If I could only perform one exercise ever again, my choice would be the SQUAT.
Not only is it my favourite exercise but it is also the most effective exercise you can perform in the gym as it incorporates so many muscle groups in one movement.
The squat is a difficult exercise to get right and I regularly see back breaking form. Hopefully these 10 tips will help you on your way to improving your squat.
1. Don’t dive straight in
If you have never squatted before then diving straight into an Olympic bar squat can be like diving straight into the deep end before you can even swim. I often start clients off with a Dumbbell or Kettlebell Goblet squat first, holding the weight by their chest. It’s a lot easier to teach a client who is new to squatting how to push their hips back and rely more on their posterior chain by using this variation of the squat.
Once this is mastered, then take on the back squat.
2. Learn to hip hinge
The very first movement of the squat starts at the HIPS. The most common mistake people make with the squat is allowing their first movement to come from bringing the knees forward.
If you can learn to hip hinge (push your hips back) and learn to transfer the weight onto your heels then everything else can be taught from there. By mastering this you will engage your glutes and hamstrings a lot more whilst preventing injury.
3. Eye level
When you have the bar on your back, pick a spot directly in front of you to focus on. As you squat, keep looking at that spot throughout your set.
Poor neck alignment would be to look up too much or the opposite and look down at the floor putting unnecessary strain on your neck.
4. Positioning of the bar
There are two main variations of the squat, the “low bar squat” where the bar is placed on your rear deltoids with a slight bend at the hips which is more hip dominant.
The more common variation of the squat you will see in gyms is the “Olympic” or “high bar squat”. When performing the high bar squat you want the bar to be placed on your upper traps with your torso to remain upright throughout the movement. I often see people place the bar too high on the neck and the weight of the bar will crush their neck, causing discomfort.
Get this initial set up of the bar correct before anything else.
5. Bend the bar
If you’re just about to squat a heavy load and your knuckles aren’t white from squeezing the bar so hard… You’re not tight enough!
Your lats are the main stabilising muscle during the squat, so before you squat down you should be applying force to the bar. Visualise trying to bend the bar over your back, drive your elbows down and squeeze your lats so that your whole back is firing and activated.
Too often I see a really loose handgrip, or hands just flopped over the outside of the bar during the squat.
6. Knees out
If I’m spotting a client or my training partner, you will often hear me screaming “Knees out!” in the gym.
It is a vitally important teaching technique to keep the knees out and think about spreading the floor with your feet, not letting your knees “cave in” during the squat. Once the knees cave in, you lose a lot of the force from your hips and glutes.
Often knees caving in or “valgus collapse” as it is sometimes called, will just be a technique issue which can be quickly corrected. However, sometimes there can be underlying issues such as weak hip abductors or tight adductors. This will take a little longer to correct with some corrective exercises e.g. X – band walks with a resistance band.
7. Get flexible
If you’re sat at a desk all day, all week and have been for years, the chances are (and I would put my mortgage on it) you have tight hip flexors and probably hamstrings.
This will prevent you from being able to get full depth on your squats. The best thing you can do is work on your mobility and flexibility before picking up the bar. A classic hip flexor stretch would be in a lunge position with the back foot elevated.
If your flexibility doesn’t allow you to squat below parallel, you’re not getting the most out the exercise, and it’s a waste! It’s like driving a sports car but never going past 3rd gear!
One of the main reasons many people struggle to squat below parallel is ankle mobility. This statement can easily be tested; next time you’re in the gym place two small weight plates (1-2 inches) under your heels and see if you can squat deeper immediately. You will find that you can, as the elevated heel takes away flexibility issues and places you in a more planter flexed position.
Whenever squatting, I always wear Olympic lifting shoes which have a solid wooden platform inside and do exactly what I have mentioned above.
Learning to breathe correctly is vital when squatting and even more so as you become more advanced and start loading the bar up. Once you learn to breathe correctly, you can create your own lifting belt that will keep your core tight.
Before you squat you should take a breath in, hold the breath in so it creates an intra-abdominal pressure to keep your core tight, and breathe out at the top again.
10. Sets the pins to correct height
I would always advise anyone to squat in a squat rack or cage so you have the safety pins there in case you fail. You need to set the uprights slightly below the height of your shoulders. It’s always better to squat underneath the bar to pick it up, than to tip toe up to reach it.
A very common mistake I see is people setting the height just above their shoulders so they have to tip toe and calf raise the whole load of the rack before they start. This is unsafe and also makes re-racking the weight after your set a lot harder too.