Squats are the king of exercises and should be a key part to any programme they will help you achieve your goals in the gym but need to be done correctly.
Squatting will strengthen your whole body and not just your muscles but bones and joints too. It will also improve balance, coordination and flexibility.
Babies and children can perform perfect squats without being shown but as we get older, and especially today with so many sitting at work all day, we lose our ability to squat and have to work to regain it…which is fine, so let’s start.
Here’s how to squat.
Un-racking and Racking
You should squat with safety catchers set just below the bottom of your squat. If you fail a rep you can simply sit the bar down on the safety catchers. They will not get in your way and there is no good reason not to use them.
You should set the bar height an inch or two below the height the bar will be on your back so that you do not need to tiptoe back into the rack or do a half squat.
Squat facing the cage an take one step back before squatting. You want to be able to walk straight into the uprights of the rack when you finish and then lower the bar straight onto the hooks without looking for them. If you look for the hooks and try to place the bar on them you will eventually miss. If you hit the uprights and go straight down you cannot miss.
You should face the rack when you start, it is easier to re-rack the bar by walking straight forward to the cage.
Just before you squat
Before you squat it is vital you create enough whole-body tension. This will allow you to squat safely and much more efficiently.
The goal should always be to break parallel. This is where the top of your knee is above the crease of your hip at the bottom of the squat. Whether you then continue to squat all the way down until your hips are between your ankles and almost on the floor “ass to grass” is another *controversial* topic. If you can squat bellow parallel with good form you can consider yourself to be doing full range squats.
Although I would aim for parallel squats nobody is forcing you to squat this low. Although it will make the squat more efficient for building size and strength it may take some practice before you feel confident squatting below parallel.
Try not to lift too heavy before you have taken the time to build your technique and increase your mobility enough to squat to parallel.
The bottom of your squat is where your body will allow you to squat to. Most people will be able to break parallel over time and if you want to compete or even not have a black mark on your personal bests you should figure out how to get there. Due to hip anatomy everyone will not be able to squat “ass to grass” so, although increasing your range of motion is advisable, try not to force a lower squat than you are able to.
The best speed to descend is basically as fast as you can whilst staying in control of the move. This should allow you to take advantage of the stretch reflex at the bottom. Too fast and you will lose control of the bar and risk injury, too slow and you will not take advantage of the stretch reflex and your lift will generally be less efficient.
From the top of your squat you can either think of sitting back or sitting down. Sitting back will encourage you to have your hips go back as if you are sitting on a seat. This requires less knee flexion and a more vertical shin, whilst reaching full depth and flexion at the hip. Sitting down, with a feeling of your knees and ankles bending together and your hips coming straight down between your ankles. This will require more flexion of your knees and for them to travel forward over you toes. This is not an issue but will require good ankle mobility.
The important thing to note is the sticking point here, for most people it will be just above parallel. So regardless of how low you squat, if you fail, it will almost certainly be within a few inches of where everyone else does. It’s at this point your knees might cave in or the hips shoot up and you end up leaning forward too much in a good morning type position.
When you initiate your drive out of the bottom of the squat you should think of driving your shoulders up into the bar whilst maintaining your spine angle. Then when you reach your sticking point it’s important not to try and rush through it but to get your shoulders back and your hips under the bar. This will cause your knees to come forward slightly as well but will allow you to use your legs to get through the lift and not end up leaning further forward and failing the rep.
You should lift all your warm-up/ ramp-up sets as if they were your heaviest working set. Don’t lift them slower or with less effort than your 1RM. You should be getting out of the hole and past your sticking point with maximum force. This will make you stronger and much more able to apply force maximally when the weight gets heavier.
There are 4 areas that are most commonly going to limit your squat mobility.
If you lack shoulder mobility you might struggle to hold the bar on your back with a narrow grip on the bar. If you need to move our hands wider in the short term this is fine.
If you struggle for enough dorsiflexsion in your ankles this will limit your squat depth because your shins cannot lean forward enough. Simple stretches and squatting should help this.
Tight hips can make squatting to full depth an issue. Most people can achieve good mobility here with more practice simply squatting and a few stretches. Everyone is different and different stances tend to vary from person to person based on your hip structure.
Tight adductors will make it hard for you to keep your knees out as wide as they should be, lined up over your toes at the bottom of the squats. Resting at the bottom of the squats and using your elbows to push your knees out should help stretch here. Also doing squats with a resistance band round your knees can help with this so you do not let your knees cave in at the bottom of the squats.