Learning the squat 3: How to squat

June 24th, 2008  |  Published in Exercise instruction  |  5 Comments

All right! Now we get to the fun part! Time to learn the Queen of Exercises, the squat (although maybe the Olympic lifts should be the Queen of Exercises, and the squat should be the Princess of Exercises, but not like a Lady Di sort of princess with all the bulimia and stuff; perhaps republicans would prefer the Prime Minister of Exercises or at the very least Minister of Finance since everyone knows the bean counters run the show anyway, but I digress).

I strongly recommend proceeding in the order given. Different people will progress more quickly through, but it’s wise to always start with no weight at all, using only bodyweight for resistance. The first few times you try this, you will very likely experience stiffness and/or soreness in your legs for the next day (or next few days). You may waddle like a penguin as you attempt to move around without actually bending your legs. You may make noises vaguely approximating “uuhhaauuggghh” when you try to get off the toilet. This is normal and will get better.

I also recommend checking out the videos and tips in the Lurn To Squat – E-ZY! article.

Step 1. This part is optional, and is suggested for beginners, older folks, inactive folks, and anyone who’s a little bit timid about balance in the beginning. Perform Steps 2-5 while holding on to a sturdy railing, counter, or chair. Once you get confident about performing these types of squats, then cut the apron strings and do them as shown below, with hands held out in front. You can also try Steps 2-5 first with a partial range of motion, and just work on balance by working on increasing depth.
Step 2. To squat using your own bodyweight, you’ll want to hold your arms out from your body to help with balance, sort of like a B-movie zombie, as in the picture to the left.

From top to bottom, here’s how your body should be arranged at the start of a squat. Your head is looking forward. Take a deep breath, pushing chest up and out. Note that shoulders come back a bit and there is a natural arch in your lower back. That’s the spinal position you try and keep through the movement. Your feet assume a stance that is approximately shoulder width or slightly wider. Toes may be pointed out slightly if you prefer; many folks find that much more comfortable than toes pointing forward. In either case, whichever toe direction you choose, your knees should follow the same direction through the movement (i.e. don’t point toes out, then have knees travel inwards).

Step 3. Sit back and down like you’re sitting into a chair that’s not there. Head keeps looking straight ahead of you, or very slightly upwards if you prefer. Your upper body will naturally bend forward a bit to keep you balanced; simply allow it to bend from the hips (not from the waist) wherever it wants to go. Keep lower back slightly arched and do not allow it to round as you descend. Think about keeping your shins roughly perpendicular to the floor and your knees roughly behind your toes. Longer legged folks or folks using a narrower stance may find that shins tilt forward a bit; this is fine as long as the butt stays behind the hips.
Step 4. You may find initially that you need to cut the movement short and can only go part of the way down before your form begins to degrade. This is perfectly fine. Just make it a goal to work on increasing squat depth. I provide flexibility tips in Step 4. Now, bodyweight-only squats differ from regular squats with a bar in that the lower back does often round out slightly at the bottom. Since the spine isn’t supporting any additional weight, this doesn’t pose a problem. However, once you add a bar, you must concentrate on keeping that lower back from tucking under. At the bottom of the squat, hamstrings make contact with the calves. Resist the temptation to relax in this position, unless you are deliberately stretching. Relaxing at the bottom of a squat will relax the supporting muscles of the torso, which is a bad thing when you have weight on your back. It will also make it more difficult to get up out of the squat. If you do pause at the bottom, just remember to keep everything tight and not relax. Also resist the temptation to look down. The wider your foot stance, the more difficult it is to hit full depth. With a very wide stance, you will be limited by the structure of the hip joint, whereas with a narrower stance, full depth will be much easier.
Step 5. Push through the heels to ascend from the squat. Think about driving your heels right into the floor. Do not allow your weight to tip forward on to the toes. Keep looking forward or slightly up, and keep back tight. Do not twist. If your knees cave in on the ascent, think about pushing them outwards as you come up. The ascent from the squat should be a smooth “unfolding” of the body. The chest comes up first, followed by the hips. Do not allow the hips to “pop up” first.
Step 6. Once you’ve mastered Steps 2-5, and can do a few sets of several reps each, then you can proceed to trying out a broomstick. Squatting with a broomstick is a good intermediate step between bodyweight-only squatting, and squatting with a barbell. It teaches you correct bar position without imposing much of an additional demand.

