The barbell squat is the king of all exercises. This has been said a million times in a million ways for one simple reason.
Besides being an incredible muscle builder, the squat is also a man-maker (or woman-maker). It is brutally hard, mentally challenging and exhilarating all at the same time. Many of us love squats, but we also fear squats.
The barbell squat is also a difficult exercise to learn. A healthy portion of the Youtube squat videos I see feature blatant squat form flaws. I also notice a heavy dose of what I like to call form lock.
Form lock is a condition that results from watching too many squat videos and/or reading too many squat articles. Lifters will take in a tip and start to approach the squat in a mechanical, unnatural way.
I do not want any of the following tips to make your squat form worse. Whatever you do, concentrate on making your squats feel natural. I also recommend that if you try to tweak your squat form in any way, don't do so with heavy weight on your back. Practice squat form changes with a moderate and safe weight.
Tip #1 - Hips move back with the squat, not before the squat
I see this quite often with less experienced lifters. Somewhere in the netherworld known as the Internet people learn about the concept of driving their hips back as they squat. Instead of this becoming a fluid part of the squat eccentric, it is turned into a clunky, good morning type of lower back killer.
What you see is this: a lifter will break up the hip drive and squat eccentric into two very distinct, separate and mechanical components. They will initiate the squat by thrusting their hips backwards. Then, from this near good morning position, they will begin the squat eccentric.
By driving the hips back before you initiate the eccentric, you put yourself in a precarious position. You are leaning forward as you descent, and will tend to remain far less upright as you sink. This places addition stress on your lower back, and reduces leverage and power.
Tip #2 - Pick up the quarter
If you are having a hard time hitting squat depth I want you to try this tip.
Stand with your feet in a natural position and place your hands near your chest. Now pretend there is a quarter 6 to 8 inches in front of your feet on the ground.
Using both arms, reach down between your legs and touch the pretend quarter (ground). Your legs will naturally flower open, and you will likely have an easy time hitting squat depth. Now replicate this with a barbell on your back.
It's nearly impossible to pick up this imaginary quarter without opening your legs. The reason that this is important is because far too many lifters keep their legs forward when squatting. This makes it much more difficult to hit depth.
Tip #3 - Drive your shoulders into the bar
When coming up out of the hole, focus on driving your shoulders into the bar. This will help you lead with the head and assist you in staying more upright.
Standing up is also a more natural movement. It will encourage better leverages and improve your squatting power from the hole.
Tip #4 - Use a natural width and toe angle
How wide should your squat stance be? What should your toe angle be? Here is a good place to start.
Position yourself like you were about to jump vertically into the air. Now look down at your feet. You will likely find that your toes are pointed out slightly, about 15 to 30 degrees.
This width and foot angle will be the most natural place to start squatting. You can make minor needed adjusts from there.
Tip #5 - Squat to parallel, it is better for the knees
Squats above parallel are bad for the knees.
A high squat places the bulk of the strain on your anterior chain, which is basically the front of your body. The involvement of powerful muscle groups such as the hamstrings, glutes and back is minimized.
This type of anterior-dominant squat places an unwanted amount of sheer stress on the patellar tendon, making it far more dangerous for knee health than parallel squats.
Tip #6 - It's generally ok for the knees to come in slightly during the concentric
It's generally ok for the knees to come in slightly when coming out of the hole, as long as the knee buckling is not extreme or creating a huge risk of injury. I certainly don't recommend trying this if it's not already occurring, but if your knees are moving in a bit, don't panic.
Knees coming in might be a sign of a weakness, but this is not unusual. This issue will likely fix itself over time as your lower body strength improves.
Tip #7 - Build core strength without spinal flexion
Conventional ab strengthen work focuses on exercises that involve spinal flexion, such as crunches and situps.
Set these exercises aside. Instead focus on planks, side planks, planks on a stability ball and ab wheel rollouts. These movements will build an impressive amount of core strength and stability without taxing the lower spine.
This can only help your squat.
