How To Do Squats Properly

Want to build your lower body with one of the most effective exercises around? Learn how to squat for success here.

Often called the ‘King of all exercises’ the squat is one of the most effective movements you can do.

Unfortunately, it’s also one that a lot of people struggle with.

Shot of active man doing squatting exercise

Some people are taught wrong whereas others do learn the correct technique but they still find themselves struggling with the movement.

If this sounds like you don’t worry, because in this article we’re going to take a closer look at the squat technique and help you to master yours.

Whether you’ve been squatting for years and you think you’ve got it down, or you’re new to exercise and you want to get it right, we’ve got you covered.

Read on to discover the right way to squat and how to fix some common faults you may have.

The Benefits of Squats

Squats are one of the fundamentals of fitness, not just because they’re fun to do, but because from an evolutionary standpoint, we are meant to squat.

It’s why babies have such a perfect squat technique; it’s something that is ingrained in us.

Our bodies are supposed to move that way but through modern living, we have stopped squatting as much and started relying on other things that make our lives easier, even if it does more harm than good.

Squats are powerful exercises that have a ton of benefits for the human body, such as contributing to improved movement, better mobility, and increasing your flexibility.

By squatting regularly you can strengthen your muscles and bones, something which will benefit you in later life and even strengthen your hips, knees, and back, which are common problem areas that many people worry about.

What Muscles are Worked? 

Squats are known as a ‘compound exercise’ which is a movement that works multiple muscles and joints at once and that’s where the benefits of the squat start.

You may think of it as a lower-body exercise only but when you squat, you’re working so much more.

You can expect to work your lower body muscles such as:

  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Gluteus maximus
  • Calves

In addition to the core muscles including:

  • Rectus abdominis
  • Obliques (internal and external)
  • Erector Spinae

Due to the wide variety of squat variations available, it is also possible to work the muscles in your back, shoulders, and arms when you squat.

A squat can truly train your entire body.

Common Mistakes

Before we get into the right way to squat, let’s take a look at some of the common problems people face when squatting.

It’s important to know that no matter what your previous experience is, nobody should ever feel as though they can’t squat, you may just need to make a few simple tweaks.

Knees Come Inwards

A common problem you see with the squat is often caused by having tight hips, due to too much sitting in a desk-based job. As you drop into the squat your knees point inwards and you will often feel uneven and off-balance. Luckily, it is relatively easy to fix and by spending less time sitting and more time stretching, you can begin to open up your hips and get the mobility you require to squat. Lunges and single-leg glute bridges can help with this as well as completing ankle mobility drills, which can reduce the strain on your legs.

Raising the Heels off the Floor

Your feet should be planted and you should push through your heels to the top of a squat, but some people struggle to keep their heels planted on the floor.

Once again, working on your ankle mobility can help with this and some people also find joy by visualizing the ‘push’ and physically trying to push through the heels.

For bodyweight squats, it’s common practice to lift your toes, to put the weight back onto your heels.

When squatting with weight, it’s also a good idea to place 10lb plates under your heels, which can help with depth and mobility.

Leading With the Knees / Knees Come Past Toes

When you sink into the squat your hips (and glutes) should drop down, however, it’s common to see people move their knees forward instead, which results in the knees going over the toes.

There are normally two reasons for this.

  • You’ve led with your knees and moved them forward instead of dropping your hips.
  • Your quads are taking over and the glutes and hamstrings aren’t doing their job as you try to squat. This is normally due to tightness in the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).
To fix this, look at incorporating more posterior chain exercises into your routines, such as deadlifts, Hip Thrusts, or cable pull-through, and ensure you stretch your lower body sufficiently before and after you exercise. 

The Set-Up / How to Squat 

The simplest squat that anyone can do is the bodyweight squat. It doesn’t involve using any weight and set’s the foundation for all other squats.

There might be small tweaks to make as you progress to some of the more complicated types of squat, but once you’ve mastered the bodyweight squat, you’ll have the starting point to try any other variation.

Let’s take a look.

