The barbell squat is widely accepted as the number one strength and mass builder for the entire lower body. For this reason it is a staple in any program for everyone wanting to gain more muscle mass, strength, or speed. Because of its unique reputation, it is a common test of strength for strongman, powerlifting, and is a large factor in weightlifting. No other single lift is so widely accepted in all disciplines.
How to Squat
Find a suitable squat rack (not smith machine), and set the barbell and safety pins in a suitable position. Below you will read the step by step process on performing a proper squat in the common high bar variation. Make sure you practice perfect form every repetition, even on warm ups. The squat is an exercise that may require extra flexibility from some lifters, which we will cover below.
- Grip the barbell wider than shoulder width.
- Duck under the barbell, and position the bar over the top of the back, resting on the trapezius muscles, but not on the bony portion of the neck.
- Tug the barbell down into the traps while actively pinching the shoulder blades to create tightness in the upper back.
- Inhale to maintain tightness, and lift the bar out of the rack.
- Take as few steps back as possible, and position the feet evenly with a shoulder width or greater distance apart. Toe positioning slightly pointed outward.
- Inhale while tightening up the upper back, and any tightness you may have lost while walking the weight out.
- Shift the majority of the body weight toward the heels of the feet and maintain this balance throughout the repetition.
- Unlock the knees and descend by bending at the knees and hips while opening the hips by widening the knees.
- Focus on keeping the chest upright and high, and keep the upper back tight.
- Descend downward by continuing this motion until proper squat depth is achieved (more on this below).
- Once squat depth has been reached, explode upward out of the bottom quickly, while maintaining upright chest position and tightness in the upper and lower back. Continue to force the knees outward throughout the movement.
- Release breath.
Grip, foot width, and foot positioning vary slightly between lifters. See the “Variables and Effects on the Squat” section below to get a better understanding on how these changes effect the squat.
Common Squat Form Problems
- Lack of ankle flexibility: Lack of flexibility in the ankles can contribute to heels lifting off the floor while squatting, falling backward in the squat, and back rounding. A wider stance with the knees pushed out helps to decrease demand of flexibility. Wearing heeled weightlifting shoes can also help as a workaround to inflexible ankles. For a complete guide on improving ankle flexibility, read “Improve Ankle Mobility for Better Squats.”
- Rounding over (back rounding): Rounding can be caused by a number of factors. Common causes are lack of flexibility in the ankles or hips, improper positioning (see “Variables and Effects on the Squat” below), or lack of upper back strength, and too much weight used.
- Knees buckling inward: It is not uncommon to see the knees shoot inward while squatting heavy weights. Consciously pushing the knees out throughout the movement and fighting to hold proper form is almost always required. Some recommend special hip abduction exercises (spreading hips open) to help strengthen the muscles required to keep the knees out.
- Weight on toes (or heels lifting off the floor): See “Lack of ankle flexibility” above and the included article. This can also be a simple fix by consciously keeping the weight on your heels.
- Inability to reach depth: Most of the time correcting depth issues is simple. Ensure you are sitting your body down between the legs, opening up the hips, and pushing the knees out to create enough room for the body to descend. If flexibility is a problem, a mobility drill called “prying” is a common solution, along with actively sitting into a proper squat position for 5 or 10 minutes at a time without weight. Check out this post on how to improve the squat’s bottom position.
Squat Tips & Mental Notes
- Keep Tight! A big deep breath and tight back helps keep the torso in proper position. Maintain this posture throughout the squat.
- Move Fast, but Controlled. Controlling the weight on the way down is important, but practice reversing the weight quickly. Big squats and speed go hand in hand.
- Film Yourself. If you don’t have a seasoned coach watching your every rep, record yourself for instant feedback. Post your video in your training log, or a Q&A section so others can critique or share tips.
- Purchase a good pair of shoes. Squat shoes should be supportive and stable. Some lifters also prefer a slight heel in weightlifting shoes.
