The squat, along with the deadlift, is one of the two most important lifts for developing your strength. The squat works many lower body muscles. Primarily it works your your quads and glutes. But it also works your hamstrings, hips, lower back, and even your abs. Although it mostly works your lower body, you’ll see total body improvements once you start squatting. Since squats work the largest muscles in your body, they trigger the release of testosterone & growth hormones that help muscle growth in your upper body as well. Ladies, this doesn’t mean you’ll get overly muscular because your body won’t produce as much as a man’s will.
Before starting heavy barbell squats, make sure you have perfect form and range of motion while doing bodyweight squats. This helps you improve faster once you start adding weight. Before you start with the barbell squat, make sure you can do 5 sets of 10 bodyweight squats with perfect form and full range of motion.
If you don’t yet have the mobility to perform a bodyweight squat correctly, spend a couple weeks working on that first. The best way to improve your mobility for squatting is spending time in the bottom of the squat position. If you lose your balance in the bottom of the squat, grab onto something to help keep your balance. I recommend holding onto a table or door frame. If you go with the table, just make sure it’s heavy enough.
Once you can keep your balance in the bottom of the squat, you’re ready to start working on your mobility while squatting. Pushing your knees out with your elbows and pulling your hips back will improve your hip flexor and hamstring flexibility. These are important parts of good form while squatting. Spend some time sitting in the bottom of your squat and working on your mobility while you’re down there.
Once you’re comfortable sitting in the bottom of the squat position and you have enough strength to perform 5 sets of 10 bodyweight squats, it’s time to add some weight.
- Set up the rack so the bar aligns with the bottom of your sternum.
- Safety bars should be just below the level of the bar when you’re at the bottom of your squat. Squat with only the bar to make sure they are in the correct position.
- Grab bar slightly outside shoulder width apart with your thumbs on top of the bar.
- Pinch shoulder blades together, step under the bar, and place the bar on your back so that your shoulders are pulled tight. The bar should rest on your back, not the tops of your shoulders. It should be below the tops of your shoulders.
- Lift the bar off the rack and take one step back with each foot.
- Place your feet shoulder width apart with your toes pointing straight ahead and even with each other.
- Keep your neck in a neutral position by looking at the ground a few feet in front of you.
- Start the motion with a slight hip hinge by moving your butt backwards without sticking it out before letting your hips go down.
- As your hips go down, your shoulders will go from being perpendicular to the ground to close to a 45 degree angle.
- Go all the way down until your hips are below your knees.
- Your knees should always be over your feet.
- If your knees have a tendency to point inwards, focus on pushing them out as you descend.
- Your weight should stay on your heels for the entire movement.
- As you hit the bottom of your squat explode up by bringing your hips forward while raising your shoulders back to their upright position. Make sure your hips don’t rise without your shoulders and vice versa.
- After you finish all of your reps, step forward until both sides of the bar hit the cage. (Make sure your set the rack low enough to start. So that you are easily above it when standing straight up.)
- Then set the bar back into the rack.
Common Squat Mistakes
The butt wink is when your tailbone tucks underneath your body during your squat. This is common at the bottom of the squat when you lack the flexibility in your hamstrings. If it happens too early in your squat, it can be dangerous because of the pressure it puts on your spine. The best way to remove the butt wink is by sitting at the bottom of a bodyweight squat and pulling your tailbone back so that it it is back in line with the rest of your back. Using your elbows to push against your knees will really help you to stay in the right position. Once you are able to stay in the correct position without any weight, then you just need to focus on that part of your squat when using a barbell.
When your hips rise during your squat, it means you aren’t bringing your shoulders up at the same time you are bringing your hips forward. This happens more often once you start using heavier weights. If you aren’t able to lift the weight without compromising your form, go back to a lower weight and focus on your form until you’re ready to try the heavier weight again.
I can’t count how many times high school coaches told me to look up while squatting. This is horrible advice because it puts your neck in a compromising position. You want your neck to remain neutral, so that your spine can stay in a straight, braced position. The reason so many people recommend looking up is to keep your hips from rising. The cue does help you to bring your shoulders up at the same time as your hips, but it isn’t worth the injury risk. A much better cue is to focus on pushing your shoulders up. This lets you keep your neck in a safe spot.
Weight on the Balls of Your Feet
Often, when people first start squatting they are tempted to keep their weight on the balls of their feet. There are two reasons you want to keep your weight on your heels. The first reason is to place less strain on your knees. When you put the weight on the balls of your feet, you lean forward more and put extra strain on your knees. You always want to minimize the stress on our joints. The second reason is that keeping your weight on your heels lets you activate those big butt muscles (glutes) that we want to target. You will be able to squat more weight, while putting less strain on your joints. That’s a win-win.
One of the most difficult parts of the squat is keeping your spine in a neutral position. People hear over and over that they shouldn’t round their back, which often leads to them arching their back instead. The goal is to keep the back straight throughout the movement. If you are overarching your back, you will put unnecessary stress on your spine, specifically your lower back. To avoid arching your back, focus on pushing your butt back as you start your squat instead of sticking your butt out. If you have trouble with arching your back, practice the hip hinge in a mirror to make sure you’re doing it correctly.
Knees Pointing Inward
One of the more dangerous mistakes when squatting is allowing your knees to collapse inward. Your knees should track straight over your toes, but it is much safer for them to be outside your toes than inside. If your knees have a tendency to point in as you descend, focus on pushing them out. You can also sit in the bottom of your no weight squat and push your knees out with your elbows to make sure you have enough flexibility to get your knees in the correct position. Because of the risk of ACL tears, this is a mistake that should be corrected at lower weights before moving on to heavier weights.
Your knees may also be pointing inward because your feet are too far apart. Keep them shoulder width apart so your feet, knees and hips can stay in a straight line.