smaller muscles throughout the legs, hips and core. But because of the isolating nature of a Smith machine’s movements, many of those muscles just don’t fire. You lose hamstring tension, which in turn puts increased strain on your knees. And because the action of the Smith machine squat has you pushing against the bar rather than allowing the bar to move with you, hello lower back pressure. I can tell you first-hand how awful that feels.

The problem is less acute on the bench press, but it is there. The bench is hard on your shoulders; it’s even harder when performing the exercise on the Smith. And the one-track motion of the Smith machine makes it almost impossible to get the right arc on a good military press.

Finally, as I stated earlier, you’re just not working as many muscles on a Smith machine as you do on a free bar exercise. This is especially true with squats, where the muscle recruitment of the exercise is so complex. The whole purpose of doing these big lifts is to hit lots of muscles, not isolate them. The Smith machine leaves out key muscles, thus making a squat or bench on them an inferior lift.

So what it a Smith machine good for? Well, it’s just dandy for inverted rows, and when you rack the bar on its highest setting is a good place to do chin-ups in a pinch. But that’s about it.

So do yourself a favor. Avoid the Smith machine. Find a free weight squat rack or bench press and do that instead. And if your gym only has the Smith for these exercises, find another gym.

Bob Doucette

Strength training and fitness: A killer 45-minute leg workout

You can play around on the new-fangled machines, or get old school with barbells and dumbbells. If you want to get your legs stronger, you'll choose the latter.

You can play around on the new-fangled machines, or get old school with barbells and dumbbells. If you want to get your legs stronger, you’ll choose the latter.

I’ve written a few times about how important it is to train your legs. And by that, doing something more than walking, running or hiking. Strength training is key to building and maintaining muscular strength, mobility and bone density.

Strength training your legs also builds a great foundation for any athletic endeavor you want to pursue, be it skiing, hiking, running or a whole range of other sports and activities.

I like to focus on exercises that work multiple lower-body muscle groups at once. There are some exceptions, and there’s nothing wrong with using or adding isolating exercises so long as you balance that out pretty well (if you’re hitting your quads, for example, be sure to do a similar amount of work for your hamstrings).

Lately I’ve been doing a specific workout, with exercises you will be familiar with if you read this blog very much. This session will take about 45 minutes, and it will help you get some work done. In order, I do this:

Calf presses (seated leg press machine): 10 reps 220, 10 reps 265, 10 reps 315. (You could also do standing single-leg dumbbell calf raises or seated calf presses on a calf press machine). I start out with calves because the stretch at the bottom of the lift helps loosen up your Achilles tendon, which in turn will increase mobility and range of motion in your forthcoming lifts. Tip: Don’t bounce the weight; Pause at the bottom of the lift for a second or two, then do the press. Bouncing does nothing for you.

Dumbbell lunges: 8 reps 20s, 8 reps 25s, 8 reps 30s. Try not to have your forward leg’s knee go too far over your ankle, and when you’re standing back up, squeeze the hams and glutes on the back leg. Doing so will actually pull up upright instead of relying too much on the forward-facing leg’s quads doing all the work. Tip: Don’t lean in forward; keep your upper body upright. If you find yourself wobbly, use less weight.

Barbell squats: Now we’re in the thick of it. I don’t squat much — 8 reps 135, 7 reps 185, 4-5 reps 225. Grip the bar hard as you get under it, and flare your elbows forward slightly, tensing your shoulders and lats. “Packing” those muscles will help tighten your core, stabilize your spine and get ready for the work to come. As you drop down, you should bend at the knees AND at the hips, keeping you back straight (now bowed) as your rear drops down and back. Squat deep, at least past the point where the tops of your thighs go below parallel. If you can’t do that, use less weight. I used to squat with much heavier weight, but form was being sacrificed. So no more of that. It’s better to go lighter and do the exercise right that go heavier and do it wrong. Anyway, as you get to the bottom of the lift, drive your hips forward and stand back up. Tip: Some people look up; I say don’t do that. Keep your head in line with your spine (“neutral spine”) so your entire posterior chain, from top to bottom, is helping you with the lift. Anytime your head tilts back, you lose power from your glutes and hamstrings and your back takes over. That’s bad news. And NEVER bounce at the bottom of the lift unless you really want to tear something. Cheating never gets you anywhere.