- Weight back on heels. Keeping the weight back on the heels activates more muscles, and helps prevent the lifter from falling forward.
- Lead with the chest. Don’t let the hips come too far in front of the torso. The hips and chest should raise together.
Variables and Effects on the Squat
Note: A heavy barbell must always remain inline, over the foot while squatting. If the barbell drifts too far forward or backward during the movement; balance is lost and the lifter will either fall over, or make a compensation by rounding the back.
- Feet and Knee Width: A wider base enables the lifter to squat without as much knee forward drift. This is useful in keeping upright, especially with poor ankle flexibility.
- Ankle Flexibility: Without enough forward knee movement, the body may not be able to create balance with a straight back. To accommodate for this, the back may round over to move the center of mass keeping the lifter from falling backward.
- Bar Position: The lower the bar is positioned on the back, the more forward torso lean is created to create balance. The opposite is required in the high bar squat and its even more upright cousin, the front squat.
- Knee Drift: Forward knee movement allows the lifter to remain more upright, especially when in combination with the high bar position.
Squat Styles and Variations
The squat is an exercise that can be changed dramatically between styles and variations. Different squat techniques shift muscle emphasis, and change the dynamics of the lifts. Unless otherwise noted, the same setup and form is used.
Low Bar Squat
The low bar squat is similar in every way to any other squat, except that the barbell is resting lower on the back instead of the traps. The positioning can be more difficult to find in comparison to the high bar squat, but this bar placement generally allows for more weight to be used. For this reason, it is the most common squat style for powerlifters.
Due to the barbells change in position, the center of mass is shifted. This changes squat form slightly, making the back angle tend to lean over more, and the butt shoot further back. This keeps the knees back further and reduces quadricep and knee stress while shifting the emphasis onto hamstrings, glutes, and the back.
This squat is typically thought of as a very deep squat, with the lifter usually wearing a heeled olympic weightlifting shoe. The Olympic Squat, or Back Squat, is a squat olympic weightlifters use to aid their competition lifts, so the form is changed slightly to replicate the positioning required.
Because of its extreme upright position, this squat requires the most quadriceps and forward knee movement of all styles. These squats are usually performed with nearly complete upright posture. The heel on weightlifting shoes allows for more forward knee movement before the heel raises off the floor. This keeps the torso upright and the lifter’s weight back on the heels.
Wide Stance Sumo Squat
This style of the squat is simply performed with a very wide stance, well outside shoulder width. Emphasis shifts to glutes and hamstrings, and away from quads. This stance is commonly used in conjunction with the low bar placement. Wide stance squatters are also typically queued to sit far back into the squat to create a vertical angle of the shins. This wider stance can shorten the range of motion, allowing for heavier weight lifted.
When taken to extremes, this style is usually not recommended for typical lifters due to the increased difficulty squatting to depth, and added strain onto the hips.
The Front Squat is a squat in which the barbell rests over the front of the shoulders by the throat, instead of the back. This difference in position shifts emphasis to the quadriceps while keeping the back in an upright posture. This squat allows for greater depth, and less back strain, and is a very popular complement to the squat.
There are two suggested ways to hold the barbell for front squats, also known as the “rack position“. None are comfortable, and they may take some time to adapt.
- Clean Grip (Recommended) – This is the most secure position for the front squat, but requires the most wrist flexibility. Only two or three fingers are placed around the bar with the elbows pushed up high throughout the repetition with the barbell resting on the front deltoids. Check out the full guide on how to build a great rack position.
- Cross Arm – This grip is a less demanding flexibility wise, and is an alternative to the Clean Grip. Cross the wrists with thumbs pointing upward. Place the thumbs around the bar, pushing the shoulders upward and rotating until the barbell is placed in the proper position on the front deltoids. Use the thumbs only as a guide, they are not meant to support the weight of the barbell in anyway.
