Squats – Foundational Movement
When we come to think of Squats, all we hear is “This is wrong!” I keep wondering how everyone can have a different form to perform a squat… Are there really different forms or everyone just perform their own & believe this is the right form! Let’s try & understand this myth of “This is wrong!” I’ve come to the below conclusion after trying to understand what & how shall a Squat be done? Firstly, many of us consider squat to be a “leg” exercise, it’s really a full body movement that works just every muscle group in the body. Secondly, it mimics a ton of natural movement patterns in everyday life. In my opinion, squats are the most useful exercise we can do when it comes to strength training. Gain strength or lose weight, squats are one of the fastest ways to get there. My advice to beginners, Never fear! Let’s get to know Squats in a better manner.
Squats are one of the most foundational functional movements in our lives. We all have been squatting throughout our childhood; as we get older and sit in unnatural positions all day – our squat form goes from perfect, to us not knowing how to squat correctly at all. Well, now I personally name this a “Stinky Squat”; why? If we go back to our childhood, we used to have a perfect squat on a toilet. Something did tinkle in your head right! Yeah we use to squat back then. Until, now with the modern day furniture and technology you didn’t stop sitting in a full squat. We continued squatting our entire life. Squats are a compound movement – which means it’s a movement that uses more than one joint (your hip and knee joints) to complete. Earlier I did mention Squat is a full body movement. Here, is how it actually works? When you perform a simple body weight squat or add a dumbbell or barbell to it, you are using not only your “legs”, you are also using your hips, back & core, shoulders & arms as well. You practically use every muscle for this monster movement. Squats will help strengthen your entire body, both your bones and your muscles (and your knees!), and increase flexibility. Since these utilize a large amount of muscle groups, they cause your body to increase your anabolic hormone production (in turn, helping us lose fat and gain muscle). Increasing the strength in your knees and hips (and entire body) reduces your chance of injury while doing both athletic movements and everyday life things. In short, squats are amazing. They are one of the biggest bangs for your buck in terms of time, which is why most good strength programs will have you squatting 2-3x a week. Let’s start off by taking a look at the body-weight squat – the first move you should master before you add weight.
The Body-weight Squat
The setup for the squat is incredibly simple. Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips. Your toes should be pointed slightly outward – about 5 to 20 degrees outward. Look straight ahead and pick a spot on the wall in front of you. You’ll want to look at this spot the entire time you squat, not looking down at the floor or up at the ceiling.
Remember: keep your body and core tight the entire time. This is important now, but will be especially important once we start adding weight to the equation.
The Barbell Squat
There are many different types of barbell squats: the three most common are the high bar back squat (sometimes called an “Olympic squat” or “Oly Squat”), a low bar back squat, and a front squat. All of these use a barbell – the big difference being the placement of the barbell. The mechanics and geometry of the squat changes as per the placement of the barbell, and because of this the muscle recruitment is different. The low bar is a posterior chain dominant squat, while the high bar and front squat are a quad dominant squat.
No matter what type of squat you do, the basic set up will be the same – find a squat rack, power cage, or a squat stand and set the height of the bar to be about the same height as your collarbone. If your options are either too high or too low, it’s always best to go too low – you don’t want to have to get up on your toes to rack/unrack the bar, especially as the weight gets heavier. Now, the very common thought we all get, “How much should I be lifting?” Well, always start with just the bar if you were to be a beginner. No matter what has been your max rep, always warm up with just the bar. Don’t too cocky & go overboard. We want to be safe & build our strength gradually.
Low Bar Back Squat
This is the most common form done by beginners, general lifters, and power lifters. It’s the form taught in Starting Strength, one of the best book for beginners on the market. Start by stepping up to the bar, facing it. Step under the bar, and put your hands around it. For this type of squat, we are going to want a thumbless grip, so that our wrists are properly aligned with our forearms. The width of your grip will be dependent on flexibility, but generally a narrower (closer to your shoulders) grip will help create a meaty shelf for you to place the bar on out of the muscles in your upper back (the bar will end up sitting on your rear deltoids). If you lack the flexibility for the narrower grip, start out wider, then slowly bring it in as you get more flexible. Now, once the bar is on your back, stand up, brace your core (tighten your glutes and flex your stomach), and step back. From here, set up just like you did for your bodyweight squat – feet slightly wider than hip width apart, toes slightly pointing outward, butt back, squat down slowly, drop so the tops of your legs are parallel or lower, and stand back up. Due to the fact that this is a posterior chain dominant squat, you will most likely be able to do more weight with this version than the other two.
