The squat is one of the four major lifts, along with the deadlift, overhead press, and bench press. It is also one of the most technical exercises you can do, making it a very challenging one for beginners to get the hang of. Those who are new to lifting weights may be discouraged from incorporating squats into their workouts, out of fear of doing it incorrectly and getting hurt.
This guide is here to help eliminate any of that fear, and turn it into motivation to start doing squats and growing stronger.
We will first discuss what exactly a squat is, as well as the various benefits of doing them. Then, we will review the entire process of the exercise, from getting set up properly to actually going through a set of squats. This guide will also go over some of the most common mistakes that beginners tend to make and how they can get injured, in addition to an extensive list of squat variations, tips for improving your technique, and a review of various pieces of squat equipment.
First, let’s go over what a squat is, and how you should be doing it.
Table of Contents
What Exactly Is a Squat? How Do You Do It Correctly?
The squat is a compound exercise that works your entire body, in a way that many other exercises do not. Although your legs are doing a majority of the work, the rest of your body also contributes immensely to the lift. There are many benefits to doing squats besides just building strength in your leg muscles.
StrongLifts explains just how good squats are for you. They not only help you build overall endurance and improve your explosiveness during other exercises, but squats also help strengthen your joints and bones, improve your overall mobility and balance, burn more fat, and even allow you to have better discipline during a tough workout. Even if you aren’t a powerlifter or bodybuilder who has to have big, muscular legs for competitions, you can still improve your overall health and reach your fitness goals much faster by doing more squats.
An added benefit for women is that squats can be useful for strengthening the pelvic floor. A stronger pelvic floor can reduce the risk of incontinence (being unable to control your bladder), especially as they get older. It may also help prepare them for giving birth.
Therefore, if you are unsure about whether squats would be a suitable option for your workout plan, consider all of the great benefits you can gain from giving them a try.
How to do a Squat
When you are preparing to do a set of squats, it is crucial that you set your equipment up correctly, and ensure that your body is in a safe and comfortable position. The set-up is just as important as the exercise itself, and not prepping yourself in the right way will only lead to trouble. Once everything is in place and you are sufficiently warmed up, you are ready to do a squat. Here is how to perform squats properly, according to StrongLifts:
- Set yourself up by facing the bar and grabbing it with a tight grip. Then, dip under the bar and place it on your upper-back, in a comfortable position so you don’t risk irritating or injuring any muscles.
- Unrack the bar off of whatever piece of equipment it is placed on, whether that be a Power Rack, Squat Rack, or Squat Stands. Do this by moving your feet under the bar, then unracking it by straightening your legs. Take a step or two back, keeping your legs straight, and your hips and knees locked.
- Begin your reps by taking a big breath and holding it as you bend your legs and go down. Make sure you push your knees out while also moving your hips back. It is also very important that your lower back stays in a neutral position as you go down.
- It is also critical that you squat down until your hips are about level with your knees. This gives you the full range of motion of the squat, which is very important for getting the most out of each rep. If you are new to doing squats, then practicing this step and getting used to going down low enough is a good idea. There are variations of the squat where you only go down halfway, though, which can be useful for those recovering from an injury, or those who want to mix up their squat sets.
- Once you descend low enough and break parallel, come back up, making sure to keep your knees out and chest up. After locking your knees and hips once you are all the way back up, take a breath, and then go back down again.
What Each Muscle Should be Doing As You Squat
Being aware of what each part of your body should be doing in each phase of the squat is beneficial for having proper form. It may be overwhelming to have so many different things to remember as you do this exercise, but keep in mind that practice makes perfect. Do not get discouraged if your technique is not perfect right away; everyone has to start from the beginning and gradually work their way up. Each time you do squats during a workout, focus on improving on one specific thing that you had trouble with the last time, and you will slowly see your overall form (and strength) improve. Be patient with the exercise, and you will eventually get the results you desire.
Here is an overview on what every part of your body should be doing at each phase of the squat:
Make sure your heels are always shoulder-width apart, and under your shoulders.
Turn your feet out 30°, and keep them completely flat on the floor.
Toes and Heels
Don’t raise your toes or heels, as this can throw you off balance and cause you to fall.
Push your knees to the side, in the direction of your feet, and lock them at the top of each rep.
Be sure to bend your hips and knees at the same time. While pushing your knees out, move your hips back and down.
Squat with a natural arch like when you stand. Keep your back neutral; a common error for beginners is that they tend to either over-arch or round their back as they squat.
Squeeze the bar hard. However, be careful not to let your hands and wrists handle the weight of the bar and the weight plates. Instead, let your upper-back carry the bar. Use a medium grip as you squat, and keep your hands at a width outside of your shoulders.
Put the bar between your traps and rear shoulders if you are opting for a lower bar position. Place it on your traps if you are going with a high bar position. Center the bar on your body, regardless of which position you choose.
If you are having pain/discomfort with the bar, make sure to overemphasize squeezing your upper back and shoulders to flex your traps. This will give the bar more of a cushion and it will not hurt your shoulders and neck as much.
If you try doing that and you still feel shoulder pain, then you can try placing something soft in between your shoulders and the bar as you squat, like a towel, bar cushion, or a Manta Ray. The Manta Ray is a device that you snap into the barbell so that it stays centered on your shoulders during each set, which may greatly reduce any discomfort you feel in your shoulders and neck. This will allow you to focus more on improving your squat technique and strength, since the weight on the bar will be more evenly distributed across your traps and torso muscles.
However, it is best that you first try doing squats without any of those items to help you. It’s best to get used to doing squats normally without any outside tools to assist you in any way, as that is how you will see the most benefits on the days you choose to do squats. Only use the items mentioned above as an absolute last resort.
Keep your elbows behind your torso at the top of each rep, instead of in a vertical or horizontal position. They should be inline with your torso at the bottom of the squat.
Arch your upper-back to create support for the bar. Squeezing your shoulder-blades and raising your chest as you squat will make it easier for you to maintain good technique and lift heavier weights.
