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The REAL Way To Do Squats

The Real Way To Do Squats

It is very important to learn how to do squats.  Why?  Because squats are incredibly awesome, that’s why!  

Learning how to do squats will completely change your training program and workouts forever.  Squats will make you leaner, stronger, they will build more muscle mass and they will increase your flexibility & mobility.  

The squat is one of those exercises that you will hate when you are doing it.  But will love when you smoke your competition. 

The REAL way to do a squat is to learn how to stabilize your core while at the same time engaging your glutes and maintaining a neutral spine in one clean smooth motion.    

Squat Leg Muscles

But I have to come clean and be honest, I am a little bit disappointed with all of the content out there online about doing squats.  It is either clickbait junk, or it is just too vague and generalized for most people to comprehend. 

In this article, my goal is to provide you with the most clear and concise guide to doing squats without the fluff.  This means taking you on a journey from air squats all the way to the barbell squats.  

Let’s begin!

**Note** This is a very long post so feel free to skip around if need be. Use the table of contents below to find the section you are looking for. Enjoy!

Squatting Only Air — Building Your Base

Table of Contents

Let me ask you something, have you ever had to take calculus in either high school or college?  If you did then you probably couldn’t take the class until you took your basic math classes, algebra, precalculus, trigonometry, etc.  

After taking all of this, then you can finally take calculus and learn how to build a rocket ship to Mars.  The point is you NEED to master the basics.  

I have said this before and I will say it again, if you cannot squat your own bodyweight properly, then you have no business squatting with a barbell.

So the preliminary exercise is the air squat.  To progress from the air squat to the next stage, the transition, you need to be able to do 3 sets of 20 repetitions with PERFECT form.  

Air Squats
Air Squats Side View
The air squat viewed from the front (above) and from the side (bottom). Notice how my heels are flat on the ground and my spine is as straight as possible. If there is a logo on your shirt, then you should be able to see it in the mirror when doing these.

Air Squat Technique

Now the fun stuff!  Let’s get into the raw details.

Take In Some Air

Learn how to breathe first.  Stand up and take in a big breath of air into your lower abdomen.  

I can’t say this enough but this is probably one of the most important things you can do when learning how to do squats.  

When you take air into your belly, you want to  make sure your chest is not expanding and you are pushing the air down into the floor of your abdomen.  

This helps to keep you stable in the bottom position of the squat.  If you ever watch people squatting heavy weight and their glutes fail to engage (massive buttwink), then chances are they probably are not breathing correctly.  Which is causing them to lose stability in their hips.  

I go into much more detail in my breathing for stronger abs article.  Be sure to check it out!

Screw Your Feet In!

I want you to think of your legs as giant screwdrivers, they rotate at the hip and they screw into the ground.  

Now this doesn’t mean you are going to actually start digging holes in the ground with your foot.  Although that would be pretty cool if you could do that. 

No this is about creating torque.  

Whenever we lift heavy objects, our muscles are producing forces (via contraction) to do this objective.  But these forces are not linear, they are angular.  This means we are producing angular force, or torque.  

Torque is how our muscles produce the most force and it is how we are going to lift the most weight.  Unfortunately, it is a little tough to learn under a heavy barbell, so instead learn it under the air squat. 

I mentioned torque in my check your deadlift form article.  But I will go into some detail here because it is very important.   

Simply push your feet into the ground as hard as you can and try to rip the floor apart (outwardly) without your foot actually moving.  If you are doing this correctly, you will feel your glutes lighting up like crazy.  

Glute Muscles
The glutes are the KEY to a bigger and better squat. They are also the secret to better athletic performance. Make sure you train them!

You may not realize this, but the squat is primarily a hip (glute) dominant exercise.  If you don’t learn how to engage the glutes then you will NEVER be as strong as you possibly can.  You will also probably injure yourself at some point or another. 

Engage The Hips FIRST Knees Second

This is probably the subtlest of all movements but it is also the easiest to forget.  We want to attain maximal glute activation during the squat.  

To do this we are going to squeeze the glutes as hard as we can and then we are going to anteriorly tilt the pelvis.  

It is so simple but it is very tedious and you are probably going to forget it.  You need to make it a new habit.  

Practice doing this whole setup up to this point without actually squatting just to get the feel for it.  

Then once you get used to it, you can start the squat.  

The next step is to bend the knees AFTER you squeeze your glutes and anteriorly tilt the pelvis.   So many people do this first instead of second and they place a LOT of unnecessary stress on their knees.  

If the knees bend first, then what you get is a squat that is off centered.  Basically your entire body will shift forward over the midline of your foot.  This will place almost all of the weight on your knees and lower back.  Certainly NOT what you want.

When you anteriorly tilt the pelvis, you re-center yourself and you make sure that the barbell is going to stay over the midline of your foot.  

With the air squat, this is relatively easy to practice because you just have your bodyweight.  But DO NOT cheat the steps or you WILL regret it.  

Remember, you are not training the air squat for just itself.  You are using the air squat as a launching platform to kick ass under the barbell.  Treat every air squat like a maximum squat attempt.  

Drive Through The Heels AND Your Big Toe

This is a bit technical so stick with me.  

You see, when you are squatting there are two big muscle groups you want to primarily be using to lift more weight.  We already talked about the glutes, but the other is the vastus medialis.  

Teardrop Muscle
The teardrop muscle is the MOST important muscle of the quads for squatting more weight.

The vastus medialis is called the teardrop muscle and it plays a HUGE role in building a killer squat and nice legs.  

Pushing through the heels will activate the glutes, but pushing through the big toe will activate the vastus medialis.  I went into further detail about this in my hack squat vs. leg press article.  Be sure to give it a read.  

The ball underneath the big toe helps to accomplish this.  It activates the neural pathways that will fire up the vastus medialis.  

If you understand the grand scheme of this, it is secretly all about staying centered with your feet.  You push through the big toe and the heel at the same time to equally distribute force between the arch of your foot.  

Lead With Your Chest On The Way Up

When ascending out of the bottom, you want your hips and chest to rise at the same time.  When you eventually have a barbell on your back, that bar is going to be pushing you forward and down.  

You want your back to push up and back against the bar to counterbalance.  Otherwise the squat ends up looking like a good morning.  

This is easy to practice with the air squat, since you have no weight.  I advise you to go SLOWLY out of the hole when you are first learning how to do this.  This will get you in the habit of doing this.  

As always, keep your core tight as you exhale on the way up.  Once you are done ascending you will return to the starting position.  

Strategy For Mastering The Air Squat

We just went over a lot of information so let’s do a quick recap:

  1. Take In Some Air (Breathe Into Your Belly)
  2. Screw Your Feet Into The Ground
  3. Engage Your Hips First, Knees Second
  4. Drive Through Your Heels AND Your Big Toe
  5. Lead With Your Chest On The Way Up

A grand total of 5 things to remember and practice.  And practice you must.  

In theory I would say that once you could do 3 sets of 20 reps then you should be ready to move onto the next stage.  This means your form is literally perfect for these reps.  

You follow ALL of the steps for each and every rep and you have nailed them down perfectly. 

But in reality, you never want to stop doing the air squat.  You want to be squatting all of the time.  This is to keep the habits fresh. 

Dan John once had a quote that I really liked.  When asked about the effectiveness of an exercise, he said that “it worked so good I stopped doing it.”

If you don’t continually practice your technique then your form will start to get sloppy during squats.  You will actually start to build bad squatting habits.  

This is the main argument behind the squat every day program.  If you want to become better at squats, then you should squat every day in some way.  That includes the air squat.  

Transitioning Between Bodyweight And Barbell Squats

Now we have to learn how to squat with weight.  Squatting with weight is the exact same as squatting with just your bodyweight.  

But there is one major difference:  Your center of gravity.

What is your center of gravity?  What does that even mean?  It is a simple concept that applies not only to your body but to every object around you.  

Center of Gravity
An old sketch for the mechanics of a ship in the 17th century. The “G” in the middle of the diagram is the ships center of gravity. The “F’s” are all the forces that are acting on the ship. Notice though that the ship rotates and moves around its center of gravity. The center of gravity is what determines how an object will move. Our bodies work in the same way. The other letters are different forces and measurements. We won’t get into those in this article.

Whenever you pick up an object, it has a certain spot on it where most of it’s weight is distributed relative to it’s shape.  That spot is called your center of gravity.  And it’s location varies on EACH object.

In order to have the best leverage over an object, you need to gain control over it’s center of gravity.  Once you do the object will move where ever you want.  

The simplest example is a dumbbell.  On a dumbbell, the center of gravity is in the middle of the handle.  This is why picking up a 50 lb. dumbbell is so much easier than a 50 lb. bag of cement.  

A more realistic piece of equipment is a kettlebell.  A kettlebell has a center of gravity in the “belly” of the bell itself rather than the handle.  Thus, making it a better real world training tool.  If kettlebell training interests you, be sure to check out my kettlebell training article

Squats normally position your center of gravity just slightly below your navel and above your groin.  It varies on every individual, but you get the idea.  