High Bar Back Squat
With this version of the squat, we are going to start out the same way, only instead of using a thumbless grip, we are going to put our thumbs around the bar. The same thing goes with the grip – the narrower the grip, the better of a “shelf” will be formed on your back to hold the bar. However, a super narrow grip is hard to achieve, especially when starting out, due to lack of flexibility. Instead of placing the bar on your back on your rear deltoids, you’re going to be placing the bar about two inches higher up, on your traps. The bar will then be across your shoulders. Again, see the difference here between a Low bar (left) and High bar squat (right):
Now, it’s very important to note that even though the bar is across the top of your shoulders, it is not on your spine. If it’s on your spine, it is TOO high, and can cause serious damage. Put the bar on your back, step back, stabilize and tighten your core, and squat down. Due to the placement of the bar on your back, this version of the squat will require you to keep your torso more upright, so if you really struggled with this on your bodyweight squat, you will probably struggle keeping your chest up here. That does not mean NOT to try – it just means to make sure to keep the weight low until you get it right – you don’t want your chest to collapse forward and have the bar roll on to your neck.
The last version of the squat that we are going to go over today is the front squat. Due to the placement on the front of the shoulders instead of on the back, the front squat is more quad dominant, but also requires you to be able to keep your torso much more upright than with the back squat (both versions). Instead of stepping under the bar, place the bar on the front of your shoulders. Now, grab the bar with your hands. This is the most difficult part with the front squat – it requires a lot of wrist mobility and flexibility. Most people cannot front squat with a full grip around the bar, and instead will let the bar roll onto their fingertips (a three finger grip is okay here). If you can’t even get your fingers around the bar, there are a few variations you can start with Strap front squats (Left) or Genie front squats (Right).
Keeping your elbows as high as possible the entire time is extremely important in the front squat – as soon as you let them drop, the weight will likely pull you forward out of correct positioning, and you will either drop the weight or potentially get injured. Now that we have come across variations of squats. The question arises “Which Should I do?” Weightlifters would always vouch for High Bar Squats, while other champs would vouch for Low Bar Squats. Well, this has always been an argument as to which one is better. Both have their own advantages & disadvantages which are sports specific. To be very frank, especially if you’re a beginner, do the squat which you are comfortable with & gain the right form & technique to perform the same.
The squat is a basic movement, but those new to lifting often fall victim to a handful of common mistakes. Let’s take a look at some of the big problems and how to fix it!
Coming up on your toes with your knees forward: It’s important to keep your heels on the ground the entire time you’re squatting. You should be driving through your heels, and in order to do that, they need to be on the ground!
Not hitting depth: Your squat should hit at least parallel – where your hip joint goes below the knee.
Weight too much on the heels/on the outside or inside of feet: When trying to fix coming up on your toes, or your knee positioning, it is common for people focus so much on keeping their weight on their heels that they forget to keep the balls of their feet on the ground! Some of your weight will still be on the ball of your foot – if you are truly only having weight on your heels, it’s pretty hard to balance.
To the same effect, if the inside of your foot or the outside of your foot comes up off the floor, this is also not a good thing!
If you’re struggling getting your squat right, don’t fret! There’s a great way to help you get your first body-weight squat with proper form – and that’s by sitting back on to a box first (pictured above!). Squatting back to a box is also great for people who have bad knees and can’t do body-weight squats anymore. Squatting to a box will help teach you to sit back and keep your weight on your entire foot, instead of squatting with your knees forward and up on your toes. In order to do this, find a box or a chair that is the right height so when you sit on it, you are at parallel with your squat or below. Step stools, milk crates, or the smallest box at the gym (there’s usually a set of plyo boxes, and the shortest is around 10″.)
Squats are awesome.
Although some claim squats can be bad for your knees, the movement is actually one of the safest and BEST things you can do to boost your knee health (when done correctly!). Not only does it strengthen your knees (even if you’re older), it helps improve stability, and help reduce the chance of injury.