Raise your chest before you unrack the bar. Keep it up and tight by taking a big breath before you go down for each rep.
Keep your head inline with your torso. Don’t look at the ceiling or at your feet, or turn your head sideways. This will mess up your balance and may cause you to fall over or drop the bar.
Your back angle should be diagonal, not vertical or horizontal. The exact back angle you have as you squat will depend on your build and the bar position you choose.
Start by placing the bar on your back, and your feet under the bar. Then, unrack it by straightening your legs and walking back.
Bend your hips back and your knees out at the same time as you go down. Keep your lower back neutral as well.
Squat down until your hips are lower than your knees. You want to break parallel with your thighs; this will place the most strain on your leg muscles and ultimately promote the most muscle growth.
Move your hips straight up as you ascend. Keep your knees out, your chest up and your head neutral until you get to the top.
Stand with both your hips and knees locked in between reps. Take some deep breaths until you feel ready, then get your muscles tight for the next rep.
When racking the bar once you are finished with a set of squats, first lock your hips and knees. Then step forward, hit the rack with the bar, and bend your knees until the bar is securely in the rack.
Be sure to move the bar in a vertical line over your midfoot. There shouldn’t be any horizontal movement.
Take a big breath at the top of the squat, each and every rep. Hold it at the bottom, and exhale at the top before going back down again. Breathing properly is critical for not getting dizzy as you do this exercise, and also keeping your muscles energized and loose during the set. Jeff Nippard personally recommends that you begin exhaling when you are 2/3rds of the way back up into the standing position. Feel free to try exhaling earlier and see if that improves your push on the way up. If you are new, though, then you may want to attempt completely holding your breath until you get all the way back up to standing.
Common Mistakes and Issues
Once again, you will not be perfect at squats the first time you do them.
You are bound to make mistakes, and have issues at particular phases of the exercise. Getting discouraged and removing squats from your workouts completely, however is the biggest mistake you can make. You must keep working at it, and knowing what the most common mistakes and issues are can help you figure out what needs to be fixed. Try focusing on different parts of the squat each time you do them, or have someone record you so that you can see your form.
With that in mind, here are a few of the most frequent errors and problems that people tend to have when they are inexperienced with doing squats:
Coming Up on Your Toes
Nerd Fitness reminds us that a good chunk of your strength comes from driving your heels down as you squat. You can’t get that needed power if you are coming up completely on your toes.
You should have a little bit of weight on the balls of your feet during the exercise, but at no point should all of it be on them. Squatting with too narrow of a stance can cause your heels to come off the floor, and you will come up on your toes. It can also be caused by a lack of hip or ankle flexibility. Fix this by either widening your stance, or doing other exercises or yoga to work on increasing your flexibility. If you can’t keep your heels firmly on the ground, then your calf muscles are likely too tight, and have to become more flexible, according to Mayo Clinic.
Too Much Weight on Heels
On the other hand, some people put too much weight on their heels, in an attempt to avoid coming up on their toes and to get more power on the way back up. This is both ineffective and risky, as you can put so much weight on your heels that you fall onto the floor, with a heavy barbell stuck on top of you. That will not end well.
You must keep a balance when it comes to the weight in your feet. Practice good form with an empty barbell or light weights until you find that sweet spot in the middle. Don’t try to increase your weight on squats until you find a good balance. A helpful tip that Nerd Fitness gives is to record yourself doing a set of squats. This will allow you to see what exactly you are doing wrong and eventually fix it, so that you can get back to getting stronger.
Not Going Down Enough
Whether you can only go to where your thighs are parallel with the floor, or you want to try and go until your heels touch your butt, many people complain about not being able to get low enough on their squat.
Nerd Fitness states, “If you’re struggling hitting depth there could be many causes – you could have poor ankle mobility, tight hip flexors and/or hamstrings, weak glutes, or poor pelvic alignment (among many other things)”.
One of the most common reasons for a lack of depth is a stance that is too narrow. Greatist recommends taking a wider stance when this problem arises, so that you can engage more muscle groups, and your body can still stay steady as you go deeper.
Wrong Head Position
Many beginners tend to either look down at their feet, or up towards the ceiling as they squat. This throws off your balance and is bad for your neck vertebrae, especially once you begin adding more weight to the barbell.
Always keep your head looking straight forward. Focus on a particular spot on the wall in front of you and stare at it throughout your entire set.
Wrong Knee Position
Some people’s knees tend to shift to either the inside or outside of their feet, which is not correct. This may mess up your balance, or reduce the amount of power you have as you come back up. No matter what, your knees should always be aligned with your feet during the entire rep.
Wrong Back Position
Another common mistake that is made during squats is an improper back position. Your back must stay in a relatively neutral position the whole time. Do this by keeping your chest up and shoulders back. Do not round your shoulders, and do not hyperextend your back to lean backwards. A neutral back position will help protect your spine from injury, and keep you balanced throughout the squat so that you can build up to lifting with more weight.
Not Letting Your Shins Go Past Vertical
Your shins should always go past vertical as you go down during the squat, unless you have an injury or other condition that physically prevents you from doing so. You’ll be able to go deeper in the squat and build more knee strength and stability.
Of course, do not hurt yourself trying to make your shins go past vertical. If you experience pain when you attempt to do so, then stop. Injuring yourself just for a little bit of extra strength gain is not worth it.
Wobbling knees will prevent you from progressing as much as you’d like in the squat. Not only that, but it also places unnecessary pressure on your knees, hips, and ankles, which may cause discomfort as time passes. You can rectify this by keeping your toes pointed forward, your knees over your ankles, and your upper body tight. You may also be using too much weight, so if you find this to be the case, then take a step back and use less weight until you get stronger.
