How To Perform the Squat
No leg day is complete without the squat. It’s frequently called the “King of Exercises” because it works the whole body—not just the legs. Every muscle has to work when you squat with a barbell or other weight. The exercise builds and shapes fantastic looking legs and a fuller, harder, rounder butt; an asset for both women and men.
There’s a persistent myth that squats are bad for your knees. While poor form when squatting is bad for knees, good form when squatting will strengthen all the supporting musculature around your knees. Having strong legs will help you with virtually all your daily activities (sitting down, rising from a chair, getting in and out of a car, walking up stairs, and so on).
Watch the video above to see how I do this exercise, and then read the remainder of this article for precise instructions.
Like I said earlier, EVERYTHING is working! Your quadricepsAdd a Tooltip Text, hamstringsAdd a Tooltip Text and glutesAdd a Tooltip Text are the prime movers; while your calves, absAdd a Tooltip Text, and lower back work to brace the core. They also help support any resistance equipment (dumbbells, resistance bandsAdd a Tooltip Text, barbell) used, along with your arms, shoulders, and upper back.
I’d like to say your toes and fingers aren’t working, but they’re getting in on the action too!
Beginners should perform the exercise with body weight only to master the technique and proper range of motion. As you get more confident and comfortable with squatting, you can use resistance bands, dumbbells, or a barbell.
Equipment requirements will vary based on strength and experience. If you’re a beginner, this is one exercise you can initially perform at home; but as you advance, you will want to perform in a gym with a squat rackAdd a Tooltip Text or power cageAdd a Tooltip Text. These pieces of equipment are designed to help users lift heavy loads safely.
All individuals can perform this exercise—beginner through advanced, all levels.
Don’t assume that just because the exercise is very technical that it is reserved for advanced trainees only. The body weight squat is challenging as is, but there are a variety of options to make it harder.
As with any compound exerciseAdd a Tooltip Text involving the lower back, check with your doctor first if you have any previous back injury, pain or other limitations.
Description of action:
The following description assumes a full-sized Olympic barbellAdd a Tooltip Text and squat rack are being used to perform the exercise. Ignore the first two steps if you are using your body weight, dumbbells or resistance bands.
- Set the bar in the rack in line with your upper chest. Step under the barbell and position it just beneath the top of your shoulder blades (not at the back of your neck). Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip.
- Lift the barbell off the pins by pushing with your legs and straightening your torso. Step back to clear the pins, and stand with your legs shoulder-width to hip-width apart and feet in a natural position (slightly pointed outward).
- Begin the movement by bending your knees forward and shifting your hips back, making sure that your knees are pointing in the same direction as your feet.
- Descend until your thighs are just past parallel to the floor.
- Return to the starting position by extending your knees and hips until your legs are straight.
Perform a minimum of three setsAdd a Tooltip Text of 6 to 12 repetitionsAdd a Tooltip Text, resting for at least one minute in between working sets.
Whether a barbell is used or not, I encourage my clients to keep their weight on their heels; this helps keep their knees from extending too far forward over their feet. I also advise them to keep their eyes forward, rather than looking to the floor or ceiling, to maintain their balance.
- Depending on how much you intend to lift for this exercise, it’s a good idea to perform a couple of warm up sets with lighter weights, prior to starting with your working weight. It helps to prepare both body and mind for the lift.
- The squat is an exercise you literally have to court for a long time; small variations in stance and bar placement can change the exercise significantly. Give yourself plenty of time to learn to squat with correct technique and be patient.
- Having coached the squat many a time, the most common error I’ve seen is not squatting to proper depth. You’ve reached the bottom of the movement when your thighs are just below parallel to the floor.
- Extending the knees too far beyond the toes when squatting will put needless stress on the knee joints. To avoid this, keep your weight on the heels (not the toes) and sit back and down when descending, as if sitting your butt down into a chair.
- Do not rush through the exercise or bounce at the bottom. This is especially important for beginners to grasp: when learning a new exercise, slower is better. It gives both your brain and body a chance to get acquainted with the new movement pattern.
- Your torso will lean forward during a squat, whether you are carrying a weight (barbell, dumbbells, or resistance bands) or performing it with body weight. Many first-timers will attempt to maintain a vertical torso when performing a squat, but this is incorrect. Unless you’re performing a front squat (a different exercise), a conventional squat will require the torso to lean forward, because you are shifting your hips back.
- The exercise can test your balance, so keep your head straight (not turned to the side) and eyes focused forward.
Consider hiring a qualified personal trainer or coach if you feel like you need the instruction. It’s important to squat correctly, and when you do it right, you can do it safely (and forever!).
Variations On The Squat:
- A standard Olympic barbell weighs 45 lbs, so it may be too heavy for some people to manage. Many gyms have lighter barbells, or smaller pre-welded ones, but you’ll need to be able to lift one off the floor, over your head, and on to your back, as they are too short to set into a typical squat rack’s safety pins. If you can’t manage it safely, ask for assistance (true gym rats will be happy to help).
- Otherwise, dumbbells, kettlebellsAdd a Tooltip Text, resistance bands, sandbags, and other forms of resistance (like two half-gallon milk containers held in either hand) are a perfectly good options.
- The squat comes in a variety of different flavors: box squats, single leg squats, sumo squats, plie squats, heels elevated, front squats, Zercher squats, and so on…it is probably the most versatile exercise for your legs. Nail the technique of the basic squat first before advancing to the other variations, however. We are naming them here for completeness only.
Yes, squatting is hard work; there’s) a lot to remember and the exercise is very technical. But when it’s squat day, it’s always a good day. My body feels “worked” and I always leave the gym with a sense of accomplishment. You really are doing something beneficial for your body when you squat, AND the exercise builds a great looking butt. Win/win, wouldn’t you agree?