Lurn to squat good – E-ZY!

June 24th, 2008  |  Published in Exercise instruction  |  35 Comments

Few movements are as fundamental to life and sport as the squat.

Sadly, few movements are as badly mangled in the average gym as the squat. Let me make this perfectly clear at the outset: IF YOU DO NOT OR CAN NOT SQUAT, YOU SERIOUSLY LIMIT YOUR MOVEMENT OPTIONS.

Also, IF YOU DO A CHEATER SQUAT JUST TO SATISFY YOUR EGO THEN YOU DESERVE TO GET YOUR ASS KICKED.

Of course, we all have to start somewhere! There’s no shame in not being able to squat if you are prepared to apply yourself diligently to the project of kissing the floor with your butt cheeks. Take your time, keep at it, and progress through the stages at your own pace.

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step 1: railing squat

what it does:

This is both a good beginner exercise and a fine pre-squat stretch. It also helps you learn the concept of sitting down and back, rather than just down.

what you’ll see in the video:

Stand facing a railing about waist height. Grab it with both hands and squat down and back, so far back that you’d fall over backwards were you not holding the rail. Go all the way down. I mean all the way down. That’s a real woman’s squat depth. That is your goal. Unless you have some injury or movement restriction preventing you from hitting full depth, accept no substitutes!!

Sit at the bottom for a few seconds, then come up. Use your arms to help pull you up, if you need to. Go for sets of 25. (Sorry about the head and feet getting cut off in this one but hey, all you need is the middle part of me anyway!)

For a pre-squat stretch to help you build the flexibility to go to full depth with a real squat, do this movement and then sit at the bottom for longer, perhaps 5-10 seconds. Repeat for reps.

step 2: “bottom-up” squat, aka “potty” squat

what it does:

Newbies get scared going down into the squat. It starts to seem like a really long way and they cut it short way too early. This helps you work towards a full depth squat and removes the mental hurdle of the descent. It’s also good for beginners who don’t yet have a lot of leg strength. The goal is to do an unassisted full depth squat.

what you’ll see in the video:

Find something to sit on: a box, bench, or step. A staircase is good because then over time, you can simply work your way to lower stairs. Slide your feet forward so your shins are about vertical (notice me shuffling them back into position before the second rep). Take a deep breath, pushing your chest up and out. This is your start position. Bend forward from the hips, keeping the torso straight (not straight up and down, just a straight line from neck to hips without hunching or letting shoulders slump forward). Lean forward from the hips. Stand up. That’s one rep. Once you get really good at these, perhaps a couple of confident sets of 20 to 25 reps, lose the step and squat freely, all the way down till your butt hits your calves. That’s step 3.

On the first rep, you can see I use my hands to push off my knees. This is good if your legs aren’t strong yet, and you need a little extra vavoom. On the second rep, I hold my arms out in front, which helps you keep your balance. Whichever you prefer is fine.

step 3: full squat

Actually, there should be a step 2.5 in here, which is the full depth squat without a bar, but you can probably figure this one out.

what it does:

I shouldn’t even have to explain the awesomeness of the squat, but here is more reading:

Learning the Squat Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

what you’ll see in the video:

A quick glimpse of the elusive cinematographer and my beatdown buddy! This is followed by me unracking the bar from the cage. Notice I’m stepping forward into a lunge to do this. This helps keep me stable and avoids pitching forward. I set the bar up on the “meat shelf” of my upper back, NOT the base of the neck. Feel the back of your neck and find the big bumps of the cervical vertebrae. The bar should sit below this.

I walk back to get into position and look forward. Then I begin the descent by sitting back and down. My butt drops behind my heels, and my torso stays tight (I don’t let it flop forward, but I can lean from the hips). Notice the depth of this. The back of my thighs make contact with my calves. That’s a full squat, ladies.

step 4: one-legged squat

Now we’re cooking with gas my friends. This one separates the women from the girls.

what it does:

Unilateral (one sided) movements are ideal for sport training. Asymmetrical movements more accurately mimic the demands of real life. This particular movement has also been shown to activate the deep hip and glute muscles more significantly than a two-legged squat, so it’s also good for anyone wanting to strengthen and/or rehab those areas in particular.

For a fun variation on this one that helps train agility and which is a great conditioning exercise if you go for high reps, include a back roll. Squat down, drop your butt to the floor, roll back into a full back somersault, and stop when you’ve righted yourself and you’re back on your feet in a crouch. Go forward into a front somersault and in a smooth motion as you complete the somersault, plant one foot and ascend from the one-legged squat.

what you’ll see in the video:

I hold one leg out in front, and then sink down into the squat. You can also experiment with holding the nonworking leg out to the side or the back. Hands are held out in front for balance.