Not Engaging Your Core Enough
Ignoring your core and not keeping it tight as you squat can cause your lower back to round, says Mayo Clinic. This throws off your overall balance, plus it may cause back pain over time. Some people believe that you don’t need to use your core during this exercise, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Take a deep breath before each rep, keep your head facing forwards, and always keep your core muscles engaged throughout each squat. With enough time and practice, your core will be strong enough to keep you upright, and any back rounding problems you experienced should disappear. You should also do other exercises that directly target your abs and lower back, to make this process even easier.
Lack of Overall Balance
Losing balance in the middle of a set of squats can be very scary and should be avoided at all costs. It can happen if the barbell is not balanced properly over your midfoot. That’s why StrongLifts recommends that you “think of moving the bar in a vertical line over your midfoot. Make sure you stand with your heels shoulder-width apart and toes 30° out so you can keep the bar over your midfoot when you Squat”.
You must not give up on squats too quickly if your balance isn’t the best. Keep practicing good form with lighter weights, and you will eventually get used to keeping the bar in the right spot. Soon enough, your balance will improve, and you will get the results you want when you squat.
Coming Up or Going Down Too Quickly
Squats are not meant to be done quickly, especially as you begin to add heavier weights to the barbell.
You must take your time with each rep, as going down or coming up too quickly can lead to muscle tears and joint injuries, both of which will leave you sidelined for a sizable period of time. Breathe and take your time as you descend. If your body is controlled and tight enough, and if you are comfortable enough with your form, then you can come back up to a standing position with some extra power. Just be careful not to overdo it.
Letting Knees Cave In
You run the risk of injuring your knee joints by letting them cave in. If you are using heavier weights then your knees may cave in a little, but excess caving may lead to injury over time.
You can fix this by keeping your thighs aligned with your feet, and always keeping your toes turned out at a 30 degree angle. This helps with your external hip rotation, which plays a huge role in preventing your knees from caving in. Resistance bands wrapped around thighs are also a valuable and effective way to start correcting this problem.
Not Warming Up Enough
A critical mistake that too many beginners tend to make is that they fail to warm up their muscles enough, or they skip warm up entirely.
Doing this is only setting you up for failure. Running on pure adrenaline is never the right way to go. Doing some light cardio before a workout or a particular exercise lets your muscles and joints get loose and pumped up for any heavy lifting. Trying to squat without warmed-up muscles is a huge mistake that will probably end in extreme discomfort or even injury, so always make sure you warm up and feel ready to go.
Jeff Nippard says that many individuals cannot do full squats because their ankles and knee joints tend to be too tense. He advises that you use a foam roller and stretch out all your muscles, especially those in your lower body, before attempting to squat. Try using a foam roller if you have one, or just get a good stretching session in before your workout, and you will likely notice a better performance.
Leaning forward as you come up to the top is a dangerous mistake that people make when doing squats.
“Don’t let your hips rise faster than your chest or your torso will end too horizontal with the floor. This can cause the bar to roll up your back, to your neck, and pull you forward”, says StrongLifts. Greatist suggests that putting most of your weight into your heels as you go down will help your torso stay upright, thus allowing you to better maintain your balance.
Frequent Pains and Injuries
The importance of proper form when doing squats cannot be stressed enough. Squatting incorrectly will very likely lead to you getting seriously hurt, which is something you do not want. That is why knowing what the most recurring pains and injuries are, as well as how they are caused, will serve you well in the long-run.
Pain in your neck can result from having the bar up too high. It should be on your upper back muscles, not your neck. You put yourself in serious danger by placing the bar on your neck, especially if you are using heavier weights.
Make sure you have the bar in the right position, and that you grip it tightly so that it doesn’t roll up your back and onto your neck as you squat. In addition to that, be sure to keep your head in a neutral position during the exercise. Looking up places immense strain on your spinal discs, which can cause them to slip and leave you in a great deal of pain. Practice proper form and head positioning before trying to use heavier weights when squatting.
Holding the bar with your hands, instead of placing it on your upper back, as well as holding it too low can hurt your wrists, according to StrongLifts. If the bar is placed in the right position and you are still experiencing wrist pain, then try holding the bar with a thumbless grip, with your thumbs on top of the bar instead of around it. This keeps your wrists straight.
Another option is to try using wrist wraps if you have weaker wrists. They prevent your wrists from bending too much. However, you should definitely try correcting your form first and use less weight, and then add wrist wraps as an absolute last resort.
If you are feeling pain in your wrists as you squat, then you are also likely feeling pain in your elbows. Remember to always keep the bar on your upper back instead of your hands. Be sure that your elbows are not too far forward as well. StrongLifts says:
“Your elbows must be behind your torso at the top of your Squat. Your forearms can’t be vertical or the bar will press down on your hands, bend your wrists and strain your elbows. Push your elbows back at the top so your forearms are incline”.
Practice keeping your elbows back during your reps, and you may find that the pain you experienced in your wrists and elbows goes away.
Knee pain can occur as you squat if your knees are caving in or going forward as you go down. It may also happen if you aren’t going deep enough, or if you are using too much weight early on. That is why StrongLifts recommends you “push your knees to the side when you Squat, push your hips back at the same time, and go down until your hip crease is below the top of your knees”. Knowing where and when your knees should be moving will help prevent you from feeling any extensive knee pain.
If you are still feeling some discomfort in your knees, whether you are recovering from an injury or have stiff knees, then using knee sleeves may be a viable option for you. We will discuss these more later.
Lower Back Pain
You must keep your lower back neutral as you squat. Rounding or arching your back during your reps puts a lot of strain on your lower back muscles, and not only may lead to serious discomfort and injury, but also won’t allow you to get the most out of your sets. That is why proper back position is such a crucial thing to practice if you are a beginner. Getting used to good habits early in your weightlifting journey will only set yourself up for success later on.
Breathing at the right time is also necessary for avoiding lower back pain. Exhaling as you go down or at the bottom of your squat makes your body release any tension in your torso, which in turn puts your back at risk as you come up, especially as you start using more weight. Practice breathing correctly during squats by taking a big breath at the top, and then holding in during each rep so your body (and especially your back) stays tight.
