Please view the updated version of this article, Strength Training 101: How to Squat Properly.
One of the best exercises for you, whether you’re trying to build muscle or lose weight (or both) HAS to be the squat.
However, it’s also one of the most difficult exercises to do properly unless you actually know what you’re doing. Let’s take a look at why this exercise is so great, and then how to perform it properly for maximum results and minimal chance of injury.
This article is 1100 words long, which is a testament to how beneficial and important this exercise is to fitness…and how easy it is to screw up.
Squats for the win!
Squats work practically every single muscle in your body. Okay that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the truth. If you’re looking to burn fat, you want to do exercises that trigger as much of your body as possible so it’s all getting worked and exercised. On the other side of the coin, if you’re looking to build muscle, your legs and back can put on the most muscle in the shortest amount of time.
If you are serious about getting in shape and losing weight, or if you’re a beanpole and looking to gain muscle, you absolutely need to include squats in your routine.
Before we get into how to do squats, here’s my squat story: When I started lifting weights back in high school, I went to the gym and had no idea what I was doing. I had a guy “help” me out by throwing me into the Smith Machine (Stay away from the Smith Machine! read why you should use free weights instead of machines whenever possible), load up some weight on it, and have me do squats all the way down to the floor. Due to the angle of the bar coming from the Smith Machine, my back got all jacked up. I just assumed I wasn’t cut out for squats, and stayed away from them.
A few years later I started doing squats again, but I was only going down a very short distance before standing up. My legs weren’t really getting a workout, and I wasn’t really seeing the gains that everybody talks about you’re supposed to get from squatting: I still had chicken legs. Eventually I moved back to the Smith machine (I was an idiot), added even more weight, still maintained that limited range of motion, and kept my chicken legs.
One day, I finally decided that I was going to man up and do actual squats. I hopped into the squat rack, loaded up some weight, went down for the squat, and got stuck. Luckily the safety bars were in, and I got out of there with just a bruised ego. I immediately took all the weight off the bar, and did low squats with JUST the bar (only 45 lbs) for 3 sets of 12. My legs were sore for 3 days afterward, and my back didn’t hurt! For a few months after that, I was adding weight extremely slowly, and concentrating on having perfect form with my squats. My lower back got stronger, the ligaments in my knees got stronger, and my legs got stronger.
After feeling confident in my squatting ability, I started to add more weight more quickly, and the muscles started to build. The other day I squatted a personal best, and it was in the 4th set after only a minute break since the previous set. Sure I could add a lot more weight and take longer breaks between sets, but I’m content with being safe, lifting weight that I know won’t injure me because I’m always in control, and still seeing solid growth in my legs.
Squats for Newbies
Before we start loading you up with tons of weight, make sure you can do regular body weight squats. Here is a video that looks like it was made in 1984, but does a great job explaining good form on a body weight squat:
A few tips to remember:
- Squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. If you don’t go down that far, you’re cheating yourself and doing a fake squat. Go way down, and you’ll feel it in every muscle in your leg. This will give you a really strong core along with strong legs and a strong back.
- Try not to extend your knees past your toes. If you’re doing the squats right, you should be sitting back with your ass out and back straight.
- Don’t arch your back. The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to keep your head up when you squat, and KEEP YOUR ABS tight throughout the whole exercise (that’s right, squats will even work your abs).
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, and point your toes slightly outward.
Want to see a good test if you’re doing a good squat? Stand up in front of your desk chair, and ‘squat’ down into the chair. Are you sitting? Good. Now stand up without leaning forward at all. if you’re squatting properly, your ass will be sticking out, your back will be straight, and you’ll be able to stand right back up without having to lean forward to get momentum to stand back up.
How to squat in a squat rack:
So you’ve done the chair test, and you can sit and stand without having to lean forward. You can do 3 sets 12 reps of body weight squats and that’s no longer a challenge. Let’s try adding some weight. Get into the squat rack, set the bar at just below your shoulder level, and set the safety bars low enough that you’ll be able to squat low with the bar on your shoulders. Duck under the bar, grab the bar with your hands in a wide grip (palms facing forward), and rest the weight across the upper part of your back (not your neck!). If the weight bothers you across your back, see if there’s a bar pad that you can put on there. They’re usually lying around by the squat racks, smith machines, etc.
The position you want:
- Flat Back
- Elbows high
- Chest up and out
- Abs tight
Oh, and DON’T even think about wearing a weight belt (unless you’ve experienced serious back injury in the past). Read why here.
No Squat Rack?
No problem, grab some dumbbells, and hold them in front of you like you’re getting ready to press them up to work your shoulders. Keep them here as you squat up and down, maintaining the same good form as described above. Want to get a full body workout? Every time you stand up for your squat, press the weights up above you. You’ll be working your legs, abs, back, shoulders, chest, and triceps with one exercise. Just practice good form on both and you’ll be all set.
Doing squats ‘the right way’ and still getting lower back or knee pain?
If you are, then take 10 minutes and watch this great video on the two most common squatting errors and how to correct them. Trust me, it will pay off in the long run:
If you’re afraid of squats, now is the time to add them into your routine. Start with very light weight (or just your body weight), practice absolute perfect form, and then in a matter of weeks you’ll be packing on the plates and dropping body fat while building muscle
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy reading:
- Is Barefoot Running Really Better for You?
- How to NOT Suck At Working Out
- Deadlifts – Not Just for Zombies
- Pull Ups and Chin Ups – How to Do Them Right
photo source: squat