  1. 1
    The Squat stance – The first thing you should do is to get into the ‘Squat stance’. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and your toes should be slightly turned out to the side, not facing straight ahead. The general rule is to position your feet between 5 and 30 degrees or imagine a clock, with your feet at 11 and 1.
  2. 2
    Screw your feet to the floor – No, not literally, this means to make secure contact with the ground and imagine your feet are ‘screwed’ to the floor. This will help your balance and posture and keep you more rigid when you squat.
  3. 3
    Proud chest – ‘Keep your chest up’ is something you hear a lot in fitness and it’s no different here. You should stand tall, with a ‘proud chest’ to help keep your chest up and your shoulders back.
  4. 4
    Brace your core – It is important to keep your core tight when you squat, especially when you carry weight on your back. Take a deep breath in and brace your core before you begin to squat.
  5. 5
    Hips down – Soften your hips and lower them like you’re sitting down on a chair. Do this with purpose but with control. You should keep your chest up as you go down, don’t round or arch your back and ensure you lead with your hips, your knees should not move before your hips do.
  6. 6
    Reach your depth – While many people can get below parallel your goal should be to reach parallel, by that we mean your hips should be level with your knees. Some people may struggle with this initially, but this should be your aim, instead of doing a half rep, where the hips barely drop down. Once you reach the bottom you can pause for up to a second before driving back up but you must keep your feet planted and your body strong.
  7. 7
    Push through the heels – As you drive back up to the top of the squat keep the weight in your heels and push ‘through’ them, back to a standing position where you bring the hips back to neutral. You can exhale on the way up and get ready to go again.

Things to consider:

Although we have only given a breakdown of the bodyweight squat above, the fundamentals transfer to every other type of squat.

Even when using a dumbbell or kettlebell, the movement is the same. The only thing to consider is when squatting with a weight on your back.

Here you would add in two extra steps.

You would get into the ‘squat stance’ under the bar and push up with the weight before taking a few steps back where you would then find your balance, screw your feet and set up as normal.

Similarly, once you have completed the move, and you have stood back up for your final rep, you would walk the bar back into the stand and make contact with the bar before releasing the bar down to the pin.

You must also ensure you keep your body strong and balanced when moving in and out of the squat to protect yourself.

Our advice when doing this for the first time would be to work with a friend or trainer who can ‘spot’ you when you squat and ensure your technique is safe.

Variations and Progressions

Once you can successfully complete a bodyweight squat you can look to progress onto other variations.

Our advice would be to start with a kettlebell goblet squat as it’s a great way of keeping you in the natural squat position, even as you add weight.

From here you may want to try different variations, let’s take a look at some of the possibilities below.

Dumbbell Squat – Dumbell squats work the entire lower body and also challenge your shoulders, arms, and grip strength.

To Do: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, at the side of your body, and complete a traditional squat.

Back Squat – The barbell back squat is the traditional progression when looking to maximize a squat. It trains the entire body, including the core, and you can expect to activate your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves.

To Do: We added the steps for completing a back squat up above.

Front Squat – A Front squat typically places more load on your quads and can be a great way of developing the big powerful muscles on the front of your legs. Technique for this can differ depending on your shoulder mobility.
To Do: Traditionally you would approach the bar facing forwards and grip the bar with your palms facing the bar. From here you would bring your body under the bar and rotate your elbows up, to be level with your hands. The rest of the squat, from how you unhook and perform the movement is very similar, but once again, we recommend you work with someone when trying this for the first time.

It’s important that you keep your chest up and you begin with a steady weight when trying front squats for the first time.

Sumo Squat – With your stance much wider and your feet turned out to almost a 45-degree angle, the sumo squat has a lot of benefits. Great for working the inner thighs, in addition to the glutes, hamstrings, and quads, you also get great core activation.

To Do: Assume the sumo position, and place the weight in the middle of your body on the floor. From here the squat mechanics are very similar, drop your hips down, with your arms aimed down to grab the weight, and squat as normal. When you arrive at the top of the squat, clench your glutes for added muscle activation.

Final Thoughts

The squat is one of the best exercises you can do, and with a better understanding of how to perform the move, and how to correct some common mistakes, you can start to enjoy a more beneficial workout.

Squatting can help you to build a strong base, from which you can grow and develop your physique and as you become more comfortable, you can try the more difficult variations which challenge more of your body.

To go alongside your new found technique it’s also worth addressing one of the most common problems people encounter, poor ankle mobility. By doing regular stretch exercises throughout the week you can put yourself in a much better position to progress with your squats and start working towards achieving your goals.

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