Most folks have trouble getting this one right away. When I first started, I got crazy muscle cramps in the upper thigh of the leg being held out in front, not the actual squatting leg. Anyway, to make it easier in the beginning, squat down to a bench just like you did in Step 1. You can also use a staircase, and as you get stronger, sit down to lower and lower steps.

step 5: overhead squat

what it does:

We’re now moving into Serious Badass territory. An overhead squat works just about all the muscles you have. In particular, the OHS is excellent for developing shoulder and upper back strength along with midsection stability. It’ll also give you some kickass balance training. Since the OHS obviously includes a squat, it also involves the lower body, but this isn’t going to be the lower body’s pump-till-ya-puke exercise because you can’t use as much weight. Nevertheless I find that my hips get lots of work on this one. Begin with a broomstick. TRUST ME.

what you’ll see in the video:

I start with the bar high in the power cage, so I don’t have to get it up to overhead. This is good if you’re a beginner and don’t know how to perform a snatch lift to move the bar from floor to overhead. Notice I do that little lunge thing underneath, stepping one foot foward. Balance is critical here, and a staggered foot stance will help you stay steady as you unrack the weight. (I show the lift on the third rep.)

I hold the bar in a wide (aka snatch) grip. The snatch grip should feel almost uncomfortably wide. Were you standing with the bar hanging down, the grip would be wide enough that the bar would sit approximately at the level of your hip crease (i.e. where the bend is when you lift your thigh).

If I could communicate only one thing about the OHS, it’s this: hold the bar behind your head, rather than directly overhead. If you try to hold it where you feel it’s directly overhead, you’ll pitch forward. Hold it as far back as you can. Try to “stretch” the bar apart like it’s a piece of taffy — pull your hands outwards. This will help create the tension you need to hold the bar firmly up there.

Like a regular squat, sit back and down rather than straight down. As always, make sure to look straight ahead or very slightly up. There is a feeling I get when I’m at the bottom of a full depth OHS that is indescribable. It feels simultaneously very comfortable and deeply satisfying yet very challenging. Mistressing this exercise will certainly give you a sense of accomplishment.

I perform two reps and then lower the bar to show how to pull it up using the snatch-type lift. With the bar close to my body and my arms straight, I slide the bar down to just above the knees. Then, in a smooth motion, keeping the arms straight, I essentially “jump” with the bar (rather than just trying to pull it with my arms). This explosively extends the hips, knees, and ankles, and gives the bar the momentum to fly up. In fact, the arms are almost floppy and relaxed. Just like in jiu-jitsu, the hips do the work. I take a moment to get the bar in position at the top, and squat down a third time. Then I re-rack.

You kids stop laughing at the word snatch. Hee hee hee snatch.

Responses

  1. Stephanie says:

    March 28th, 2009at 1:21 pm(#)

    I have been doing the railing squats for a month and recently moved on to the potty squats. I have been doing these using the side of the treadmill. The gym I’m in is very small, no steps, no stairs and I knew i could squat lower than a weight bench so I used the treadmill. I squat down till my butt hits the treadmill and come back up. anyway, the treadmill is about 6 -8 inches from the ground, almost there, but when i try to do the full squat on my own, at a certain point i round out my back and hunch over. Am i doing something wrong or am i just not strong enough yet? I guess i just need more practice but I’m so close as it is, very frustrating.

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    March 29th, 2009at 11:06 am(#)

    Stephanie, check out this link: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6529481301858251744
    Watch the first several minutes, where Dan John demonstrates the “stretching the chest” and “Buddha belly” tricks. This helps put the spine in proper alignment. Stretching hamstrings will also help, as tight hams can pull the pelvis under. Think about pushing the “sit bones” back as you descend, almost trying to pull your butt back away from your knees.

  3. Stephanie says:

    March 31st, 2009at 7:57 pm(#)

    thank you so much, the video was helpful. I snuck a few squats in in the bathroom at work.

  4. Rebecca Knight says:

    April 2nd, 2009at 6:05 pm(#)

    This is uber helpful. I’m a beginning squatter, and am currently getting slightly below parallel and trying to stretch out so I can go Full Badass. Thanks for the help, Krista!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    April 10th, 2009at 3:45 pm(#)

    I did squats for the first time today in the gym! I’ve been practicing at home and a little bit between exercises, but today I did four sets of five with the bar. My leg strength isn’t bad, it’s just my terminally awful balance that’s the problem — which is why I use the wider stance, since I can hit depth in it without falling over. Much.

