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.
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 long and over the top for most people to comprehend.
I mean really! How many of us are going to actually read a 10,000 word article? At that point, you might as well just get a book and sit in a comfortable chair. At least that is more practical.
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.
Squatting Only Air — Building Your Base
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 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.
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.
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:
- Take In Some Air (Breathe Into Your Belly)
- Screw Your Feet Into The Ground
- Engage Your Hips First, Knees Second
- Drive Through Your Heels AND Your Big Toe
- 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.
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.
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.
- Hold the dumbbell up against your chest with your palms up.
- Keep BOTH the top and bottom half of the dumbbell up against your chest the entire time.
- As you descend, keep your elbows between your knees and push your knees out in the bottom position.
- 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.
You’ve Reached The Summit! — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Olympic grip gives you all of the benefits of the front squat that you read above.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Improve Your Hip Mobility With Just 5 Simple Exercises
- Hip Mobility Reduces Lower Back And Knee Pain?
- How Hip Mobility Can Boost Strength And Relieve Joint Pain
- The Best Squat Mobility Exercises Ever
- Hip Pain During Squats – Anterior Femoral Glide
- Common Squat Mobility Issues
- Achieving Front Squat Mobility
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.
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!
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.