Anyway, adding weight will actually shift your center of gravity around.  If the weight is very heavy (more than bodyweight), then it actually becomes your center of gravity.  Thus, changing the mechanics of the exercise. 

Learning The Goblet Squat — A Simple Exercise For Great Results

With a shift in your center of gravity, the first thing you notice is how you are pulled onto your toes.  When you were doing bodyweight squats nothing like this happened, but now the weight is pulling you forward.  

So the first new skill you have to practice is how to sit your hips back and in a good position.  The other skill is keeping your back neutral and straight.  

The best exercise for learning this is the goblet squat.  Goblet squats are such a simple exercise that teach you all of this.  And all you need is a dumbbell.  

Goblet Squats
Goblet Squats Front View
Everything is the SAME as the air squat, except I’m cradling a dumbbell between my hands. The dumbbell will try to pull me forward so I must engage my hips and abs to “pull” myself backwards. Again notice how straight my spine is.

You could use a kettlebell too, but I would prefer you to use a dumbbell.  Don’t worry, you will find out why soon.  

Goblet Squat Setup

The setup is the EXACT same as the air squat.  So if you skipped over that section be sure to go back and read it.  

The key difference is the dumbbell so lets talk about that instead.

  1. Hold the dumbbell up against your chest with your palms up.  
  2. Keep BOTH the top and bottom half of the dumbbell up against your chest the entire time.
  3. As you descend, keep your elbows between your knees and push your knees out in the bottom position.
  4. DO NOT lean forward, or let the bottom half of the dumbbell leave your chest.  

The main fault you will see with this exercise is the chest leaning too far forward.  This habit is from doing air squats for extremely high reps (~50-100).  Which is why I only ask you to do 3 sets of 20 reps in the air squat section.  

Nevertheless, it is a very common problem that will cause you roadblock after roadblock when you start barbell squats.  So you better correct it now.  

Also you need to make sure that you are primarily using your glutes to get you out of the bottom position.  NOT the quads. 

Aim for 3 sets of 5-12 reps with a triple digit dumbbell before moving to the barbell (Ladies aim for 50-60 lbs).  

Why such a heavy weight?  To make sure you mastered it.  It will pay you huge dividends in the future.  

The Barbell Squat  

Introduction To The Barbell Squat

Alright congratulations for making it this far.  You have put in the work and are now ready to reap the rewards.  You are now ready to perform the barbell squat.  

The barbell squat is relatively easy to do after having mastered the goblet squat.  The only difference is the position of the weight.  

Instead of actually holding the weight in front of you, the weight is now on your upper back.  This makes the weight easier to hold, but makes the exercise much more difficult to perform.  

A lot of you are probably doing it wrong and don’t even know it.  

Since the bar is on your back, you now have to fight harder to keep your back straight and keep your chest up in the bottom position.  

The heavier the weight gets, the more that bar is going to pull you forward.  Also the lower you go, the more force is going to be pushing you forward.  

This is why so many squatters out there have such a hard time breaking parallel in the squat (going below 90 degrees). 

It also proves another controversial, but true, point about squats.   It’s not your legs that are weak but your back.  

The Massachusetts Experiment

A while back in Woburn, Massachusetts, strength coach Mike Boyle performed an experiment with a group of athletes to see if double leg or single leg work was better for increasing athletic performance.

He had his groups of athletes performing Bulgarian split squats, or rear foot elevated squats, with increasingly heavier weights over a strength cycle.  

After several weeks, some of the athletes were doing single leg work with such heavy weights that their combined single leg total was greater than their actual back squat.  

Why?

Because with single leg work, less stress was placed on the lower back.  So, when you are doing weighted barbell squats, it is your lower back that is the major limiting factor, NOT your legs.  

How To Squat For Big Gains

Since you now understand the Massachusetts experiment, the main priority is the stability of your core (hips, lower back, abs).  

This is why I emphasized breathing so much during the air squat section.  If you skipped over that section, scroll back up and read about how to breathe properly, it is really important.  

The back squat is performed the exact same way as the air squat, except this time you are going to pinch your shoulder blades together and pull the bar into your back.  

Back Squat Top Position
Top position of the squat. Shoulder blades pinched with a big breath of air.

This is to maintain stability.  Remember, it is not strength that is the limiting factor for most people, it is stability.  

From here, take in a big breath of air and push it down into your pelvic floor.  This will help to counteract the torque the barbel is going to place on your spine.  

Other than that, it is the exact same as the air squat and goblet squat.  All the same rules still apply.  

One other helpful piece of advice I can give you is descend in a controlled manner.  Don’t dive bomb it.  

Back Squat Bottom Position
Bottom position of the squat. The hips break parallel, the chest is up and the glutes are engaged.

If you can descend quickly AND still remain under control, then go for it.  If you cannot, then go slower.  

The one technical error I see too many of you making it is not maintaining control over the barbell.  

YOU control the weight, don’t let the weight control YOU

When you are starting out with back squats you should aim for 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps to really drill down the form and for building a solid base of strength-endurance.  

Once you get better, increase the weight and cut the reps down to 5 reps.  Now you will really start to pack on some strength. 

The Full Detail Barbell Squat Setup

You have seen the proper progression to learning the squat and now you are going to learn the full setup for the squat.  

Bar Height

The first thing to do is to check the bar height on the power rack.  If you are doing squats, you will need a rack, or stand, to hold the bar up so you can get underneath it.  Unless you can make the bar levitate (that would be really cool!). 

But you need to make sure that the bar is at the appropriate height.  Otherwise you can run into trouble when you un-rack the bar. 

The bar should be roughly chest height.  This works best for both the low bar and high bar variations.

Proper Bar Height

If you set the bar too high, then you will have to come up onto your toes when you un-rack the bar.  Not a good thing to do with heavy weight.

Bar Height Too High

If the bar is too low, then you are almost performing an Anderson squat, or good morning (more on this later).  

Bar Height Too Low

Un-Racking The Bar  

When you un-rack the bar, you want to make sure the bar is on your upper back.  The position will vary depending on which squat variation you are doing.  Low bar variations will be between the middle deltoids and rear deltoids.  High bar variations will be on the upper traps and middle deltoids.

Low Bar Bar Position
High Bar Bar Position

You want to make sure that you place both feet under the bar before you un-rack the bar.  Then once under the bar, perform a mini squat to lift the bar off the j-hooks.

Proper Un-Racking Position
Proper Un-Racking Position. Notice both feet are under the bar.

Do not lean into the bar when un-racking it.  With light weight you can get away with this, but once the weight gets heavy, you are risking injuring your back.

Bad Un-Racking Position
Bad Un-Racking Position. Don’t lean in!

Stepping Back

Once the bar is un-racked and on your shoulders, you need to step back.  Again this process is a little technical. 

You need to step back in the fewest number of steps possible.  If you take too many steps back you will waste energy and lose stability.  Plus you will have a weaker setup, which is not good for lifting big weights.  

The maximum number of steps you should take when stepping back are 3 steps.  That’s it. 

Let’s go over how to do this:

1.  Step back with one of your feet.  This should be a big step and your feet should be in your squat stance (more on this in the next section).

Squat Un-Racking First Step

2.  Step back with your other foot, then shift most of your weight onto this foot. 

Squat Un-Racking Second Step

3.  Adjust your first foot to match the alignment of your second foot.  This is the final step.  After this both feet are in alignment and your weight is equally distributed among both feet.

Squat Un-Racking Third Step

These are the three steps.  Once you complete the final step, take a couple of seconds to let the bar stabilize.  Then squat.

It really doesn’t matter if you start this sequence with the left foot first or the right foot.  But you need to perform this in an alternating sequence.  Left-Right-Left or Right-Light-Right.  Either will work.  

Squat Stance

When you perform squats, you want to make sure you place your feet about shoulder width apart.  

Proper Squat Stance

If the feet are too narrow, then this will force the knees to move forward more.  This stance requires more mobility and your knees will run into your belly, literally blocking you from reaching depth.  

Squat Stance Too Narrow

If the feet are too wide, as in a sumo stance, then it will require more inner thigh strength and flexibility.  Elite lifters wear squat suits with thick compression material that requires a wider stance to get the most elasticity out of the suit.  Don’t try to mimic them, stick with a shoulder width stance.

Squat Stance Too Wide

Elite lifters vary their foot stances all the time during their training to add more stimulus to their strength potential.  But for the average joe just starting out, shoulder width is where you want to be.  

Toes In Or Out?

Earlier with the air squat, I said you want to keep your toes facing forward. But with the barbell squat, you should aim your toes out to the side.  

The proper angle is anywhere between 15-30 degrees. 

Toes Out Squats

Their is a serious debate out there about squatting heavy weights with your toes facing forward.  The theory is this leads to better glute activation and torque.  

This is true, there is no doubt about any of this.  But there is a catch.  Squatting with your toes facing forward requires more hip mobility and ankle mobility to get into a better position for the knees to get out of the way. 

Toes In Squats
You can still squat with your toes forward. But you will have to spend more time working on your ankle and hip mobility.