Many people place the bar too high, resting it on the base of their neck. To find the top limit of where the bar should sit, bend your head forward and feel the back of the neck. Feel that bony bump at the base of the neck? The bar should never, ever sit on that or above it. Rather, the bar sits below the bumpy bit, on the “meat shelf” formed by the trapezius muscles of the upper back. Your traps are the muscles that hunch your shoulders up. When you retract your shoulder blades, as in Step 2, there’s a little shelf of muscle that is formed on the upper back, and that’s where the bar sits. Initially you may find that your shoulder flexibility limits your comfort in holding the bar. Try taking a wider grip on the bar. Over time, and with stretching, this problem should disappear.

Practice squatting with the broomstick using the same form you did for Steps 2-5, with the exception of making sure the lower back does not round at the bottom. Once you can do 3 sets of about 15 reps per set with a broomstick, then move to a light barbell. If your gym has only the regular barbells, which weigh 45 lbs., then build a stronger base of broomstick squats, say 3 or 4 sets x 20-25 reps, before you attempt the full sized bar (if you wanna go for it without achieving that base, then by all means be my guest, but I would prefer that you err on the side of safety and stay injury free… there’s lots of time to add weight).

The picture below is your basic power cage. You can see that the “cage” moniker comes from the four vertical bars that enclose it. The bar (“a”) sits on pins (“b”) set just below your shoulder height. To get the bar on your back, face the bar (so in the picture you’d face the left). Step forward, duck your head under the bar and bend your knees slightly. Position the bar on your back, straighten your legs, and lift the bar off the pins. The bar should be low enough so that you have to crouch slightly to get under it, and that the bar lifts off the pins when you’re standing straight. Safety bars (“c”) are set just under the bottom level of where the bar would be at the bottom of your squat. My lovely assistant and web server mistress OMGBFFA (“d”) is demonstrating how to set them, and giving the thumbs up (“e”). Notice her lovely legs (“f”), thanks to years of squatting. She’s the one, by the way, with one missing ACL and one reconstructed ACL. If you ever meet her, ask her how each of those injuries happened. They involve youthful stupidity, delusions of being Pele, and taking her bike off some sweet jumps.

Once they get a bit more confident about squatting with a full sized bar, the next question people have is, “What’s a reasonable goal?” Full squatting will require that you use somewhat less weight than a partial squat (which, by the way, usually means that if people boast about their squat weight, they’re probably just doing a butt bounce instead of the full movement, so feel free to make fun of them for their hubris, and then perhaps challenge them to a squat-off using your rules). For a beginner, simply performing a full squat with good technique, using the full sized 45 lb. bar is often a major achievement. Where you go from there will depend on a lot of things: your age, your inherent ability (some folks are just plain stronger, and that’s how it is), your training schedule, your recovery ability, etc. But in general terms, a good long term goal for a beginner is to full squat her bodyweight. Along the way to this goal are many mini-goals: squatting half bodyweight, three quarters of bodyweight, etc. Your progress will be individual to you. Once you can full squat bodyweight, then keep on truckin’, and set as many long term goals as you like.

In Part 4, I will cover some tips and tricks for improving your squat technique and correcting problems.


  1. Alan says:

    September 21st, 2009at 10:13 am(#)

    1. Two bad links above: “step 4″, and “part 4″.

    2. I’ve tried for YEARS to develop the kind of flexibility
    that would allow squatting in the ideal form that you describe.
    (Same with deadlifts). No go. Just wasn’t happening, no matter
    how much I tried and practiced. So, some while back, I said
    “fuck it, I’m going for it anyway, even if in ‘bad’ form”.
    And the results are… so far, so good. I’ll report more later.

    I read recently that there is such thing as a “squat-advantaged”
    body type, and “squat-disadvantaged” type; the advantaged type
    has a longer torso and shorter legs, and may have differently
    placed muscle attachments. In any case the advantaged type
    CAN squat in this ideal form: feet flat on floor, pushing
    through heels, no drift forward. Well, I am in no way the
    advantaged type! I’m the opposite of that, in spite of my
    best efforts over a long time. But I’m squatting anyway —
    and benefiting, so far. Again: I’ll report more later.

    Same with deadlifts: rounded back! Cannot avoid it, so I’m
    not trying to avoid it anymore. Results: so far, so good.
    (And I’m a person with a history of low back problems, so
    if I’m doing something wrong, one might expect it to show
    up quickly. So far — 2 years — it hasn’t.) Interestingly,
    I read recently (several places) that the “keep a flat back”
    mantra actually has no basis, and that rounded-back deadlifts
    are perfectly OK (?!). So now I’m really confused,
    intellectually. But fine, physically, benefiting from my
    rounded-back deadlifts, getting stronger all the time.

