Squatting is the foundation for many exercises and movements. By mastering the squat, you set yourself up for mobility success, insane strength, and a failsafe against common injuries.
“Everyone can benefit from squatting,” said Dr. Aaron Horschig, physical therapist and creator of Squat University.
“We’ve come to think of the squat as only an exercise,” he continued. “We’ve often lost the ability express the squat as a movement.”
Squats are the bread and butter of any respectable weightlifting program. Here, we go over the benefits and variations of the squat as well as how to start as a newbie.
Benefits of squatting
We’ve talked about the benefits for heavy lifting — how it’s awesome for your muscle capacity, bone density, and central nervous system. Well, squatting is all part of that.
Dr. Aaron takes my assertions a step farther in his blog post, “Why you should squat heavy,” discussing the benefits of muscle capacity in relation to injury.
“Muscles have a certain capacity to perform work,” he writes. “The larger the capacity, the more reserve they have.”
In addition to improving muscle capacity, Dr. Aaron writes that squatting heavy can improve core strength, improve injury resilience, and maybe even expand your lifespan.
“I rarely find an athlete who can sit in the bottom of a deep bodyweight
squat with ease,” Dr. Aaron said. “I believe this is one of the fundamental reasons why we have such a high injury rate amongst athletes of today and our society as a whole (upwards of 80 percent of people will experience back pain in their lifetime for example).”
To squat, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Face forward. With your spine in a neutral position, begin to lower with your hips and shoulders moving at the same time. Ideally, your hip crease will come below your knees. Your feet should remain completely grounded.
As with any lift, a newcomer should start with bodyweight and a PVC pipe. Once form and technique is perfected, you can head to an empty barbell, then add weight.
“The weight will come but the quality of your technique is the most important aspect,” Dr. Aaron said.
The temptation to add weight prematurely, could result in injury, he continued.
“Poor coordination is one of the most common issues,” he said. “Learning to move from your hips and engaging your ‘posterior chain’ is one of the most important aspects of the squat.
“Often I find novice athletes move too soon from the knee joint – basically jamming their knees forward at the start of their descent. This overloads the knee joint itself and pushes the athlete off balance. Learning to move from the hips correctly allows your body to stay safe and stay in balance.”
Mobility and modifications
If getting to or below parallel is difficult, you may have some mobility or flexibility issues to address.
With tight hamstrings or hip flexors, get a chair or bench or jump box and squat until your bum touches the seat and rise back up.
If your heels come off of the ground, you may struggle with an ankle issue.
“Ankle mobility is a huge factor in squat depth,” Dr. Aaron said. “So improving your mobility at that joint – and also using a weightlifting shoe with a raised heel can be a game changer. I wrote a blog post a few years back called ‘How to Screen Ankle Mobility‘ that shows a very simple test you can perform at home to see if your body has deficits at the ankle. That would be my first place to start someone who cannot go below parallel.”
Think you have another mobility issue holding you back? Dr. Aaron has you covered.
No matter what kind of squat, the goal is always to go below parallel.
If you’re not ready to move to the barbell (or don’t have access to one) and air squats aren’t cutting it for you, you can always do goblet squats holding a kettlebell or dumbbell.
Or grab that toddler and take him for a ride for three sets of five. He’ll love it and you will get stronger.
The most common form of squat and one of the required lifts in powerlifting competitions, the back squat is performed with the barbell on your back. I know, pretty technical.
When I set up for a back squat, I face the bar, placing my hands on the edge of the knurling. With a hook grip, I come under the bar, engage my back muscles and, with my feet flat, I stand.
I prefer keeping the barbell higher on my back, forming a kind of shelf with my trapezius muscles for the bar to sit on.
I do not like using a pad to protect my skin from the bar as I feel I have more control with heavier weight without the slippery nylon, but to each her own in this department.
Once I feel stable, I take a step or two back, and do my thing.
Front squats are particularly helpful in Olympic lifting as the clean is essentially a front squat.
The approach for the front squat is similar to the back squat. I face the bar, place my hands on the knurling, but instead of going under the bar, I create a shelf with my shoulders by bringing my elbows forward so that my upper arms are parallel with the floor.
With my feet flat, I stand with the weight. And once I am stable, I take a couple of steps backwards and squat.
Overhead squats are useful for training snatches, another Olympic lift. This will be the lightest squat that you do (if you choose to do them at all).
The set-up for the overhead squat is slightly different.
Facing the bar, you place your hands as you would a back squat. Engage those muscles, feet flat, and lift the bar up.
Here’s the curve ball. With the barbell balanced on your back, you will move your hands to a wide grip, or snatch grip. Typically, you reach at or beyond the ring in each knurling. Do this one hand a time please.
Once you feel steady, do a push press (snatch push press) to get the barbell overhead. Once you are steady with the weight, begin your squats.