    I had been doing the leg press, leg curl, and leg extension on machines, but I just did the squats today (simplifies the routine a lot) and, though I didn’t feel the burn in my muscles as much during the exercise, I almost fell down the stairs after my workout because my legs were like “um, no.” I take this as a positive sign.

    Thanks, Krista, for making me work so hard I can’t walk properly afterward!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    April 11th, 2009at 11:18 pm(#)

    Aaaaaaand there’s the DOMS, right on schedule. Weird how one exercise makes you feel the burn during but not after, while the other does the reverse. Wonder if there’s a reason for that.

  7. Six Online Resources for Squats | 21st Century Amazon says:

    June 1st, 2009at 8:33 am(#)

    [...] Lurn to squat good – E-ZY! (stumptuous.com) [...]

  8. JH says:

    June 7th, 2009at 9:40 pm(#)

    Krista-
    What’s your opinion on using an exercise ball against a wall and rolling up and down on it as a way to start out with squats? Is that better or worse than the railing squat? I don’t yet have the leg strength to add weight and was wondering if that was a valid option. Thanks!

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    June 8th, 2009at 7:03 am(#)

    I’m not crazy about it in general, just because I don’t think there’s much carry over to a real squat. The mechanics are somewhat different, and you can’t get the depth with a ball that you can get with a free squat. There are a few cases in which I do like the ball squats, e.g. for women who are in late stages of pregnancy and having real difficulty balancing with a big belly out in front. If you can’t yet do a free squat, try the potty training squat with a higher step, and work your way down.

  10. madge says:

    August 9th, 2009at 8:08 am(#)

    any tips on what to say to “helpful” trainers who see you squatting down to a step and tell you that you’re going too low, that your feet need to be pointing straight forward, and that you should never go below your knees?

    it seems like almost every time i squat at the gym some nimrod comes and tells me this stuff …

  11. Mistress Krista says:

    August 12th, 2009at 5:09 am(#)

    I usually say I was trained by an Olympic weightlifter, and ask them whether they’ve trained any Olympic weightlifters or powerlifters. That usually shuts them up.

  12. Danielle says:

    September 2nd, 2009at 7:46 am(#)

    Oh my goodness, you do squat low! It’s not so much that I’m impressed that you can get there (of COURSE you can! :-) as much as that you recommend – seem to believe that mere mortals can achieve – this same depth for others. YOWZA!

    Clearly I have a LOT of work to do. 90 degrees just doesn’t cut it, huh? Rats. ;-)

    Thanks for some great tutorials with lots of sass. Love the redesign, too – nice!!

  13. klarabelle says:

    September 17th, 2009at 4:04 am(#)

    Kriszta,

    Continuing on the fitball theme, I’ve been instructed to use this because I have weak knees.

    (I’m doing this in addition to many other exercises targetting the area including using a ‘bum crunch’machine (not the official term, clearly) & prone leg curl machine)

    What is your opinion on this? Any tips for technique with the fitball?

    Cheers!
    Klara

  14. Mistress Krista says:

    September 19th, 2009at 6:01 am(#)

    Klara, if you were my client, I’d pull you off those machines and have you doing real squats. “Weak knees” is kind of a BS diagnosis. I’d simply have you start with the potty squat, lowering the platform over time as you got stronger.

  15. Caly says:

    December 9th, 2009at 6:39 pm(#)

    Hi Krista,

    I’ve been squatting 65 lbs. in the cage at the gym, but I’ve only been going down to parallel (it felt like I was going deeper, but I had my husband watch the other day and he said I wasn’t – bah!). Anyway, today I tried deep, body weight-only squats. All I can say is YEOW! Apparently I’m not as strong as I thought I was. I think I’ve got a bit of training to do before I add any weight.

    I have a question: Is it odd that I never feel my glutes working when I squat? I can feel it plenty in my quadriceps, but I never feel it in my butt. I’m careful to push through my heels and not to pitch forward. Is this normal?

    Thanks,
    Caly

  16. Mistress Krista says:

    December 9th, 2009at 8:23 pm(#)

    Caly: As long as your hip is fully flexed (bent) at the initiation of the squat, and you’re moving from full flexion to full hip extension, the glutes are involved. However, if you want more glute recruitment, try single-legged squats — the pistols. You can squat down to a step and use your arms for assistance if necessary. EMG studies show that single-leg squats recruit the glutes much more.

  17. Caly says:

    December 9th, 2009at 11:23 pm(#)

    Thanks Krista! I’ll give those a shot once I’ve mistressed the full back squat.