    I’ll let you know if I’m suddenly rushed to the hospital with
    an acute lumbar injury requiring emergency heroic surgery. ;-)

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    September 21st, 2009at 6:37 pm(#)

    Alan — as I wrote to another poster elsewhere with the same problem:

    Find a staircase. Sit on the bottom step. Then stand up. There, you’re deep squatting.

    All that did is remove the “down” part. I’ve never found anyone who couldn’t do this. You simply have to start in a different place.

    Re: rounded back deadlifts: No, RBDL are not ok. The spinal musculature is what stands between you and your spinal ligaments exploding all over the back wall. The ligaments can take some abuse but eventually the freebie runs out. When the spine is flexed/rounded the spinal muscles are electrically “silent”, aka sitting on their asses doing nada. I recommend Stuart McGill’s research on this subject at backfitpro.com

  3. Mrs. T says:

    April 2nd, 2010at 9:48 am(#)

    You know, nothing busts me up so bad at the gym as squats do. But, I’d like to know, is there a way to tell if you’re over-doing it? I have a lot of arguments with my gym buddy/husband about whether or not I’m “kicking my own ass enough” with the squats. He just got me to start doing them, but often thinks I’m wimping out on them. I’m worried about being unable to get on/off the toilet or climb the stairs after I’ve really put my back into it. Should I be feeling like a cripple for a week(-ish) or is that a sign I’m hurting more than helping?

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    July 24th, 2010at 5:22 am(#)

    Mrs T: You are wise to start moderately. Give your body time to adapt — there will be plenty of time down the road to add loading. For now, make sure your form is excellent. If you squat 3x weekly (not heavy, just a few sets 3x weekly, even with no weight), you’ll get the technique down and once you add weight, you won’t be as sore. The soreness often accompanies novelty, so if you’re accustomed to doing the squat movement frequently, once you get good enough to add some weight and get serious, you won’t get stuck on the john. :) Give yourself a month or so to really get that form perfect… then take your husband’s advice. But don’t rush.

  5. Corvin says:

    September 14th, 2011at 11:07 am(#)

    Hey Krista!

    On the disadvantaged body type issue – there definitely is such a type (femur long relative to torso and lower leg). It is not impossible to do a good squat but it is significantly more difficult. It requires greater ankle flexibility and greater hip flexibility. The torso also will lean further forward in order to maintain the centre of gravity over the feet (because the femur is longer and so the top lever – the torso – is starting from further back in relation to the centre), putting more pressure on the lower back. Finally, in order to achieve a similar squat position to someone with more advantageous leverages, a disadvantaged squatter will also have to move the bar a greater vertical distance and so they will also be doing more work per lift. If they are doing a full squat, their ass may literally be touching the ground, or close to it. Even to do a just below parallel position, they are going to have to squat quite deep. This is all just basic mechanics.

    For years I tried to develop a full squat. People with short thighs kept saying I was just not flexible enough, even though I could see that my ankle flexion, for example, was better than theirs. They were right, but they didn’t tell me that my flexibility had to be significantly better than average in order to achieve the full squat position. At some point I decided to be very stubborn and systematic about it. I started doing squats at home, barefoot, without weight. Initially, this would involve a lot of back rounding but I didn’t worry about it at first. I did my best to maintain a tight, straight back but made note of when the pelvis began to “tuck” on the way down.

    I also began systematically stretching all the hip, torso, and leg muscles.

    In the gym, I would do (and still do) a lot of squats with an unloaded bar or with very light weight (10 lb plates or at most 15). I would work first on the front squat, where it is easier to achieve depth because the torso can maintain a more upright position. I’d also do narrow grip overhead squats, going as far as I could while maintaining a good back posture. (Mel Siff recommended these for improving squat depth.) I’d do back squats and wide-grip overhead squats. I would do all of this sometimes in my socks, sometimes in sneakers, sometimes in weightlifting shoes. In the meantime, to maintain lower body strength, I did heavy lunges, split squats, and half or almost-half squats.

    I can now do full squats in all positions. It took a couple of years to achieve this. In the back squat the torso still leans forward quite a bit, especially with an unloaded bar, and there is tucking at the bottom, so I’m still working on that. The overhead squat is actually easier to achieve depth in while maintaining back position, because the bar can move somewhat independently of the torso to maintain the centre of gravity over the feet.

    Because of my body type, I avoid all deadlifts, except for a Romanian-type deadlift with an unloaded bar, starting from the hang, which I do for a stretch. I only do snatches and cleans from the hang or from blocks. It’s just too easy to slip into a rounded back position and cause injury, and it’s not worth the risk for me.

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