The squat is the exercise for bigger, more powerful legs, and is part of the big three which includes deadlifts and benching. Knowing how to squat properly guarantees core strength, stability, leg power and effective muscle growth.
Favoured by powerlifters, rugby players and many athletes – because the squat targets the quadriceps – it also hits the glutes, hip adductors (inner thighs), and calves. But, squat the wrong way, and you could do more harm than good, so take note, gents.
The right footwear
Tennis or running trainers are possibly the worst choices for this exercise. Whilst the purpose of these shoes are to distribute your entire bodyweight evenly across your feet, and to cushion you from impact, in a squat, you’re pressing down against the earth.
Coincidently, the earth presses up against you, and if you’re wearing a cushioned shoe, you’ll lose some of that energy transfer, resulting in unstable form and the feeling that your knees are giving-in (a dangerous situation, and one to be avoided.)
So, instead, opt for a hard-soled shoe, such as Nike Romaleos shoes (which have a higher heel for greater lift) or the trusty Vans, yes Vans, as sported by many gym-goers who squat and swear-by them. That’s because they are designed with a firm, flat sole so that the wearer ‘pushes off’ with greater energy transfer.
Some enthusiasts prefer a barefoot approach. But, whilst this keeps your feet flat, it greatly increases knee instability and your chances of long-term injury as there is no ‘firm’ surface to lift against, particularly when you’re lifting heavy. Also, most gyms won’t allow barefoot training, and there’s nothing more ungentlemanly than breeching gym etiquette.
Perfecting your form
Standing with feet slightly wider than shoulders-width apart, squeeze your glutes which will naturally rotate your feet to an optimal toe-point position. The bar should be resting on your trapezius (top shoulder) with your knees slightly bent.
Always be mindful that your feet should stand firm and directly beneath the bar, with your mid-foot as the centre of gravity. Never look down during the next stages as this will increase the likelihood of neck injury, and instead look dead ahead. Your hands should grip the bar as narrowly as comfortably possible – having them too wide decreases your centre of gravity and overall power output.
When you’re ready to un-rack, take a deep breath in, brace your abdominal wall and un-rack the bar – the easiest way to do this is by squeezing your glutes, and the bar will simply pop off the rack. Exhale.
We advise against ‘quadding’ the bar off the rack, which is where you bend your knees and use your quads to take the weight. Instead, use your strongest muscle groups; your hips, your lower back, your hamstrings and your quads to un-rack the weight.
Be sure to find your optimum bar position; as a high-bar position sits on top of your trapezius, whilst a low-bar rests on your rear deltoids. There’s no correct way, though it is generally easier in a high-bar position to stay in an upright stance, and it is more comfortable, too.
The advantage of a low-bar position – granted your shoulders will be more bunched – is that you will engage in a more powerful lift, with the ability to use more weight. We recommend trying both with minimal weight to see which works best, and having a personal trainer or expert to overlook your form at this stage.
With your bar un-racked, let it settle for a couple of seconds as your body adjusts to the load. Then follow the 3-step walkout, where you take one small step backward (left foot), and then with your right foot take a small step further backward (which now plants your right foot). Then, with your left foot, take that back in alignment with your right foot. Both feet should now be firmly planted, being mindful of optimal toe-point position.
For your first squat, breathe in as deep as you can, bracing your abdominal wall (which in turn will stabilise your back), and starting with your hips, drive them back as you descend into a ‘sitting-down’ in between your legs position. Squatting isn’t an up-down motion but it’s very much a back-and-forth motion, too.
So, by using your hips and glutes, you’re recruiting your biggest muscle groups to achieve the greatest depth. Your knees should be driving out in the same tracking direction as your toes, and never shoot your knees forward. The best way to ensure you’re executing correct form is to keep a near-upright shin angle.
Your back angle is entirely dependent on your skeleton – despite the popular belief that you should squat as upright as possible. Someone with long femurs and a short torso will need a significant lean to achieve depth, in comparison to someone with shorter femurs who can achieve a more upright squat with minimal forward lean. Either way, spine neutrality (where your spine stays straight) is key to preventing ‘flexion’ (where you cave forward).
As you come up, don’t just think about going up, but also drive your hips forward and squeeze your glutes for the final lock position – which should be straight and locked.
What makes a good squat?
DEPTH: A deep squat where your hip joints should go slightly below your knee joints is optimal (again, for those with longer femurs, you may need to stop level with the knee joint). Ultimately, the majority should aim to achieve a good parallel or below squat.
BAR PATH: A proper bar path begins with the bar directly above your mid-foot, and should stay as perpendicular, or as close to the centre of your mid-foot throughout the entire exercise, granted, a perfectly straight line won’t be achieved, but it will be safer and easier for you to lift.
SPINE NEUTRALITY: Throughout the whole exercise, your back is always at its greatest risk from disc injury or worse, so always keep in mind that your back should be in the best possible, neutral position (without extreme curving or weight load on the lower back). Again, we highly recommend a personal trainer or expert to overlook and guide you, so you don’t risk injury.
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