Tip #8 - Keep that upper back tight to stay upright
Head over to Youtube and watch a few squat videos that involve 6 to 20 rep sets. Odds are you'll start to notice a trend. After a few reps many lifters will start to lean forward, placing a far greater amount of stress on their lower back.
What's going on here? Lack of discipline. Specifically, they are not focusing on keeping their upper backs and arms tight. Because of this, as the reps mount their elbows begin to fly up.
When your elbows fly up, your head will tend to move forward. Both of these movements will have a tendency to lean you forward while squatting, putting more weight on your toes.
You will then begin to good morning your reps.
After each rep make sure that you have a death grip on the bar, and that your back and arms are tight and locked into position. This will prevent flying elbow syndrome and make your reps more consistent. It will also save your lower back some abuse.
Tip #9 - Shoulder or bicep pain? Widen your grip
Many lifters feel pressure to keep their grip as narrow as possible. This isn't always the best option if you are old, or have a substantial amount of girth and/or muscle mass.
I struggled with crazy shoulder strains for one year before finally taking my grip out to maximum width. This change immediately relieved the pain, and I have been squatting like this ever since.
Tip #10 - You do not need to squat wide stance
Forget what you read or see on the Internet. There are far more raw powerlifters using a conventional stance then there are wide stance squatters. This might go against what you believe to be the norm, but it's true.
A wide stance squat is technically more difficult. Spend time with a conventional stance, building up your strength and quad power. Then, after a couple of years if you feel like you might have quality hip mobility, slowly start to move your stance out.
Tip #11 - Use proper breathing
Take a deep breathe and hold it while sinking. Exhale while exploding up from the hole.
Tip #12 - Video your squats and watch for bar over toes
Find a way to record your squats and watch the bar path. The barbell should stay over the center of your foot at all times.
If not, typically it's due to one of the form flaws listed above: knees not out enough when descending, loose back with elbows flying, driving your hips out before you descend, etc.
Tip #13 - Don't obsess over "ass to grass"
I've seen more than a few squatters complain about a lack of ankle flexibility. Most of the time when I look at their squats they are going down way beyond parallel.
Ass to grass squats are not needed. Parallel squats are. The point isn't to show China your back side; the point is to build leg size and squat strength.
Sink to a natural depth and then stand back up.
Tip #14 - Boost your size and power with paused squats
If your squat strength or leg size is in a rut, try paused squats. Sink into the hole normally, making sure to remain tight, and make a slight pause before coming up.
This minor change will leave you in pain the next day. A good kind of pain.
Paused squats are brutal, effective, and a great tool that can help you bust out of a plateau or slump.
Tip #15 - Keep your lower back tight
While you do not want to hyperextend your lower back inward, you do want to keep it tight. This tightness will help with stability and improve the consistency of your squat reps.
Tip #16 - There is no perfect form
If I had a dollar for every lifter who told me I have great form, I could retire. This is nonsense, and dangerous.
Never assume your form is ok. Form can always be improved. You should constantly be working to improve your form and squat consistency on every rep.
If you have no idea where to turn, take a video of your squats and allow a seasoned squat veteran to critique your lifts, looking for any major errors.
This is not a comprehensive overview of the squat but it should help you to fix most major issues. Before closing this article I would like to leave you with 2 thoughts:
- Everyone squats differently. First and foremost you want your squat reps to feel natural, within the bounds of the tips listed above. If someone tells you there is only one way to squat (high bar, low bar, wide, or narrow), ignore them. Even if it's me.
- Don't make more than one squat change at a time. Make your adjustment, and practice it with moderate weight. It is best to tweak one thing at a time except when the multiple adjustments are simple to make.
Questions regarding this article? Leave them in the comments section below.
Hy m ritesh from india. I do exercise for last few year but continue. I quit exercise for last 1 year and than i got sick and now i am too thin and my body get shape and cuts in my body more than bulk. So pls suggest me some exercise so i get more bulk in my body. Pls suggest me some good working schedule
Another informative article. I never post anything, but thought I would express how much I enjoy reading your articles, and the derivative eagerness to initiate practical application into my workouts. Have gone from a sickly 131 lbs to an impressive 195 lbs in two and a half years. Consistency, dedication, and some research, (mostly your articles) have helped me overcome the many plateaus, and continue to help me build a better me. For that, I thank you.
