Are you new to the gym? Then you probably need to learn to squat properly. Even if you’re not new, the squat is one exercise that seems to get mangled by gym-goers the world over – and it can get you hurt.
This article is about the cues and set-up tips that we use at RWF in Nottingham when training clients. Your PT/coach may have different opinions or approaches – that’s fine, not everyone coaches the same way. Saying that, what we talk about below is BASIC. Anyone paying to be coached should have been clued in to all this stuff…
Your squat stance, or foot positioning
There is no ‘correct’ squat stance.
“Feet at shoulder width, toes pointing forward” is not the right stance for most people. It is, however, a good starting point. From there, look at angling toes outwards slightly. That helps the angles for many. Next tweak, is to usually widen the stance a little. Typically, the more you widen your stance, the more you’ll need to angle your toes away from the body. We’re trying to make sure your knees travel in broadly the same direction as your toes are pointing. It’s just more comfortable and stable, and more comfort + stability = bigger squat.
Many people who ‘can’t get low’ in a squat have simply never tried having a wider stance. Experiment!
If you have uber-long legs, it’s likely that a wide stance is necessary. Same if you’re over six foot. It does all depend on body shape though – I’m 6ft and like a pretty narrow stance, personally. I’ve trained 6’5” guys who have to practically go sumo-style to hit parallel.
Bar and Hand Positioning
Typically, most clients find the high bar position (bar resting on the traps) is most natural. Most ‘9-5ers’ just don’t have the flexibility to get a bar resting halfway down their back due to being hunched over a desk all day – so if you’ve heard about “low bar squats”, they might not be for you.
Remember; the bar should be on your muscle, not the vertebrae in your neck! If your neck hurts after squatting, you’re doing it very wrong. Oh, and the pad you see some guys using? You’ll need to ditch that. You may as well get used to a bare bar now. It’ll only be worse if you wait until the weights are heavier – it unbalances the bar and teaches very bad squatting habits!
Hand positioning again is individual; unsurprisingly, those with long limbs may want to hold the bar wider. Wherever you DO choose to hold it, make sure it’s a position that you can exert considerable force downwards. You need to have some strength, some leverage, to be able to pull the bar into your back. For many, a hand position that’s too wide will mean you can’t generate much power in the mid back and arms.
Break at the hips first, then the knees to squat properly
Almost every new squatter, and many, many that should know better, break at the knees first.
There probably is someone, somewhere, for whom breaking at the knees first is better. It’s 99.9% unlikely to be you.
The hip-hinge/hip-break is vital to a decent squat. That means dropping the hips back before you’ve done any bending of the knees. It creates space to allow your body to sit back, making sure the glutes and the hamstrings handle most of the load, and not solely the quads. As you get lower, the glutes and hamstrings become more and more involved. You just won’t squat big weights (to anything like proper depth) relying solely on your quads.
Get your glutes involved early
A huge proportion of coming back up from a squat is the glute drive. But many people aren’t even aware of it. How can you make it happen? Simple. Think about it! It’s hard to engage your glutes at the very bottom of a squat – they tend to ‘feel’ useful just above parallel on the way back up, and that’s where most people should be actively able to squeeze the muscle and feel a response. Tapping into this and making sure you force your glutes to drive forward will make a massive difference to the top end weight you can shift, and will make your current working sets far, far easier.
Keep your chest prominent
Note we said prominent. Not ‘up’. A common cue is ‘keep your chest up’. Many people take that to mean they must remain upright at all times – that’s not what is meant. Most people would simply fall over backwards if they tried to stay totally upright and squat.
Keeping your chest up is synonymous with keeping your lats tight. Pulling the bar hard into your traps, usually automatically makes people tighten their back up, and puff the chest out a little. As long as your back remains straight, or slightly concave, the actual angle in relation to the floor is *individual*.
Those with longer legs and shorter torsos will find they almost look ‘folded over’ when they squat to depth. Folks with short legs and long torsos will be able to be much more upright. Neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they are just suited to their limb length and body shape.
Regardless of your body shape or angles, at the bottom of a squat, your first priority should be making sure your chest does NOT dip towards the floor when you start to drive back up. This suggests lack of tightness in the set up (and can be helped by the next point…)
How to breathe properly in a squat
You have a natural, internal weight belt. It is incredibly powerful, even in untrained individuals. Problem is, most people don’t know how to access it. It’s also very difficult to explain.
Stand up. Take a deep breath. Hold it, and imagine you’re trying to push that air out through your belly button. That’s a great starting point. You should feel ‘tight’. Imagine doing the opposite to what you’d do on the beach if an attractive guy/girl walks past – you need to try to push out your stomach, not suck it in. Your abs have little power when sucked in. They operate best when you are trying to push them against something (which is how weightlifting belts work).
That ‘lock down’ needs to happen before you start the descent. It’s vital in the search for creating ‘tightness’ through the body. That breath in, must be maintained all the way through the squat, until just over a third of the way back up. At that point, you can exhale forcefully and you’ll likely find the exhalation helps you to drive the hips forward and lock out the weight. Do not exhale at the very bottom of the lift; you’ll likely tip forward and lose stability.
In my opinion, you shouldn’t touch a lifting belt until you’ve mastered breathing and bracing without one. A belt makes the breathing/bracing more effective; it doesn’t replace it.
Depth. The elephant in the room.
If you want to call a squat a squat, then do a squat.
Depth means parallel. That means that your hip joint is equal to, or lower than, your knee joint, at the bottom of the squat. That’s hard to see, for most people, so a more general rule is to make sure the entire quad is parallel to the floor.
The hamstring being parallel to the floor doesn’t count. Look at where the joints would be, in that that situation.
Similarly, you don’t need to get your arse on the floor. Many people just won’t be able to ever get that low. That’s ok – you don’t need to.
I know this repeatedly offends people (usually those who don’t squat low and want to claim bigger numbers than they could otherwise) but if it’s not at least parallel, it’s not a squat. It MAY have some validity, if you’re a bodybuilder wanting to keep focus on the quads, to stop above parallel. Many people use this an an excuse though; they aren’t targeting quads, they just don’t want to take weight off the bar and do it properly.
You can’t run a 100m sprint by doing just 80m, either.
If you can’t get low because of some mobility issues – work on the mobility issues. You can’t ignore them – if you can’t squat, there’s a problem with your mechanics that will manifest itself in other areas of life too. There’s plenty of ways to regress a squat into something you CAN do, rather than plugging away at something you can’t.
Try some of these things if you don’t do them already. They are all necessary, to some degree, but most people are either missing one (or more) entirely, or could do them all better.
If you want some expert, in person, guidance on squatting properly, get in touch with us and book a coaching session at our Nottingham gym, based in Colwick.