How To Squat

The squat is one of the most beneficial exercises for the lower body and core. Squats can build tremendous strength and muscle as well as burns calories to shed unwanted fat. If you are not currently doing squats then you definitely need to start!

With good form, the squat is a very safe and rewarding exercise. However, with bad form, you can reek havoc on your knees, hips, and lower back. Let's learn the correct way to squat so we avoid injury!

Whether you are losing or gaining weight you don’t want to miss out on this exercise.

how to squat for beginners

Before we dive into the mechanics and how to do it easily there is a small percentage of the population who cannot squat due to discomfort, bone structure, mobility/flexibility limitations, or prior injuries. In more than 5 years of working with clients, I have not encountered many who have not been able to.

I have, however, encountered many who believed they couldn’t. They just didn’t learn properly and their movement patterns were off. To fix that it took very little time. Within 1 to 2 sessions their squat looked beautiful, and within a couple of weeks of training, it was second nature!

Why do so many people think they cannot squat?

The most common myth is that the knees should never pass the toes.

Another is you should keep your weight exclusively on your heels.

These are two sayings that will really make your squat ugly and potentially put you in a position where you could injure yourself.

I don’t know where these sayings came from but going forward let’s forget about them for our own good.

With everyone having a different body type, structure, height, flexibility, mobility, muscle mass, fat mass, and fat distribution everyone’s squat will look differently. There isn’t a picture to model your squat after.

However, there are a couple rules that will keep you safe, healthy and on your way to your goals.

The first rule

The first rule is you should maintain a neutral spine throughout the entirety of the movement. This ensures the load is proper transfer to your legs to do the movement and your lower back is under no unintended stress which can lead to injury.

how to squat for beginners

The second rule

The second rule is that the knees should follow the direction of the toes. If your toes are straightforward then your knees to should follow and if your toes are pointed out the knees should do the same.

how to squat for beginners

The third rule

The third rule is there is no perfect width for your feet. I get asked a lot how far apart the feet should be and the answer is whatever is most comfortable for you. As long as the first two rules are being followed then it’s up to you, your body and whatever is most comfortable.

Whenever you’re squatting film yourself to check and see if you are following the rules. When you become conscious of them then fixing the problem can sometimes be as simple as just doing it correctly now that you know what it is.

Depth

How low should you squat?

The simplest answer is as low as you can while maintaining proper form. You shouldn’t sacrifice form for more depth. If you can only squat to where your hips are in line with your knees, known as parallel, before your back starts to round then that is full depth for you. Some people cannot make it to parallel while others are comfortable sitting with their butts on their heels.

how to squat for beginners

Another problem I encounter frequently is people thinking they cannot squat as low as they really can.

The reason for this typically stems from 1 or 2 problems.

  1. Ankle Mobility

  2. Movement Pattern

Ankle mobility is the most common problem for people to squat with good form and good depth. If you have very tight ankles either from genetics, wearing heels on a daily basis, past ankle injuries where scar tissue has built up, or extremely tight calves then your squat is more than likely affected.

When the ankles are not addressed the knees are going to compensate leading to knee problems and furthermore the lower back could be sacrificed as well. When standing the ankle joint is the lowest on the body, essentially being the foundation for your house.

The last thing we want is to not address it and move poorly for a prolonged time. If you workout 3x a week with poor movement patterns due to ankle mobility issues then that is wear and tear on other joints and it’s only a matter of time before something gives.

If your ankles are stiff from wearing heels frequently and due to the shortening of your calves then you can use different mobility and flexibility drills to regain the proper ankle mobility.

On the other hand if genetically your ankles are restricted then no amount of mobility or flexibility drills will help. The simple fix is by supplementing ankle mobility, dorsiflexion, by adding a wedge under the heel. This will give you the needed ankle mobility to achieve a good squat. Either a 2.5 pound weight plate or 10 pound weight plate. Ideally keeping it as minimal as possible.

Left: 2.5 Pound Weight Plate Right: 10 Pound Weight Plate

Left: 2.5 Pound Weight Plate Right: 10 Pound Weight Plate

Movement Patterns are another reason for poor depth and form on squats. The most common is trying to prevent the knees from going over the toes. When trying to hold them back and squat as low are you can you’ll end up falling on your butt or collapsing forward with the torso.