Mobility is important, but for the most part don’t create more work for yourself.  Too many lifters jump on the bandwagon of the latest fads.  There are also those who self-sabotage themselves because they are afraid of lifting heavy weights.  These individuals will come up with any excuse to not lift heavy weights.  Mobility can be a convenient excuse for these individuals.  

Plus, most of those in the toes in camp are runners.  Their argument is squatting with your feet straight will translate to better running patterns.  I haven’t witnessed, or experienced, any issues with bad alignment from pointing the toes out.  But they make a good argument, nonetheless.  

I recommend pointing the toes out.  But if you want to spend extra time working on your mobility, you can point the toes in.  

Keep The Feet Flat

When you squat, you want to keep your whole foot flat on the floor.  Don’t let your heels come off the ground when squatting down low. 

Heels Coming Up

This is the biggest problem that most beginners have.  It is usually an ankle mobility problem.  A quick remedy to this is elevating your heel with a weight plate under the foot.  This is only a quick fix and will not help you squat big weights.  So keep your feet flat.

Heels Down

Also make sure that you keep your weight evenly distributed among both feet.  Don’t place all the weight on the outside of the foot.  This is not skiing, and it will lead to huge problems up the road.  

You want to keep the weight evenly spread between the inner foot and the outer foot.  

When pushing down into the floor during the lift, you want to push through the middle of your foot.  Specifically in the arches.  Pushing through your arches helps your body properly activate your glutes and vastus medialis.  

Knee Tracking

The knees should track over the toes when you squat.  And since your toes will be facing outward, you will have to push your knees out.

Proper Knee Tracking

If the knees track inward, the ACL is put under a tremendous amount of stress.  Plus, the knee loses stability which disengages the hips.  One simple error leads to a whole cascade of events.

Valgus Collapse

With lighter weights, it is not as dramatic because you can quickly self-correct.  But with heavy weights, you are heading for an injury.  

You also don’t want your knees to come too far forward.  The squat should primarily work your hips.  If the knees move too far forward, then you are taking the stress off of the hips and putting it onto the knees.  All due to a forward shift in your center of gravity.  

Head Neutral
The bar is balanced over the mid foot and the knees are NOT going too far forward.
Falling Forward
In this example, the knees are in front of the toes. If you look carefully you can see my heels starting to come up off the ground. Also notice how the bar is in front of the mid foot balance point.

Keep the knees tracking over your toes, but don’t let them go past your toes.  

Initiate The Hips

Once you are actually ready to squat, you want to begin the movement by initiating at the hips.  This means that you want to squeeze your glutes and push the hips back first.  Then bend the knees second. 

Hips Bend Back First

You want to squeeze your glutes as hard as you can and then anteriorly tilt the pelvis.  Now from this position sit back and down.  If you do this correctly, then the knees will naturally bend.  

Knees Bending Second
The bar stays over the mid foot balance point the entire time.

If you don’t engage the glutes, or set the hips into the correct position, then the knees will bend first and your center of gravity will shift forward for the entire exercise.  

Most of the weight will be dumped onto the knees and lower back.  This is why so many lifters complain about knee pain and back pain from squats.

Knees Bending First

If the movement is started poorly, then it will finish poorly.  A squat done with good form should not cause any pain in your knees or lower back.  

Once you are in the bottom position, you want to lead with both the chest and hips at the same time.  The hips do not rise first and neither does the chest rise first.  They both need to rise at the same time.  

Bar Over The Mid Foot

If the hips rise too fast, then you will place the brunt of the weight on the lower back.  Your squat will look more like a good morning.

Hips Rising Too Early

Likewise, if the chest rises to quickly then your lower back will hyperextend and look concave.  You can also see this pattern developing in lifters who look up when they squat. 

Chest Comes Up First

Keep Your Lower Back Neutral

Your lower back should be neutral the entire time you perform the exercise.  Do not let it round in the bottom position. 

Back Neutral
Rounded Lower Back

Also don’t hyperextend the lower back when squatting.

Bar Too Far Behind Midline

If you find yourself hyperextending too much and can’t seem to get your lower back neutral, you should work more on your abs and glutes.  Stretching the hip flexors will also help.  

Re-Racking The Bar

Once the rep is completed, make sure your hips and knees are fully locked out.  Once locked out take one step forward at a time until you have the bar over the j-hooks. 

Once you are over the j-hooks, lower the bar until it is at rest on the rack again.

Proper Re-Racking

It is important to note that you need to perform a mini squat when lowering the bar.  Do not lean the bar into the hooks.  This is not a safe way to re-rack the bar and may result in injury.        

Bad Re-Racking
If you look carefully, you can actually see me missing the j-hooks on the side closest to the camera. This is with an empty bar. If this happens with heavy weight you are in serious trouble.

Performing The Squat

Now that we have the covered the major details in the previous section, lets now see how they all fit together when actually performing the squat.

Breathing

When you actually squat, you want to first start by taking in a big breath into your belly.  The air should be pushed down towards the pelvic floor as much as possible.  This ensures pelvic stability during the squat. 

Proper Breathing
The red lines on my belly are where the breath should be during the squat. Be sure to push against the sides of your abs for maximum stability.

Once the air is in your belly, you want to also push it against the sides (obliques) of your abs.  The obliques help to straighten and stabilize the spine when it is being flexed.  Pushing air against them help to keep them contracted while performing the lift.  A wise move for back safety.  

Do not under any circumstances allow ALL of the air out of your lungs.  Losing air means losing abdominal stability, which can wreak havoc on your lower back when doing squats.  

Hydraulic Amplification — The Secret Power Of Breathing

What is hydraulic amplification?  It is a process whereby the nervous system forcibly recruits more muscle tissue throughout the body.  

How does it work?  Through breathing.  

When you take a big breath into your belly, you are forcing your abs to contract harder.  This sends a stimulus to the central nervous system to activate more muscle mass throughout the body.  

Imagine your abs are like a volume dial on a stereo receiver and your muscles are speakers.  Whenever you contract your abs, you are turning the dial up.  Thus, your muscles are contracting harder.  

But you have to maintain tension in your core.  If you let out all of the air, you will lose tension and therefore your muscles will not contract as much.  

If you are doing squats with heavy weight and are in the bottom position, this could be disastrous.  

Best case scenario: you miss the lift.  

Worst case scenario: you suffer a lower back injury.  

Squeezing The Glutes        

Just like the deadlift, you want to squeeze your glutes as hard as you can BEFORE starting the movement. 

The hips are the main mover in the squat, not the legs.  

Do the legs (quads) play a big role in the squat?  Absolutely!

But they are not the the main muscles that lift the weight.  It is your hips.  In particular, the glutes.   

Squeezing the glutes is even more important in the squat than it is in the deadlift.  The squat starts with an eccentric movement.  Therefore, elasticity is very important for getting out of the bottom position.

Squeezing The Glutes
Pretend like you are pinching a quarter between your butt cheeks.

Squeezing glutes helps to generate tension in the hips and thus stabilize the lower back in the bottom position.  

But squeezing also plays another major role as well, deactivating the powerful hip flexors.  

The Glutes vs. The Psoas

What is the main muscle group that counteracts the glutes?  The Psoas.

Every muscle in the body has an adversary, or antagonist.  A good example are the biceps and triceps.  When the biceps contract, the triceps relax and vice versa.  

This is not done by accident either.  In order for our bodies to maintain proper joint health, there needs to be a balance between the muscles around a joint during movement.  Therefore, when one muscle contracts, its antagonist must relax.  

In the case of the glutes, the antagonist muscle group are the psoas.  So when the glutes contract, the psoas relaxes.  

Most lifters forget to engage the glutes during the squat and consequently end up engaging the psoas.  

But this is dangerous because the psoas attaches right onto the lumbar spine.  So if it gets too tight you can expect back problems.  

Generating Torque  

Just like the deadlift we want to use the power of torque to our advantage.  

Since the glutes are the prime movers of the squat, you want to maximize their effectiveness as much as possible.  This can only be done by generating torque.  

What is torque? It is angular force.  

Think of the wheels that spin on your car.  In order for this to happen, the engine moves the axles which move the wheels.  The wheels are not moved in a straight line, they are moved at an angle.  It is this angular force that is torque.  

Our body is composed of systems of levers and pulleys.  In order for us to get the best leverage possible, we need to make the most out of torque. 

To do this we want to perform a static stomp.  Here’s how to do it:

  • Pretend like your foot is like a giant raptor claw and dig your toes into the ground.
  • Then push the ball of your big toe into the ground as hard as possible.
  • While doing the previous two steps, attempt to spread the floor apart as if you are trying to rip it apart.  

When doing all of this, you should feel a spiral of tension traveling up your legs from your feet into your hips.  This is torque.  

Generating Torque
Notice how the feet do NOT move. The red zig zag line is the tension running from my feet into my hips. This allows for maximal glute contraction.

Your glutes will contract better with torque because the glutes insert at an angle onto the femur.  

It is important to mention that you should perform the static stomp after you have already squeezed the glutes and you should continue to perform it throughout the duration of the squat. 