Will doing squats with a smith machine improve form?
Squat with a Smith Machine is not ideal due to the fixed up-down movement of the bar, and your body must adjust to this unnatural movement. Again, it is not recommended! When you use a regular 45 lbs bar + weights, you are also training the stabilizers. These muscles don't get trained (or very little at all) with a Smith Machine, and you could end up getting hurt. This actually happened to me, so I dropped Planet Fitness and joined a gym that has a power rack. Since then I have been able to improve my squat to 225 lbs (previously my max was 180 lbs before getting hurt). Trust me, squatting with the bar is harder and more challenging than squatting with a Smith Machine... but the results have been greater. I hope you are not dead-lifting with a Smith Machine either, that would be even more dangerous (i think).... Check out Mark Rippetoe's youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5FaqTBy0c1jlRUHKu4SuXQ) for good tips on the primary 4 exercises (Bench, Deadlift, Squat and Military Press). Hope this helps and good luck
Good article as always Steve, thanks! I train doing 3 full-body workouts a week and when I recently read an article on here about 'Squats and Milk' I decided to include 1 set of high-rep squats in my weekly routine. However I also wanted to continue with heavy squats so I do 1x20rep set high-rep squats on a Monday and then 3x5rep heavy squats on a Friday. Does this sound like a reasonable plan? I've been making decent gains and the weights on both lifts continue to increase steadily. Many thanks!!
Yes that's a good plan. I often advocate a very similar style of squat training.
Thanks Steve, another very helpful article. I've been running a fully body routine 3x a week for the past month with sqauts being a part of each work out. My lower back has been getting sore lately as a result. I've noticed most of the tension on my lower back comes at the top part of my squat. Any tips on how to avoid that?
I'm new to squats
I think cause I'm short n have short arms and legs its felt very un natural
On a good day I can squat 70% body weight
I was wondering what would be a realistic progression as I see 70kg guys squating 140kg quite effortlessly
And any exercises to avoid on the day or before ie: dead lifts
Thanks in advance steve
Thanks for these great tips. I've got one question though: what do you mean with parallel squats?
I love squats!! Thanks for the guide lines :)
Hey Steve! Would you mind criticizing my form? Thanks a bunch!
i have a serious question.I have asked this of many people ; doctors, CPT, physical therapists and i cant seem to get good answers except from one doctor who was sports medicine and Family specialist. I have spinal arthritis with 4 compressed disks in my lower back that causes pain stiffness and nerve pain down one leg and hip. Can i squat? the sport Med doc says yes if i use a smith, good form and dont go too low.
now when i use a smith my lower back throbs for 3-4 days afterwards but when i super set leg press with free weight barbell back squats i have no pain except for DOMs, my natural stance is wide and I dont go past parallel.
what is your opinion?
I wish I could help but I can't answer that.
11....i thought breath should be held aka valsalva while eccentric
Im 59 and a year ago stepped on a nail that went almost threw my second toe. Im diabetic so healing went slow. The wound has healed mostly but I still have to watch how much pressure I put on my toe? Do you think I should stay away from squats?
I can't answer that Russell. Sorry. My best advice is to give it a try.
That was a fantastic article. There are entire, good, books that don't manage to impart the wisdom you have condensed here. Keep up the good work.
I suffer with knee pain and cannot squat to parallel. If I need to go to parallel the bar needs to be very light. I then feel like I am never going to build. Any suggestions ? Thanks
What cause the knee pain initially?
Try putting your arms on your head like you are being arrested; make sure you chest is sticking out, your back tight, then go up and down. Don't go too fast and make sure you are breathing (inhaling when you go down and exhaling while you are coming up). As I said just your hands, no bars... means no pressure on your knees other than your body weight. I am no pro squatter, but I did this exercise to help me getting started. I have back issues, so I also do yoga to stretch out my spine. Squatting can't be done by itself for people like you and I who suffer from injuries. Find your niche. Good luck and Squat on!