Squatting with your knees pointing forward, or coming up to the top of the squat without having your hips locked, may result in you feeling hip pain. Therefore, be sure to keep your knees out and to the side, and your heels shoulder-width apart so that you don’t impinge your hips as you go down. You must create sufficient space for your hips during each rep.
In addition to that, you should get used to standing tall as you come up to the top of your squats. This keeps you from having your hips be too far back and not locked at the top of each rep. It may also help to squeeze your glutes.
Groin pain will likely be a result of a stance that is too wide. Powerlifters who have a wide stance wear compressive suits that protect their groin, so unless you are planning on becoming a professional powerlifter one day and you have a compressive suit to wear, then stick to a narrower stance. Always keep your heels shoulder-width apart in order to avoid groin pain.
Not warming up enough, going down too quickly on the squat, or using too much weight before you are ready can all lead to muscle tears, says Greatist. These are tough to recover from, so keeping yourself focused on progressing slowly and breathing properly will help you stay safe. Always warm up for at least 10-15 minutes before any workout you do, and consider doing some cardio in between exercises to keep your muscles loose. You may go fast coming back up if you keep your body tight; just don’t go down too fast.
Whether you are looking for a way to enhance your squats and make it a more challenging exercise, or you are new to working out and want to start with something easier, then you will be pleased to know that there are a large number of squat variations to try. You should definitely try doing the normal squat first and see how that feels for you; if it is too easy or too tough, then you can try one of the following exercises as a substitute. Practice proper squat form on these alternatives, so that when you do go back to the traditional squat, you will be capable of lifting heavier weights and seeing the greater gains you desire.
Here is a list of effective and interesting squat variations that you may consider adding to your workout plan:
Box Squats allow you to learn how to sit back and keep your body weight on your whole foot, instead of making the mistake of leaning forward and coming up on your toes. It is an excellent option for beginners who are having trouble with traditional squats, or for those with weak knees.
You have to find a box, chair, or other object (like a milk crate, plyo box, or step stool) that lets you be parallel with your squat when you sit on it. Nerd Fitness says that the lower the box or other object is when you do Box Squats, the stronger your hips and lower back will get. If it is exactly at parallel, then your quads will get more of the benefits.
Perform the Box Squat just like you would a normal squat. Keep your back and core tight, your head in a neutral position, your weight on your heels and mid foot, and your knees in line. It’s important that you lower yourself down slowly onto the box; don’t just throw your butt onto it like you were sitting down normally. Touch it lightly, and then drive yourself back up.
Sumo Squats are an excellent way to really engage and strengthen your glutes and inner thigh muscles, claims Kayla Itsines. Try them with just your body weight first, and once you get the technique down, then you can attempt doing them with dumbbells or kettlebells. Always progress slowly, especially if you are new. Here’s how to do a Sumo Squat:
- Start by placing both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart, with both feet pointing slightly outward.
- Bend at both the hips and knees while looking directly ahead. Be sure your knees are pointed towards your toes.
- Keep bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor, with your back remaining between a 45 to 90-degree angle to your hips.
- Push through your heels, and extend your legs to return to the top of the Sumo Squat.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
Adding Double-pulse Squats to your workouts will target many of the muscles in your lower body, including your glutes, quads, and calves, in addition to your core. Including a pulse in your sets of squats requires your muscles to contract for a longer period of time, which can eventually lead to greater strength and muscle gains. Here’s how to do a Double-pulse Squat properly:
- Place both feet on the floor, slightly further than shoulder-width apart.
- While looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees. Also, ensure that your knees point towards your toes.
- Continue bending your knees, until your upper legs are parallel with the floor, like at the bottom of a traditional squat. Ensure that your back remains between a 45 to 90-degree angle to your hips.
- Push through your heels to extend your legs slightly, then bend your knees to return to full squat position. This is called a “pulse”. Do it twice.
- Push through your heels and extend your legs to return to the standing position. That is one rep.
- Repeat this for 10-12 reps.
Somewhat similar to a leg raise, a Single-leg Squat is a challenging and beneficial way to both test your balance, and start to fix any muscular imbalances you may be experiencing. Make sure you try doing this exercise on both legs, so you can see if one happens to be stronger and more balanced than the other. This is a tough one to get the hang of, so be patient if you can’t do it right away without the help of a bench or chair. Here’s how you should be doing Single-leg Squats:
- Plant both feet on the floor, slightly further than shoulder-width apart.
- Elevate your left leg and bend your knee slightly to lift your foot off the ground. Then hold your elevated foot in front or behind you, depending on what feels the most comfortable. This is your starting position for each rep.
- Bend your hips and right knee to lower yourself down as far as is comfortable, while simultaneously looking directly ahead and keeping your back between a 45 to 90-degree angle to your hips. You can use a bench or chair as a place to stop if you do not have the best balance yet.
- Push through your heel, and extend your leg to return to the starting position. Try to keep your left foot elevated off the ground throughout each rep.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps, then do the same on the other leg.
Goblet Squats are a great choice for both beginners and veteran weightlifters, since they prevent you from leaning forward. Holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball at your sternum provides you a stable position. Here’s how to do a Goblet Squat:
- Hold a dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball at the center of your chest.
- Drop into a squat position and go straight down, keeping your knees slightly bent.
- Make sure you drop your elbows in between your legs and inside of your knees as you do each rep.
- Stand straight up.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
Jump Squats not only aid you in working on your form for the traditional squat, but it also serves as an excellent option for a cardio exercise. You can do Jump Squats very quickly with just your bodyweight, which increases your heart rate very quickly and is a useful plyometric exercise. It also targets the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and hips.
Here is how to do a Jump Squat, per Healthline:
- Stand up tall, and keep your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Squat down slowly so that your thighs are slightly above your knees.
- Launch yourself upward so your feet lift a few inches off the ground.
- Land on the ground with soft, bent knees.