Tilting The Pelvis

After squeezing the glutes and generating torque you want to anteriorly tilt the pelvis.  

Think of your pelvis as a bowl of water.  If it is in equilibrium then no water spills out.  If it is anteriorly tilted, then water will spill out of the front of the bowl.  Or, in our case, the front of the pelvis.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

This is another technique to activate the glutes and secure the lower back without hyperextending it.  

Plus anteriorly tilting the pelvis helps to automatically set the hips in the right position for the descent.  

As you will see in the next section, the hips need to bend first before the knees bend in order to maintain the bar over the mid foot balance point.  

The Descent

You will be glad you put in all of that prep work, because the descent will be so much easier.  

After titling the pelvis, push the hips back behind you first.  Think of it as reaching back with your hips almost like you are trying to sit down.  

Hips Bend Back First

Once you reach back, keep reaching as much as you can while keeping your chest up.  Once you go back as far as you can, start going down.  

Knees Bending Second

It is at this point that you can bend the knees.  Ironically most find that the knees will naturally bend on their own.  

Breaking Parallel

How far do you descend?  Until you break parallel.  

Parallel is when your hips and knees are in line together horizontally during the squat.  Your goal is for the hips to go slightly lower than the knees.  This is called breaking parallel.  

Breaking Parallel
Not Breaking Parallel

It is simple, but this is where most lifters run into the most trouble.  It is relatively easy to reach depth when you have done all the preceding steps.  

But a lot of things can go wrong in the bottom.  We will get to all of these problems later.  

The Ascent

Now the tough part, moving back to the starting position.  

As soon as you break parallel, you want to immediately ascend out of the bottom position (unless you are doing a pause squat).  

When you begin the ascent, both the hips AND the chest have to rise at the exact same time.  Otherwise the mechanics of the bar path get messed up.

Bar Over Mid Foot In Bottom

Many lifters unconsciously raise the hips first and chest second.  But this is all wrong.  You need to lift the chest up at the same time as the hips. 

Think of it as if you are driving your upper back into the bar as hard as you can while squeezing the glutes.  

Lockout

When you reach lockout make sure the hips and knees both lockout at the same time.

Now is the time to take another breath of air before you perform another rep if necessary.  

It is also important to reset yourself before each rep.  Technique starts to deteriorate when you start doing more repetitions.  

Therefore, you need to make sure your form doesn’t break down during high reps sets.  The small amount of downtime between each rep is the perfect time to do this.  

Do not just blindly jump into the next repetition, make sure you set yourself up for a good one first.  

Other Technical Considerations

Hand Placement

Although the squat is a lower body exercise, your hand placement on the bar matters.  

You want your hands to be slightly outside of shoulder width apart.  Ideally this would place your pinky on the ring between grips on the bar.  Similar to the grip you use when bench pressing.  

Proper Squat Grip Position

This helps keep the bar secured onto the upper back when squatting.  Otherwise, the bar can move around on you if it is not properly secured. 

Hands Too Wide

You do not want your hands to be too wide apart as this is the least stable.  But if your shoulder mobility is bad then you can widen your grip just slightly.  As long as your upper back is still tight. 

Narrow Grip Placement

Ideally, you would like to get your grip as narrow as possible.  The narrower your grip is, the tighter your upper back will be and thus the more stable the bar will be.   

I already know what you are thinking.  “Geez Anthony, I see people squatting a fair amount of weight with all kinds of hand placements, does hand placement really matter?”

The answer is yes it does matter!

As for those lifters who are putting their hands loosely on the bar, I have one question for you.  “How much weight can they lift?”

Chances are probably not very much.  There are occasionally a few lifters who can get away with a random hand placement, but most lifters can’t get away with it.  

Both the high bar and low bar placements work better with a grip as narrow as you can get.  

Elbow Position                       

The elbows should be directly under the bar when doing squats.  This helps to keep the bar stable and engage the muscles of the upper back.

Elbows In Line

When the elbows flare out behind the bar, the upper back loses stability and the bar can end up moving around on you during your lifts.  

Elbows Flaring Out

If you have a hard time getting your elbows under the bar, then you need to work on your shoulder flexibility and mobility.  You might actually have a physical limitation preventing you from getting your elbows in line. 

You should address these mobility issues first and then work on the bar position second.  Lifters who try to force the position without adequate mobility end up getting into a position where the upper back hyperextends to compensate for lack of mobility. 

This can cause trauma to the upper back and even upper back pain.  Some lifters with this problem can even experience numbness and tingling in their fingertips from this.  

Upper Back & Shoulder Blades

The upper back needs to be as tight as possible.  Think of your upper back like a shelf for the weight to rest on.  If the shelf is weak, then the lift will be weak.  

Shoulder Blades Relaxed

Once you get your hands and elbows into position, you want to pinch your shoulder blades back and down as hard as you can.  This will provide the maximum amount of stability necessary.  

Shoulder Blades Pinched

If the shoulder blades are not pinched back and engaged, the elbows and wrists will have to work harder to stabilize the bar.  This can result in wrist and elbow pain.  

Chest Position

The chest needs to be up the entire time during the lift.  The most infamous coaching cue used for this is to “see the logo on your shirt.”

Proper Bottom Squat Position

But there is a catch.  You want the chest to be up, but not at the expense of keeping the spine neutral.  The spine must remain neutral the entire time during the lift.  

Hyperextended Back

This means you don’t want to look up when squatting.  Looking up may elevate the chest, but the spine will hyper extend as a result.  

Likewise, you don’t want the chest to collapse during squats.  If the chest collapses, then the weight of the bar will get thrown onto the lower back.  Which may result in injury. 

Bar Too Far Forward Of Midline

There is an assistance exercise where you purposely collapse the chest forward to strengthen the lower back.  It is called a good morning, but in the good morning the spine remains neutral.  

The risk for injury increases even more if the lower back rounds when the chest collapses.  

Typically weak hips are the cause of poor chest position.  

Head Position

The head is also important.  The focus of the eyes tell the body which muscles to activate and how to orient yourself kinesthetically.  

Therefore we want to strictly maintain a neutral head position that is in line with the rest of the spinal column.  We want our eyes fixated straight ahead.  Not looking up or down.  

Proper Bottom Squat Position

As mentioned in the last section, we do not want to have our head looking up when doing squats.  We also do not want to have our chin tucked in either.  

Looking Up
Looking Down

Our eyes determine our body position.  Looking up will cause the spine to hyperextend and looking down will cause the spine to round.  Neither are good for your back.  

Likewise avoid looking in mirrors.  If a mirror is directly in front of you at your local gym and you have no choice, that’s one thing.  But if you can avoid it, then avoid it. 

Mirrors help “assist” our body’s kinesthetic awareness.  If we keep using them, then we become dependent on them.  

The Bar Path

Just like the deadlift, the bar path for the squat maters a lot.

There is a balance point in the body where all of the forces in our body reach an equilibrium.  This position helps us move weight in the best way possible because it requires the least amount of work.  

This position is over the mid foot.  Look down at your feet right now and look at where your shoelaces are.  Not the threading, but the actual knot used to tie the shoes.  This is the mid foot balance point.  

Bar Over The Mid Foot

The weight of the bar should be over this point throughout the duration of the lift.  If the bar moves too far forward, or backward, then your body will have to do more work to move the bar.  

Your body becomes off balanced when the bar moves away from the balance point.  Thus your form will start to deteriorate as well.  

Falling Forward
Falling Backwards

With that said, everything you have done so far in preparing to squat is to ensure that the bar stays over the mid foot balance point.  

This also means, just like the deadlift, you want the bar to move in a straight line.  But unlike the deadlift, this is tougher to notice in the squat.  

You are going to have to practice with an empty bar, or light weight, for a little while until you get the feel for where the bar path should be.  It is easy to tell once you find it, because the squat feels almost effortless.  

The Main Squat Variations

There are two main squat variations that you want to consider when you start training squats.  

They are:

  • High Bar Back Squat
  • Low Bar Back Squat

Some other coaches also argue there is a third position in between the high bar and low bar called the hybrid squat.  I wrote about it briefly in my Back Squats vs. Front Squats article.  

But for the most part, the high bar and low bar squats should be the primary types of squats you train.  

The bar placement makes a huge difference in how the lift is executed.  Even though each position is only a few inches apart, it completely changes the exercise.  

High Bar Back Squats

The first, and probably most popular, squat variation is the high bar back squat.  In this squat, the bar is placed up high on the traps.  

This makes the back angle more vertical.  As a result, the hip angle needs to open up more.  

As a result, the high bar squat has a much more vertical torso angle.  This ensures the bar stays over the mid foot. 

Proper Bottom Squat Position

The chest will be higher and the knees will go forward much more than the low bar squat.  However, the heels still need to be flat on the ground.  

Due to the upright torso, more stress is placed on the quads than in the low bar squat.  But the hips and glutes are still the major movers in this exercise.  If you fail to engage the glutes, then you still run the risk for injury.

The high bar back squats have a much higher carryover into athletics than the low bar back squat does.  

