There are many good reasons why squats are considered “The King of Exercises.” Few other exercises have the potential to increase strength, change your body composition, and make you feel like the ultimate bad-ass in the gym quite like the squat.
The problem is that most people don’t perform squats correctly, and that’s totally understandable. The squat looks simple, but it’s actually a very complex exercise. There are a lot of moving parts and things to remember.
The ability to perform a squat or partial squat is an essential primal movement in life we must all be able to do, whether you are 8 or 80 years old. When we think of a squat, most of us associate the move with weight training or a specific sport activity. However, we all perform variations of a squat everyday with activities of daily living ranging from lifting a box to picking up a child or sitting down in a chair. Our ability to do this in a safe and correct manner can be the difference between injury and living a healthy, pain free life.
When done properly, the squat is a safe and effective exercise that can be used for strengthening the entire body. It is estimated that correctly performing a squat requires over 200 upper and lower body muscles to work synergistically.
Below are 7 tips from Molly Galbraith to get you started on better form with your squats.
Check your stance.
People who aren’t powerlifters wearing gear, don’t need to be squatting much wider than just beyond shoulder width, with their toes pointed out between 15-30 degrees. Squatting very wide is harder on the hips, and once you get extremely wide, it can be even harder to drive your knees out, which, as you’ll see below, is very important.
Brace your core
Most beginners don’t brace the core effectively. Even if you think your abs are strong, you might not be bracing correctly. You actually have to learn how to create pressure in your low back when you squat, not just in your anterior core.
Keep your head in a neutral position.
It’s really popular in the powerlifting world to throw your head back when you squat. This is completely understandable as it can help you “drive out of the hole” (stand up from the bottom of a squat), and it’s common knowledge in the training world that the body will go where the eyes go.
That can be fine for competitive powerlifters, but since most people are lifting simply because they want to look good and feel good, they need to keep their head in a neutral position. Throwing your head back causes you to go into lumbar hyperextension, effectively putting all of the pressure on your lower back, and not allowing you to use your entire core, or your glutes, as effectively as you could. Think neutral head, eyes up.
Use your hips.
It’s very common for beginners to use their spine to “catapult” themselves up, instead of using their hips and their entire core. Once you learn how to effectively brace your core, you will allow your hips and your entire core to start taking the load, and you’ll get much stronger, and stay much safer.
Drive your knees out
Using your glutes to drive your knees out, allows you to open up your hips so you can sink down into the proper squat position. If you don’t drive your knees out, you’ll not only run into your hips, but you won’t have a comfortable (or safe) hip, knee, and ankle angle. This also ties into tip number 1. If your stance is too wide, you often won’t be able to drive your knees out effectively, so bring your stance in, and think about driving your knees OUT to open up your hips. Using a light mini-band right below the knees here as a reminder to drive them out, can be very helpful.
Women tend to be very quad dominant, and we typically either want to shoot our knees forward on a squat, or almost “plié” down into the squat. Neither of these are correct when you’re trying to do a true squat. This is where learning how to squat onto a box first can be very beneficial. It teaches you to sit back into your hips safely, and allows you to learn this pattern without feeling like you are going to fall backward.
Use an appropriate range of motion
When first learning to squat, many people won’t be able to hit depth, which is typically defined as parallel or slightly below parallel. If they can hit depth, they often can’t control their pelvis in that position, and they will experience “butt wink” where their butt tucks under at the bottom. Only squat as low as you can maintain good form, and over time, with practice and the correct mobility and stability work, you should be able to squat to depth.
If you are squatting onto a bench or box (which as just mentioned, we recommend learning first), and can’t control your squat, throw a plate or two onto the box until you get strong in that range of motion, and then slowly increase your range of motion by removing plates, until you can squat at your desired depth.