When I sat down to write Myth #3: Squats are Bad for Your Knees, my goal was to dispel one of the worst myths in fitness and to point out certain red flags in poor squatting form with a few quick strategies on how to fix the problems. As I got to the end of my blog it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be a very good coach if I only told you what not to do. I call that giving negative instruction, for example, giving someone directions by telling them not to go left at the next light.
So that I can practice what I preach to my mentorship students, I put together the following step-by-step guide to squatting fundamentals.
- If you are using a barbell to do your squats, make sure that your rack is set up at the proper height. The bar should be a few inches lower than where you are actually going to hold it during your lift. You should NEVER have to come up onto your toes to rack or un-rack the bar.
- Start with feet a little wider than shoulder width. They should be facing straight ahead or just slightly turned out. Your feet should stay that way throughout the movement. If they turn out or cave in at any point during the movement you have some mobility issues that need to be addressed with myofascial release and flexibility exercises. Tip: Attacking the calves, quads, and hip flexors for 10-12 minutes a day consistently will pay quick dividends.
- Before beginning your set you must first organize your spine by creating a stable midline through bracing. Bracing applies to any exercise, but the following three steps will deal with squatting specifically.
- With your feet in the same position as #2, apply external rotation torque against the floor with your feet. Pretend there is a seam in the floor running between your legs and you are trying to rip it in half with the torque you are generating through your feet. Although your feet shouldn’t move, you are applying as much rotational force as possible. Apply as much torque to the floor as possible throughout the entire set. DO NOT RELAX! Just to be clear, external rotation of the right foot means that you are twisting your foot from left to right (right big toe from 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock) and that you are twisting your left foot from right to left (left big toe from 12 o’clock to 9 o’clock).
- Creating torque allows you to fully engage your glutes. You should be able to squeeze your glutes very hard while applying torque through your feet. This is how you should finish each squat rep with torque, tight quads, and tight glutes.
- Engage your abs hard like you are preparing to take a punch to the stomach. Maintain this throughout the set to protect your spine. The best way to do this without holding your breath is to take quick breaths in like you are sucking in through a straw and then breath out with sharp, forceful breaths on the way up. My colleagues at Strongfirst call it “breathing behind the shield.”
- Place the bar on your back for back squats or the front of your shoulders in the rack position for front squats. Slowly build tension in your core and throughout your body before actually taking the bar off of the rack. Once you lift the bar off, step only far enough away to clear the rack. Moving too far away from the rack is a waste of energy and puts you further away from the rack when you may need to get back to it quickly.
- Initiate the descent by hinging at the hips and flexing your knees at the same time. Imagine that there is a stool behind you that comes up to the middle of your thigh. Begin each rep by trying to sit back on that stool.
- Push your knees outward throughout on the way down and on the way back up. If you were looking straight ahead watching yourself squat in a mirror your knees would be pushed outside of your hips and ankles. Tip: Practicing goblet squats where you actually use your elbows to push your knees out at the bottom of the squat is a great teaching drill, corrective exercise and warm-up.
- Upper body positioning for Back Squats: The bar will be resting on your back. Open your chest by imagining you are spreading out your collar-bones. Pull your shoulders back by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Twist your elbows down so that they are directly below the bar. To create maximum tension throughout the body you will need to create torque through your shoulders by externally rotating your arms as well. Externally rotating your arms in this position means that you are twisting them so that your thumbs would face behind you and that if the bar were actually a candy bar it would snap directly behind you at your 6 o’clock.
- Upper body positioning for Front Squats: You will be resting the barbell on a shelf that you will create with your shoulders. Start with your hands a little wider than shoulder width. Bring your chest and shoulders into the bar. The bar should be making contact with the tops of the front of your deltoids and your sternum just below the tips of your collar-bones. Now, the barbell and your hands become the pivot point with your elbows positioned directly below the barbell and your wrists. Keeping the bar and your hands in place, pivot your arms and elbows, lifting your elbows up in front of you. Your elbows should now be pointing directly in front of you and the backs of your arms should be parallel to the ground. Create a shoulder shelf for the bar to rest on by pushing your shoulders forward (shoulder protraction). The bar should not be resting on your throat cutting off air.
- Lift the bar off of the rack. You should be able to keep your elbows high with the backs of your arms staying parallel to the floor while also keeping a straight, neutral spine throughout the movement. Fight to keep your spine as vertical as possible. If your upper or lower back rounds immediately end your set and lighten the weight or regress to a goblet squat. Warning: Front squats require good shoulder and thoracic mobility. If you can’t get the bar into a comfortable front rack position while maintaining a relatively vertical spine then you should regress to back squats and working on your thoracic mobility until you are able to achieve a comfortable front rack.
- Ideally, everyone should have the mobility and motor control to squat deep enough so that their thighs go below parallel with the floor, although that isn’t necessarily the way I always have my clients squat. Olympic lifters must be able to squat “ass to grass.” Powerlifters must be able to squat just below parallel. For everyone else, I feel like a squat at parallel is sufficient. Restrictions in mobility may keep that from happening in the beginning, but it is always something I want clients to work to improve upon. Eventually, I want every client to demonstrate that they have the mobility and motor control to do a relatively light goblet squat with perfect form going below parallel. Although it isn’t the way we usually squat I believe that it is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.