Any sport that requires a more upright torso (most sports), will benefit tremendously from the high bar squat.  No sport benefits more from high bar squats more than Olympic lifting.  

But it does have it’s drawbacks.  You cannot lift as much weight with a high bar squat as you can with a low bar squat.  The vertical torso position forces you to use less muscle groups than the low bar position does. 

Also, the high bar variation has a greater range of motion.  So it takes more distance to break parallel.  

Low Bar Back Squats

In the low bar squat, the bar is positioned about 2-4 inches lower (depending on your body structure) than in the high bar position.  This may not seem like much, but this makes a HUGE difference in the difficulty of the exercise. 

Since the bar is placed lower on the spine, the torso needs to lean forward just slightly (~10-20 degrees) to accommodate the weight of the barbell.  This helps ensure that the barbell stays over the mid foot balance point.  

Low Bar Bottom Position

Due to the lower chest position, the hips and hamstrings have a much more prominent role than they do in the high bar squat.  Therefore, the low bar squat actually uses more muscle groups than the high bar does.  

This means you can lift more weight with a low bar variation.  Hence, if you want to lift as much weight as humanly possible, squat low bar.  Powerlifters use this variation all the time in their training and at their meets.

Plus since the position is different, there is less range of motion to reach parallel compared to the high bar squat.  So not only are you using more muscle groups, but you also have more mechanical leverage over the bar.  

Other Barbell Squat Variations

Once you become proficient with the barbell squat, you will need to change up the style of the exercise to keep getting better results.  Read my Strength Training Programs Guide to find out why. 

Below are some of the best variations to keep you making gains and challenging yourself to become better than you were yesterday.  

Front Squat

The front squat is like the goblet squat on steroids.  Instead of holding a dumbbell up against your chest, you are balancing a heavy ass barbell on your shoulders while squatting. 

The front squat challenges you more because it requires you to keep you back more vertical during the movement, you get less help from your hamstrings AND it is a larger range of motion.  

But the benefits are HUGE.  Front squats teach you how to load the front of your body with an external load and maintain stability with your center of gravity moving behind your base of support.  

In other words, it makes you harder to get knocked down and it makes you hit harder in sports.  

There are two major ways to perform the front squat:  California style and Olympic style.

The California style front squat is done with the arms folded across the barbell.  This position is easier and requires less mobility.  

The Olympic style front squat requires the most mobility and is much more difficult to perform, but it gives you the most bang for your buck.  

Front Squat Top Position
Front Squat Bottom Position
The Olympic grip front squat pictured above. Notice how I have to keep my chest up more to support the barbell.

Olympic grip gives you all of the benefits of the front squat that you read above.

Overhead Squats   

The overhead squat put your stability to the test.  Instead of balancing the weight on your shoulders, you will be holding it overhead while performing the squat.  

Now I know what you might be thinking, “Anthony are you crazy?  Why on Earth would I ever want to do something like that?”

I’ll tell you why!

You do it to learn how to squat better.  You do it because it will bring you closer to technical mastery.  

According to Soviet sports scientists, elite athletes are the ones who move the best.  While you may not see the value of doing overhead squats, think of them as an investment.  

And like any good investor (Warren Buffet) will tell you, you don’t invest for the short term, you always invest for the long term if you want to gain real wealth.  

Overhead Squat Top Position
Overhead Squat Bottom Position
The overhead squat requires the most mobility and is by far one of the most technical exercises you will ever do. Notice how the bar is directly overhead in the top picture and notice how much I am fighting to keep it over my spine in the bottom position.

Overhead squats will push your core stability and joint mobility to the extreme.  It will make your back squat feel easier in the long term which will make you stronger LONG TERM.  

Zercher Squats

Not a common exercise you find in most gyms.  Zercher squats are used by powerlifters to strengthen your core and spine for your regular squats.  They also help with deadlifts.

Remember, your core stability is the most important piece for training a big squat.  Without it, you can train your legs all you want.  It won’t make a difference.  You will hit a wall very quickly.  

So here’s how you do them.  

Grab a barbell out of a power rack with the crux (fold) of your elbows.  So yes you will actually be holding the weight with your arms this time.  

But your elbow pits will anchor the weight and your hands will be clasped together.  Your torso will be leaning forward slightly, similar to the back squat.  And your core will be solid the entire time.  

Zercher Squat Top Position
Zercher Squat Bottom Position
The Zercher squat really trains your core muscles better than any other exercise I have seen. The temptation to round your upper back is strong as the weight gets heavier. It is your job to keep your back as straight as possible to protect your spine.

Be careful with this one, you might need a pad for your elbows.  Not to be a wuss, but heavy weight can rally start to hurt after a while.  

There is a Zercher harness you can find online that will hold the bar for you and spare your elbows the pain.  It’s worth considering.  

Box Squats

The last squat variation I am going to recommend is the box squat.  I love box squats.  They will help boost your squat like you wouldn’t believe.  

But be forewarned, this is the most advanced of all the variations described above.  DO NOT attempt this one until you can do ALL of the other variations proficiently.  

The box squat requires the most core stability out of any other exercise in this article.  When you sit down with a heavy load on your back, the weight of the entire barbell is being placed directly on your spine.  

Unless you maintain maximal stability when you make contact with the box, your chances of injury go up significantly.  So many lifters injure their lower backs and necks from doing this exercise incorrectly.  They don’t fully understand how to brace their core.  

Nevertheless, this is one of the best squat variations you can learn.  Here’s how you do it.

Take a big breath of air into your belly and sit back onto the box.  When you make contact with the box, maintain your core stability.  In other words, don’t exhale. 

Once you push off the box, then you can start to exhale.  But don’t let all of your air out.  Only let some air out and then fully exhale at the top.  If you breathe out too quickly your core will become weak and your lower back will start to get involved.  

It is better to do a box squat with a wide stance and your toes pointed out to the side.  This will assist your mobility and maximal glute and hamstring activation.  Don’t worry about the quads with this exercise.  It is all about that posterior chain.  

Never do more than 3 reps per set.  Quality matters here, not quantity.  

Common Problems

Chances are if you are human, then you are going to have problems at some point or another.  Luckily for all of you guys, I have personally had most of these problems myself and I have trained clients with these problems as well.  

I’ll save you guys the trouble and do the heavy lifting for you (no pun intended).

Chest Falling Forward

If your chest is falling forward, then you are losing core stability and your hips are disengaging from the movement.  

Squats Chest Falling Forward

That means your psoas muscle (hip flexors), vastus lateralis and lower back are doing most of the work.  

You can always spot this person when they are not doing squats by looking at their lower backs.  Chances are they will have a slight case of lordosis.

To fix this be sure to go through the breathing and bracing sequence discussed above in the air squat section.  

Also practice your squats with about 10-20% less weight and focus on driving your back into the bar on the way out of the bottom.  

Also add good mornings to your workout program.  This exercise works the spinal erectors perfectly for squats.  

Hips Rising Before Chest

This is very common among novice lifters.  When you are rising out of the bottom of the squat and your hips shoot up first it could be a lot of things, but chances are it is from weak hips.  

Squats Knees Locking Out Too Quickly

The glutes are the primary muscles used to get you out of the bottom.  If your hips are lifting up first, that means your body is trying to turn a squat into a good morning.  Not good if a back injury is one of your New Year’s resolutions.  

This could be from weak glutes, but from my experiences it is a technique issue.  If you are just squatting blindly without actively engaging your glutes, then your glutes will not fire optimally in the squat.

If you watch carefully, the telltale sign are the knees locking out too quickly before the hips.  It looks similar to the chest falling forward, but it is not.  

The best way to correct this is to practice good technique, as you read above, and to ensure the glutes are contracting out of the bottom position.  

If you fully understand the technique and it is still happening, then lower the weight.  It might just be a strength issue.   

Hips Shifting In Bottom Position

This one is VERY tricky.  I have had this problem myself and have known many lifters with this problem as well.  

The best way to describe this is with a picture.  

Squats Hip Shifting In Bottom Position

If you look at a perfect squat, the hips are supposed to be square with the shoulders and symmetrical with the barbell.  

But if you look head on at somebody with a hip shift, you will see their hips scrunching over to one side (most likely their dominant one).  It looks very awkward.

You can also notice that one knee actually moves forward more than the other.  One of the most common complaints of lifters with this problem is knee pain on one side.  

Ok so how do you fix this?  Well it is NOT easy and it takes a while.

The first thing you need to do is mobilize every muscle group in the hips and thighs.  

If you aren’t sure how to do this, be sure to check out the following articles below for some help:

Once you mobilize, you want to practice performing squats straight in front of a mirror so you can catch yourself shifting.  

Normally I encourage people not to use a mirror for proprioception (body awareness) but in this case, you NEED the mirror.

Start with air squats and if that’s easy, move onto goblet squats.  Then start trying barbell squats and their tougher variations.  

At first it may look like the problem is gone, but don’t be fooled.  Add some weight onto the bar and watch what happens.  Anybody can fake good form with an empty barbell, but put some weight on it and we’ll see what really happens.  