  18. Kathleen says:

    January 2nd, 2010at 9:25 am(#)

    Krista,

    I don’t have weak knees – I have a *bad* knee (partly from injury, and partly from 3 decades of being a fat chick). Considering that my knees get a mite bit sore just from climbing stairs, is squatting out of the realm of possibility for me?

  19. Janet says:

    January 7th, 2010at 6:09 pm(#)

    Thanks for the link to the Dan John seminar video. I love watching him teach; he gives gem after gem.

  20. Steph says:

    January 15th, 2010at 9:18 am(#)

    Hi Krista!

    Zoinks…I’ve been working out with weights for 19 years, and I just now found out I’ve been slacktacular on my squats the whole time. Time to start over with step 1!

    Thanks for the great info and encouragement.

    Steph

    P.S. Just wanted to let you know that the links for “Learning the Squat Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4″ in step 3 are broken. Thanks for maintaining this great site.

  21. Ingerid says:

    March 4th, 2010at 8:26 am(#)

    I’ve been squatting for a few months now and it feels like Im going nowhere. Basically I’ve got semi-strong legs but SHIT balance and a weak upper body, keeping me from squatting heavier weights (trying to work upper body as well but it takes a lot of time…).

    Reading this I figured the single leg squat would be helpful for improving my balance but it’s so screwed I haven’t got a chance performing this excersise. I’m also kinda heavy (160 lbs), and I just keep falling back. Any tips? How long did it take you to do a full single leg squat for the first time (or anyone else rading for that matter)?

    Thanks for advice. Love your site. :)

  22. Mistress Krista says:

    March 6th, 2010at 8:38 am(#)

    Ingerid: Sure, you can easily do the single leg squat by using a railing for balance and to help pull yourself up. You can also try single-leg squatting down to a bench for starters, then gradually lower the height of the platform to which you descend. (A staircase is really helpful for this.)

    It takes a while to do a single leg squat. They’re hard! :)

    Be patient and keep working. It takes time to get good at this. It’s simple, but not easy, as Dan John would say…

  23. Mistress Krista says:

    March 12th, 2010at 8:32 am(#)

    Kathleen: Just about anyone can squat. It just takes time. Start with less resistance/more assistance (e.g. the railing squat, potty squat) and gradually build up your strength-endurance. Go for higher reps here to start to build stability in the joints.

  24. KicknKnit says:

    March 29th, 2010at 11:33 am(#)

    I just have to say that I’ve been sneaking in a railing squat wherever I can. Already I feel a difference.. so much so that when I squated down to get something out of the fridge I automatically did a railing squat.. without holding on! Small victory for me. :)

  25. Eliza says:

    April 17th, 2010at 9:56 am(#)

    Hi Krista,

    I have some problems with my knee cartilage that prevent me from doing extreme leg angles. For example, a few weeks ago I really tried to push through doing some REAL depth split squats for the first time…and I heard sickly cracking sounds. Sure enough, in the next few days, bruises popped up around my knee caps.

    My leg/knee strength has SIGNIFICANTLY improved with the parallel squats (e.g. I can run on a treadmill at a decent clip without a lot of discomfort now)- but recently I’ve really noticed that they’re starting to become less effective. What would be a natural progression that I could do that wouldn’t (hopefully) kill my knees and improve my hamstring strength? (My quads are huge already by genetics and…just training, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m gonna keep training them, but I’d like to balance the strength loads so I don’t get uneven.)

    Thanks!

  26. Mistress Krista says:

    April 19th, 2010at 5:16 am(#)

    Eliza, I’d suggest a superset of “step squats” plus heavy kettlebell/dumbbell swings or one-legged Romanian DLs.

    Use the “potty squat” illustrated here in step 2. Work down to a progressively lower box.

    Alternate it with a swing:
    http://www.stumptuous.com/cool-exercises-youve-probably-never-seen-before
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFOxzR3FiSQ

    Or the 1-leg RDL:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0bYLQsFbjs

    Thus, set 1 – squats. Set 2 – swing or RDL. Set 3 – squats. Set 4 – swing or RDL. Go for as many rounds as you like.

  27. Gwen says:

    August 12th, 2010at 7:36 pm(#)

    I had to give up doing squats because they just hurt my knees too much. I’ve hated not being able to squat. I’ve been using machines and doing leg lifts with free and ankle weights, all the time feeling like I’m just wasting way too much time doing endless reps.

    Then I read your articles.

    I thought, “All the way down? Not only will it not hurt my knees, it will help them? Okay. We’ll see.”