Trying to do this affects your weight distribution and in order to not fall on your butt, you compensate by leaning forward. Doing this with a heavyweight can put excessive and unwanted stress on your lower back which can be dangerous.

Torso Collapsing forward, Lower back under stress, Knees behind toes.

Torso Collapsing forward, Lower back under stress, Knees behind toes.

You’ve might have heard squatting is like sitting back on to a chair. This is incorrect for the most part. How someone might have queued you in the past could lead to poor form without knowing it. Not everyone is qualified to coach the movement and I’ve seen many trainers get it wrong when teaching their clients.

As we discuss how to squat we will clear up the movement pattern issues and replace them with the proper patterns for your most optimal squat.

Types of squat

There are so many different types of squats. One is not necessarily better than the other it’s all about what fits your goals. To name a few there are:

  • Goblet squats

  • Front squats

  • Back Squats

  • Box Squats

  • Goblet Box Squats

  • Front Box Squats

  • Bodyweight Squats

  • Overhead Squats

  • Zercher squats

  • Dumbbell Squats

The list goes on and on.

Today we are only focusing on 3 Squats.

The bodyweight squat

The goblet squat

The back squat

This is the order you will progress. It goes from easiest to hardest. Once you master the body weight squat which shouldn’t take long then you move on to the goblet squat. Once you gain an adequate amount of strength with the goblet squat you graduate to the back squat. From there the sky's the limit.

  1. The Bodyweight Squat

how to squat for beginners body weight squat

 

These are great for warming up the body for lower body movements as well as for workouts when on the road without a gym. Since you are only using your bodyweight the risk of injury is very low.

Injuries from bodyweight squats usually stem from improper form carried out over time and lead to overuse injuries. As in you are placing too much stress in the wrong place over and over.

Step 1.

To start, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and toes slightly pointed out. Feel how your weight is distributed on your feet while standing tall. It is evenly distributed between the heels and toes. This is how your weight should be when you are at the bottom of the squat also.

how to squat for beginners bodyweight squat

To initiate the squat first hold your arms straight in front of you. This will help counterbalance your weight slightly making the movement more natural. Then for the decent think of sitting straight down on top of your heels. In doing so your knees, ankles, and hips will all bend simultaneously. This motion is known as the eccentric action of the squat.

how to squat for beginners body weight

At the bottom of the squat, you should feel as if you cannot go any lower, you should just be sitting comfortably on your heels (although you probably won’t actually be touching them, very few can).

how to squat for beginners body weight bottom position

This position is called the bottom position. This position should be or will become very comfortable. The more time you spend in this position the easier it gets, the better mobility you will achieve as well as flexibility.

The bottom position is the end of the range of motion for your squat. Meaning once you reach it you turn around and go back up. Your body structure will dictate if your knees go over your toes and how far.

Step 2.

The second part of the squat is getting back up and this is where the hard work comes in. Since we have to fight against gravity now with our bodyweight it’s more challenging to stand back up then it is to squat down.

To initiate the return otherwise known as the concentric action of the squat. You simply keep the core tight and stand straight up. Ensure your shoulders and hip rise at the same speed. You do not want your hips to rise faster than your shoulders. This will load the lower back and is not ideal.

how to squat for beginners bodyweight squat

Your weight should be evenly distributed throughout your feet while squatting.

This is the simplicity of the squat. When you have good form on a bodyweight squat then the rest is easy.

2. The Goblet Squat

how to squat for beginners goblet squat

The goblet squat is as simple as adding a load to the body weight squat.

The set up is identical to the bodyweight squat and the movement pattern is identical. You can do these with kettlebells or dumbbells. I prefer dumbbells as almost every gym has them and their weights are in pounds and progress by 2.5 to 5 pounds whereas kettlebells do not progress linearly.

Stand tall while holding the weight in either position depending on what you choose.

Top: Dumbbell Goblet Squat Bottom: Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Top: Dumbbell Goblet Squat Bottom: Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Keep the weight close to the chest and the torso rigid and upright. From this position repeating the steps from the body weight squat descend into your bottom position.

how to squat for beginners goblet squat
how to squat for beginners goblet squat

Once you reach your bottom position hold it for 3-5 seconds to get comfortable with the added load. Then return to the starting position. With the added load squatting the weight up is going to be more challenging than with just body weight.