With time and practice, you should be able to correct this problem.  There is NO magic bullet for this one, it takes time and you are going to have to put in the work.  

Loss Of Balance

Losing balance happens when the bar starts to drift away from the mid foot balance point.  Just try doing a squat with a broomstick and purposely moving the bar path and watch what happens.

You will notice that the movement becomes unstable and you will start to fall either forwards or backwards.  And that is just a broomstick.  Imagine what happens with heavy weight.  That bar is going to bury you.  

Loss of balance can also happen from exhaling all of your air too quickly out of your lungs.  If you lose tension in your abs, you will lose core stability, which will lead to a loss of bar stability.  

When you perform a rep, you never want to exhale completely until you are fully locked out in the top position.  Then you can reset yourself.  

Mobility can also be an issue.  If your hips are too tight, or restricted mechanically, you may not be able to get into a good position when reaching parallel.  Also if your ankles are too stiff, you will have a hard time balancing the weight over your hips when parallel.  

Squat Proper Bottom Position

Be sure to read my hip mobility and ankle mobility articles if you are having trouble with either of these.  

Can’t Reach Depth

If you cannot reach depth, then you might need to reassess your form.  Chances are your stance is either too narrow or too wide.  

Not Breaking Parallel

If your stance is too narrow, then your knees will end up hitting your stomach, preventing you from reaching depth.  

Likewise, a sumo stance can make it difficult for you to reach depth due to flexibility issues.  

But there is still a way to reach depth even if you have a narrow stance.  If you have adequate ankle mobility and hip mobility, then you can open up your hips enough to get into a good position.  

When the ankles are mobile enough, the tibia can glide horizontally over the talus bone.  This will allow the knees to move out of the way with out getting into a knee varus position.  

But this requires a lot of time and dedication to your mobility.  Unless you are an elite athlete and need to get into this position for your training, I would just skip it.  Don’t waste energy and time where it isn’t absolutely needed.  

Just reset your stance and walk through the procedures listed above and you will have all the mobility you will need. 

Heels Coming Up

Having poor ankle mobility can also have an effect on your feet during the squat.  

If your heels come up off the ground then your ankles could be too tight.  If that is the case, simply work on your ankle mobility.  

Heels Coming Up

But there are other reasons as well, your feet can be set up in a bad position.  If your stance is too narrow, then, as explained in the last section, you will need more ankle mobility than normal in order to keep your heels down.  

Widen your stance to the correct position and your heels will stay down.  

Also check your form in general.  If you start to sway from the correct bar path, then your heels will come up to compensate.  

The shoes you are wearing can also cause you to come onto your toes.  If you are wearing running sneakers with an elevated heel, it will literally force you onto your toes.  

Ideally you would like to get a shoe with flat heels, or zero heel drop (more on that later).  But shoes with an elevated heel can be used if you purchase the right shoes. 

Weightlifting shoes have an elevated heel with a solid foundation that keeps you stable during your squats.  These are very good and are a good alternative to zero drop shoes.  

Lower Back Rounding

No squat article could be complete without ever talking about buttwink.  Also known as lower back rounding in the bottom position.

Buttwink itself is a slight rounding in the bottom position.  Usually the result of the abs not contracting properly and the glutes not being properly engaged.  

Buttwink

Once you engage the necessary muscle groups, buttwink can be minimized and/or completely eliminated.  But buttwink isn’t the only type of lower back rounding that can happen during squats.  

In extreme cases, the lower back can flex pretty badly in the bottom position.  This is sometimes due to a loss of stability in the core.  

Rounded Lower Back

This happens if you let all the air out of your lungs in the bottom position.  

But it can also happen if you have weak glutes.  The glutes are the main movers of the squat, if they are weak, then your lower back will try to take over and lift the weight in the bottom position.  

This is why the back will round, it is compensating for weak glutes.  

Lower back rounding is extremely bad for your spine.  It squeezes and compresses the discs with very high levels of pressure.  This can cause a slipped disc. 

If your back is rounding, make sure you strengthen your glutes and walk through the setup procedure again.  

Knee Tracking

The knees should move in line with the toes.  So if your toes are pointing out at 30 degrees, your knees should also track out 30 degrees.  They should follow a straight line right over the toes.  

Squat Proper Knee Tracking

A common problem you see a lot is the knee collapsing inward.  This is called valgus collapse.  If the knee tracks inward, then it will actually start to destabilize. 

Valgus Collapse

The knee is held together by a set of ligaments, one of which is called the anterior cruciate ligament, commonly called ACL.  

Whenever the knee travels inward, it is actually putting pressure on this ligament.  If this movement pattern is repeated over time, it could actually snap the ligament.  

It happens all the time in athletics.  If the knee tracks inward when you squat, or deadlift, then it will track inward when you jump or run.

Valgus collapse can be caused by a bad movement pattern, which in that case a simple recap of the setup procedure should do the trick.  

But it is most likely caused by weak gluteal muscles.  Both the gluteus maximus and medius can lead to valgus collapse. 

There is also the possibility of weak arches, or even a collapsed arch.  Be sure to read my collapsed arch article if you need to fix this.     

The other problem is knee varus.  This is when the knees track too far outward.  It is much more uncommon to see this, but it still happens. 

Knee Varus

It usually happens in individuals who try to squat with their toes facing forward.  If the toes are facing forward, then you need to really force the knees out to the side.  Some take this to an extreme and push the knees too far out.  

Some single leg variations can cause it as well because of balancing issues.  But for the most part it is pretty rare. 

Possible Injuries And Problems    

There are all kinds of possible injuries and problems that can happen with the squat.  When you first start out with lighter weight, you will not notice as many issues because it is easy to get by with subpar form.  

However, once the weight starts to get heavier, hidden problems will start to come to the surface.  It will appear as if these problems came out of thin air.  But the truth is these problems have been there all along.  You just weren’t aware of them.  

But don’t get upset and quit.  Instead celebrate.  Because if these problems persisted and you didn’t work on fixing them, an injury would likely sneak up and bite you.  

Lower Back Issues

Probably the most common problem, aside from knee pain.  

The squat is very similar to the deadlift.  Whether you partake in low bar squats or high bar squats.  Almost all of the same muscle groups are worked.  But to be clear, the deadlift works more muscle groups than the squat does actively.  

With that said, the lower back is therefore a vital area in the body.  As mentioned above, the lower back and hips are where the body’s center of gravity lie.  This means that all of the forces in the body are directed here during the squat.  

This is why your hips are the prime movers.  But if the lower back rounds, or hyperextends, due to weak hips, then your risk for injury increases.  

Rounded Lower Back
Lower Back Rounding
Chest Comes Up First
Lower Back Hyper-Extending

Breathing also has a huge effect on the safety of your lower back.  Recall breathing controls how hard the abs and obliques contract.  If you reach the bottom position of the squat and let all the air out of your lungs, you will lose core stability.  Resulting in a rounded lower back.  

When this happens, the discs are placed under an enormous amount of pressure.  They are being squeezed and squished.  In the worst case scenario you can get a slipped, or herniated disc.  Which is extremely painful.  

I know several lifters who had career ending injuries from doing squats incorrectly with heavy weight.  They blew a disc and after that they stoped lifting all together.  

Knee Pain

Another common issue with squats.  Knee pain is one of the most talked about complaints you hear from amateur lifters.  

Is it more common than back pain?  Perhaps.  Is it more dangerous than back pain?  Probably not. 

Most lifters with back injuries give up lifting heavy things.  Probably why you don’t hear too many people complaining about back pain from squats.  

But knee pain is not career ending, at first.  You can get away with knee pain for a little while before it eventually becomes debilitating.  For most lifters, the patella tendon is the primary source of the pain.  

When going through the descent of the squat, you want your hips to move back first. Followed by the knees bending.  Why?

Because this sets the bar in the correct position over the mid foot balance point and it also engages the muscles in the hips (glutes).  

Most lifters with knee pain are doing the exact opposite, they are bending the knees first and then bending the hips second.  

Knees Bending First

Doing this will force your hips (aka your center of gravity) to shift forward.  Which makes the bar shift forward of the mid foot balance point.  So the entire lift is literally set up to fail from this position.  

The knees will go too far forward and take the brunt of the weight.  The patella tendon gets overloaded and your heels will want to come up off the ground.  

In other cases, such as knee valgus or varus, the knee doesn’t track properly over the toes.  Placing pressure on the ligaments in the knee.  Correcting the knee tracking should do the trick.  

There is some equipment that can help out:

Knee sleeves provide minimal compression and keep the knees warm and mobile.  Knee wraps provide super compression and can add anywhere from 65-100 lbs to your squat.  

But be careful, neither knee sleeves or wraps will make knee pain go away.  They can only provide assistance, that’s it.  

The only way to fully address knee pain is to fix your form.

Hip Pain

If your hips hurt from squatting, then you probably have some mobility issues with your hips.

A hip impingement, which is when the head of the femur is literally getting stuck in the front of the hip socket, will cause the greatest amount of pain.  

