barbell back squat

Squats 101: How to Achieve Proper Squat Form

by Evelyn Valdez

The squat is one of the most foundational and functional movements there is. Think about it... We squat down to look or pick something up off the ground and to sit down, it's something we've been doing for years. Yet it's the exercise that almost everyone struggles with, meaning, most people have improper form and technique when performing it.

Improper form when squatting leads to poor muscle activation, and can even increase your risk of an injury, especially if performing a barbell back squat. There's a lot to unpack with how to achieve a proper squat form, but it's worth unpacking because the benefits of learning how to squat properly are immense!

We want to make sure you're maximizing your leg days and working all the right muscles when squatting, so we're going to guide you through achieving proper back squat form! By the end of this guide, you'll be squatting like a pro and on the right path to achieving your goals, be it growing your glutes or just building overall muscle and strength!

Why you should squat

Learning how to do squats (with good form) can help strengthen several muscle groups in the lower body so you can build stronger legs!

So, what do squats work?

They work your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, hamstrings, and even hip flexors. It can even improve your knee and ankle mobility, strengthen your core muscles, and keep your bones and joints healthy. Add some free weights, like dumbbells, a barbell, or a kettlebell, and those benefits expand!

Weighted squats can also activate muscles in your upper body because the move places an isometric holding of weight. This means there is a static muscle contraction which can help grow the muscles in your arms and shoulders. Basically, weighted squats with good form will help with any strength training goals, help improve your bone and joint health, and even help you move better - which is ideal for anyone doing high-intensity training.

On the other hand, squats with bad form can increase your risk of injury because they put additional stress on the joints. But most importantly, they won't get you the results you want because the right muscles aren't being activated!

How to do a proper squat in five steps

We're going to focus on the most popular weighted squat - the barbell back squat. This is the exercise that will work your entire body, and nailing the form will help make all other variations much easier. 

Here's how to do it in five steps...

1 - Set up 

To do a barbell squat properly and safely, you have to set up your squat rack right. First, find the right squat bar, preferably one with an unattached barbell. Second, set the height of the bar at about the same height as your collarbone. The last thing you want is to get up on your tippy-toes to unrack the bar, this can cause an unwanted injury before you even get started. Basically, when you get under the bar it should slightly be below your shoulders and resting on your upper back. This is known as a "low bar squat", it's the most common form amongst beginners, general lifters, and even powerlifters. As a final tip, squat with just the bar for your first set! Consider it a warm-up set before adding heavier weights.

2 - Get into a squat stance

Face the bar and step under it placing your hands around it on either side of you. The width of your grip will depend on your flexibility. You can choose to do a narrow grip (hands closer to your shoulders) or a wider grip. A narrow grip is slightly more advanced, so we'll go the slightly easier route and recommend a wider grip.

Once you have your hand placement down, and the bar is placed at an appropriate height, step back from the supports and place your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart with toes pointed slightly outward. To create better stability and improve alignment, dig your feet into the ground and brace your core (here are tips on how to engage your core), and squeeze your glutes. Before you initiate the movement, take a deep breath, keep your shoulders down, chest up, and remember to maintain a neutral spine position.

3 - Initiate the movement

To get into a proper squat position, push your hips back slowly as if you're going to sit back in a chair. Don't rush it, instead, control the movement and take a few seconds to lower yourself to increase the time under tension (makes your muscles work harder). Continue to lower yourself until your thighs are parallel or lower, making sure that your spine is in a neutral position and your knees are tracked laterally above your feet not caved in. Once you reach the bottom of the squat, pause for a moment.

Tip: The key to the perfect squat is going through the full range of motion, so try to go as deep as you can - but don't force it, work your way up to getting into a deep squat position.

4 - Drive through your heels to push back up

Keeping your core engaged, and all your muscles tight, exhale to explode back up to the starting position by driving through your heels. This will help fire up your hamstrings and glutes, so don't pick up your toes or lift your heels.

5 - Finish Strong

Once you're at the top of the squat, squeeze your glutes, this will naturally tuck your pelvis into a neutral position. This is known as a posterior pelvic tilt, the issue is that most people thrust their hips forward. Avoid thrusting, and focus on squeezing your glutes to naturally cause the pelvis to tilt forward.