- Settle back into the squat position once you are ready.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
Instead of having the weight behind you, a Front Squat has you keep it in front of you. This utilizes different muscles and requires movement in different parts of the body. You keep the barbell on your clavicles when you do a Front Squat, right on your neck. The middle of the bar rests on your fingertips, and the ends of it stays on your shoulders if they’re wide enough.
Make sure your elbows are up and pointed out, and your triceps are parallel to the floor.
As long as your elbows are up and extending straight out from your shoulders, the bar will be secure on your fingertips. Your body will stay significantly more upright in a front squat than it would in a bodyweight or back squat.
Remember not to reach back with your butt, like you would with a back or bodyweight squat, as this will angle your body forward and make it hard to stand the weight up. Maintain an upright position by keeping your elbows up and pointing forward.
Overhead squats can be performed with a barbell, dumbbell or medicine ball, and are an effective way to engage and tone your core, shoulders, arms, and upper back. Focus hard on your form here, since overhead squats have a different range of motion than traditional squats. Here’s how to do them properly, according to Healthline:
- Stand tall, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and core tight.
- Hold the medicine ball or dumbbell above your head during the exercise.
- From a standing position, bend your knees and push your hips back as you would for a regular squat. Make sure to stop once your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Pause for a second or two with your knees over your toes. Be careful not to let your knees go beyond your toes, though.
- Push through your heels to return to the starting position, and give your glutes a squeeze at the top.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
The Olympic Squat is a variation of the squat where the bar is placed higher on your back. As StrongLifts explains,
“The bar rests higher on your back, at the bottom of your neck, on top of your trap muscles. This puts your torso more upright to keep the bar balanced over your midfoot. Your knees come more forward as a result and your hips are less back”.
The Olympic Squat puts less strain on your shoulders than the traditional squat, making it the best option for those who always experience shoulder, wrist or elbow pain. However, the normal squat lets you lift more weight because you can better engage your hips, and more easily keep your chest up.
You should not alternate between doing traditional and Olympic Squats. Pick the one that works best for your body and your fitness goals, and try to primarily stick to that one during your workouts.
This squat variation involves squatting down until your butt touches your ankles. Your muscles experience a bigger range of motion during the Butt-to-heel Squat, which makes it popular among Olympic weightlifters.
Most people can’t really do Butt-to-heel Squats, though, as they lack the necessary hip flexibility to do them correctly. It is not recommended that you do this type of squat if you have weak knees or hips. If you do try this alternative to a normal squat, then keep the bar higher on your back; this will make it easier to go down deep and keep your heels on the ground. Make sure your lower back doesn’t round, and don’t go up too fast so you don’t hurt your knees.
The Smith Squat involves doing a squat inside a Smith Machine, which has a barbell attached on rails. The machine balances the bar for you, which may make the Smith Squat an appealing option for those who are afraid of traditional squats.
However, if you want to get good at squatting and get stronger, then it is recommended that you stick to free weights. You can lift more with the Smith Machine because it balances the weight for you, but because of this it isn’t the most effective way to build muscle and power. You have to practice using free weights in order to improve your form. You won’t get much better at squatting if you use a machine. It’s fine to use it if you are recovering from an injury and you have trouble balancing a barbell on your back in the Power Rack. Remember that you should really try to stick to free weights if you are able to, as that is how you get the most from your exercises.
Although the Leg Press requires you to use your legs in a similar manner to a Squat, it may not be a suitable alternative to actually doing squats in your workout. Keep in mind that you are not actually balancing the weight; the machine is. Your body isn’t moving; the weight is.
If you go too deep on the Leg Press Machine, you risk rounding your back and squeezing your spinal discs. This could lead to injury, which is never good. Therefore, you should probably stick to free weight squats for building strength and muscle in your legs.
You can also do squats with dumbbells, if a barbell or Power Rack isn’t available, this is known as a dumbbell squat. Do them by holding the dumbbells on the front of your shoulders, and then squatting like you normally would. Be aware of the fact that you cannot squat as heavy with dumbbells as you would with a barbell. Plus, using dumbbells will become easy over time, but it will be more difficult to use heavier weights and get stronger. The main point is that you could use dumbbells if they are the only piece of equipment available, but you definitely want to use a barbell whenever possible.
The Bulgarian Split-Squat requires you to extensively utilize your core to stay upright. You may use either a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell on your back for this exercise. Here’s how to do a Bulgarian Split-Squat:
- Position yourself in front of a bench with a split stance, resting your left foot up on the bench. Your right foot should be far enough out to comfortably squat down without your knee falling over your toes.
- Squat down on your right leg, while keeping your chest open and pushing back up through your heel.
- Stand up and do the same on the other leg. Repeat this for 10-12 reps on each leg.
Leaning Back Chair Squat
The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends the Leaning Back Chair Squat as an effective squat variation for beginners. A suspension training system and a chair make it easier for you to practice your squat technique. Here’s how to do a Leaning Back Chair Squat:
- Using a suspension training system, like TRX, stand in a squat position and hold onto the handles, with your arms outstretched in front.
- Lean back into a squat over a chair. Make sure you keep your head up and facing forward, and that your butt does not fully touch the chair. Then, stand back up.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
Swiss Ball Squat
Another exercise that NASM mentions is the Swiss Ball Squat. This squat alternative really targets the quads and activates the core. Here’s how to do it:
- Place a Swiss ball between a wall and your lower back
- Hold your arms straight out and lower into a squat position.
- Stay in that position for a few seconds, and then slowly stand back up.
- Repeat this for 10-12 reps.
Thrusters are a good substitute for squats if a Power Rack and barbell are not available for you to use, and all you have is dumbbells. Lifting the dumbbells engages and tones your arms and upper back muscles. Here’s how to properly do Thrusters:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, while holding dumbbells next to your shoulders and having your palms face each other.
- Squat down like you would for a normal squat.
- Return to a standing position. While doing so, lift the dumbbells over your shoulders.
