What Is A Squat?
A squat is a movement where you start in a standing position and bend your knees to bring your bum as close as possible to your heels and then stand back up again. One squat done. Simple. But there are dozens of ways to do a squat (and quite a few ways to do it wrong) so we’re going to take you through how to do one of the most common, the barbell or back squat, properly and without injury. But first…
What Are The Benefits Of Squats?
Your time is precious, so the best exercises are compound moves – the ones that work a number of muscle groups at the same time. That’s the squat all over. Squats are excellent for all your leg muscles (the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves), and they also strengthen the stabiliser muscles and supporting ligaments which help your main leg muscles work more efficiently, as well as making you stronger and less injury-prone for sports.
Done properly, squats also help improve your flexibility and strengthen your ankles and hips, which is another way they help prevent injuries. And we’re still not done yet. Squats also work your abs to help you along the road to an impressive six-pack. Have we convinced you it’s an excellent all-round exercise yet? Good.
How To Squat
Beginners should start without any weights in order to develop correct form. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and carefully bend your knees, keeping your knees tracking in line with your feet, until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Then push back up through your heels to a standing position. Look forward throughout in order to help maintain a natural arch to your back.
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Use the same form when using a weight, whether that’s holding dumbbells by your sides or with a barbell across your shoulders.
When you’re doing a barbell or back squat, rest the bar on the back of your shoulders, not your neck, and you should grip the bar close to your shoulders. Brace your core muscles before lifting the bar off the rack, then perform the same controlled lowering and raising as described above.
Squat Form Tips
“You want your toes to point the way that feels most natural, either straight forward or to the sides,” says Adam Hayley, PT at Ultimate Performance. “If squatting feels tight or restricted, try pointing your toes to ten and two to align your feet with your thighs and improve ankle mobility.”
“Your heels are your main point of contact with the ground when squatting, and you should drive through them hard when you start to move back up,” says Hayley. “If you have very poor ankle mobility you can elevate your heels on weight plates to squat deeper.”
“You never want your knees to roll inwards because it’s a fast route to problems,” says Hayley. “When you stand back up, focus on pushing your knees out to the sides to activate more stabilising muscles to keep your body stable for more power output.”
The back squat is a classic lower body exercise and should be a cornerstone of your resistance training programme – but it’s not the only version of the move that you should have in your training toolkit. Each of the six options described on the right, with expert insights from top personal trainer Erron Dussard (stoneimage.co.uk), offers their own benefit, whether that’s an added biceps challenge courtesy of a Zercher squat or the shoulder stability and co-ordination challenge that comes with an overhead squat.
Form With a bar on your back and your feet shoulder-width apart, bend at the hips and knees to lower towards the floor. Straighten up, keeping your weight on your heels.
Tip “It’s common to see guys loading up on the squat rack and performing half squats,” says Dussard. “That may be good for their ego but to achieve maximum muscle recruitment, a good squat will see your hips drop below the knee.”
Form Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell to your chest using both hands then lower into a squat, concentrating on getting good depth.
Tip “It’s easier to maintain your form than when you do a back squat,” says Dussard. “It’s a great way for beginners to learn how to squat because you become more aware of your back positioning. It’s also a good squat variation when you want to increase the volume and do higher reps.”
Form Squat with the bar on the front of your shoulders, palms facing up. If you can’t get into this position you need to work on your shoulder mobility by doing drills with a resistance band.
Tip “The front squat transfers the focus of the weight onto the quadriceps while also serving to enhance your core strength,” says Dussard. “As you lower, focus on bracing your core muscles and keeping your elbows up.”
Form Go light on this one and start with the bar directly overhead with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep it there as you bend at the hips and knees to lower into a squat, then stand up.
Tip “This is a more advanced squat variation that boosts the strength and stability of the shoulder joints,” says Dussard. “It requires good shoulder mobility so it’s really important to warm up your shoulders before you start.”
Form Start with the bar on your back and a knee-height box behind you. Squat down to sit on the box. Pause, then stand back up, making sure your core is switched on.
Tip “This takes the muscle elasticity out of the movement – so there’s no bouncing up from the bottom – and provides a true test of strength because pushing up from a completely static position leads to greater recruitment of the hamstrings,” says Dussard.
Form Position a barbell in the crook of your arms, then perform a squat. If that’s painful you can either use a towel to make it softer or you can stop complaining and get on with it. The choice is yours.
Tip “This is a difficult squat that can also be a little uncomfortable, but you’ll benefit from the recruitment of the biceps and the upper back muscles, which you don’t really get from other variations,” says Dussard.