That's how you do a barbell back squat with good form and technique! Once you got the form down, and are able to do at least 10 reps (without sacrificing form), you can start adding heavier weights. For heavier sets, consider using a weight lifting belt! It'll help stabilize and reduce the stress on your spine when squatting really heavy, this in turn will help you push through more reps and lift more confidently.  

Common mistakes to avoid

To take things a step further, we want to give you common squat mistakes that new, and even experienced, lifters fall victim to.

Here are squat mistakes you should avoid:

  • Lifting the heels or toes off the floor: Although you should drive through your heels, you shouldn't focus on it so much that the balls of your feet rise up. It's crucial to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground throughout the entire squat movement. So, don't raise your heels or your toes because you'll lose your balance.
  • Letting your knees cave inward: As we mentioned before, your knees should track laterally above your feet. If they're too far out it can cause the knees to collapse inward putting stress on your lower back.
  • Hunched or hyperextended back: Rounding or hyperextending your back is a common mistake lifters make, and it's a bad one. Rounding your back or arching it can cause a strain in your lower back, but the heavier the weight used the higher the chance that you'll compress your spinal discs. So, it's crucial to maintain your spine in a neutral position at all times, you can do this by making sure that your chest is up and shoulders are back. At the top of the movement, make sure that you're squeezing your glutes to naturally cause a slight pelvic tilt. Avoid thrusting your hips forward because it'll cause your back to hyperextend.
  • Bad neck positioning: Where you look is more important than you think. Looking up or in different directions while doing a weighted squat is an unsafe position for your spine and neck! You also don't want to look directly at the floor. Instead, look straight out in front of you keeping your head in a neutral position.

Popular squat variations

Another reason to love squats is that there are so many different variations! Barbell squats are great, but practicing different squat exercises can help you build muscle and full-body strength much more effectively. We'll go over three of the most popular squat variation and how to do them, just remember to keep the form and techniques we mentioned above!

Front squat

This variation requires the placement of the weight to be in front of the shoulders, instead of behind. This changes the focus of the exercise to the quads, but it also requires a lot of shoulder and wrist mobility, so keep that in mind!

Here's how to do it:

  1. Face the barbell on the rack and place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Place the barbell on the front of the shoulders, and you can cross the arms over the bar to hold it in place. Or use an underhand grip by placing the fingertips under the bar just outside of your shoulders, and driving the elbows up so the arms are parallel to the ground. Once you have the bar secured, unrack it, and slowly step back.
  3. Take a deep inhale, brace your core, and lower into a squat contracting your glutes and legs on the way down.
  4. Drive through your heels to push yourself back up.

Sumo squats

This exercise involves a wider foot placement that helps target your leg muscles in different ways than traditional squats. Generally, it works the same muscles, but it incorporates your inner thighs and glutes more.

Here's how to do it:

  1. If you're using a barbell, follow the setup instructions above. If not, you can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of you, either at your chest or in between your legs. 
  2. Get into a wide stance, wider than shoulder-width, and with toes pointed out slightly at a comfortable angle. Remember to keep the knees aligned with your toes.
  3. Inhale deeply, engage your core, and begin to lower down into a squat position by pushing your hips back, keeping knees in line with your toes.
  4. Go down as low as you can without compromising your balance or flexibility.
  5. Drive through your heels to push back to the starting position.

Pistol squats

This is a more advanced squat variation that is also known as the one-legged squat. It requires you to put all your weight on one leg to really challenge your balance and stability while adding intensity. This exercise is challenging as it is, and won't require a barbell or weight. If you want to work your way up to it, you can isolate each leg by squatting down on a bench or box.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Begin by standing on one leg with your toes pointing straight ahead and the knee of the other leg slightly bent. Extend your arms in front of you for extra balance or keep them at your sides.
  2. Keep the weight centered over the ball of your foot, with your upper body erect, and shoulders back. Raise your non-supporting foot from the floor slightly.
  3. Lower into a squat position keeping the knee of your supporting leg centered over the ball of the foot. It'll be harder to get into a deep squat, so start with shallow squats and work your way to getting deeper.
  4. Slowly raise back up to the starting position, do 8-10 reps, and repeat with the other leg.

Now you have the tools you need to execute any squat with proper form! Don't forget to warm up, do a few glute activation exercises to get the glutes fired up, and work your way up to going deep and through the full range of motion to fully reap the benefits of squatting. 

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