By Jim Smith
Squats have been called the ‘king of all exercises’, and for good reason. They will build muscle mass across the entire body and take your overall strength to new levels. And you’ll never get bored with squats because there are many different squat variations and barbells you can use to add variety to your training. Squats promote a stronger core, develop your lower body strength and size, and make you mentally tough; especially when you get deep into a 20 rep set. But, be warned. Squats are not easy to perform correctly or through a full range of motion. And good form is critical if you want the benefits without the negative side effects associated with performing them improperly.
Also remember that poor form is not limited to getting crushed under the bar at the bottom of the lift. You don’t want to be that guy in the rack who is just hitting endless sets of ‘shallow knee bends’ and getting laughed at in the background. To get the full benefits of this multi-joint lower body exercise and to target the most muscle fibers, you will need to know how to do them right. Which means for most of us, starting back at the beginning.
Mastering the Fundamentals
Getting better at squats is the simply a matter of squatting more often. The phrase ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ applies here. The more you practice with good form, the better you’ll get. Building the foundation to better squat with a barbell, involves first learning the fundamentals with bodyweight-only movements, incorporating a better warm-up, working on your overall mobility, and developing more core strength.
Building the Foundation with Fundamentals
Wall squats are the perfect way to teach someone how to squat correctly. The wall squat drill is performed while facing a wall and standing approximately one foot away. You will squat down as far as you can, without any part of your body coming in contact with the wall. The visual reference of the wall forces you to stay tall and upright as you squat down. You will also want to make sure your knees track over your toes and you keep your torso in a neutral or straight position. As you get better, and your hips and upper back become more mobile, you will be able to squat lower and lower.
The wall squat also starts teaching the hip hinge.
The hip hinge is another foundational movement that we often don’t know we’re performing in the gym. If you’ve performed squats, deadlifts, dumbbell or kettlebell swings, or good mornings; then you’ve performed a hip hinge. The hip hinge just means that the first movement of the exercise originates at the hips. And, by first hip hinging when you squat, you will better engage your posterior chain; or all of the muscles on the back of your body. A simple drill to learn the hip hinge is done in a similar fashion as wall squats. You will stand about one foot away from a wall, but this time you will be facing away. Bend at the waist and slide your butt back until it touches the wall. You will want to have your knees slightly bent and make sure your back is straight. This means you could draw an imaginary line from your butt to your head and everything would line up. You’ve just performed a hip hinge with neutral posture.
Learning the Hip Hinge
While the hip hinge for squats is very slight, you’ll notice a big difference when you do it, as opposed to, just squatting straight down; which is more of a quad-dominant movement. Sliding your hips back will not only keep the weight on the big lower body muscles, it will distribute the load across your hips better.
Putting it all together, the wall squat drill and hip hinge drill will teach you to load your hips and do so with an upright or neutral torso position. This is the safest possible scenario and should be perfected before you put a barbell on your back. The next goal, once you master these two fundamental drills, will be to perform good bodyweight squats without the wall. Drill them frequently in your warm-up and prior to your lower body workouts. They should become second nature to you.
More Tension Equals More Strength
The next progression, as you move from these simple bodyweight drills, is to understand how to create more full body tension.
For any compound movement, coordinating tension or tightness across the entire body - or multiple muscle groups - is the key to more strength and control. For squats, begin by ‘anchoring’ yourself into the ground by gripping the floor with your toes. This simple act will create stability in the lower body. This is followed up by the lifter trying to ‘spread the floor’ by pushing their feet laterally to the side. It doesn’t mean your feet will actually move, it means you will drive them laterally into the ground. The combination of anchoring the feet and spreading the floor accumulates greater tension across the entire lower body, which in turn, creates more stability. And if you have more stability, you will be able to control your body through the full squatting pattern when you have a barbell on your back. Next, the core will step in next to tie the tension from the lower body into the upper body.
After anchoring the lower body, the core – the generic term for everything from the neck down - should be tightened after a deep belly breath; this is called bracing. The initial breath sets the intra-abdominal pressure and the tightening of the abdominals - as if you’re going to be punched – finishes the full body tension that you started by first anchoring the lower body.
The core’s role in squats is to stabilize the torso and keep it upright under the load of the barbell. You’ll often see someone with a weak core fall forward when squatting, especially as the weights increase. Even though squatting more will help build up your core strength and stability, it is recommended that you incorporate more core-specific exercises like planks, heavy farmer’s walks, and ab rollouts to bring up any weak points.
On a special note, try and delay the use of a weightlifting belt as long as you can to allow your core to do its job. Using a belt too early or too often will just keep you weaker. The lighter squats sets will not only be the perfect opportunity to groove the proper squat form and dial-in your technique, they will help you work on getting better at bracing your core. If you imagine that there is more weight on the bar and tighten up accordingly, as you move to the heavier sets, you will already be conditioned for the stability needed for the higher weights.
Your ability to crush a squat (or any) workout is really about the stuff that no one likes to do; mainly warming up before you grab the bar. Most lifters rush to the gym and want to get in and get out, so they very rarely hit any kind of warm-up. This is a big mistake. Not only are you likely to feel out of the groove for the first several sets, you’ll also be predisposing yourself to potential injury. Warming up will help you increase your core temperature and get the right muscle groups firing the way they should. Bodyweight squats, wall squats and striders are three great options for a squat-specific warm-up. They will help you ‘grease the groove’ for the proper squat pattern while making sure that your hips get loosened up in the process.
