Updated: Apr 22, 2020
‘If you ain’t squatting you ain’t training’
While it may seem like an extreme phrase, the squat is considered to be the king of all barbell exercises and I’m inclined to agree. I would argue that if you are not squatting, you haven’t reached your true athletic potential whether your sport is moving iron or moving your own body.
The squat not only builds and develops leg strength and muscle mass, but due to the full body demand of the movement you will develop core strength that no amount of sit-ups can build and even improve mobility and more important stability.
On top of building slabs of muscle on the body and a core of steel, I briefly mentioned that squatting can improve mobility, however this doesn’t mean you can skip your warm-up. You will still need to prep the body through unloaded movements, but that mobility means nothing if you don’t reinforce it with some full ROM loaded movements such as goblet squats. This will help build strength and stability through the ankles, hips and thoracic spine (upper back).
As also mentioned the squat is great for building muscle and strength not only due to its full body nature but also due to the body’s hormonal response to the movement. As so many muscle groups are utilised this can lead to larger production of testosterone as well as growth hormone which creates a great anabolic, muscle building environment in the body. Heavy squatting will increase blood flow to the muscles bringing more of these anabolic hormones to the muscle receptors and also:
- Increase protein production
- Increase the use of stored fat for energy
There is a lot to be said on the benefits of squats helping you achieve a lean body as well as building strength.
Before You Start
So now we know how important the squat is for strength and athletic performance we can now look at how to squat, variations and some common faults/correctives.
However before we can squat it is worth mastering a few basic principles to ‘earn’ your right to squat safely before even attempting to get under the bar.
Neutral Posture – This affects everything you do in life especially when trying to move external loads correctly and transfer external forces around the body. Unfortunately in today’s age of tablets and prolonged sitting, most of us don’t know what a neutral posture is. You should know how to adopt this before moving anything remotely heavy as this will ensure that the spine is loaded safely with all the supporting structures doing their job.
Bracing – The importance of correct breathing techniques seems to be gaining momentum in mainstream fitness. While outside the scope of this article, learning how to breathe diaphragmatically instead of using our emergency accessory muscles will not only help with abdominal bracing and therefore keep you rigid in the bottom of a squat, it will also help to reinforce good posture.
Hip Hinge – Finally, a crucial aspect of the squat is known as the hip hinge which is how squats are initiated, so it makes sense to be proficient at this pattern. While it may seem a simple movement ‘you just push your butt back…..right?’ Many people mistake the hip hinge for some kind of twerking exercise and end up over-extending through their lumbar spine (lower back) which just won’t help the situation.
There are a few great ways to learn how to hip hinge, one of the first steps is combining neutral posture with the hip hinge which is where the good old pvc pipe comes in handy.
Can We Squat Yet?
Once you have mastered these principles then we can look at whether you can squat. While I would love to just throw each and every one of you under a bar, it simply doesn't work like that. People’s anatomy is unique to them and some people may not be destined to squat just yet. For those that are ready it is worth going through some progressions first to build and efficient and safe movement pattern. I use this process with all my clients to build them up to squatting with a bar, some may take a session or two, and some may take a couple of months. The key is to only advance once you have mastered the movement with correct and safe technique.
Wall Squat – Are great for teaching the hip hinge movement of the squat but stop people from turning it into some sort of good morning exercise so reinforces postural alignment (see I wasn't making it up). Move closer to the wall as you progress.
Goblet Box Squats – Goblet squats a great teaching tool for the squats but also a good warm-up/activation exercise well into your training career. Having the weight out to the front acts as a counter balance, forces you to engage the core and allows for a more vertical torso which in most cases will allow for better depth. The use of the box will just reinforce the hip hinge or ‘sitting back’ pattern. Decrease the height of the box as you progress, ensuring your spine stays in neutral and you avoid the ‘butt wink’ or flexing of the lower back (more on that later).
Goblet Squat – Once the box goblet squat has been mastered then we can remove the box and continue with a regular goblet squat. Focus on sitting in between your hips and keeping a vertical torso.
Front Squat – Now we get to finally get our hands on a barbell! Like the goblet squat the front squat allows for a more vertical torso, better core recruitment and heavier loading. However there still may be some mobility restrictions so using two DBs/KBs in a front rack position is a good alternative at this time.
Box Squat – Now we have become proficient in the hip hinge, sitting back and maintaining abdominal bracing, it’s time to get that bar on the back! We’ll talk about positioning later but for now just note that the trusty box will be utilised one last time before we move onto the full squat itself. However Box squats can be a useful staple at any point in a training cycle, especially if your squats are more quad dominant.
Now Can We Squat?
