Is the squat a safe and highly effective exercise for building the glutes/posterior chain? Of course it is, but not the way a lot of lifters perform it. After having teached hundreds of clients the basic technique in the compound strength exercises and regularly observed how gym goers perform the squat, I’ve discovered certain patterns and developed some strategies that are effective for correcting errors. Probably the most common mistake among beginners-intermediates is to perform the squat with excessive forward knee movement and anterior weight shift (e.g., you come up on the balls of your feet/toes). Other squat mistakes could be as common as this one, but they are usually not as detrimental in terms of safety and progress. Even when performed to full depth, this type of technique takes the tension off the backside (especially glutes) and puts a lot of stress on the knees. Also, decreased contribution of the large muscle groups in the posterior chain results in less than optimal strength and muscle gains and “rapid” stagnation.
If your goal is to build glutes, good squat technique is especially important
The squat is often considered a great exercise for building strong and powerful glutes, but the fact is that a poorly performed squat doesn’t put your posterior chain in a position to lift heavy weights, and your potential to build strength and muscle therefore decreases. I’ve found that clients who’ve always performed squats with poor technique usually report significant glute soreness and rapid strength gains when they learn how to correctly engage their hip extensors in the lift.
Hip dominant vs. quad dominant squatting
While hip dominant exercises such as the box squat are often performed with an angled torso and vertical tibia, quad dominant exercises such as the front squat are executed with a more vertical torso position and angled tibia. These same principles also apply to the basic back squat. An angled back position and a relatively vertical tibia in the low bar squat compared to the high bar squat makes it a more hip dominant exercise.
You can also choose what kind of stress you want to achieve from each exercise. E.g., if you tweak your squat form you can put increased tension on different muscle groups. By keeping the shins almost vertical and pushing the hips as far back as possible (like many powerlifters do) you maximally load the glutes and hamstrings, while keeping a more upright back position and allowing the knees to glide forward (as many bodybuilders do) primarily stresses the quadriceps. Kept within reason and performed correctly, quad dominant squatting isn’t necessarily problematic. However, the issue is often that the knees shoot forward (excessively), the heels come up, and you place a lot of compressive forces on the knee joints.
Excessive hip dominance can also be a problem as the lifter can end up with a very horizontal back position and something that looks a lot like a good morning exercise. Although thinking about pushing the hips back is a good tip when learning and performing the back squat, the squat is not a deadlift. While some lifters prefer to perform the squat with almost vertical shins (as often seen in the deadlift), some forward knee movement is to be expected in the squat (degree depends on anthropometry and squat technique). It’s when this knee drift becomes excessive and the weight comes up on the balls of the feet that it becomes a major problem. When performing the squat you should be able to raise your toes during the entire lift!
For the average lifter, aiming for something in between the two ends on the spectrum is usually the way to go. However, the problem most strength trainees have with the squat isn’t to stress their quads, but to sit back and engage their glutes and hamstrings. Therefore, the primary focus should be to make the squat a more hip dominant exercise. In essence, don’t focus on the muscles that are already strong, focus on the weaker link.
Fix your squat technique
The typical scenario at the gym is that lifters who are instructed to perform a squat display knees tucked in, forward knee movement, and heels that are lifted from the ground in the bottom position of the lift. Instead of keeping the bar in a vertical path over the mid-foot, the bar path is now somewhere over the toes (or even in front of the feet). Simply instructing the trainee to push the hips back and force the knees out (not forward) isn’t always effective since the lifter lacks kinesthetic sense/awareness, haven’t learned the basic hip hinging pattern, and/or have poor strength development in the posterior chain. As a sedentary lifestyle contributes to lower crossed syndrome and glute athropy (which are further worsened by poor movement patterns in the daily life and gym), there’s no surprise that so many gym goers have trouble performing a safe and effective squat.
So, how do your correct your squat technique? Although every lifter has different needs, I’ve found that the following steps are highly effective for pretty much everyone. For some people, the first 2-3 steps will be enough, while other have to spend some time on step 3,4, and 5 to really get it.
1. Learn the bottom position of the lift
2. Use light weights, and focus on the right things
3. Make sure you master the hip hinging pattern
The squat is not just a hip hinge, but I’ve found that learning this essential movement pattern is a key to understanding correct hip movement in the squat.
4. Perform exercises that teach you the correct movement pattern in the squat
Facing wall squat are great as they limit the forward knee movement and force your knees out and your hips back. Another exercise that is very effective for learning correct squat technique is the box squat.
5. Strengthen the glutes/posterior chain
One of the major reasons trainees have difficulty with the squat is because they have weak glutes (and sometimes hamstrings) and in comparison – relatively strong quadriceps. The primary solution to this problem is to focus on improving the movement pattern in key lifts and strengthening the posterior chain through hip dominant exercises. The hip thrust (don’t go too heavy, focus on squeezing the glutes at the top, and avoid overextending the lumbar spine) and pull through are great options in that regard.
Proper back squat technique
Here are videos of me showing the back squat from two different angles.