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How to Squat Properly for Maximum Benefits and Safety

Updated on January 29, 2019
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Learn how to squat properly.
Learn how to squat properly. | Source

Squats have been called “The King of Exercises”, and with good reason. They are one of the most important exercises you could ever do. And if you want to build strong, muscular legs you have to squat.

But if you want to get the best results from them (as well as avoid injury) you need to know how to do them properly. And most people don’t – and that includes many people who have been training for years.

So in this article I’ll explain how to squat properly.

Why Squat?

The squat is the very best leg developer there is, and properly performed it works both the quads and hamstrings, as well as the glutes. But it’s not just a leg exercise. Squats also strengthen the abs and lower back, and they promote both size and strength gains in the entire body.

So if you haven’t been gaining as well as you’d hoped and you aren’t doing squats (or you aren’t doing them properly), adding them into your routine could make all the difference.

But before I discuss correct squat technique I’ll describe the two types of barbell back squat that you could do.

The High Bar Squat

In this version of the squat the bar is positioned on the traps and lies across the top of the shoulders. This allows for a more upright position to be adopted during the squatting movement. And in fact this is important, as too much forward lean can cause the bar to roll onto your neck.

The high bar squat is also known as the Olympic squat, as this is the version that weightlifters use. Most bodybuilders use it too, as it is a more quad dominant movement.

The Low Bar Squat

Here the bar is held about three inches lower down, and lies across the rear delts. This causes you to lean forward a bit more and makes it more of a posterior chain dominant movement.

The low bar squat is the one used by powerlifters, as it allows more weight to be lifted.

As for which version you should choose, people will argue one way and the other all day long. But it’s really entirely up to you. So just choose the one that best fits in with your own specific goals. Or try them both for a while and see which one you prefer.

Always squat to the correct depth

If you don't reach parallel it's not a squat - it's a partial squat!

Proper Squat Technique

Whichever version of the squat you choose, here is how it should be performed:

First set up your bar in the squat rack or power rack at about collar bone height. Grab hold of the bar with a grip about 6 – 10 inches wider than shoulder width. Then step under the bar and position it according to which version of the squat you are intending to perform. Squeeze your shoulder blades back to create more of a meaty “shelf” on which the bar can rest, and pull down on it slightly to engage your lats.

Then take a deep breath, stand up to unrack the weight and take two steps back.

Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart and with your toes pointed outward about 20 – 30 degrees. Look straight ahead (not up or down), keep your chest up and your spine normally arched – that is don’t let it round but don’t hyperextend it either. Your weight should be on your heels and the balls of your feet (not on your toes).

Now take a deep breath, fill your belly with air and brace your abs really hard. Then begin your descent by pushing your hips back and bending at the knees. Focus on keeping your knees in line with your feet as you squat down. You may need to consciously drive them out in order to achieve this.

Continue to descend until your hip joint is lower than your knees; i.e. you reach the parallel position. At this point the tops of your thighs (not your hamstrings) should be parallel to the floor. You can go lower than this if you wish, but try to at least reach parallel. If you can’t get that far you may need to work on your hip or ankle flexibility in order to be able to do so.

If you don’t reach parallel (and most people don’t) it’s not a squat – it’s a partial squat. And partial squats are not only less effective for building the quads, they also fail to activate the hamstrings properly, they put more pressure on the knees and they result in weakness at the bottom part of the movement, muscle imbalances and possible injury further down the line.

So make sure you always squat to at least parallel.

Now you’re at the bottom it’s time to stand back up again.

Drive down with your heels (but keep the balls of your feet on the ground as well) and push upward and backward into the bar. Keep looking straight ahead, drive your elbows forward and under the bar and consciously engage your glutes as you stand straight up.

Keep your breath held until you are at least half way up. Then start hissing the air out as you complete the movement. Pause briefly at the top, take another deep breath, and do your next rep. Continue until you have completed the set; then step forwards and rack the bar again.

And that’s how you squat properly. Follow the instructions here and you’ll get superior results, you’ll prevent weak links and muscle imbalances, and you’ll also strengthen (not weaken) your knees and hip joints. You’ll also guard against possible injury so you’ll be able to continue squatting for many decades to come.

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