- Repeat the above steps for 10-12 reps.
If you have a bit of experience with working out and bodyweight exercises, then the Pistol Squat may be an interesting challenge for you. It is a more advanced type of squat that really tests your core strength, leg mobility, and overall balance. You can do this either on the ground or on top of a BOSU ball to make it even more difficult.
- Stand on either the ground or a BOSU ball, with your feet together and your arms extended out in front of you.
- Lift one leg off the ground and then lower down into a squat on the other. Keep going down until the leg that’s off the ground is parallel to the floor.
- Stand back up, and repeat this on the other leg.
- Try to do 10-12 reps on each leg.
A TRX Squat is a great exercise choice for those new to working out. It utilizes TRX straps, which you can easily buy online, in order to provide you a means of resistance training through gravity and your own body weight. Here’s how to do a TRX Squat:
- Using a suspension machine or an upright structure, grab the TRX handles and hold them at chest level with extended arms. Back up until the straps are tight.
- Lower down into a squat while pulling just slightly against the straps.
- Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, rise back up to your standing position.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
A BOSU Squat enables you to both work on your balance and strengthen your leg muscles. This is a hard one for inexperienced individuals, so make sure to be patient and keep practicing.
- Stand on the BOSU ball and be sure your feet are shoulder-width apart.
- Extend your arms so they’re out in front of you, then start to bend your knees.
- Sit back into your hips to maintain balance, and keep your back straight.
- Continue until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then slowly stand back up.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps if you can. If not, then try for 6-8 instead.
The Wall Squat gives you extra support as you go down, which is good for people with weak hips or knees. You can also stay in the squat position on the wall for an extended period of time to effectively develop and tone your core muscles. Here’s how to perform a Wall Squat:
- Stand with your back up against a wall, and then walk your feet about 12 inches away from the wall.
- Bend your knees to drop into the squat position, and keep your back firmly up against the wall as you do so.
- Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, stop and push through your heels to stand back up into your starting position.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps.
The Zercher Squat is typically intended for those who have a few years of weightlifting experience. It is a great way to target and strengthen your glutes, as well as your biceps, calves, hip adductors, quads, and traps. Start with an empty bar or a light weight if it’s your first time doing this exercise, and then gradually increase the weight as you get more comfortable. Here’s how to do a Zercher Squat:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and hold the barbell in the crook of your elbows.
- Drop down into a squat position until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Stand back up slowly, keeping your back neutral and the barbell balanced in the crook of your elbows.
- Repeat for 10-12 reps if you are able.
Resistance Band Squat
Doing squats with resistance bands puts less pressure on your joints than weights usually do, while still providing the tension you need to build strength. It’s very easy and cheap to get your own resistance bands online; they come in a variety of resistance levels, which makes them a useful tool for people of all experience levels. Here’s how to perform a Resistance Band Squat:
- Start by standing with both of your feet on the resistance band. Hold the ends of the band at your waist.
- Stand up while keeping your hands where they are, then perform a basic squat.
- Stand up to return to your starting position.
- Repeat this for 10-12 reps.
Ways to Improve Your Technique
Once you have tried squatting a couple of times, you may be wondering how you can take this exercise to the next level. You want to start using more weight in order to get even stronger, but you may not know how to do it. It can be frustrating to not be aware of the tips and tricks that will allow you to get more from squats.
Luckily, there are plenty of proven ways to improve your squat performance. Some of them are very simple and rely heavily on the basic principles of squatting and weight training as a whole. Others are more mental related, and require you to be in the right frame of mind in order for them to work. You should try every method listed here if you are struggling to get gains on this exercise, but the most important piece of advice to take away from this section is that you must be patient.
It may not happen right away. It could take days or weeks before your body is able to squat more. You must not give up if you do not instantly see the results you want. If you do see an improvement, then keep doing the things that helped you. You can always learn and grow every time you work out. Each day is an intensive learning experience for your mind and body, so always squat with a positive and resilient mindset.
Here are some beneficial ways to improve your squat technique and strength:
Focus On Your Form
When in doubt, go back to the basics and re-evaluate your form.
This guide has mentioned the importance of good form countless times, but it really cannot be overstated. If you are struggling with your squats and can’t seem to push past that plateau, it may be worth it to take a step back. Slow your reps down, think about every part of your body during each rep. Watch videos of professional weightlifters doing squats, and see what their form is like. Michael Matthews of Legion Athletics recommends that you have a friend record you and see what mistakes you’re making.
You may think your form is perfect, but it never hurts to check and see what it looks like. Be patient and understanding with your body and your training routine; you won’t go anywhere if you constantly get frustrated with yourself. Remind yourself that you are always learning something new, every time you work out.
Try Using Heavier Weights
Another suggestion Michael Matthews makes it to try using heavier weights every now and again. That doesn’t mean you have to stop doing a higher number of reps with lighter weights, of course. If your body is feeling up to it, then you may see greater strength gains when you use both lighter and heavier weights.
Matthews says that “if you’re currently doing the majority of your squatting with lighter weights—70 to 75% of 1RM for 10 to 12 reps, for example—you’re going to benefit greatly by emphasizing heavier lifting instead (80 to 85% of 1RM for 4 to 6 reps)”.
Try doing your squats with more weight once or twice a week, and it is likely you will discover a new and effective way to get stronger and more muscular.
Go Down Lower on Your Squats
If you aren’t going down on your squats at least until your thighs are parallel with the ground, then you are seriously cheating yourself out of the many benefits you can gain from squats. Generally, the deeper you go, the faster you will obtain the toned and muscular lower body you desire. Michael Matthews states that the lower you descend, the more your legs will grow in size and strength, the more your glutes are activated, the more your hips take the load off your knees, the more your lower back becomes stronger, and the more force you’ll create as you come back up.
In other words, going deep to parallel (and even past parallel if you can handle it) is definitely worth it, so make sure to do it to improve your technique and strength.