3. The Back Squat

how to squat for beginners barbell back squat

The back squat is the next progression after the goblet squat. The standard barbell is 45 pounds. If that weight or less is challenging for the goblet squat then wait until you built enough strength in the goblet squat before transitioning to the back squat. You should be able to goblet squat 50 to 60 pounds for a set of 10 before transitioning to the back squat.

The difference between the back squat and the goblet squat is the load used is in the shape of a barbell which affects stability. As well as the placement. With the goblet squat your center of gravity is elevated and shifted slightly forward. With the back squat, it is elevated and shifted slightly backward. With the weight being placed behind you, you will not be as upright as a goblet squat but still, maintain a neutral spine!

Left: Back Squat Slight Forward Lean Right: Goblet Squat More Up Right

Left: Back Squat Slight Forward Lean Right: Goblet Squat More Up Right

The benefit of back squatting is that there is almost unlimited potential. With the goblet squat holding 60+ pounds for a set of 10 reps is very fatiguing in the upper back and shoulders, not just the legs! In order to continue your progress and get stronger, you don’t want your arms to be the limiting factor.

The Set Up

The bar should be placed around nipple height while on the rack. You should never tippy toe the bar out of the rack or ½ squat the bar out of the rack. This is dangerous.

Set the J hooks to the correct height so the bar is in line with your mid-chest. The safety pins should be set low enough that you do not bottom out on them while squatting.

Top: Safety Pins Bottom: J Hooks

Top: Safety Pins Bottom: J Hooks

You should hold onto the bar outside of shoulder width. Place your hands evenly on the bar and use the rings to help gauge their position.

Step right underneath the bar by ducking. The bar should be placed right across your traps. Your traps will act as a pad to keep the bar off of your spine. If you feel the bar hitting any bones then the bar could be too high or your back could be relaxed.

Retract your scapula by pinching your shoulder blades together while opening your chest. Imaging holding a pen in between your shoulder blades and hold this position for the entirety of the movement. This gets your traps in the proper position to support the bar.

how to squat for beginners barbell back squat

Once the bar is set on your traps slightly pull the bar down with your hands to ensure it will not roll. This will feel uncomfortable the first time you do it and maybe the next 3-5 times. After 2 weeks of squatting, you will be used it and it will feel natural. Just be patient.

With the bar in the correct position on your traps stand straight up. Walk back 2 to 3 steps away from the rack to ensure the bar is clear and you can squat freely.

Squatting

If needed for ankle mobility, step onto the plates to elevate your heels and turn your toes slightly out otherwise turn your toes slightly out at your most comfortable width. Now you are in the starting position. Just like the bodyweight squat and the goblet squat the mechanics are the same.

how to squat for beginners barbell back squat

The core will still stay tight and the torso completely straight. From this position descend into the squat and find your bottom position. Sit in the bottom position for 2-3 seconds to get comfortable and then squat the weight back up. 

how to squat for beginners barbell back squat
how to squat for beginners barbell back squat

Upon completion of your set walk back into the rack until the bar is pressed against the top of the J hooks before lowering the bar back into the rack.

A lot of injuries and accidents occur with improper unracking and reracking. This should feel like second nature along with the squat before attempting heavier weights.

This exercise should feel like second nature before progressing with weight. You shouldn’t spend more than a couple of weeks on learning the back squat before it feels natural. If it takes longer than that something may be off.

Try filming your squat and watching for feedback. Everyone's will look slightly different but the mechanics are the same. If yours looks similar to the photos posted here then you are on the right track!

Summary

Now you are able to squat with better form than 99 percent of people in the gym. Never place weight before form. Be patient and slowly progress. This will keep you healthy and your body happy.

The only part that should be uncomfortable with squatting is doing a lot of reps and sets as it is a grueling workout, not the movement itself. If you still feel it is an unnatural movement you may need coaching.

With coaching from LeLuxFit not only is a custom program built for you to reach your goals but also your exercise form can be analyzed to ensure proper execution.

Execution is key when training for results! Spending weeks, months, or years not properly executing the exercises needed to reach your goals results in little to no progress!

Just imagine how you will feel reaching your goals! In 6 months a lot can change!

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Jamari Jackson