How to Do the Squat

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Woman with personal trainer working out in a gym. Coach is advising her what are the correct tecniques.
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Also Known As: Barbell squat

Targets: Lower body

Equipment Needed: Barbell

Level: Beginner

The squat lift exercise is arguably one of the best overall weightlifting exercises for building lower body and leg power and strength. Because this is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscles and joints at once, it takes some instruction and practice to master safely. If just beginning, work with a trainer to learn proper technique. You can use the squat as part of a strength workout, especially for the lower body.

Benefits

Squats build lower body muscle strength, endurance, and power. Additionally, they engage the core and improve strength and stability in the trunk and upper body. The most elite and pro athletes use the squat as the basis of a well-rounded weight training program. The primary muscles used are the quadriceps (front of the thigh) and gluteus maximus (buttocks). The secondary muscles include the erector spinae of the back, transverse abdominis, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, adductor magnus, soleus, gastrocnemius, and hamstrings.

The squat can be easily scaled up or down by athletes of all abilities. Beginners and older exercisers can do half squats, mini squats, and air squats and work up to the full, weighted squat over time. Any athlete can master it with the right training and progression. It's especially helpful for women who often skip the weight room. Don't fear the squat, just learn to do it safely. 

Step-by-Step Instructions

Always have one or two competent spotters available. Position the squat rack so the bar sits on your upper back (trapezius muscles). Position your hands evenly on the bar and back up and under the bar, so it rests comfortably on your shoulders.

  1. Maintaining a wide stance, place your feet squarely under the bar and lift it from the rack using the legs. Keep the weight centered; do not lift from your heels or toes.
  2. Slowly bend your knees while keeping your torso erect. Do not lean forward. Keep your hips under the bar at all times. At the bottom of your movement, the angles of your knee joint and hip joint are nearly equal. Never relax or drop to the bottom position. Maintain constant, slow, and controlled muscle tension. Inhale as you lower.
  3. Slowly return to starting position while keeping your torso and back erect and hips under the bar. Exhale as you push through your heels and stand tall. 
  4. Repeat as many times as desired for a set. Try one to three sets of six to 10 squats to start.
  5. At the end of the exercise have your spotters help to guide the bar back to the rack.

Common Mistakes

Avoid these errors so you can get the most out of this exercise with less risk of strain or injury.

Inexperience

Doing the squat incorrectly can cause injuries, so it's essential to learn perfect technique before you lift much weight. If you are just getting started, take a class or book a session with a certified personal or athletic trainer to learn it, get experience, and build your confidence.

Bar on Spine

The bar should be on your shoulders, not on your spine. If it is on your spine, it is too high.

Heels or Ball of Foot Off Ground

Your feet should remain fully on the ground. Be sure the bar is positioned so you don't have to go up on your toes to unrack it. Throughout the lift you are driving up through your heels, but the ball of the foot is also planted. You never want your weight to be all on the ball of your foot or your toes.

Knee Position

Don't allow your knees to extend beyond your toes. As well, the knees should be in line with the toes rather than angled to the side.

Rounded Shoulders or Back

Your shoulders should be back throughout the lift. The back should be straight, in neutral spine position, rather than rounded or overly arched.

Narrow Stance

Too narrow of a stance places more stress on the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) of the knee. A wider stance decreases stress.

Looking up or Down

Keep your gaze straight ahead. Looking up or down can put your neck in an unsafe position.

Modifications and Variations

The squat can be performed in many ways depending on your goals and fitness level.

Need a Modification?

Beginners can start with a bodyweight squat, also called a basic squat or air squat. It is also appropriate for those with knee problems. With no weights and a straight back, you send you hips back as if going to sit in a chair. You can extend your arms for balance. Contract your butt muscles to lift back up. This can also be performed with a chair behind you if needed for security.

Once confident with an unweighted squat, you can do a squat holding dumbbells at your sides or a single dumbbell or kettlebell between your legs. From there, you can progress to holding dumbbells at your shoulders.

Perform barbell squats with just the bar until you have perfected your form. Then add light weights and progress only when you can do the squat correctly at each weight.

With parallel and half squats, you only go low enough so that your thighs are parallel to the ground or even higher, with knee joints at about 90 degrees or a bit more. Even less flexion is sometimes called a quarter squat. This may be appropriate if you have a limited range of motion.

Up for a Challenge?

Partial squats can exercise your muscles differently, so some choose to do the full squat some days and half squats or parallel squats on other days.

The barbell front squat is done with the barbell resting on the front of the shoulders. This changes your center of gravity and focuses the exercise on the quads. You should use a lighter weight than you do for the usual barbell squat.

The barbell hack squat is a combination squat and deadlift that works the hamstrings and butt. It is good to do if you can't tolerate upper body weights. Place a barbell behind the heels on the floor. Squat down with a straight back and grasp the barbell. Stand and lift the barbell from behind.

Safety and Precautions

Talk to your doctor or physical therapist if you have had an injury or condition involving your ankles, knees, legs, hips, or back to see if this exercise is appropriate for you. You will feel your muscles and core working during this exercise, but stop if you feel any pain.

The squat can cause a great deal of stress and strain on the knees even for those with no history of knee problems. You can change that stress by varying your foot placement. Using a wide stance decreases the stress on the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) of the knee. A narrow stance significantly increases stress. The angle of the foot (toes turned out or toes pointed straight ahead) however, does not affect the stress on the knees.

Given the many potential causes of squat-related injuries, make sure you have competent spotters at all times. Weight belts are generally not recommended.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources

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