I can’t stress how important form is on this exercise. Do it right, your strength will skyrocket. Do it wrong, you’ll get hurt. So learn proper form, use weight you can handle, and do it right before you start piling on all that weight. Ego won’t save your back.

Barbell deadlift: With this exercise, we’re in the heart of the workout. Again, I don’t go all that heavy; form matters here. I do 135×8, 195×7, 255×5. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in, and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.

Barbell Romanian deadlift: I do 135×8, 165×8, 195×8. Similar to standard deadlift, but instead of bending at the knees to pick it up, you will keep your legs nearly straight. The idea is to isolate the glutes and hamstrings. With a slight bend at the knees, hips back and a neutral spine (you should be looking at the floor when you start), begin the lift by squeezing your glutes and hams and thrusting your hips forward. Tip: Again, do not tilt your head back to look up; keep that neutral spine. At the top of the lift, your chest your be out, shoulders slightly back. You can use the same grip here as you did for conventional deadlifts. Then slowly lower the weight down, spine neutral, hips going back and allowing for a slight bend at the knee.

Goblet squats: This makes for a nice finisher. I use dumbbells, doing sets of 8 with 45, 55 and 65 pounds. Hold the dumbbell or kettlebell collarbone high with both hands, feet a little more than shoulder width apart, back straight. Squat down deep (rear to ankles, if possible), then stand back up. Your hips will not go as far back on this as they do on a back squat.

Keep in mind: Many of you won’t be able to do these exercises with as much weight as I currently use; conversely, there are a whole lot of you out there who can and should use way more weight than me. Scale these exercises to your abilities, and remember to NEVER sacrifice form.

Side note/disclosure: I have an earlier post with photos on a different leg workout; those photos show me doing deadlifts and squats with my head tilted back (not neutral spine). At that time I didn’t know any better. So don’t do that!

Try this workout and let me know what you think, or share your leg day workout plans in the comments. I’m always up to hear and learn something new!

Bob Doucette

Strength training royalty: A foundational list

I’ve been rather enjoying my running offseason. The runs are for fun and there’s less punishment going on. It’s also been interesting to see my muscles “fill up” again after months of training and races. All this, and still maintaining my weight in the mid-170s.

It got me to thinking about weight training, what’s important and those must-do things for people to have success. I’ve long said there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all method to fitness. Training should  be goal- and sport-specific. But when it comes to the weight room, I believe that there are foundational exercises that need to be part of what you do. I call them the four kings of strength training. Here’s how I see it:


Chest press: Whether this is a barbell bench press, an incline dumbbell press or another variant of these two (notice: I didn’t mention decline bench), this needs to be a part of what you do. It hits big and multiple muscle groups: the pecs, shoulders and triceps. You can build off all other “press” moves with this as your capstone.


Pull-up: Any bodybuilder worth their salt will tell you this is a must. So might your best climbers. You develop a broad, strong back doing bodyweight (and for the advanced, weighted) pull-ups. Like the chest press, this hammers big muscle groups: The lats, delts, biceps and even the traps. Variants include palms out, neutral grip and chin-ups (palms in), and they’re all great. Can’t do an unassisted pull-up? Try using bands for assisted reps, or do flexed-arm hangs, ending with a slow negative down. And you might also try reverse rows to help build you up to where you can do pull-ups on your own. And whatever you do, NO KIPPING.


Squat: On this list of strength training royalty, the squat is the king among kings. It is, quite simply, the best strength training exercise there is. Your entire body gets a benefit, but the prime targets include the quads, glutes and hamstrings. These muscles are the engines of athleticism: Ignore them at your peril. Bodyweight squats, dumbbell squats and barbell squats (there are many variations, all good) are something that need to be in your training toolbox when it comes to lower body workouts.


Deadlift: Probably the most basic of lifts, you’re just picking up a weight off the floor. And yet it is so crucial and beneficial. The standard barbell deadlift (grips on this vary widely) will work your quads, hams and glutes, but also are a major driver in back development. Variations of the deadlift, like the Romanian deadlift, tend to target the hams and glutes more. And they do it so well.

Cycling off of distance training has allowed me to appreciate lifting more, and I’ll take full advantage of it during the weeks to come. I believe that weight training is a key component to becoming a better athlete — even a better endurance athlete. And more to the point, I believe strongly that these four kings of the gym are the bedrock on which successful strength training is built.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088