This is bone on bone grinding.  As time goes on, the pain will become worse and worse because the cartilage is being worn down.  

This is easy to spot.  As you squat down into the bottom position, you will feel a sharp pinch in the front of your hips.  That is a hip impingement.  Restoring hip mobility will help address this.   

Another cause of hip pain, and back pain, are sacral issues.  If the sacrum is abnormally rotated in the hip girdle, then it will cause all kinds of muscular imbalances and problems in the hip girdle.  Some muscles will be over active and some will be under active.  It is a mess. 

Don’t try to fix this one on your own, it is really tough.  Instead seek out a qualified physiotherapist to give you an adjustment. 

Groin Issues

If your stance is too wide and you do not have the proper amount of flexibility in your adductors, then you can have some groin pain from squats.  

Squat Stance Too Wide

A wider stance squat shortens the distance you need to travel to reach parallel.  Which is why you see elite powerlifters using this stance during their meets.  

But most of those lifters are geared.  This means they have big thick supporting gear on to help them lift more weight.  A squat suit has very thick elastic material in the posterior region of the suit.  

When you use a sumo stance, you are maximizing the stretch from the elastic materials in the suit.  This doesn’t apply to any of us.  We are raw lifters.  So stick with a shoulder width stance.  

Elbow/Wrist Problems

When grabbing the bar, the elbows need to be in line with the bar and the wrists need to be neutral.  

Squat Elbows In Line

If the elbows deviate in any way from this position, then the bar will start to move and the upper back will lose tension.  

In order to compensate for this, the wrists will usually try to save the bar.  You can see this when the wrists are extended during the squat.  In this case your wrists are trying to hold and support the majority of the bar.  

Elbows Flaring Out

This causes elbow pain and wrist pain in most lifters.  

Make sure your elbows are in line with the bar, the wrists are neutral. 

Neck Issues

Another common problem you might experience is neck pain.  

Neck pain in squats usually occurs for two reasons.  Looking up during squats and placing the bar too high on your back.  

Looking up is bad for both your neck and lower back as we have discussed above.  When you look up with your neck in extension, you create a large amount of blood pressure to the vessels in the head.  This can cause exertion headaches.  

Looking Up

You also place pressure on the discs in your neck.  The neck shouldn’t be flexed or extended.  It needs to stay neutral.  

Squat Proper Bottom Position

A more dangerous concern is placing the bar too high on your upper back.  If the weight is heavy, then a good amount of is is going to be placed on the cervical vertebrae.  Not the upper back.  

The cervical vertebrae are the weakest vertebrae in the body.  They are small and are only designed to support the weight of the head.  Not a 400 lb. barbell.  

The weight should only go as high as the upper traps. Most of the weight should be resting on the upper traps and he middle deltoids.  

This position is easier to get into than a low bar position, so you may have to walk your hands in more to prevent the bar from moving.  Otherwise if the bar moves due to instability, it may roll onto your cervical vertebrae. 

Squat Mobility

If you physically can’t get into the right positions, or are struggling to, then you may need to work on your mobility.  

The squat is a masterpiece of movement.  If you can squat heavy weight with nearly “perfect” form, then you have a solid amount of mobility and muscular balance throughout your entire body.  

If not, then you need to work on a few things.  

There are typically 3 main areas that need the most mobility:

Mobility problems in either of these 3 areas will greatly affect your ability to perform a squat with good form.  

**Note**  I have already written articles on hip mobility, ankle mobility and thoracic mobility.  So I won’t go into too much detail here.  If you want to learn more I highly encourage you to check out those articles for more information.  

Hip Mobility   

The hips are the home to the strongest muscles in the body, the glutes.  The glutes are the main muscle group responsible for lifting big weights in the squat.  Proper glute activation requires excellent technique and body positioning.  

If you can’t open up your hips enough, or bring them to full extension, then you are going to have a hard time with big weights. 

Here are two good stretches to help your mobility.

Spiderman Stretch

The Spiderman stretch helps to open up your hips and mobilize your hip capsule.  If you have a hip impingement, or have trouble pushing your knees out, this stretch is for you.   

Get into a pushup position and bring one of your feet as close to your hand as possible (on the same side of the body).  Imagine trying to step on your pinky.  

Spiderman Stretch Push Up Position
Spiderman Stretch Pinky Stepping

Then place your back knee down on the ground.  Now push your knee out to the side while keeping your foot flat on the floor.  Hold this for 2 minutes on each leg.

Spiderman Stretch Knee Down
Spiderman Stretch Pushing Knee Out

To make the stretch even deeper, bring your opposite elbow down to the ground.  This opens up the hips even more.  Just make sure you don’t round the lower back.  

Spiderman Stretch Elbow Down

If you can, always add a band to this stretch.  Hook it around a sturdy object and then loop it around your inner thigh.  This helps to realign the entire hip capsule and is commonly called joint capsule mobilization.  

Spiderman Stretch With Band

Rear Foot Elevated Stretch

Many squat enthusiasts emphasize the importance of foam rolling the quads to achieve better range of motion.  While I don’t disagree with this, I just want to say that foam rolling might loosen up the quads, it will not loosen up the hip flexors.

The hip flexors are deep muscles that only come close to the surface around the top of the femur.  Otherwise the rectus femoris will receive the brunt of the foam roller.  

Therefore, you need to stretch the hip flexors in order to mobilize them.  Stretching the hip flexors allows you to contract your glutes better and reach full hip extension.

Find a bench lying around your gym and kneel down in front of it.  Place one foot in front of you with your heel flat on the floor.  Place your other foot on the bench behind you with your toe down.  

Move your knee as close to the bench as possible until it is nearly under your ankle.  Lift the chest up until you are completely vertical.  Hold this position for 2 minutes each side.  

Rear Foot Elevated Stretch

It is important to squeeze your glutes as hard as you can in the leg being stretched.  

To make this stretch even better.  Do it up against a wall.  With a wall your shin will be completely vertical so you are hitting the entire front side of the leg.  Again try hard to get your knee under your ankle.  

Couch Stretch
Definitely use a pad for this one!

Ankle Mobility

The ankle also plays a big role with the squat.  Without having mobile ankles you will have a harder time tracking your knees over your toes.  

You will also have a hard time keeping your heels down on the ground.  Since the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia are one in the same mechanically. 

Ankle mobility is especially important for those of you who prefer to squat with your toes facing forward.  Since the feet are not pointing out, you need to really drive your knees out to make room for the hips.  

The tricky part is you need to do this without going into knee varus.  In order to do this, you need exceptional ankle mobility.  That way the tibia can glide over the talus and get the knees out of the way.  

Banded Ankle Gliding

One of the best ways to mobilize the ankle and rid it of any joint capsule restrictions is with the banded ankle glide.  

Hook a band around a sturdy object and then loop it around your ankle.  Step forward until their is a sufficient amount of tension on the band.  

Standing Ankle Glides Starting Position

Once you have the tension, push your knee forward over your toes as far as you can while keeping your heel down on the ground.  Then return to the starting position and repeat another rep.  Do as many reps as you can, slowly and under control, for 2 minutes.  

Standing Ankle Glides Final Position

This will mobilize the joint capsule of the ankle and help stretch the Achilles tendon.  

If the Achilles tendon is still way too tight, then you may need a deeper stretch.  

Slant Board Stretch

A slant board is a slanted surface that you see in physical therapy offices and in some gyms.  

All you have to do is stand on it with both of your heels down flat on the board.  Then hold onto a wall and try to lean forward as far as you can while keeping your heels down.  This provides a very deep stretch to the Achilles tendon.  

Slant Board Stretch

Do not bend your knees.  If the knees bend, you are taking pressure off of the calves and Achilles tendon.  

Hold the stretch for at least 2 minutes, maybe even 5 minutes if you are really tight.  

If you don’t have a slant board, you can use a rubber weight plate against the wall and stand on it.  Just don’t try this on a thin plate.  Make sure you use a strong and sturdy weight plate.  This will work as a fine replacement for a slant board.  

Slant Board Stretch Rubber Plate

Thoracic Mobility

The third and final area is the thoracic spine.  Many coaches often emphasize stretching your shoulders.  While this may be true in some circumstances, it is not always the case.  

In most cases the shoulders are fine, it is the thoracic spine that needs work.  The shoulder girdle is extremely mobile and can move through a wide variety of motions.  The thoracic spine, on the other hand, is much stiffer and limited in comparison.  

Due to our daily lifestyles of sitting down for long periods of time, our thoracic spines are more rounded (kyphotic).  As time goes on and you remain in these positions, your upper back gets stiff in a rounded position.  It needs to be mobilized for thoracic extension.  

Here’s how you do it.  

Lying Supine Extension

For this stretch, all you need is a foam roller.  

Pace the foam roller on the ground and lie down on top of it with the roller on your upper back.  Raise your hips as high as you can and bring your arms overhead until they touch the ground.  

Lying Supine Stretch Starting Position

Try to keep your hands touching the ground while lowering your hips to the ground.  Your hands will probably come up if your new to this exercise but that’s ok.  As time goes on and you practice you will get better.  

