Updated: Mar 5, 2020
Squats are a key component in many training programmes due to their numerous benefits - lower limb strength and hypertrophy, vertical force production, increased hip and ankle #mobility, improved weight distribution, improved torso positioning to name just a few.
However many gym-goers ranging from novice level to advanced trainers find the squat a challenging movement to complete effectively, through a full range of motion, without excessive discomfort or feeling awkward.
We have written this guide to share what we have learned and experienced about how to squat effectively.
Whilst there are many forms of a squat, such as high bar back squats, a #kettlebell goblet squat, barbell front #squats etc… our tips will cover some general squat fundamentals which are useful to all bilateral (two feet) squats. There are individual cues that are useful for individual squat exercises - but these are for more specific blogs! Here are our tips on how to squat:
Before we begin - a disclaimer - our philosophy is that a squat should be coached to a full depth. This is defined by the hip axis being below the knee axis. Unless there is a very specific reason as to why this depth cannot/should not be achieved - you should alway try to achieve full depth in the squat. And no, a previous injury or being stiff doesn’t always exempt you from trying to improve your squat depth over time!
Firstly, you must choose an appropriate stance width. In most cases, foot stance width will be just outside of shoulder width apart - however this comes down to individual preference. Stance should allow for full depth to be achieved, maximum force to be produced, and structural integrity to be maintained (knees not caving in excessively, foot arches being maintained, weight distribution balanced).
Image 1: narrow stance doesn’t allow Katie to reach full depth and get back rounds
Image 2: for Katie this stance is too wide for an optimal lift, also causes knee valgus on ascent (may be correct for some)
Image 3: this stance width is ideal for katie’s squat performance
The direction you point your toes is determined by where your knees go. (based on how wide you open your hips). In essence, the knees should track over the toes, meaning the direction your toes point should be the same as your knees. Your hip mobility determines this. There may be some cases where the toes point out less than the knee, but not the other way around. Test where your knees will go as you open your hips out to squat and adjust the toes if necessary.
At this point, you should consider where you are going to direct force in your squat, and how to ensure you can direct it as intended. Before you go down into the squat, there are some key considerations. Firstly, at the top your weight distribution should be roughly central to your foot. Your full foot should be in contact with the floor, ie, the heel, toes, ball of the foot. The arches in your foot should be maintained, this can be achieved by jamming the big toe down.
With your foot positioning nailed down, the next thing to consider is the bracing. Your torso should be held in a somewhat upright position during the squat, without excessive torso flexion and/or losing your bracing. In order to achieve this, your shoulder blades should be slightly pulled back (retracted) and down (depressed), but not excessively as to create hyperextension of the back. Your natural curvature of the thoracic and lumbar portions of the spine should be maintained. Your head should remain in a neutral position in relation to the sagittal plane (not coming forward) - however where you choose to look is down to preference, so long as it does not compromise other areas of structural integrity.
Finally, you should breath deeply and controlled, aiming to maximally expand either the stomach or the lungs (down to preference) before pulling your ribcage down. This creates intra-abdominal pressure, providing more stability throughout your squat. You should hold your breath throughout the squat, only breathing out and back in again after each completed rep / two reps.
A failure to create this foundation will in most cases have an effect on the rest of the squat, therefore structural integrity is massively important.
Side note: structural integrity will differ somewhat between various types of squats, however the core bracing is consistent regardless of squat type.
Immediately after bracing, you should begin descending into the squat. After all, you are holding your breathe. The speed at which you should descend depends on a number of factors, however simply put - not too fast, not too slow. Too fast increases chance of postural deviations, and makes it very difficult to overcome the large eccentric force sending you downwards. Too slow means you will probably be too fatigued by the time you get to the bottom. Unless you are training specifically for these components, choose a moderate lowering speed you can manage and redirect effectively.
The descent should begin by a simultaneous breaking of the hips and the knees - they should both begin to bend at the same time. As you bend from the hips and knees together, you should open your hips, giving you room to ‘sit’ into the bottom of the squat and to assist in keeping the knees ‘out’. Your knees should be allowed to track forward, which decreases the angle at the back of the knee as you descend. There is rarely any problem with your knees moving over the end of your toes (if you were to draw a vertical line between them).
As you descend your weight distribution will remain mostly central to your foot, however as you reach the bottom your weight distribution will shift slightly more towards the heel (or just in front of the ankle). The full foot contact mentioned above is maintained, however a slight weight shift towards the heel allows the bar to become more aligned with your centre of mass with flexed hips, allowing for a greater transfer of force directly through the bar from the bottom of the squat. This shift in weight distribution should not be forced, however if you are on your toes in the bottom of the squat this may need to be addressed.
When you reach your full depth, how you choose to ascend depends on your training focus. Are you stopping dead at the bottom, are you stopping and pausing for a period, or are you using elastic tension to ‘rebound’ back out? Regardless of the technique you use to begin the ascent - the focus should be on to aggressively drive through the floor and continue this drive until the squat is completed (unless you have a light weight on the bar, in which case you will have to demonstrate slightly more control at the end point). You should aim to stand up, in as much of a vertical fashion as possible.
You should focus on maintaining torso positioning throughout, with thoracic extension and no torso flexion. The knees may begin to come in throughout the ascent, this isn’t always associated with #injury risk, however excessive knee valgus with heavier loads can potentially be problematic if left uncorrected over time. Thus, you should aim to keep the knees out for as long as possible.
Weight distribution will shift back towards the mid-foot throughout the ascent and finish in the mid-foot as the squat is completed. As you finish the squat, the #glutes should be contracted to help to support hip extension - providing stability and assisting muscles of the back responsible for torso extension.
Congratulations, you have survived a squat. You see, nothing to worry about!