    I wanted to know where I was so I did three unweighted sets to failure, a set of 15, followed by a set of 10 followed by a set of 5. I feel fantastic. My knees feel perfect. I’m SO happy. I want to hunt down every single person who told me to stop at 90 degrees and pull a Tonya Harding on them.

    Seriously, 90 degrees is too painful to do but all the way down is no problem at all. Today was the wobbliest my legs have been in at least two years and I did it in a fraction of the time I usually spend on my legs.

    I can’t begin to express my gratitude. Thank you so much!

  28. brooke says:

    October 19th, 2010at 9:51 am(#)

    I used to squat a lot, then I had a baby and with c-section and all that I’ve been out of it for a while. Like 2 years.
    Now I have this chronic iliotibial band inflammation in my hip. It never get better except when I am completely inactive, and that is not an option. I’ve been told that squatting is bad for this particular ailment. My question is, how bad is bad? Is it really going to hurt me in the long-run? Is there some substitute for squatting? I live in a remote community with limited access to training equipment, no pool, no roads, etc.

  29. Mistress Krista says:

    October 25th, 2010at 4:19 am(#)

    Brooke: The first step is to solve the underlying problem. You can work around this injury but you need to solve the underlying biomechanical dysfunction too.

    Second, try this variation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7DBEjqNo8Y

    Third, you may get some relief from applying a rolling pin to your quad — roll over the quad from knee to hip, focusing esp on the outer thigh just above the knee, and outer thigh just below the hip.

  30. Bevaboo says:

    March 16th, 2011at 9:22 pm(#)

    I was so excited when someone pointed my to your site and I saw your techniques. I thought, “Finally, someone to ease me into this!” Except, after trying Step One, I find that squatting that low is not an option for me. I have a rod in my femur, and I can feel my knee pop with each rep. So, crap!

    I was wondering if not squatting so low was an option, like if I just go as low as you do in Step Two, it doesn’t hurt me at all. So, I figure I might be able to experiment with how low I can go without causing knee pain. Is that an option, or is that something I should get my ass kicked for, lol?

  31. Mistress Krista says:

    March 17th, 2011at 5:26 am(#)

    Bev: You do what you can with what you have. When I first started I could not do full depth either. My knee tendons would pop. However, I do suggest you try the railing or potty squat and focus on sitting waaaay back — activating the glutes/hips/hamstrings as much as possible, rather than making this a knee/quad-dominant exercise. This may help.

    But really, you do what you can, trying your best. If you have a certain range, that’s what you’ve got. And rock that range!

  32. Bevaboo says:

    March 17th, 2011at 6:01 pm(#)

    Glad to hear that! I’m still quite weak (car accident), so I’m glad to hear that I may be able to work my way up to doing this the right way. You give me hope!

  33. mhawk says:

    October 6th, 2011at 11:55 am(#)

    Hell MIstress Krista,

    I LOVE your website! So much useful information for women….I get so irritated when women believe “running” and cardio machines will get them into shape because they get “too bulky” when they lift weights….

    I do have a question…i workout at home using dumb bells. When I squat I do goblet squats with my legs a little past shoulder width apart….when i decend and squat down, i think i get deep….but my issue is that my stomach doesn’t stay tight at the bottom…my stomach sticks out. (i also have issues with anterior pelvic rotation)….does my stomach need to be tight at the bottom? How do i fix this?

  34. Mistress Krista says:

    October 7th, 2011at 7:19 am(#)

    @mhawk: Your stomach will “stick out” if your lumbar spine is correctly arched — so you are just fine. Dan John likes to say you should “hang your belly between your knees” when you squat. As long as you don’t have a sense of “collapsing” and going floppy — if you stay “proud”, head tall, chest up and out — then you’re just fine. Goblet squats are great for this anyway because they are largely self-correcting. If you go floppy you lose the dumbbell.

  35. Solaire - Praiser of the Sun says:

    July 15th, 2012at 3:42 pm(#)

    Hello,

    Much as I am happy to take advice from anyone regarding fitness form etc, it’s gratifying to see a woman doing it so well.

    Thanks for this – I have absolutely terrible flexibility and strength in my hamstrings. It’s great to know that I can practice squatting by holding something – I wasn’t sure if it would do me any good, but I think it’s what I need to do.

    I tried squatting with a bar after only 2wks or so, the only squat rack/bar they had in my gym was a kind of “assisted” bar – it was along a guideline, and I was squatting by holding onto it way too much, needless to say I felt the pain for a good 3 days! I obviously need to work up to it.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I will be reading your whole site before long, I’m sure!


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