Wear the Right Shoes
You do not want to wear old, worn-down shoes when you squat. If your shoes are slippery and have weak soles, then you may experience issues with balance and traction in your feet. This may be worsening your performance and even putting you at greater risk of injury. Matthews says that a decent shoe, one that is suitable for squatting, will provide a stable surface for balance and stability when lifting heavy, fit your feet comfortably and keep them from moving too much, and provides good traction so you don’t skip and get hurt. Invest in a new pair of shoes if your current ones are not doing these things for you.
Get Pumped Up
Your mental state plays a huge role in how you perform not just for a squat, but for any exercise in general. This study shows that rugby players who pumped themselves up before doing a set of bench presses and thought positively about how they would do, ended up putting out much more force than normal. Those that got distracted and weren’t mentally “in the zone” wound up producing significantly less force.
Indeed, performing well on a set of squats comes down to focusing solely on the task at hand. If you want to do well, tune out those around you and turn off any distractions or unnecessary thoughts in the back of your mind. Perhaps turn on a fast-paced song and visualize how you will do on the set. Get your head in the game and your blood pumping; you will have the potential to see immense boosts in how much you can lift, or how many reps you can do.
Do “Hold” Reps
Trying out “Hold” Reps is a tough, but useful way to work on your form and build power.
A “Hold” Rep involves starting a squat like you normally would, but instead of going straight back up once you’ve hit the bottom, you stay in that position for about 5-7 seconds before coming back up. Matthews claims it “not only a great way to train the glutes, hamstrings, and hip muscles that drive you up and out of the bottom of the Squat, it also greatly increases core strength and stability”.
After doing a few sets of normal squats, do a few sets of these. They may prove helpful in empowering you to enhance your squats.
Try Different Variations
If you are stuck on the normal squat and can’t seem to progress, then try out some of the many variations listed earlier. Each one has its benefits. It is ultimately up to you in the end to discover what you need help with the most, and which exercises to integrate into your workout plan. If you are stuck at a certain point of the squat, then try a variation that focuses primarily on that specific phase of the squat.
You might be thinking about skipping this suggestion and merely try to force yourself through a plateau, or keep trying squats until you fix a technique problem. However, it really is worth it to try approaching it in a new angle. Trying one squat variation may be all you need to bust out of a slump and get yourself back on track.
Make Sure to Have Proper Knee and Hip Flexion
Being flexible in your knees and hips will do wonders for your squat technique and strength. You will be able to go much deeper down and use heavier weights safely, since your muscles won’t be nearly as locked up. Jeff from Athlean X talks about one excellent warmup exercise you can do to help improve your knee and hip flexion, the barbell glute bridge.
Doing this exercise before you squat, Jeff says, is a beneficial and proven way to help activate certain muscles that are key to the squat, including the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. The quads and hamstrings are better able to control the flexibility in your hips and knees as you descend during the squat, and your glutes have more strength to help you stay controlled at the bottom, as well as aid you in pushing back upwards. You should definitely try including 6-8 reps of this exercise in your warmup when you plan on doing squats. Your hip and knee flexibility should improve dramatically, and thus you will be able to take your squats to the next level.
Knowing what equipment you should use for your squat, as well as how to use it safely and effectively, can make a huge difference in your performance. Most commercial gyms should have all the necessary pieces of equipment for squats. If you are new to working out, though, you may not know what to use or how useful something really is. If you want to learn more about all the various kinds of equipment that you can find at a gym, including cardio machines, resistance machines, and free weights, then be sure to check out our in-depth equipment guide. It covers virtually everything you will find in a gym setting and explains what you should be using to get the most out of your workouts, no matter what your goals are.
To save you time, though, here are some of the most essential things you should be using every time you squat, as well as a few things you can use to either make the exercise easier or harder:
If you are looking to try adding squats to your routine, then doing your sets in the Power Rack is the safest and most effective way to do it.
It is typically made up of two or four vertical stands, with two or four J hooks to place the bar on. Most Power Racks also have two lateral, horizontal safety pins that catch the bar if you fail a rep, according to StrongLifts.
Having the safety pins there to help you if you cannot complete a rep is essential for beginners. Almost every gym should contain a few Power Racks to do squats in, so you should be able to perform your squats in one every time you are at the gym. It is the safest way to do this exercise, which is probably why the Power Rack is such a popular piece of equipment.
According to StrongLifts, a Squat Rack is basically just an open Power Rack. Most of them have J-hooks so you can get the bar on your back, but not all of them have safety pins to catch the bar if you fail the rep. Furthermore, the safety pins on a Squat Rack are typically not adjustable, so if they are not in the right position for your body type, then you will struggle to maintain proper form as you do your squats. That is why StrongLifts recommends using a Power Rack if one is available, and if you must use a Squat Rack, then you should definitely have someone spot you.
Another piece of equipment you can use for the barbell during your squats is Squat Stands. They are two vertical poles with uprights, and are usually not connected like a Power Rack or Squat Rack. Although they are easy to move around and are more space-efficient, they lack stable safety pins. They are typically intended for Olympic lifters, says StrongLifts, who typically throw the bar on the ground if they fail a rep. If you don’t have someone to help you, or if you are not using bumper plates and can’t throw the bar on the ground, then you won’t really be able to get rid of the bar safely if you cannot complete a rep. That is why we recommend you use a Power Rack instead, if one is available.
There are a few different types of weight plates that you can place on a barbell so you can lift heavier and get stronger.
The most common kinds of weight plates used in commercial gyms, as stated by Nerd Fitness, are standard metal or rubber encased plates. They come in either circle or 12-sided variations, and should definitely not be dropped on the floor after a hard set. The bigger the plate is, the heavier it usually is (with the 45 lb one being the largest).
Bumper plates, on the other hand, are usually made out of rubber. This makes them safe to be dropped directly on the floor once you complete a set. Bumper plates are all the same in diameter, so their weight can be determined by their width.
