How To Squat Better
Squats are one of the most popular exercises in any fitness regime and when done well, there are a ton of benefits. But there are a lot of different variations, and different uses – and it’s common for trainees to get their form wrong, or at least less than optimal, for their body type. So let’s look at this great exercise, and how to squat better.
Benefits Of Squats
There are a load of benefits to squats. For a lot of, if not most fitness goals, they’re one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises.
It works pretty much every lower body muscle, as well as your core. Especially with loaded squats – whether a barbell, kettlebell, bands, or dumbbells – there is also some carry over into the upper body as those muscles will be stabilising and supporting the load you are holding.
That means it is a great exercise for building strength and muscle. Similarly, because of the number of muscles involved in the movement, it is a great exercise for burning a lot of calories – which is of course helpful for weight loss goals.
There is also a mental side because squats are seen as one of those “big lifts” that most people that train for strength, or in bodybuilding circles like to use as their benchmark. So you get that huge mental benefit from progressing in squats as a great marker of your overall fitness progress.
Plus if you are using controlled motion and getting full range, you are going to be helping keep your lower body both strong and flexible. Getting into a low squat is going to keep your hips able to open, and keep your calf muscles allowing sufficient mobility at the ankle.
Different Kinds Of Squats
The squat as a movement pattern doesn’t change. That is a very specific movement, regardless of how you vary the accessories to it.
Bodyweight squats are the absolute basic fundamental movement. You are not loading any more weight or making it any more complex. It is just you, your technique and your range of motion.
As it is that foundation move, it makes sense to get your technique right for this one before looking at other variations.
As your progress and get stronger, you may find these aren’t giving your muscles the stimulus they need to make progress, but even when mastered, they are a great warm-up move and also good to come back to in order to refine your overall squat technique.
Also usually a bodyweight squat variation, pistol squats are one of the hardest exercises I have ever tried to do in my life
With the bodyweight version, you start with both feet on the ground. You lift one leg and extend it out in front of you, and you squat down with the other leg. So it is essentially a single-leg squat.
To help build up to it, you can hold on to something if you need to. I use a TRX trainer, you can use a wall, a chair – something that is going to support you as you aim for range.
And it challenges your leg strength, your coordination, your balance, and your flexibility – all at the same time.
Plus it takes a huge amount of skill.
It’s still on my bucket list to be able to smoothly and confidently pistol squat, but I haven’t made much progress here yet.
Another single-leg bodyweight squat variation is the shrimp squat.
You start with one foot on the ground and the other knee bent back so you can take that lifted foot’s heel in your hand. Then you basically try to kneel down. So the knee of your standing leg bends, and as you lower yourself, you want to bring your knee that is behind you, close to the ground.
I still need to hold on to something to achieve this one but I have made more progress than I have with pistol squats.
Yes I am sure someone somewhere (or possibly a lot of you) will argue that lunges don’t belong on a list of squat variations and that is fair.
You are still bending at the knee, you are still keeping your upper body fairly upright as you lower yourself, and you are still not hinging at the hips.
So yes it is a very different exercise to squats specifically, but the movement pattern can be similar. And for some who want to challenge their leg strength and don’t have much weight to add, it may be more effective than strictly sticking with squats.
Wide Leg Front Loaded Squats
If you take a wide stance for your squats – we’re talking wider than shoulder-width usually – these tend to be called sumo squats, named for the wide stance that sumo wrestlers take.
If you add weight – whether hold it at your chest or holding it in your arms straight down in front of you – that variation is often called a drop squat, or a low squat.
One of the key things there is that you need to make sure that your chest stays up and you keep your core engaged so you don’t end up hunching forward.
I’m going to talk about the goblet squat and front squat separately because the goblet squat in my head is using a lighter weight and the front squat is usually using a full barbell.
I’m not saying that’s entirely right – it is just how I envision it in my head. Sorry if I have that wrong!
Imagine you’re holding a weight to your chest, supported by both hands. You’re going to go down into your squat while keeping your chest lifted, your core engaged, and your arms, back, chest and shoulders are going to be supporting the weight.
And then you’re going to squeeze your glutes. Drive your heels down and push yourself up.
The reason I’m mentioning front squats separately is that while fundamentally you’re still holding the weight in the same position as goblet squats when you are doing front-loaded squats with a barbell, a lot of people don’t have the wrist flexibility to hold the bar properly.
