Updated: Jul 1, 2021
The squat is one of the most important exercises you can do. If you’re not doing it, that needs to change ASAP.
The squat is the king of lower body training. If you want to develop your quads, hamstrings and glutes, as well as having good hip mobility and good ankle mobility and not forgetting a solid core, then you need to get squatting.
Now there are many different types of squats. You can squat just using your body weight, back squat, front squat, over head squat, goblet squat and more.
For the purpose of this, I’m going to look at the barbell back squat as it’s the most commonly done.
Though you should note that a lot of the key principles are the same regardless of what type of squat you are doing. The only difference in the techniques is how your body is loaded. Now this will effect some things such as how upright your body is but the vast majority will translate over to any technique.
I’m going to get this out of the way now because I know some people will read this and come off the worst line in the world which is, “I can’t squat. It hurts my knees.”
Hearing that as a cop out for not squatting drives me crazy!
And as someone who has had bad knee injuries in both knees, it is not a valid excuse!
I have barely any cartilage left in one knee and torn the MCL in the other. All at a young age and was told to give up martial arts and I’d never fight again. Since then I have fought multiple times and even taken up new martial arts and I lift weights and I run.
So bad knees excuse aren’t gonna fly.
Now obviously there are people who have legit issues and movement can be difficult or uncomfortable. But even if you’re elderly and bad knees, you can still squat to some degree. Just probably not a good idea to load a bar up and squat.
If you do have knee issues, think about why that is.
Do squats hurt your knees?
Or is that you could be overweight and putting more stress on your joints.
Or the muscles that are used are very weak and tight and maybe then put more stress on certain areas more than others.
Do you have good technique so you know how to make sure you don’t load you knees too much when doing squats or lunges?
Chances are for a lot of people, squatting is the issues. It just shows issues that are underlying and now that your body’s have to work to squat, that those issues are exposed.
And it’s not just knee pain. When people say they don’t squat because it hurts their back, knee, shoulder or elbow.
It’s not the squat you’re just doing it wrong or have underlying weaknesses or lack of mobility that is getting exposed by the squatting movement.
So there are 3 key points I’m going to o through. They are:
1. Setting up
3. Coming up from the squat
So like I said earlier, I’m going to look at doing a back squat using a barbell. So all reference with be in regards to that.
Firstly, make sure the bar is set up properly. The bar should be set to around mid-chest level. If it’s too low you’ll be hunched over when you’re trying to set up and if it’s too high then you’ll struggle to unrack the bar and you’ll lift it off not strong or stable which could lead to injury.
Grip the bar with as narrow a grip as you comfortably can. This will require a bit of experimenting to see what’s comfortable for you.
The reason for this is that it helps brace your shoulders and squeezes you shoulder blades together creating a muscle platform for the bar to rest on.
The bar should rest on your traps. Not your neck as I’ve seen a lot of people do.
Then step under the bar with your feet around shoulder width wide.
Your shoulders should be back, chest out, upper back tight and lower back in a neutral position.
Unrack it by simply standing up straight and taking a couple of small steps back.
Your feet should be shoulder width apart or slightly wider. If you’re a bit wider you might find it easier to drop down in to the squat.
Your toes should be pointing straight ahead. A slight turn up isn’t too bad. If you can’t keep your toes forward when squatting then that shows a lack of mobility in your hips. I’ll go through squat mobility another time.
Now here’s some helpful tips that have helped me and my clients.
I have to give a massive shout out to Kelly Starrett. I have learnt a lot from his books and videos. If you want to know more about mobility and technique on how to load your body correctly check him out.
One of the first things I want to look at is creating tension in you hips. We do this by thinking about screwing out feet into the ground.
Now our feet don’t move when we do this. But what this motion does is it creates external rotation in the hips. This gets the glutes firing helping with external rotation and also helping with hip extension. You’ll find that as you do this that your hips sit better under your pelvic which helps organise you body better so you’re not loading incorrectly.
It also lifts the arch in your foot giving you a more stable base. And it should line your knees up better over your feet.
Maintain this tension pretty much the entire time while going through the squatting motion. What is motion does is it creates tension in the hips and gets rid of any slack.
I found this helps my squat so much. Especially if I’m squatting heavy.
And not just for squatting. Deadlifting too. In fact in any exercise that is don’t standing. I do this over head pressing too. Even do it for bicep curls.
Now there is the important part of bracing your core. This is so important for protecting your lower back.
When you breathe in, you want to expand not just and the stomach area but at your side and back too so that your whole trunk area expands 360 degrees.
Now this is more aimed at squatting heavy, however I have found that this helps clients who have had back issues squatting. Though the method does help support your back and pelvis so it’s still worth doing even if you’re not squatting heavy.
Once you take this big breath in, remember to breathe in using your diaphragm and don’t breathe into your chest. Hold that breath and don’t exhale until you’re driving up or until you are all the way to the top again.
The reason for this is that is creates a compression in your truck. Your trunk becomes solid. It’s the same idea that there’s air in a tin of Coke. You’re able to stack loads of tins on top of each other without the top tin getting crushed. It’s not down to the strength of the aluminium. It’s that compressed bit of air that’s in the tin with the liquid.
This has worked wonders for me and my clients when it comes to how strong your trunk is when squatting heavy.
Now that all that is done, you are finally ready to lower.
To start to lower, thinking about sitting your hips back and pushing you knees out slightly. The pushing your knees out will tie in with the hip tension created setting up.
Your knees should NOT shoot forward. Aim to keep your shins are vertical as you can. The lower you go the more they will come forward naturally.
Your heels should NEVER lift up. If they do this can be a sign of very bad technique or bad mobility.
When the crease of your hips is slightly lower than your knees, you have reached the bottom of your squat.
Make sure as you are lowering you don’t lean forward too much. You naturally will lean forward a bit when back squatting. This helps with your center of gravity and balance. However you shouldn’t come forward too much as you’ll load your lower back when coming up.
If you’ve maintained that hip tension and still keeping that screwing your feet into the ground motion this should keep your hips strong and make sure your knees don’t collapse in.
If they do it’s because you lost the tension and those hip muscle are weak so that’s something that would need to be worked on.
Coming up from the squat
Keep that breath in. If you’re not going too heavy you can breathe out on the way up. However you’ve then lost compression in your trunk. Some people use the breath out to help drive like other exercises. But if you are going heavy or you can back pain squatting, I would recommend you still hold that breath and maintain the tight trunk.
Keep the tension in the hips to. If you struggle coming up, the knees can want to collapse inward so keep that tension.
Keep your upper back tight too. Don’t lose that brace now.
Drive through your legs and squeeze your glutes to help drive you up.
Once you’ve reached the top, then you can exhale a bit. If you’re going for more reps. Just a slight exhale, then another inhale to top up that compression before lowering again. If you’re finished that you can breathe out more. Though remember you still have a weigh on your back so don’t relax that area too much until you rack the weight.
If you follow these steps, I promise you will notice a difference in your squat. These are things I do every time I squat and things, I get clients to do and it works wonders.
I will look at squat mobility and warming up another time as it’s good to make sure that the muscles that you are going to use are firing and ready to go. Also, that you have the mobility to do the movement easily. Even doing a bit of core training before squatting can help getting your core engaged which will help you brace your trunk better and prevent you loading your lower back.
But stick with it. It might not all come together at once. But follow all these steps and you should have a smoother, easier and stronger squat.