You Don’t Know Squat: A Beginner’s Guide to Squats
The squat, in all its different forms, is one of the best exercises you can do. They build strong legs, a tight butt, and even help to strengthen your core. They’re even great for fat loss because of all the different muscles involved.
It’s no wonder that the squat is often referred to as the “King of the Exercises.”
Unfortunately, they’re also very misunderstood.
Some say that squats are bad for your knees and/or lower back. Others say that they’re fine, so long as your knees don’t go past your toes. Still, others say that they’re only bad if you don’t keep your back straight.
If you’re new to weight training, that’s a lot of stuff to keep track of, especially while holding a heavy weight on your back.
In this article, we cut through the noise and show you how to squat, how to make them more effective, all while getting a stronger, sexier lower body.
K.I.S.S My Squat
I’m all about K.I.S.S., as in “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
The best solutions are often the simplest ones. With that in mind, I’m about to offer you the simplest cue for perfect squats.
I think you should find a chair. You’re going to want to sit down for this.
Are you sitting?
That was it.
Now do that nine more times.
Congratulations! You’ve just performed a perfect set of squats.
Now try it again, slowly, this time paying attention to how your body moves. Pay attention to your knees as they pass over your toes, the width of your stance, and how far your torso bends forward as you sit.
Now try the same thing, but this time without the chair. As you sit back into the nonexistent chair, keep your hands clasped in front of you. At the bottom portion, your elbows should be touching your knees.
If you can’t go lower right now, that’s fine; that’s your best depth for the time being.
Squats can seem daunting, but remember that there’s no right or wrong way to sit. Of course, due to different body shapes and sizes, there are some differences in terms of the mechanics of how we sit, but everyone can sit.
Speaking of sitting, ironically it’s what keeping you from being able to squat properly.
Why Your Squats Suck: Tight Muscles
As we discussed in this article, sitting is literally killing you. Ok, it’s not literally killing you. It’s barely even metaphorically killing you. However, it is ruining your posture. At this point, you might be wondering what posture has to do with squatting.
The answer is: “a whole lot, actually.”
Bad posture is a product a few different muscles dysfunctions, like lordosis, kyphosis, and internally rotated shoulders. A person dealing with some or all of these issues is going to have a hard time standing, walking, or sitting as it is. Unchecked, adding weight to something as simple as “sitting” with weights can be a recipe for disaster.
Assume The Position
Completely fixing your postural issues could take months or even years. There’s no need to wait until you have perfect posture to start squatting, though. So long as you perform the movement with the best form available to you today, you’ll be fine.
Regardless of which squat variation we’re talking about, there are some things that are common throughout. We’ll now go over some pointers and cues you can use to make sure you’re squatting as safely and as effectively as possible.
Before starting, get a chair and place it behind you. Also find a long, lightweight stick, like a broom, a mop, a dowel rod, or body bar.
Ready? Let’s begin.
First, hop in place a few times, using a soft landing. Where your feet end up is a good starting point to determine how far wide your stance should be. You can then adjust a bit wider or narrower, depending on mobility and preference. The width of the stance also shifts the focus of the targeted muscles. A wide stance, being more hip dominant, will add additional focus on your glutes. A narrow stance will target the quadriceps to a greater degree.
To begin, place that stick/dowel rod along your spine, grabbing the top part above the base of your neck with one hand and the bottom part above your tailbone with the other. Make sure that every part of your spine, save for the natural curve of your lumbar spine (low back), is touching the stick/bar. Notice how your chest is tall and wide, and your shoulders are pulled back.
Next, drive your hips forward slightly until you feel some slight pressure in your core. This motion sends a signal to glutes so they know to be involved in the forthcoming movement.
In addition to helping you fill out a pair of jeans, your glutes help to brace the core which will keep you from hurting your back. This is especially important as you start to move heavier weight.
Now sit into the chair. It might feel a little unnatural at first, but do it a few times to ingrain the movement pattern. After a short rest period, try it without the chair, still using the stick/dowel rod.
Here’s a concise checklist of how to start your squat:
- Assume your best stance.
- Chest tall and wide, with shoulders pinned back (proper posture).
- Drive your hips forward to engage the hips and core.
- Drive your hips backward and bend your knees at the same time to begin the descent, keeping your abs tight.
For this part, set up the chair behind you again and grab the dowel and sit. From this position, we’ll pay special attention to what happens as you get up, while continuing to maintain a neutral spine position.
As you stand, feel the pressure on your feet, as if you’re pushing the ground away with your feet. Make sure to feel the force in your heels. If you’re having trouble with this, place small plates (2.5-5 lbs. plates under your toes), but make sure not to fall back.
As your butt comes off the chair, notice how your torso leans forward a bit? That’s completely fine and normal. Don’t confuse a “straight back” with an “upright back.” All you want is to make sure your back is straight, and that’s exactly what the stick/dowel rod is for.
As you continue to ascend, still pressing through the heels, you’ll feel the pressure in your quads. As you get near the top, drive the hips forward as if you’re bumping uglies with the air, squeezing the glutes to complete the movement.
Here’s the checklist of how to come out of the bottom of the squat:
- Chest tall and wide, with shoulders pinned back (there’s that proper posture stuff, again).