So you might be using straps or you might be crossing your arms and then keeping your elbows lifted.
So you need to make sure you either have the forearm and wrist flexibility or find another way to support yourself or support the weight.
Dumbbell Or Kettlebell Squats
If you are squatting with kettlebells or dumbbells, you may be holding the weight down by your sides, with a weight in each hand.
I’m not keen on squats with weights by your sides, because I find them awkward personally. Some dumbbells or kettlebells can be bulky and just not practical, or risk injury if you have to keep flaring your arms out.
The other option is of course holding the weights up towards your shoulders. If you’ve got dumbbells, you might be able to rest them on your shoulders.
If you’ve got kettlebells you will be resting them more on your forearms and biceps.
Back squats are probably the most popular form of loaded squat, and with weightlifting, it is probably the immediate one everyone thinks of when we refer to squats.
You are going to be resting the bar on your back – not on your neck. A good way to visualise it is to imagine you squeeze your shoulder blades together and use that as a shelf to rest the bar on while you are supporting it with your hands.
After a certain point, you will be loading or unloading the bar using a squat rack because the load on the bar will be too much to press overhead to get it onto your back.
You want to try to keep your elbows under the bar, your chest lifted, and your shoulder blades squeezed together.
You going to sit your hips down and back, like you’re sitting in a chair. And then when you’re coming up, squeeze your glutes, drive your heels into the floor and push with a little bit of power. That’s a very, very, very basic definition or very basic technique explanation.
Last on my list because it’s probably the least beneficial one for the general population and I have only ever seen experienced trainees or professional athletes do it correctly, is the overhead squat.
And I’m going to be brief because I am very, very challenged with this.
You squat, carrying a weight in your arms while they’re extended overhead. I honestly don’t have the coordination or mobility in my back to do this properly or the stability in my shoulders.
Once you’ve stabilised the weight above your head, and you’ve got your shoulders stable as well, then you sit back down into a squat and then push yourself up. And to be completely honest, overhead squats, I just cannot do.
I can’t physically get down into the squat position that, or at least that far with my arms extended overhead.
I think it’s just my back muscles do not have that mobility. And my shoulders are not strong either.
It’s great for the core, but my shoulders aren’t strong. And it’s a little bit demoralising when I think how much I can squat with the bar on my back compared to how much a squat with weight overhead.
My legs don’t really get that much of a workout. That doesn’t mean it’s any less of an exercise. In fact, I should do it more because it exposes my weaknesses and limitations. And if I want to get better at get better at those, I’ll be able to do that by doing overhead squats.
What Is A Good Squat Technique?
When I first started lifting weights and strength training, there were two exercises that terrified me – the bench press and the squat. The exercises where I thought I might get stuck under the bar and just stay stuck.
So when you’re looking at progressing to squat with the bar on your back or any kind of load, the number one basic thing is to make sure you have the right foundation, which means starting with bodyweight, squats.
Without seeing your squat form, I can’t tell you exactly what it should look like, but this is a general guide.
In terms of how far apart your feet are or how wide your stance is, that’s very much down to you. For me, just a little bit outside hip-width works perfectly.
And then toes pointed outward slightly, not like all the way out to the side, but I’d probably say about 45 degrees, maybe a bit less.
And the reason for that is that you want your knees tracking outwards in line with your toes.
Next, dig your heels into the floor.
You brace your abs, you lift your chest.
This is for bodyweight squats so hands wherever they feel comfortable for you. If you feel confident enough, you can do it with an empty bar, or if you’re doing it at home, you can use a broom handle.
And then from there, you’re going to sit your hips down and back. Like you’re sitting on a chair.
You’re going to keep your core engaged. You’re going to keep your chest lifted.
If you imagine, Superman’s uniform, he’s got that big logo on his chest.
So if you’re looking in a mirror when you’re squatting you want your chest or upper body position to stay upright enough that if you’re wearing a Superman t-shirt you can still see most of that logo.
If you’re hunching forwards, that can put some pressure on some strain on your back, which can lead to injury.
You’re going to be controlled and steady on the way down when you get there.
In terms of how low you go, I’ve seen a lot of people say different things. Generally, I’ve seen hips coming down to knee height or a little bit lower as a good target for a range of motion.
What happens for me if I go below hip height is that I start to feel like my weight is just hanging there, but my muscles aren’t engaged in the movement anymore – almost like it is too low for me. So I tend to stick with around knee height for my range.