Hmmm, I suppose. Only joking! Now what was detailed above might seem like overkill and may even seem like you have to spend an eternity squatting to a box, however it is my job to ensure that you move in the most safe and efficient manner. Will everyone need to go through all the steps above? No. That’s the trainers/athletes decision to make. Will it take an eternity to get through the list of progressions? Not necessarily. I have had athletes learn abdominal bracing, hip hinges, wall squat and goblet squats in a 1 hour session with them ready to squat within a matter of days. I’ve also had some athletes come to me with poor posture, poor mobility and no clue how to squat, so it would be irresponsible to chuck a bar on their back and scream ‘shut up and squat!’ Some people aren’t even designed to squat at all, but that’s another post entirely. Anyway I digress, now that you have earned the right to squat let’s talk about how we actually do this movement I’ve been raving about.
Tension on the bar – We want to build up some upper back, lat and shoulder tension BEFORE getting underneath the bar. Having a well organised upper back will help pull the chest up which in turn will help maintain the lumbar curve (lower back). We achieve this by grabbing the bar with as narrow grip as possible (flexibility permitting) and ‘bend’ the bar in half. This should engage the required area.
Setup under the bar – Keeping tension we built up in step 1, get underneath the bar and set it on top of the shoulders (high bar). Pull the elbows down towards the floor and in towards the centre of the body, this again will help set the lats. Angle of the torso will mimic the angle of your arms, so keep them pointing as close to ground as flexibility will allow. Finally set the feet into the correct squat stance, ideally shoulder width apart.
Un-rack the bar – Once we are setup underneath the bar we must then remove it from the rack by extending the legs and taking as few steps back as possible (think 1-2). Adjust feet as needed, toes pointing out slightly.
Re-tension – Check elbows, lift up the chest and pull the bar into the back to keep lats engaged.
Big Breath – Once tension on the bar has been sufficiently built and the position has been set, take in a big breath and hold. Think about pushing your belly out as if to brace for a punch to the stomach.
Hip Hinge – To initiate the squat, hips need to hinge back to set the lumbar curve and transfer weight onto the heels. Think pushing the butt back and keeping it back throughout the movement.
Knees Out - Drive the knees outwards to begin the descent phase of the squat, ideally keeping them over the toes. This transfers load to the hips and strengthens the posterior chain.
Depth – The depth of the squat should ideally be below parallel flexibility permitting. Squeeze your butt at the bottom to get out of the hole whilst still forcing your knees out. Again we want to ensure our chest is up and upper back is tight throughout.
Finish the Movement – Driving through the heels keeping the knees out we want to ensure our hips and shoulders move up at the same time. Squeeze the butt once more at the top of the movement to fully extend the hips and complete the squat.
Sounds simple right? Well unfortunately there are some weird and wonderful squats out there so I thought I’d go through a few common mistakes and how to fix them.
The Butt Wink - The lower back must maintain a natural arch to avoid putting excess stress through the lumbar spine. A common fault is as someone gets to the bottom of their squat, their lower back tucks under. This causes loss of that natural curve and flexion of the lower back, which is also known as the 'butt wink'.
In most cases this is due to pelvic alignment and muscle imbalances through the hip flexors and the core musculature. More specifically the hips are tight or 'stiff' and the core is not as tight or 'stiff'. That means once you have found the limit of your hip mobility (hip flexion) the only way to achieve more depth is to allow your trunk to lean forward and cause lumbar flexion.
To address this issue you need to mobilise the hips and create more tension in the core. Foam rolling and dynamic mobility for the hips should be your daily routine if you want to squat 'ass to grass' safely.
Working on anti-flexion exercises for the core to increase 'stiffness' will also help alleviate the butt wink.
In the meantime, decrease the ROM of your squat to ensure longevity of the spine. Squatting to a box would be the best solution while working on the above.
Heels Coming Off the Ground - As mentioned before the weight should sit around the mid foot to the heel, with the whole foot in contact with the ground at all times. Some people tend to shift the weight into the balls of the feet resulting in the heels coming off the ground. This will put more undue stress on the knee joint but also limit posterior chain activation, hindering progress.
For most the fix should be as simple as focusing on sitting back as you squat. Go back and become a ninja at the wall squats and box squats to drill the movement. As a visual cue, try and keep the shins as vertical as possible.
If this doesn't solve the problem it may be worth looking at strength work for the posterior chain. RDL's and Good Mornings would be a good place to start.
Knees Collapsing Inwards (knee valgus) - When squatting our knees should track over the foot and be stacked on top of the ankle. If the knees collapse in this could potentially lead to joint issues down the line. There are of course some lifters who have whats known as knee valgus (knees collapsing in) and are fine. However for the everyday athlete, keeping the knees over the feet will serve you better in the long run.
Even if you are consciously pushing your knees out and they are still caving in, then address a few issues:
- Mobilise your adductors (inside of thigh) using a foam roller and dynamic stretching such as below.