- Feel that your core is braced, but not flexed too tightly.
- Drive through the heels.
- Near the top, drive the hips forward, squeezing your glutes at the top.
Now let’s add some weights, and go through a few different progressions of the squat.
While the goblet squat is the easiest progression to master, it’s no slouch when it comes to its effectiveness.
To begin, grab a relatively heavy dumbbell from one of the weighted ends, using your hands to cup it–hence the name. Because we’re using weights now, we’ll add one more item to the checklist: keep your upper back tight. Do this by squeezing your shoulder blades together. This helps to brace your thoracic spine.
Now begin your descent as normal, At the bottom, try to get your elbows to touch the inside of your knees. This gets you in the habit of keeping your knees from caving inward. Also known as knee valgus, allowing your knees to cave in can cause some serious injuries as the weights get heavier.
When learning the movement, it’s important to sit at the bottom position with your elbows touching the inside of your knees for a few seconds to get used to the feeling of being in that position.
As you come up, you still want to keep your knees from caving in. A cue that’s helpful to prevent knee valgus is “spread the floor.” Imagine there’s a crack in the ground, and you want to use your feet and legs to make that crack bigger.
Push off from your heels, as if you’re pushing the floor away from you. Finish by squeezing the glutes at the top.
A note on breathing: Take a deep breath at the top and hold it at the bottom. Release it on your way up. Taking in air will contribute to your posture and provide additional bracing for your core. This holds true for all squats.
Next up: the front squat. This is the big brother of the goblet squat because it allows for handling heavier weights.
For this exercise, it’s very important to maintain a tight upper back. The cue used here is “break the fingers.” Imagine that someone has their palm extended with finger tips along your upper spine. Now squeeze your shoulder blades together to break those fingers. That’s the tension you want to feel once the bar is resting on your shoulders and throughout the exercise.
Keep your elbows up, at about 90 degrees, the entire time. If you can’t maintain the elbow position for the entire set, use lighter weights.
A note on grip: some people are sticklers for the olympic grip, shown below. While it’s great to have the wrist mobility, and many of us are neglecting it, it’s more important to get the benefit of this exercise than avoiding it because your wrists aren’t flexible enough. It’s perfectly acceptable to cross your arms or to tie wrist wraps around the bar in order to hold up the barbell.
Because this exercise is front loaded (weighted in the front), it’s a bit more quad focused than the back squat, but it has the added benefit of also working the upper back muscles.
The most well-known version of the squat, the back squat is a fantastic exercise for building all-around lower body strength and size.
All of the tips and cues we’ve discussed apply here, as well. The only difference here is bar placement. Many people make the mistake of placing the bar at the base of their neck, causing pain and bruising in the cervical spine area; it’s a reason why some avoid this exercise altogether.
Instead, “break the fingers,” and shrug. Now place yourself under the bar, placing the bar on your trapezius muscles, gripping the bar just outside shoulder width. Ideally, your elbows should line up directly with the bar. There are different schools of thought when it comes to where your elbows should be, and they have valid points. If you’re a novice or intermediate lifter, this a good place to start.
Once again, to being, brace the hips and core, and then being your descent by pulling your hips behind you while bending your knees. A good cue here is “touch the wall behind you with your butt.” This will naturally roll your hips back, at which point you should also start bending the knees to begin your descent.
Do your best to bend your hips and knees at the same time.
As you get lower, stop at parallel or lower, depending on your personal mobility. Drive through the heels as you come up, “spreading the floor.” As you reach the top, drive your hips forward and brace your core.
Because this exercise is backloaded, you can typically handle heavier weights and is the more hip/glute dominant version of the squat.
Putting It All Together
Ok, that was a lot of information for one exercise. To make sure you got it, let’s do a quick review:
- Stand tall, with your chest open and wide.
- “Break the fingers.”
- Take a deep breath and hold it.
- Drive your hips forward quickly to brace your hips and core.
- “Touch the wall behind you with your butt” and bend your knees at the same time.
- “Spread the floor”
- “Push the floor away from yourself,” and exhale.
- Drive your hips forward.
- Flex glutes and brace the core at the top.
Each of the different squats we discussed, the goblet squat, the front squat, and the back squat, all have their place a good workout routine. Complete exercise neophytes will do better with the goblet squat to get comfortable with the movement before moving to the barbell versions. If something goes wrong with a goblet squat, which is highly unlikely, it’s easy to bail; just drop the weight in front of yourself. The same is true for the front squat, to an extent, despite the heavier weights.
The back squat requires a bit more experience, especially if your rack doesn’t have safety bars. If you’re using weights outside of your comfort zone, make sure you do so as safely as possible using a squat rack or power rack.
The squat isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s why many a gym bro skips leg day. While there’s no shame in doing what you want with your body, a great set of legs will draw the admiration and respect of many. We know this article will help you squat better, no matter how long you’ve been training.
Did you find this article helpful? If so, please a leave a comment below and let me know. I’d also appreciate if you could share it with other friends who might need help with the squat.
Do you still have questions about how to properly perform your squats? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to make sure you get the form down.
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