Once you are at the bottom, dig your heels into the floor, squeeze your glutes and then drive down through your heels. Imagine that pushing your heels into the floor is the force that is going to proper you up.
If you are new to squatting or need to address your form, these are quite a few points to take in so it might be better to work on one or two at a time and get those nailed before moving on.
Barbell Back Squat Or Smith Machine
For loaded squats with a weight on your back, you have 2 main options – diving straight in with a barbell on your back, or using a smith machine to get comfortable with having your backloaded first.
When I started squatting, I used the smith machine first and then progressed to barbells.
If you’re not familiar with a smith machine, it looks like this.
The advantages of a smith machine are:
- It’s a bit safer for beginners as it’s easier to get out from under the weight
- It is more stable as the plane of movement for the bar is fixed
The technique from a smith machine squat doesn’t entirely translate over to a barbell back squat. You are moving in a fixed form, and you end up sitting into your squat almost as you’re using the bar as a backrest rather than needing to stabilise it.
But it can still be a helpful way to get yourself familiar with carrying weight on your back when squatting. I felt it was safer and was more comfortable with it when I started squatting, but after it felt fine, I moved to the barbell right away.
Once you feel like you’ve made progress, your technique is solid, you’ve got control and you’re ready to tackle it, that is a good point at which to transition to the bar.
How To Squat Better
There are some common issues around the technique that can limit your success with squats, so let’s run through these, and how to work around them, so that you can squat better.
Common limiting factors can be lack of mobility, lack of strength, and yes, of course, lack of skill to handle a particular weight or load.
I have ridiculously tight calves, which means I am very limited with how much my ankles can flex. When I go down into a squat, my heels start to lift – which can create instability – or I struggle to get the range I want.
I try to stretch and foam roll to help address that. But to make sure that it doesn’t affect my workouts when I squat, I slide a yoga wedge under my heels. It means I can get a full range squat, without letting my lack of ankle mobility get in the way.
How To Test Your Ankle Mobility
If you want to identify if your ankle mobility is limiting your squat range, try squatting with your feet flat on the floor, and compare that with squatting with your heels elevated on something. If you haven’t got a wedge, you could try with a couple of weight plates or a couple of books underneath your heels.
Compare the difference in how low you go.
I used to teach BodyPump classes at a local gym, and part of that workout is always dedicated to squats. And my classes tended to be busy with 20-25 people each time.
It was very common to see participants coming down into a squat, their legs stopping halfway, and then their upper body falling forwards instead.
So as far as their eyes can tell, they still get low, but it is of course not their legs getting them that low.
In some of these cases, ankle mobility was likely still the limiting factor.
In most cases, it was also a lack of core strength causing this. Their core wasn’t able to fully support the upper body plus the weight, or at least it wasn’t prepared to.
To address this, core strengthening work is of course a good call.
But to ensure you’re still getting a good workout, you may find it helpful to switch from back-loaded squats to a variation of front-loaded squats – either with a barbell, or goblet squats.
That will force you to stay upright which reinforces good posture, and it is more taxing on your core in the squat movement pattern.
Knees Caving In
Another common squat issue is knees caving inwards as you come down into your squat.
Ideally, you want your toes pointed out slightly and your knees tracking over your toes.
But it is common as someone lowers into a squat, they hit a point where their knees start to go inwards towards each other.
There could be a few causes of this:
- Your body isn’t familiar enough with the squat movement pattern yet. If so, it may help to turn your toes out a little bit wider – it will force your knees outwards more.
- An imbalance between the muscles in the inner and outer thighs may mean that your outer thighs aren’t fully engaging in the movement so your inner thighs take over. You can loop a resistance band around your thighs, and that will consciously force you to press your legs out against the band.
While you are working on addressing thigh muscle imbalances, lunges might be a good alternative option.
Yes, they take more balance, but it also allows you to focus on one leg at a time and keep that one knee stable.
Applying How To Squat Better To Your Training
It is much easier to start a new habit than change an existing one.
So when you are starting to squat or you’re new to squats, focus on technique over anything else. It will serve you and your body well for years to come.
If you let any weaknesses, imbalances, or bad habits get ingrained into your squat movement, it is a much harder process to correct them than when you’re starting out.
If you can lay that foundation first, you’re on to a winner.