- No Hands – Sometimes called “Zombie Squats”, this is a coaching aid to teach proper bar placement, and is best used with lighter weights. The arms are held straight forward at shoulder width, extended throughout the repetitions. If the barbell isn’t in the proper groove, it will begin to roll right off the shoulders. This is a great warm up drill if you are having a difficult time finding that sweet spot for the barbell to rest.
- Wrist Straps – For those who are not flexible enough to use the clean grip, but want a more secure rack position. Put the wrist straps over the barbell as if the barbell is your wrist. Place the two straps shoulder width or wider, and grip each loose end. While gripping firmly, rack the barbell on the front of the shoulders as normal. Use the straps to lightly secure the bar, similar to what is done on the clean grip.
- Build tension on the descent. Some high level squatters sometimes explain this as if compressing an inner spring. Coiling themselves up to create a blast out of the bottom position.
- Hit the bottom with speed. Another technique used for speed out of the bottom position. A controlled bounce out of the bottom reverses the weight.
- Three step walkout. Some say three steps is all it should take to walk out weight. Stand up with the weight using both feet, take one step back to create distance from the rack, place your other foot back in line with the other, and take one last adjustment step for your favorite stance.
Squat Assistance Exercises
Many lifters agree that there are no substitutions for the squat and its variations for improving the squat. However, there are some less taxing assistance exercises to bring up weak points that many find useful. They are:
- Good Mornings
- Lunges / Split Squats
- Leg Press
- Glute-Hamstring Raises
- Weighted Hyperextensions
- Reverse Hyperextension
- Weighted Abdominal Work
- Hamstring Leg Curls
- Glute Bridges
- Hip Belt Squat Machine
- “You shouldn’t squat deep” or “Knees shouldn’t go over toes”: Deep squats with forward knee position are not only safe, but have been shown to help alleviate knee pain by strengthening the muscles around the knee cap. Weightlifters who practice very deep squats with a lot of forward knee movement have very low knee injury rates, and commonly squat very frequently and heavy – it is not rare for weightlifters to squat on a daily basis.
- “Sit back, keep shins past perpendicular”: This is a common technique taught by lifters who are using supportive equipment to aid the squat, or plan to in the future. If you are using supportive equipment, using a very wide stance and sitting back does allow for the equipment to be used more effectively by stretching the clothing material. Unequipped, or raw lifters, have no material to “sit back” into, or to rely on to get out of the bottom position. For the majority of lifters who do not use equipment, it is usually worth it to have some knee drift to incorporate the quads and allow for more bounce out of the bottom position.
- “Squats are bad for your knees”: The deep squat is one of the bodies most natural resting positions. Young children play in this deep squat position, and in some cultures the squat is still used in place of chairs and toilets. The body has been well adapted to getting in and out of the deep squat position on a regular basis.
Squat Injury Risk and Prevention
Possible injuries can include back, knees, hips, and sometimes minor wrist or elbow pain. As with all exercises, risk of injury is drastically reduced when performing proper form.
The back must remain in a neutral or slightly arched position throughout the movement. This provides the spine its strongest position for loading. If the upper or lower back becomes rounded over and the chest is dropped, chances of injury increase due to the spine being in a more vulnerable position.
Knee injury rates are also drastically reduced when taking into account two main factors. Knee tracking, and foot weight distribution. The knees should track inline over the toes, and should not buckle inward at any point during the lift. Weight distribution should remain on the back of the foot, the heels, instead of the toes.
It is common for lifters to notice elbow and bicep pain while bench pressing, and its root cause, the squat, is sometimes overseen. Lifters that practice the low bar technique are most susceptible to this pain, with the solution usually being grip and elbow position changes. To release pressure off the elbows and shoulders, a widened grip is sometimes recommended. In the case with new lifters, larger rear deltoids are sometimes required to hold the bar in a more secure low bar position, allowing for the stress to be taken off the arms, shoulders, and elbows. It is important to keep the weight of the resting barbell off the arms and wrists as much as possible.