The squat is one of the most fundamental human movements. It activates big chunks of the human musculoskeletal system, challenges one’s balance and coordination, and can help prevent and treat a variety of postural deviations, injuries, and pains. This is particularly true if it’s performed with added resistance. Unfortunately though, a lot of people perform the squat with bad form and therefore fail to harvest all of the benefits that this activity/movement, which many contemporary gym goers have incorporated into their exercise regimes, has to offer
Revamp your squat
Throughout the years I’ve worked as a coach/trainer, I’ve teached hundreds of people how to squat correctly (See this page for an overview of the coaching services I offer). I don’t claim to know everything about the squat; however, I do feel I have a pretty good understanding of this exercise and how it should be performed.
Over the years I’ve developed various strategies for dealing with different technical errors I’ve seen clients make while they’re under the bar. One of the things I’ve observed is that there is a pattern to these errors and that a common set of cues and tips can eliminate many, if not most, of them.
Some people have to perform various corrective exercises before they are able to squat with good form, for example because they suffer from a musculoskeletal-related injury or imbalance syndrome (e.g., lower crossed syndrome or upper crossed syndrome); however, these folks are in the minority. Most people are capable of performing a fairly good squat, as long as they receive proper instructions.
Perhaps needless to say, kids differ from adults in many respects. Your body and mind don’t work like that of a 2 year-old. The purpose of this article is not to try to change that or to get you to think that you will one day be able to move like you did when you were very young; rather, the purpose is to align your squat pattern more closely with that of a young, flexible kid, such as the one shown in the picture up to the left.
There are many ways to perform a squat. Personally, I favor a somewhat hip dominant squat pattern in most instances. The tips I’m going to share in this post are fairly general in nature; however, some of them may be inappropriate for certain versions of the squat (e.g., olympic-style squatting).
1. Keep the load on the back of your feet
A lot of people let their knees drift forward, “fall” onto their toes, and push/keep the load on the front of their feet when they perform the squat. This type of squat pattern puts excessive stress on the knees and lower back and places much of the the stimuli that should preferably be placed on the posterior chain, in particular the glutes, on the quads. By keeping the load on – and driving through – your heels/the back of your feet, you maximize the recruitment of your glutes and keep your knees out of trouble.
2. Pinch your shoulder blades together when you perform the barbell squat
As you get under the bar to perform a weighted squat, pinch your shoulder blades together. This helps stabilize your upper back and body and gives you “control” over the bar. If you don’t retract your shoulders, you may find that the weight of the bar overpowers you during the lift and your chest falls and you start rounding your upper back.
3. Keep your head/neck aligned with the rest of your upper body
There’s no universal agreement among coaches and strength athletes as to what constitutes the optimal neck/head alignment in the squat. Whereas coaches such as Mark Rippetoe recommend that one should keep one’s neck aligned with the rest of the spine at all times (which means that one ends up looking down at the floor a few meters in front of oneself as one bends over), others prefer to look straight ahead during the whole lift. Personally, I’ve come to favor the former approach, as I feel it’s optimal with respects to glute activation, hip drive, and injury prevention.
4. “Pull” your shoulder blades down/get your chest up
This tip carries over from the last one. In addition to retracting your shoulder blades, you may want to try pulling them down. This ensures that you get your chest up, something that helps you avoid flexing the back during the lift. It also gives you more control over the bar/weight and makes the squat a more complete exercise, in that it gives the upper back muscles more to do.
5. Push against the outside of your feet/get your knees out
This tip was a game changer for me and many of my clients, which is why I’ve shared it many times here on the site. When I started pushing against the outside of my feet/heels while squatting and deadlifting, I felt like something had finally clicked. It took my form to a new level and also made me feel like the exercises got a lot more effective. I’ve seen it do the same for many of the clients I’ve coached over the years.
6. Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back and slightly bending your knees
A lot of people initiate the squat movement by flexing their knees and sitting down, as opposed to back. Basically, they try to keep their back as vertical as possible and are hesitant to “bend over”, perhaps because they’ve taken the general advice to keep one’s back “flat” while squatting, as opposed to flexed, to mean that they should try to keep their torso as upright as possible. This is problematic, as this type of squat pattern involves excessive knee drift and puts a lot of stress on the knees, quads, and lowers back, while neglecting the glutes. It’s certainly important to avoid overextending or flexing the back; however, that doesn’t mean that one should try to stay as upright as possible.
7. Maintain tightness/rigidity through the whole movement
A lot of gym goers have a tendency to “relax” at the bottom of the squat movement and let their chest fall, thereby losing the tight/rigid position of their torso. This is a big mistake, as it strains the lower back and makes it more difficult to make “true” gains/progress over time without further compromising one’s form. It’s very important to maintain tightness/rigidity through the whole movement.
8. Squat to parallel or lower if you’re able to
If you were to head into a random, commercial gym and have a look at the people there who are squatting, you’d probably find that many, if not most, of them perform partial or half squats. It’s very common to not go all the way down to parallel (the point at which the thighs are parallel to the floor) or deeper in the squat. There are certain instances in which half squatting is warranted; however, almost always, it’s best to go deeper.
9. Take a deep breath prior to each repetition when you perform heavy squats and don’t exhale until the rep is finished or nearly finished
Some people take several breaths during each squat rep and/or breathe out at the bottom of the movement. This is not ideal, as I see it, seeing as if you breathe out during the lift, you’re likely to lose some of the power, tightness, and rigidity you’ve built up in your body. This is particularly true if you’re lifting a lot of weight and only perform 1-6 rep reps in each set.
10. Go heavy, but not too heavy
If you’ve ever frequented a gym, you’ve undoubtedly spotted them: the people who try to lift a lot more weight than they are capable of lifting without severely compromising their form. In order to get stronger, it’s obviously important to give ones muscle’s some resistance to work with; however, one should be cautious not to exceed one’s abilities. A gym goer who has a tendency to lift more weight than he can safely handle is not only putting himself at risk of various injuries, but his workout results will be suboptimal, because he likely has to “cheat” more and more to be able to put more weight on the bar and because he places excessive stress on some muscles, while neglecting others.
Pictures: – Kid squatting: Creative commons picture by Jessica Lucia. Some rights reserved. – Head/neck alignment in the squat: getthisstrength.com. – Breath control: spinemuscle.ca. – Barbell with weight plate: Designed by Freepik.