Lying Supine Stretch Final Position

Once you can do the full stretch, your entire body will be wrapped around the roller.  This provides you with a great thoracic mobilization.  Hold for 2 minutes.  

To make this stretch even harder, hold onto a weight with your hands while trying to lower your hips.  The weight will serve as an anchor point overhead for your hands.  

Lying Supine Stretch With Weight

T-4 Stretch  

The T-4 stretch incorporates thoracic mobility with the movement of the upper arms.  Targeting not just the thoracic spine itself, but also the big powerful muscles around it.  Specifically, the triceps and the lats.  

Many people don’t realize that the triceps and the lats get very tight from heavy upper body lifting and poor posture.  If left unchecked, this can cause a kyphotic thoracic spine.  This makes the T-4 stretch a hidden gem.  

To perform you will need a dowel of some kind (e.g. broomstick) and a bench or chair.  Kneel down in front of the bench and place your elbows on the bench.  The dowel should be in your hands.  

T-4 Stretch Starting Position

While in this position, walk your hands out as far as you can.  Ideally you want your hands to be outside of your elbows.  The further out you go the deeper the stretch.  Don’t go too crazy, only go as far as your flexibility allows.  It should also be noted that your back and neck should be neutral.  

T-4 Stretch Hand Position

From this position, push your hips back and get your head between your shoulders.  At the same time curl the dowel to the base of your neck.  Don’t force yourself down.  Let your body be dead weight and have gravity do the work for you.  

T-4 Stretch Middle Position

Also make sure you keep your spine neutral the entire time.  If the spine caves in, or rounds, you need to stop and reset.  The best way to prevent this from happening is to take a big breath of air into your belly and slowly exhale on the way down.  Don’t let all the air out or you’ll lose tension. 

T-4 Stretch Final Position

Perform anywhere from 5-10 repetitions.  Do each repetition as slowly as possible with good form.  You are after quality, not quantity.  

Squat Equipment

Like any other barbell lift, the squat cannot be done in a vacuum.  You will need some equipment.  Fortunately if your are a member of a local gym then you probably have all the equipment that you will need.  

But there are some concerns for you to consider.  Some, not all, commercial gyms have a very limited amount of power racks.  And some don’t have any power racks at all.  Some will just have a “squat rack”.  

This is a piece of equipment with different preset racking positions.  Plus the safety bars are in a fixed position so you cannot adjust them.  

This may be fine for you if you are of average body dimensions, but for those of you who are taller, or shorter, you may have a hard time adjusting to the rack.  

Plus with the fixed safety bars, you may not be able to perform any special exercises such as Anderson squats.  

With all of that said, you should find access to a power rack in another gym, or even consider purchasing one for yourself.  

Power Racks

If there is one piece of equipment that will make a huge difference in your training, it is a power rack.  A power rack is sometimes called a power cage.  When looking at it from a distance, it looks like a steel cage with a barbell trapped inside of it.  

The beauty of a power rack is how it allows you to squat freely without any restrictions while keeping you safe.  With a power rack you do not need a spotter.  Each rack has safety bars that will catch the bar if you can’t get back up.  

There are also adjustable hooks on each of the racks.  This is far better than a standard squat rack.  With the adjustable hooks, you can adjust the hight of the bar specific to the shape and size of your body.  

Ideally, you want to have the bar racked right around chest level.  You want to un-rack the bar with as little effort as possible.  That way you can save the real work for the squat itself.  If you have the bar to high, you will un-rack it on your tip toes which is unstable and dangerous.  Too low and you will waste energy un-racking the bar because you have more distance to travel.  

When you set the safety pins, you want them to be slightly below your depth.  Now the pins will catch the bar and save you from being buried.  

There are all kinds of racks out there that will work for you if need one for home, or your own gym.  All range from different prices and sizes, choose which one works best for you.  

Not all commercial gyms have their own power racks.  Due to the age of gymtimidation, most commercial gyms are trying to play it safe to attract new members.  

You vote with your wallet so if your gym isn’t providing the right equipment to get you results, leave and find another gym that will.

Or you can purchase your own rack from the list above.  Either way, make sure you gain access to a power rack.  

Barbells

Aside from a power rack, a barbell is a must!

There are all kinds of barbels to choose from, but with the squat, there are certain things to consider.  

First is the knurling.  With a squat bar, you want to have a small strip of knurling on the center of the barbell.  This prevents the bar from sliding around on your upper back.  

It might not become too much of problem with lighter weight.  But when that bar starts getting heavy, it is going to start sliding on you if the center is smooth.  

The second thing are the sleeves of the bar itself.  Deadlift bars have stiff sleeves that do not spin, which is great for deadlifting.  But for squats, this is bad.  

You want sleeves that spin with your squat bar.  Otherwise if they don’t then the entire barbell will start to rotate and this will place a lot of strain on your wrists and elbows.  This means you should purchase an Olympic barbell.  Typically these are used for the sport of weightlifting.  

The final thing to consider is the diameter of the barbell.  If the bar is too thick, then you will have a hard time holding onto the bar when squatting.  The bar needs to be supported by the upper back.  If you have a hard time stabilizing it, then it will start to slide off.  

A big thick bar will be harder to control than a thinner bar.  A thinner bar will fit nicer into the groove of your upper back.  The ideal diameter is ~28mm.  

Here are some good bars to choose from:

Whatever you do, don’t buy a cheap bar.  Cheaper bars will get the job done with light weight, but as the weight gets heavy, they will start to warp on you.  You can see this with bars that bend very easily.  

Your safety should be your number one concern.  Cheap bars place your safety at risk.  Heavier weights will make squatting much more dangerous.  Make sure you use a high quality good bar.  

Shoes

Footwear makes all the difference in squatting.  The key to finding a good shoe is to look for a shoe with zero heel drop.  

Deadlift Push Through Mid Foot
These are Reebok CrossFit Nano 8’s. Notice the relatively small difference between the height of my heel vs my toes.

Heel drop is the measure from the base of your heel to your toes.  The higher the position of the heel relative to the toes, the greater the heel drop.  

Running shoes have a pretty high amount of heel drop.  But there are SOME good shoes with a high heel drop than can actually help you squat.  

Are Lifting Shoes Worth It?
You can see how the heel of my Adipowers is made of a thick plastic. This helps stabilize my squat when I am lifting heavy weights. Shoes with a rubber bottom can actually move around on you when lifting heavy.

They are designed to help you reach depth easier without ankle mobility getting in the way.  Olympic lifters use them all the time for the clean and snatch.  They are a bit pricey, but if you are serious about your training they are well worth the investment.

Generally speaking, low bar squatters are better off with zero heel drop shoes.  Here are some below that I recommend:

If you are more of a high bar squatter, then shoes with a higher heel drop will be better for you.  Here are some good ones:

Again, be sure to avoid running shoes or anything with a thick cushion on the bottom. 

Don’t Use The Smith Machine

One las thing I would like to address is the smith machine.  You have probably seen this machine in your local commercial gym.  

It looks like a power rack except the bar is on guided rails that can only go in a straight line.  This forces you to adjust your body around the forced bar path of the machine.  In a regular squat, it works the other way.

Why is this such a big deal?  Because you only get strength and hypertrophy out of the smith machine.  Nothing else.  

No motor coordination, athletic ability, kinesthetic awareness, core stability or carryover into other exercises.  

The smith machine takes al the movement and neurological benefits out of the squat and just leaves you with the muscular adaptations.  It is like the white rice of the grain world, all calories, but no nutrients. 

The smith machine has very little carryover to the squat.  But it does have some use.  And it does have a place in your training program.  

You can use the smith machine as an assistance exercise for the squat.  Use it for muscle hypertrophy and for conditioning the muscles of the squat.  This way when you perform squats, you will not fatigue these muscle groups as quickly.  

To do this, make sure you do multiple sets with high repetitions.  I generally recommend anywhere from 15-20 repetitions.          

Conclusion

All in all training is ultimately work.  You are working every day to become better than you were yesterday.  To become more “perfect”.  

This may be tough to hear, but isn’t that the point behind all of this.  Isn’t this what life is all about?  Rising to the top?  Becoming better?  

I think so.  

To become your absolute best physically, then you NEED to master the squat.  There is no other way.  No other exercise has as many benefits and perks as the squats does.  

If you follow all of the steps above that I have given you, it will probably take you several months to really become proficient.  But it is SO worth it!

Squats add more muscle mass than any other exercise.  They also burn fat better, build strength better and boost performance better.  

So if you’re going to rise to the top, be sure to learn how to move with a heavy bar on your back.  Otherwise the person beating you will.  

If you want to learn how to fully mobilize your hips for squatting, be sure to check out my Hip Mobilizer Course.  It takes you step by step through all of the stages of hip mobility and removes any guessing work.  Plus, it has over 2 hours of jam packed content to make sure you never need to read another ebook or watch another YouTube video again.                

If you liked this post, be sure to share it and leave a comment in the description if you have any questions.  

Cheers!

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