Full 20 Exercise Warm-up
Squatting for all of us was perfected as an infant. Unfortunately, sedentary lifestyles or poor choices we make in the gym, are some of the main reasons most lifters can’t perform full range squats without their form breaking down. It is a constant battle to unlock our bodies and we have to always be working on freeing up our movements.
Have you ever had pain or discomfort in your shoulders when grabbing the bar while it’s on your back? When squatting with a barbell, poor upper body mobility can leave your shoulders sore and stiff. This is because you have to force them into an externally rotated position just to hold onto the bar. This is will be really noticeable, as the weights get heavier. Foam rolling your upper back and performing some thoracic extensions on the foam roller, coupled with various shoulder and chest stretches in the cage, will open up your upper body in preparation for squats.
Upper Body Mobility
What about the lower body?
Being too tight and restricted in the ankles and hips will force you out of a good position at some point when you’re squatting. You can focus on hip and ankle specific mobility drills during your warm-up, and perform a variety of progression exercises to help you get better at squats. In addition to the fundamentals we mentioned, exercises like goblet squats, where you hold a dumbbell vertically against your chest while you squat, will help to improve your form, increase your lower body mobility, and do so with additional weight.
Having good mobility implies you can move through your intended range of motion without restriction. And full range squats require lots of upper and lower body mobility; specifically at the shoulders, upper back, hips, and ankles. Keep working on unlocking your movement and start incorporating a more thorough warm-up.
Lower Body Mobility
Now, let’s talk about why the right to perform full squats must be earned.
Earning the Right to Squat
Before you begin squatting, you should make it a goal to focus on quality over quantity. It goes without saying that beginners want results fast. Because of this fact, they usually make one of the biggest mistakes when they start tackling squats, or any exercise; they perform too much volume. Unfortunately, at the end of a grueling set, form is that last thing on their minds. This type of training will leave you sore for days and can lead to bigger injuries over time. Strength coach Jason Ferruggia made a great point about this very issue in a recent article. He stated that for beginners to make faster progress, they should simply focus on good quality repetitions and stick to a lower rep range to perfect their form. Drilling bad form will just engrain that bad pattern which can be very hard to break. A good set and repetition range for beginners might be 3-4 sets of 6-8 repetitions for a typical workout.
Also, learning to squat should be a progression with a top-down training approach. When you squat, only go down as far as you can without losing good form. A qualified trainer or a video you take with your smart phone, will help you to immediately see where your form breaks down. You should be looking to see if you’re losing the upright position of your torso, losing stability across your midsection or upper back, or allowing your hips to tuck under. You should try and stay in a range where all of these bad things don’t happen. Squats to a box is an excellent choice for earning your way to full squats.
I typically teach the squat for my athletes by having them squat to a box with 3/4” mats on it. Week 1 they might have 10 mats on the box. And if they can squat down, barely touch the box, and come back up with good form for multiple sets, then the next squat session, we’ll try 9 mats. Again this testing is repeated until we move to 8 mats….and so on. The goal is to eventually remove all of the mats, and then the box itself until they are performing full range back squats. The key is progression and not allowing them to go outside of their capabilities too fast.
Great Squat Progression How-To
Let’s now look at a step-by-step how to squat sequence.
How to Squat – A Step-by-Step Guide
Step 1: Setup directly under the bar; with the bar centered and your hands spaced evenly.
Step 2: Pull your hands in as close to your shoulders as possible to create tension in the upper back.
Step 3: Bring your chest upwards (create a big chest) while you squeeze the bar as hard as you can with your hands. Drive your elbows downward until they are pointed at the ground and tighten your lats.
Step 4: Take a huge breath and hold it. Lift the bar off the rack and take one step back with each foot. You’ll want to minimize the number of steps you take and perfect your step back technique. This will be critical for heavier squats. You don’t want to be shuffling around with your feet when the heavy bar is on your back.
Step 5: ‘Reset your air’ by getting another big belly breath prior to squatting down. Drive your chest up, elbows down and keep your eyes forward.
Step 6: Stay tall and keep your torso long while hinging your hips slightly back and pushing your knees apart as you pull yourself downward with your hips.
Step 7: When you reach the bottom or “hole”, reverse the movement and drive powerfully back to lockout.
Step 8: Repeat
While there are tons of varieties of squats and an endless variety of different bars you can use, you have to start with the basics. Learning fundamental training techniques like hip hinging, bracing of the core, and improving your overall mobility will be the foundation that will allow you to safely incorporate squats into your workouts. After you get better, then you can experiment with more advanced squats variations to find which ones that best fit your body and help you continue toward your fitness goals.
Please let us know in the comments, what advanced squat techniques you’d like to learn about and how you liked the article. Next up, Deadlift 101!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim is a proud Dad, strength coach, and entrepreneur. Co-author of the best selling Athletic Development Training system and co-founder of the CPPS certification for coaches, Jim has been recognized as one of the ‘most innovative coaches’ in the fitness industry. Jim is regularly featured in Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness.
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