- Activate glutes during your warm-ups
- Build glute strength in your training session
Chest Dropping Forward - We already talked about the importance of maintaining the natural curve in our lower back to protect the spine. Keeping your chest up will also contribute to maintaining this position. While I say chest up that doesn't mean you have to be completely upright. Depending on the length of your limbs and torso as well as pelvic alignment will dictate to an extent how much forward lean you will experience. Not to mention the type of squat being performed. Not everyone will look the same.
However just like the knees collapsing in, if you are putting in all the effort in the world to keep the chest up but are still collapsing forward, try these fixes.
- Setup: If you setup under the bar with the chest dropped then it will be impossible to recover during the movement itself. Get under the bar and pull your elbows down and drive the chest up. Then take the bar out of the rack.
- Move your hands closer to the shoulders. This will allow you to utilise the downward movement of the elbows more which helps utilise the lats to drive the chest up.
- Work on upper back strength and thoracic mobility. Foam roller on the lats and thoracic spine as well as the pecs may help you drive the chest up more. Building upper back strength through rows and pull-ups will also contribute to keeping the chest up.
- Address core 'stiffness' as mentioned earlier.
- Play around with bar position on your back. Some may find a high bar position will allow you to stay more upright while you address core or back strength issues.
The key thing to remember is if you are experiencing pain or discomfort, stop! What you are doing is either wrong or an imbalance/asymmetry needs addressing. Don't ignore it, regress the movement to a pain free version and work on the problem. You have plenty of options above to explore.
A Word on Squat Depth
Ideally everyone should be squatting below parallel as this is where you will get the most muscle recruitment from the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) however as mentioned earlier not everyone is designed to squat below parallel or squat at all. Go through the following steps to help solve squat depth issues.
Hold a plank for as long as you can with good form and note which muscle you feel working the most. If it’s your lower back then your core musculature isn't firing correctly and needs to be trained to work reflexively.
Possible Solution: Dead Bugs, Birddogs and my favourite the Bear Crawl will enable you to activate the core. Alongside this, work on your breathing and bracing techniques mentioned earlier.
Put an empty bar on your back and perform some squats noting how low you can get. Place a 2.5kg plate under each heel so that the balls of the feet are still in contact with the floor and repeat the test. If you can get lower, then your calves or ankles may need some work
Possible Solution: Foam rolling for calves and dynamic ankle mobility
Deep Squat Test
Using a fixed upright grab onto it at around waist height. Perform a squat and aim to get as low as you can. If you passed the plate test and your calves and ankles are fine then you should get below parallel without issues. However if you can’t or struggle to get out of the bottom once down there then your hip flexors may need some work
Possible Solution: Hip Flexor stretches as well as activation work through lunges and split squats.
These are just a few ways to troubleshoot squat depth the list is by no means exhaustive. Core stability can have an impact on a lot of movement restrictions hence why it is top of the list. A lot of people have the mobility required but because the body feels it is in a weak position (lack of stability) it shuts the movement down. All the rolling and stretching in the world won’t help, work on strengthening the weak areas such as the core and upper back.
When you have become proficient at squatting it is worth noting that you may end up reaching a point where you no longer feel you are getting any stronger with the movement. Depending on your training experience and/or programming this may not happen for while or it may happen relatively quickly. Changing the stimulus of the movement should be your first port of call whether that be utilising pause reps, other resistances such as bands and chains or even playing around with reps schemes and rest periods.
However sometimes you may need to work on strength imbalances or assistance work to aid in getting your stronger at your squat. One of the best assistance exercises you can do for the squat is any single leg variation be it lunges, split squats or step-ups.
Lifting Shoes – Olympic weightlifting shoes are utilised by many for squatting and for good reason. As mentioned earlier, your ankles or calves could be restricting your squat depth, which for competitive weightlifting athletes isn’t going to cut it. The lifting shoe utilises a raised heel to allow for more ankle dorsi-flexion when squatting to allow more depth and stability in the bottom position. So while really useful especially for competitors, that’s it that’s all they do, they aren’t a magic shoe to fix your squat and nor should someone ignore the issues that are causing the need for ‘assistance’. You should still be able to squat to depth without the shoe and still feel stable without the shoe, if you don’t or can’t then fix it and use the shoe for those top end weights or in competition.
Belts – Exactly the same principle as the shoes they are really useful. They allow better use of intra-abdominal pressure to support movements such as squats and deadlifts and they also give you a physical cue to show you are bracing correctly. Again though we don’t want to rely on the belt, you should still be able to know how to brace without a physical cue and also be able to support sub-maximal weights without a belt. Utilise it on those really heavy training sets (85%+) or in a competition.
Knee Sleeves – Knee sleeves help keep the knee joints warm and lubricated which are great for training in really cold environment or if you’re squatting volume is particularly high. I personally wear sleeves myself and saw some great benefits in getting rid of my ‘creaky’ knees.