The squat (sometimes referred to as the back squat) is one of the queens of exercises. It hits your entire body, particularly your legs, butt, hips, and lower back. Learn to do it well and your body will reward you with a fabulous (and strong) set of gams.
Don’t believe the heathens who tell you that the leg press is a substitute for the squat. The leg press is but a pale and petty imitation. Not only does the squat demand (and teach) strength, but also balance, coordination, endurance, and power.
The simple act of standing up under a weight is intensely demanding for your whole body. After a set of squats, even light squats, you may feel dizzy, nauseated, temporarily deaf, light-headed, or simply a powerful need to sit down. This is normal, and means that you are challenging your body in a way that few other exercises can. This effect should diminish over time. Beginners often find squats very demanding until they are well conditioned. Be patient and persistent.
If you ever want to see a real pro squat, watch a toddler. If they find something on the floor that they want, they just squat right down with perfect form to get at it. As we get older and do more sitting instead of squatting (at least in North America), we forget this very natural movement.
The majority of people in the gym do not squat, and if they do they do not do it well; they commonly cut the rep short in order to handle more weight. You must laugh at them, because they will be doomed to weak stick legs forever. You must, however, learn humility at the squat cage. Good form and good depth are more important than heavy weight.
Next time you see someone loading up the bar to squat, watch how far down they go. Most often they will do nothing more than a gentle curtsey. But you, girlfriend, are going to learn to squat right, and that means as low as you can go.
There is a lot of folk wisdom about squats being bad for your knees, back, blah blah blah. In fact, done properly, squats can actually help your knees and back become stronger and better. I have much more on the wonders of the squat in my Learning the Squat series, as well as a handy guide to self-instruction.
DORK: BACK SQUAT
To the right is my pathetic attempt at a bad back squat (in general, when people say “squat” they mean “back squat”). It’s quite lacking in atrocity: you notice I am not even rounding my upper back.
At any rate, in this photo are some common mistakes in form:
- hips coming up first, before the chest/torso so that the load is transfered on to the lower back
- heels are coming off the floor
- knees are caving inward (towards one another)
- I am leaning too far forward so that my weight is on the balls of my feet
As a good morning, this wouldn’t be too bad, but as a squat, it sucks. These mistakes put a great deal of stress on to your lower back and knees. They also mean that I am off balance and could easily tip forward. I’ve seen this happen, though thankfully not to me. When you tip forward in a power cage, metal meets metal with a loud clang. Everyone turns to look. It’s just dang embarrassing. So why not avoid it altogether?
DIVA: BACK SQUAT
To execute a good squat, your initial position should be standing with the bar across your traps (upper back), not your neck. If the bar hurts, there’s a good chance it’s sitting too high. To get an idea of where the bar should sit, bend your neck forward and feel along the back of it. Notice there are a couple of prominent bony bumps at the base of your neck, where your neck meets your upper back. The bar should sit below these by at least an inch or so.
Feet are about shoulder width in this picture series. You can go wider or narrower, as you prefer. The wider the squat stance, the more your toes are likely to point out. This is fine, as long as your knees follow your toes (i.e. if toes point out, knees should also point out, not forward or inward). Experiment to find what’s most comfortable. By the way, the army boots are optional!
Take a nice deep breath, pushing your chest up and out. This puts your back in the correct position. It also helps form what I call the “meat shelf” of your traps, where the bar sits. Note that shoulders are back, and there is a gentle curve in your lower back (aka the lumbar arch). Try to keep this back position throughout the movement. I don’t mean trying to keep your upper body straight up and down, as people commonly think. The upper body should lean forward as you descend, in order to compensate for the hips moving back. A forward lean is fine, as long as it’s from the hips, not the waist. Once you are in position, begin your descent. Through the descent, retain the lumbar arch. Hips sit back and down, just like sitting down into a chair that’s not there.
The picture on the left is the bottom of a full back squat. Ideally you should aim to go as far below parallel as you can. By parallel I mean the position in which the top of the thigh is parallel to the ground. People tend to think that they are going to parallel, when in reality they are actually bottoming out much higher. To eliminate this confusion, I just stop when my hamstrings hit my calves. Notice that my lower back is slightly arched, my heels are on the floor, and I am looking forward (this helps to keep back straight). Many beginners have difficulty making the proper depth. A wider stance is sometimes a solution. I discuss other remedies in my Learning the Squat series.
People often ask about where their knees should be in this movement. It has been suggested that the knees should not drift out beyond the toes. This is very hard to do with certain kinds of squat stances. As the forward tilt of the shin increases, so does pressure on the knee joint, but most folks can handle it. Olympic lifters have quite an acute forward lean, relative to powerlifters, and they demonstrate no increased evidence of knee damage. If it bothers your knees, experiment with a wider stance. For most folks with healthy knees, it’s not a problem. Even for folks with crunchy knees, like me, it’s not a problem. Front squats are also a good alternative.