Start off with light weight plates if you are a beginner to weightlifting. You do not want to overestimate yourself and end up getting injured early in your fitness journey. Work your way up to the heavier plates slowly; do not push yourself to lift more if your body can not handle it. This is even more important with squats, because it is such a technically complex exercise, and it is very easy to get hurt if you do too much early on.
Having a barbell is a necessity if you are looking to get the most out of doing the four major lifts (squats, overhead press, deadlifts, and bench press) in your workouts. There are a few different kinds of barbells that gyms may have.
The standard barbell and the Olympic barbell work almost exactly the same. However, the Olympic barbell, says Nerd Fitness, is the standard training barbell that most bodybuilders like to use. There are Olympic bars typically designated for men and women to use. The men’s one is 7.2 ft. long and weighs about 45 lbs., while the women’s barbell is 6.9 ft. long and weighs around 39 lbs. Smaller training bars can weigh anywhere between 10 and 30 lbs. Beginners may want to start with these lighter training barbells and gradually work their way up.
Keep in mind that Olympic barbells are usually of higher quality than standard ones, which allows them to hold much more weight. So if you are planning to start lifting heavy weights at some point, then sticking to primarily using Olympic barbells may be a smart option.
A weight belt is a great way to take your squats to the next level, if you already have good form and feel comfortable with using a lot of weight.
Wearing a belt that you can attach weight plates to will make your reps much more difficult, but will help you build strength and muscle even more efficiently. You must be careful when wearing a weight belt, however, since the extra weight can throw off your balance. This may cause you to round your back or start leaning too much on your heels or toes, which is quite dangerous. That is why you should only start with light weight plates attached to the belt first. After doing a few workouts with smaller weight plates and maintaining good technique, then you can start increasing the amount of weight attached to the belt.
Using Knee Sleeves as you squat results in heat and sweat being trapped around your knee joint. This causes your knees to stay lubricated and flexible, which lowers your risk of getting hurt or feeling a lot of knee discomfort. Furthermore, they’re useful for stabilizing your knees, which gives you extra support as you do your squats. As a result, you will be able to focus on improving other areas of your technique, and feel more confident squatting with heavier weights.
Knee Sleeves do not protect you from poor form, though. It is common for beginners who use them to believe that their knees are invincible, and that they can get through their squats sets with improper form. This only leads to pain and injury, no matter whether or not you are wearing Knee Sleeves. That is why you must stay focused and remember that you always run the risk of getting hurt if you do the exercise incorrectly. If you do that and have good technique, then you will get a lot of benefits from using Knee Sleeves in your workouts.
Wrist wraps are beneficial for helping you have the right wrist placement while you do squats. They prevent wrist overextension and bending, which is a huge mistake that may lead to injury. Using them if you have a lack of wrist stability or are trying to perfect your form does have some benefits, especially if you are trying to squat with more weight.
You do not want to use them too often though, since this can lead to your wrists not getting stronger because of the support that the wrist wraps provide. They are primarily meant to be used as a temporary crutch, since they are tight and can cut off circulation if left on for too long. Wrist wraps do not automatically fix bad form.
Therefore, you shouldn’t necessarily use wrist wraps if you are struggling with technique. Only use them every once in a while if you notice that your wrists are moving around too much, and you don’t want to risk hurting your wrists.
Squats require a lot of thinking and practice. You won’t master them on your first day, and you may be afraid to do them. Hopefully this guide helped to ease some of that fear, and helped you understand some of the main things that can make the squat so hard at first. Stay motivated and patient with yourself; you will become a squat master eventually, as long as you do not give up on the exercise.
Here are some of the key takeaways you should remember from this guide:
- The squat is a full-body, compound exercise. It mainly targets the leg muscles, but provides benefits for the whole body, and works in many ways to improve your overall health. Each part of your body plays a significant role in the squat, so you must pay attention to all of them and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to.
- There are plenty of mistakes and problems that people run into when doing squats, whether they are a newbie to weightlifting or a veteran. Knowing how to correct these errors and prevail past these issues is a key step in becoming a better squatter. Once you know that you shouldn’t come up on your toes or let your knees cave in, for example, then you will see huge improvements in your performance.
- Continuing off the previous point, there are a wide variety of ways to injure yourself if you squat improperly. Pains in your neck, knees, and lower back, just to name a few, have the ability to evolve and leave you injured if you don’t realize how to stop them. Make sure you slow down if you have any discomfort, find out what’s causing that discomfort, and correct your form so that you don’t risk seriously hurting yourself.
- Improving your form and strength on this exercise can take some practice, but knowing some tips and tricks to do so will definitely help you out. You can try doing variations of the squats, do exercises to improve your knee and hip flexibility, pump yourself up with music, or upgrade your workout shoes, just to name a few. It is up to you to decide what works for you and what doesn’t. The one thing that is guaranteed to always work, no matter what, is slowing things down and evaluating your squat form. Whether it’s through watching others or recording yourself, nothing will beat assessing and changing your squat technique until it is the most safe and effective it can be for you.
- You will be pleased to know that there are a number of other squat variations besides the ones mentioned in this guide. Besides giving you an opportunity to spice up your workouts so they don’t get repetitive, they also give you the ability to target your muscles in a different way and keep them guessing, which may lead to greater strength gains. Some variations also really focus on one specific phase of the traditional squat, so you may get some great use out of trying those.
- Having the right equipment and setting it up properly is just as important as the squat itself. The Power Rack and barbell should always be your go-to pieces of equipment when you plan on doing squats, but keep in mind that there are decent substitutes for them if they aren’t available, like Squat Stands or dumbbells. Things like a Weight Belt or Resistance Bands can make the squat even more challenging, while objects like Knee Sleeves or Wrist Wraps may reduce any discomfort you feel. However, they do not serve as an instant fix to bad form, so remember that adjusting your technique and doing the exercise correctly is always the best way to get better results.
To read more informative articles about various fitness topics, make sure you check out https://www.myworkouts.io/edu.