A few notes before we begin.
1. This is not your typical how-to article. While there are probably thousands of places online where you can find generic, 5-step articles and infographics on “How to Squat.” this is not one of them. “Super-Simple” does not mean “Oversimplified to the point of being useless.”
2. The cues and descriptions below may not make complete sense to everyone since we all learn differently; however, rather than fill each section with numerous cues in an attempt to describe everything multiple ways, I’d prefer to use one or two descriptions and then answer questions or make clarifications in the comments section.
3. Yes - I realize we are all different. You’re a beautiful snowflake and I love you for it. But please do not use that as an excuse to write off the steps below because you cannot (or assume you cannot) perform the movement as described right now. There will be variation in some aspects on a per-person basis, but I’m going to mostly stick to things that should apply to us all.
The squat is an exercise powerhouse. In terms of number of muscles activated and overall hormonal environment created, there aren’t many exercises that pack the same punch as the squat.
It’s also one of the most transferable and relatable movement skills you can develop. Think about how many times during the day you stand up and sit back down. In fact, don’t think about it - try counting! The importance of perfecting your squat form and developing the strength associated goes far beyond building a pair of sexy legs: it will help keep you lean, strong, and mobile for as long as you let it.
However, as with any other exercise or movement pattern, it is not enough to simply squat: in order to reap the full benefits and have any sort of longevity with it, you must squat well.
Step 1: The Setup
Proper positioning (and thus good movement) begins with the setup. For the squat, this can vary somewhat, but we’ll review both what might be different for some folks and what ought not change from person to person.
Width of the feet will change based on the squat variation, but for a simple back squat we’ll go with the typical “stand shoulder-width apart” scenario. Feet should be pointed either straight forward (inside/medial side of the feet parallel) or slightly outward, but not much. There are two main reasons for this.
First, having your feet forward (which should be your default position, anyway, so make a mental note) supports the proper function of the arches in your feet. There are 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons in your foot and ankle that create the arch. If they are not arranged properly, they can’t function properly. Do not let your entire support structure malfunction right at its base.
But I have flat feet!, you may be saying. That may be true right now, but please know that your flat feet are likely a symptom of years of improper movement patterns and poor positioning--for most people, it’s not “just how you’re built.”
Second, we create stability and generate power at ball-and-socket joints (like the hips) by creating torque (to feel this in action, try to turn your leg outward but leave your foot planted). Imagine opening a jar of pickles. Now imagine trying to open said jar but your hand is already turned as far as it can go when you start. It’s going to be pretty difficult to generate any force in the correct direction, right? Such is the case with turning your feet out too far when you squat.
The pelvis should be firmly planted directly underneath the torso. If you imagine it like a bowl full of water, the rim of the bowl should be completely parallel to the ground to avoid spillage. Squeeze your glutes, bring your bellybutton to your ribs (careful not to go so far as to have your pelvis tilted backward), and lock it in. (As with feet facing forward, this, too, should be your default position when just standing around: strong and tall.)
Some folks (including some personal trainers ::shivers::) will tell you to stick your butt out for added stability before initiating the movement. This is patently incorrect. What you’re gaining in this instance is what I call structural stability (others might call it that, too, I’m not sure…), which is to say you have stability because of bone-on-bone (vertebra-on-vertebra) contact. Not good. Imagine jumping and landing with your knees straight for the added stability of your femur crashing directly into your lower leg.
What you want is muscular stability, which is to say that you are stable because your muscles are holding your bones in certain positions. Much more palatable, I’d say.
Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulder Position
The position of these three areas can be thought of as your typical “good posture” pose: not standing straight, but standing tall; crown of your head reaching toward the sky (like a string is pulling it upward); shoulders tucked back and down; chest not sticking out, per se, but at least prominent.
The most important thing to remember about the position of your torso is that it should remain constant throughout the exercise! There should be no movement at any joints above the hip.
Step 2: Brace Yourself!
As discussed previously, one of the most important things to consider in an exercise is what’s not moving. Now that you’re in a good position, brace your trunk by engaging the muscles of the core. This helps us achieve one important (and ubiquitous) goal: prioritizing (re: protecting) the spine. The movement will be entirely in the hips, knees, and ankles - not the spine!
Keep the core tight and breathe deeply into your belly. (In essence, we’re creating our own weight belt [or corset, if you will] with our musculature.)
The knees should have a soft bend to them, and your weight should be centered over the foot. (You might hear “weight on your heels.” In my opinion, this is a misguided attempt to quickly tell people to not let their weight come forward onto their forefoot as they progress through the movement.)
Step 3: The Descent
Initiating The Movement
To start, hinge at the hip by reaching your hamstrings back behind you. You can also think of it as reaching your butt toward the wall behind you, so long as you don’t mistake this for arching your back. Or imagine you’re the string of a bow being pulled back ever so slightly: your upper body and lower body are still perfectly straight, they’re just no longer in line with each other.
It is ok if the knees bend a little during this part, so long as the focus of the movement is on the hips.
Initiating the movement in this way serves to purposely and strategically load the muscles that we intend to do the brunt of the work: the glutes and hamstrings (the butt and the back of the thighs, respectively).
While hingeing at the hip and bending at the knees, also focus on pushing your knees slightly outward (laterally). Some people will cue this by telling you to “spread the floor” or “screw your feet into the ground.” Whichever makes more sense to you, the effect is the same: it opens the hips, protects the knees, engages the proper muscles, and puts the ankle in a position to support a strong arch in the foot.
The feet should remain firmly planted, with the weight balanced over the center of the foot. And remember, you are lowering yourself into the squat, you are not dropping into it. You should be in control throughout the entire movement.
Reaching The Bottom
For most people, full depth should be when the crook of the hip reaches just below the top of the knee. Once there, you should be in a stable enough position that you could hang out for a bit without incident (other than some muscle burning, of course).
Step 4: The Ascent
Coming up is simple in design, but lends itself to a lot of movement faults if you’re not careful. The key is to initiate the movement well and let everything else follow in line. To initiate the ascent, simply think about driving the hips upward (without letting your chest/upper back drop any lower).
The goal is to reverse the motion along the same pathway as the descent. If someone were to take a series of pictures of you throughout your squat, there should be no way to tell which ones were going up and which were going down (except maybe the look on your face, I guess).
In the beginning (and then on forever if you don’t make corrections), coming out of the bottom of a squat will likely come with some issues. Here we’ll discuss what I consider to be the most common one: the knees coming inward.
This is, essentially, your body’s way of finding stability in a pinch. Having your knees jerk inward forces the burden onto your quadriceps (the muscles on the front of the thigh), as these are strong muscles that we are comfortable using.
What we want, though, is for the force to stay where it has been, which is mainly the glutes and hamstrings. It may take some trial and error, but once the problem is solved it should stay away for good.
That’s All For Now
We’ll stop there. If you’re still with me, thanks! And please feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. For personalized attention this should be a discussion. I just didn’t want to overburden the post with much more description.
For an AMAZING reference on movement, human anatomy, and the squat, I highly recommend you check out Kelly Starrett’s epic tome, Becoming A Supple Leopard. Great stuff.