Squats are the KING (or Queen!) of all exercises because they are a “functional” exercise that affect your ability to live a full, healthy life. Anything from getting out of a chair, to squatting down to pick something off the floor requires squat strength. Especially as we get older, proper squat technique is absolutely critical to maintain health and longevity.
The squat requires core stabilization, leg, and hip strength. If you are using a barbell on your back, or holding dumbbells, then the squat involves every muscle group in your body.
“You get greater overall muscle and strength gains from the squat than from any other exercise….Squats create an overall anabolic environment in the body that maximizes gains from other exercises [in your workout].” says Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.C.S., an exercise researcher at the University of Connecticut.
Another great thing about squats? There are lots of variations that hit an assortment of muscles so you can do a different type of squat everyday. You can also make them less intense as part of your warm-up or more intense when you want to really push yourself.
Disclaimer before we get going:
Do not perform squats if you don’t know exactly how to do them correctly using the right technique, form and posture. Also you should not do squats if you have lower back problems.
If you have any lower body injuries such as ankle, foot, calf or knee problems you should not be performing squats. Squats put a lot of pressure on these joints and in order to do this exercise properly, you cannot have bad posture or form. When you have injuries, you tend to compensate without even knowing it or trying. It’s subconscious. Don’t risk further injury until you get healed 100%.
If you are a beginner, do not use additional weights as body weight is plenty. You can add dumbbells or barbells after you perfect your form but I do squats without weights more often that with them.
Here are some tips:
1) Keep your knees back- don’t be afraid to push your booty back.
When most people try to squat, the knees protrude far over the toes, the butt goes straight down, and the heels come off the floor. This happens because proper squat technique requires some hip flexibility, proper balance, and a “hip hinge”.
Each time you squat you should hinge your hips so that your butt moves backwards during the downward phase of the squat, your knees will no longer protrude well over your toes (if you are tall, this may happen, but make sure it does not put pressure on your knees). Finally, the pressure of the squat will be on your heels instead of your toes and you will be able to get more depth to your squat.
2) Don’t Look Down- look ahead
One major mistake people make when they squat is rounding their necks, or looking down at the ground. The spinal alignment is automatically thrown off, which makes the squat a very dangerous exercise, especially if you are using a lot of weight.
Sometimes I pick a spot on the wall that’s in line with my eyes as I am standing straight, then as I squat down, I keep my eyes on that spot. My head is automatically in the correct position.
3) Proper Squat Technique: Chest Out/Shoulders Back
A key theme with the squat is to make sure your spine is in proper alignment. By keeping your shoulder back and your chest out, your lower back will most likely have the correct natural curve. If you instead round your shoulders and sink your chest in, your spinal alignment will be thrown off.
4) Proper Squat Technique: Athletic Stance, Toes Pointed Out
Use an athletic stance for the squat so that your knees are slightly bent, feet are firmly planted on the ground, and toes pointed outwards slightly, which helps with stabilization. The wider you put your feet, the more it works your glutes and hamstring (back of the leg), and the easier it will be to stabilize. The closer in you put your feet, the more your quadriceps are (the front of the leg).
One common mistake when people use too much weight is that one, or both knees will cave in towards their center. Make sure to keep your knees out and choose weight that is appropriate for your level.
5) Proper Squat Technique: Exhale Up/Inhale Down
Breathing is very important for squatting in particular because it is a challenging exercise. Improper breathing can make you light headed, or nauseous, and in extreme cases, some people even black out.
As you are lowering yourself, remember to take a deep breath in, then as you are pushing up, breathe out forcefully. Always keep this breathing pattern. Towards the last few reps, you may consider taking a few extra breaths at the top of the squat position as you are standing for some extra energy. Even though I do squats 3-4 days a week, I still have to remind myself to breathe correctly. Down-breathe in. Up-breathe out.
6) Proper Squat Technique: Depth of the Squat
The depth of the squat primarily depends on your hip flexibility. If your hips are very flexible, then you may be able to squat “below parallel” (hamstrings are below parallel with the floor) and if you have poor hip flexibiity, then you will be “above parallel”.
In general, try to shoot for your hamstrings about parallel with the floor, which deeply engages your thighs, hips, and glutes. Some powerlifters will squat “ass to grass”, which I think for most people is too dangerous. If you can go lower than parallel that’s fine, just make sure you don’t experience any pain in your knees, or lower back, and always keep your lower back flat, to slightly arched.
A couple other tips to keep in mind is as you are practicing proper squat technique is to look at the profile of the squat as you are standing sideways towards the mirror. Don’t be afraid of the mirror, you can learn alot by watching what you are doing. Where are your knees? Out past your toes? They shouldn’t be- you will only know this if you take a look in the mirror.
Squat video <- This is a great video that demonstrates 18 types of squats. But, is the guy really tall or is the room really small?
We’ll put a series together at the end of Butt Week. For now, work on your form and start building some muscle.