This picture does not show the safety bars, but you should set up the horizontal safety bars in your squat cage so that if you fail at the bottom, you can just set the bar down on the pins.
As I come up in the picture on the right, I keep my lower back slightly arched. My hips stay low to make sure the drive is coming from the glutes and hamstrings, rather than the back. A common mistake is to allow the hips to pop up too early in the ascent. I’m still looking forward and my knees do not bow inward.
At the top of the squat, do not lock your knees but keep them slightly bent. Re-set your starting position if needed.
There are many variations on this basic theme. One of my favourites, which hits the quadriceps (front of thigh) as well as the middle back a bit more, is the front squat. The bar is held in front instead of across the upper back. This takes a bit more balance, but once you get the hang of it, it’s great.
DIVA: FRONT SQUAT
OK, I’m not showing this one in a power cage, obviously, but it’s probably the best place to do the front squat. Put the bar across the pins in the power cage or rack, so that it’s approximately at the level of your collarbone or a bit lower. Step under the bar so that it is sitting about the base of your neck. Bring your elbows up in front of you as high as you can. I mean really high, so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. There should now be a sort of groove formed between your shoulders and collarbone. It’s your elbows up high that’s holding the bar there, not your hands, so you don’t have to grip it hard. To get the idea of how this works, try this: stand holding your arms out straight in front of you like a B-movie zombie. Have someone place a broomstick across them, at the level of your shoulders. Notice how you can hold the broomstick in place without using your hands. That’s the concept behind the front squat rack position.
To do the clean grip, start with the zombie arms-out position, palms down. Fold your hands back toward your face and grab the bar. Palms face up. This is known as a clean grip, because this is the position that the bar rests at in the top part of the Olympic lift called the clean. The clean grip is good for people with flexible wrists and shoulders. You may also find that the bar feels more balanced with the clean grip. I began using the crossed-wrist grip, where the bar is held with palms down and wrists crossed, but moved to the clean grip and found it much more comfortable. Experiment to find the grip that is most appropriate for you. Small adjustments in the width of your hand placement will also help.
Step back and bring the bar off the pins. For a beginner, this will feel really off balance, but that’s OK. Keep your back straight. It can lean forward slightly, but will remain more upright than in a back squat. Remember to look forward as you descend into a squat. If you look down with this one, you’re sunk for sure, as floor will meet face. I recommend learning this move with a broomstick or something, just so you get the idea where the bar should rest. Many people find that they can go deeper in the front squat than in the regular squat, and/or that the front squat helps them develop the skill, flexibility, and balance to go deeper in the regular squat. In terms of weight, your front squat will usually be around 80% of your regular squat.
DIVA: OVERHEAD SQUAT
This is a fun exercise, but I don’t recommend trying it until you’ve mistressed the squat. You’ll need every ounce of balance you own. However, this exercise is great for challenging hip flexibility and strength, upper body strength, and torso stability. Start light. I mean real light. Don’t try it with the 45 lb. bar. Just trust me on this one. I, I mean a friend of mine, wiped out on her first attempt at the overhead squat because she tried it with the full-sized bar. Luckily my friend was in the power cage so no real harm was done, just a big embarrassing clang. A broomstick is a better way to begin. Then try with a light bar such as an E-Z curl bar or a light preloaded barbell.
The key to success in this exercise is holding the bar slightly behind, not directly above, your head. Think about stretching the bar outward as you hold it, like a piece of taffy. Your hands won’t actually move, of course (I hope), but trying to stretch the bar outward will keep the tension in your upper body and provide a solid foundation for the bar.
Again, this should be done in the power cage if possible. Raise your arms overhead and note how high your hands reach on the cage. Set the bar on the pins just under this point, at about the level of mid-forearm or wrist. Set the safety bars at about the level of the base of your ribcage. Approach the bar and grab it with an overhand snatch grip. A snatch grip is a very wide grip. Your shoulder flexibility and individual body mechanics will determine exactly what feels most comfortable. Take the bar off the pins and step back. Get it into position overhead, and remember, slightly behind your head. Stretch the bar taut and keep it tight. Note also that the back must have a bit of an arch.
Descend into a squat as normal. You may find that the overhead squat stance is somewhat wider, with more toe turn-out, than your regular squat stance. The rest of this movement is pretty much like a regular squat. The difference, obviously, is the position of the weight, which demands much greater attention to balance and form.
Really focus while you’re doing this movement. Unlike many other movements, the slightest lapse in concentration can result in a wipeout. It’s a great exercise, but you have to pay attention and concentrate hard while you’re doing it.
Oh yeah, and this exercise isn’t often done except in Olympic weightlifting gyms, so expect people to give you “What the hell?” looks as they continue with their sets of one thousand leg lifts.