Proper Exercise Form: The Barbell Squat
The Barbell Squat
Ask any weightlifter, bodybuilder, power lifter, or strength training enthusiast about what is the best leg exercise you can do, and they will without question tell you to do barbell squats. There is a good reason for this. Squats are a very demanding exercise. Not only do you work your hips and legs hard (quads, glutes, and hamstrings), but you work your lower back, core muscles, and many other stabilizer muscles throughout the body. On top of all of that, the barbell squat is challenging mentally. When you are in the bottom of the lift and the weight feels heavy, it takes every amount of mental fortitude to drive the weight back up. This builds character that impacts every facet of your life. No matter how hard you try, you do not get that from a set of leg presses. Leg presses and lunges are good leg exercises, and you can use them in your workout, but barbell squats should be the conerstone of your leg routine.
To begin, position the bar on the meat of your upper trapezius. If you have it resting on your neck, you can cause injury to your cervical spine. Your shoulders should be spaced evenly on both sides of the bar. A good way to tell if you are centered is if your shoulders are roughly the same distance from the beginning of the knurl of the bar on both sides. Make sure both of your legs are under you, and then lift the bar off of the support rack and walk it back about a foot or so. Position your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. Squeeze your shoulder blades back, suck in your belly button just a little bit (this will engage your transverse abdominus, the deep core muscle that protects your lower back when you are under load), and look up slightly.
Slowly descend like you are going to sit in a chair. As you descend, keep you head up, shoulder blades squared back and some tension in your ab muscles throughout the exercise. The bottom range of the lift is when your thighs are parallel to the floor (This is a full squat. More will be written on this below). When you reach the bottom, do a smooth turn around and just as smoothly go back up. When you get back to the top, stop just short of locking your knees and then slowly descend to the bottom position again.
Squats: top to Bottom
The Finer Points
You need to be acutely aware of a few things while you are doing a squat for good execution and injury prevention. The first one is breathing. Squats are unbelievably demanding to do, especially in the bottom position. The weight seems so much heavier (in fact, it is because of the strength curve of your muscles in relation to the resistance curve of the barbell), you have to push much harder to get the bar to move. You have to hold your breath to build enough internal pressure to manage this portion of the lift. The best way to manage your breathing is to take a couple of deep breaths at the top of the lift and the descent, and then hold your breath just until you get past the sticking point, and then breath again. Short, shallow breathing helps to keep your reps smooth. I do not recommend the standard approach of breathing in while descending, and breathing out while ascending. This would make it too difficult to fight through the sticking points of the lift. You will also not be able to do as many reps as you can otherwise.
The second point is to do the best you can to maintain a proper upright position. If you lean too far forward while squatting, you will put more stress on your lower back and too little on your legs and glutes for the lift. If you lean too far back, you will be off balance. A good measurement is to have your shoulders always about mid thigh throughout the range of motion (see photos). This way ensures proper form.
The final point is to reiterate focusing on keeping your shoulder blades squared back, head up, and your abdominal wall tight during the lift. This will be the best way to prevent injury.
Full Squat, 3/4 Squat, Deep Squat
A true barbell squat means that at the bottom of the lift, your legs are parallel to the floor. This is a full squat. Some experts say that this isn't enough, that you should go until your hamstrings touch your calves. On the other hand, you see many trainees only go about 3/4 deep on their squats (see photos).
There is no question that the deep squats work your muscles harder and leads to better growth. One should use them most of the time, but there is a place for 3/4 squats too. Often times a trainee might hit a strength plateau. Sometimes it is simply the muscles have not adapted to the weight, but sometimes it is a psychological barrier. If that is the case, adding more weight than the trainee uses and performing some 3/4 squats for a while can help break that barrier. Here is an example: Let's say a trainee is able to do 8 reps of full squats with 225 pounds, but he hasn't been able to break that plateau for a month. The next workout he can load the bar to 245 pounds and so as many 3/4 squats as he can. He can do that for a couple of weeks, and then try 235 pounds for a full squat the following workout. If it was a psychological barrier, he will now be able to do the 235 pound squat for at least 8 reps.
At this juncture, I need to sidestep the direction of my article and talk a little about the repetition speed. Power lifters and Olympic lifters say you must perform your reps fast, in an explosive manner. There are two reasons for this recommendation. The first is that the main goal is to lift as much weight as you can. Faster, explosive training can do that. The second reason is that explosive training works the fast twitch fibers. This is true too, but you can work the fast twitch fibers with a slower repetition speed (you do want to work the fast twitch fibers, they are the ones that get stronger).
I do not recommend explosive movements. They create large amounts of momentum that transfers an unnecessary amount of force on the joints and connective tissue. Young athletes can handle it, but older ones, not so much. Unless your goal is to compete in power-lifting or Olympic training, it is far better to use a slower cadence and keep continuous tension on your muscles throughout the lift. You need less overall exercise, and you can have healthy joints for a much longer time.
Weight Belts and Knee Wraps
Hard core bodybuilders and power lifters use weight belts and knee wraps when they lift. The intent is to stabilize and protect the knees and lower back during heavy lifting. I do not recommend them because they lend external support for these areas. By doing so, stabilizer muscles around the lower back and knees will not work as hard to stabilize in the lifts. In other words, the prime movers (in this case, the quads, glutes and hamstrings) will get stronger than the stabilizers will. It creates an imbalance that can cause injury outside of the gym. For clarity, I must point out that I do not recommend one rep max lifts and hence my advice for not using weight belts and wraps. For lifters that do, it may be prudent to use wight belts and wraps when they do single rep attempts.
Although squats are very effective in obtaining results, they are not for everyone. Squats put a lot of compressive force on the spine, and if someone has a degenerative disk or a history of herniated disks, then leg presses may be a better choice. Another option for someone with these issues can be doing half squats and 3/4 squats, if it does not bother the lower back. I am an example of that. I have 2 degenerative disks in my lower back, and when I do full squats I feel it. My back gets tight and sometimes it is hard to lift my legs for a few days. 3/4 squats, on the other hand, do not bother me so much. Due to my lower back issues, I do full squats every once in a while (maybe once a month), 3/4 squats a few times, and the rest of the time I do full range of motion heavy leg presses.
A Barbell Squat
Properly performed squats are a great exercise to add to your strength training routine. Not only do they help you build incredible lower body strength, they improve your mental toughness too. You will have killer looking legs, and you will be fearless taking on the world. Add them to your routine. You will be glad you did.
To finish, here is a clip of one of our clients doing the squat with good form.