Everybody knows the title “king of exercises” belongs to the good old back squat.
The squat is the only exercise that allows you to direct train the complex movement pattern known as the hip drive which means that it recruits all the muscles of the posterior chain.
It hits your hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, adductors, and trains them in an improvable way. If anyone tells you barbell squats hurt your knees and destroy your lower back, just show them pictures of babies when they squat down to play or lift a weight.
Do you believe the baby in this picture is in a very dangerous position that will ruin his knees and lower back if someone doesn’t tell him to stand up?
While squatting is a safe and natural movement, there are many things you should know when you attempt to squat properly without taking any risks.
While I’ve searched in virtually every corner of the humongous internet, there isn’t a single squat guide that covers everything you need to know. I hope I did a good job in explaining how to squat with this in depth guide.
Common problems that should be addressed before we start the actual barbell squat:
What Squat Style Should I Chose ?
There are three primary squat “styles”:
- High Bar Squat – the bar is held on traps, the back is held more vertical, and Olympic lifters use this style for maximum depth (ass to grass aka ATG)
- Low Bar Squat – the bar is held lower on the back just immediately under the bones you feel at the top of your shoulder blades
- Geared Powerlifting Squat – unless you thought about entering a geared powerlifting competition, this isn’t for you
When you practice the squat, quad soreness occurs because they are the only knee extensor group.
The hip extensors consists of three groups: the hamstrings, glutes, adductors.
The squat style that maximizes the use of all these muscles is the low-bar back squat. Most people can lift bigger weights by using a low-bar squatting position.
The following picture shows you what a low-bar squat means.
This is the version that I will teach you to perform.
Bellow, you can see a demonstration from someone that went from the Olympic style squatting to low bar squatting. This small modification of bar placement helped him go from squatting 440 lbs to squatting over 500 lbs.
Balancing And Bar Position
The mid foot position is favored by your body in terms of balance. That’s why the bar weight should always be kept in line with the middle of your feet.
Why is that?
Let’s do a little exercise: If you stand up straight unloaded and you lean forward, you can feel your weight shifting to the balls of your feet. You can feel increased tension in your calves as your body tries to maintain balance so you don’t fall forward.
If you lean back, you can feel the weight shifting on your heels.
If you lean back even further, your arms will automatically come in front of you to change the center of mass so you don’t keep falling back. As you can see, your body is in a constant struggle to maintain balance and it wants to settle in a position where the least amount of force is needed to maintain that position.
In your case, the normal balance on the mid foot position. In all barbell exercises except bench press, the mid-foot balance is a critical point.
The minimum squat depth you should try to achieve is parallel to the floor. It should look approximately like this:
Any squat that is not done to the required depth is a partial squat.
A partial squat puts stress on the quadriceps and knees without properly stressing the adductors, glutes and hamstrings.
When you do a proper squat (full squat), the groin muscles, hamstrings and glutes come under the load as knees are shoved up. Your back assumes the correct angle. The hips are pushed back on the way down for the hip drive to occur when you get back up.
How To Squat Step By Step
When you squat, the best foot position is neutral. Keep your heels about shoulder width apart with toes pointed out at 20-30 degrees.
If you take a too wide stance, it will cause your adductors to reach the end of their extensibility too early. A too narrow stance will cause your thighs to bump against your belly so you won’t be able to reach the required depth.
Take a look at these pictures (I took pictures of my stance to show you visually how it should look):
Let’s do another exercise: Assume the squatting position, put your elbows against your knees and keep the palms of your hands together. Get your knees out. In this bottom position, your feet are flat on the ground, your knees are out and in a parallel line with your feet just a little in front of your toes. Your back should be flat and inclined to about 45 degree.
The correct way to come out of the bottom position is by driving your but straight up in the air. Drive your hips out of the bottom.
Everything should take care of itself.
Eye And Neck Position
The neck position should be straight in line with your spine and you should look 4-5 feet ahead to a point. Keep it as a reference. I can’t believe how many trainers advise their lifters to look up because that will “keep their chest up” OR “keep their spine straight” or don’t know what. Looking up will put your cervical spine in overextension which is not a normal and safe position for your neck to be when you are carrying heavy loads.
Bar Position On Rack
Set the bar at about mid chest level. As a safety measure, put the rack safeties a little lower than your bottom squat level so in case you miss the rep, you can set the weight down safely.
It should look approximately like this:
Grip On The Bar
It will vary depending on your shoulder flexibility. Just set a comfortable width as narrow as you can. The thumbs should be placed on top of the bar and the wrists should be kept in a straight line with your forearm.
Take a look at my grip:
Bar Placement On Your Back
The bar should be under the bone you feel at the top of your shoulder blades. Secure the bar in place by lifting your chest up and elbows up at the same time. The bar should be in place over the posterior deltoids. Now that we have the minor details set up, let’s procede further:
Step By Step
- Step under the bar. Take a comfortable narrow grip. Set the bar tight on your back. Get the chest up, elbows up, squeeze your upper back to secure the bar, get an arch in your lower back. Now, you are ready to unrack the bar.
- Take the bar up
- Take 1-2 steps back (taking too many steps back is bad because you are wasting your energy without any additional improvements). Don’t let your body loosen up, keep it tight
- Foot position as discussed (shoulder width apart and ~30 degrees out)
- Set a focus point as discussed (4-5 feet in front of you)
- Now it comes the main part. Keep your body tight. Keep the weight on the middle of your foot. Take a big breath and hold it against your abs (valsava maneuver). Begin squatting with the simple cue: “push your hips backwards”. Squat controllably, don’t bend or drop too fast down.
- Coming up from the bottom position is as important as going down. You should drive up with your hips and not with your chest. Keep this in mind because it is very important. If you fail to drive up from the bottom with your hips, and instead you use your chest, this will nullify your power out of the bottom position because you are making your back angle too vertical. Keep the weight on the middle of your feet and imagine you are pushing straight up with your hips.
- When you reach the top position, breath out before you repeat the movement.
- End the movement by racking the bar back. Make sure that it’s properly set on the pins and step out from under the bar. And this is how you do the barbell squat properly. Because I always like to show you visual demonstrations, I have some good and bad examples of a properly executed squat:
FIRST – BAD EXAMPLE (NEVER DO THIS!!!)
Breathing should be easy. You will need to perform the valsalva maneuver. This means you will attempt to exhale against your closed airway.
Practically put, you will take a big breath, tightening your core muscles. You will keep that air trapped into your stomach.
NOTES: If you keep the bar in a vertical relationship with the middle of the foot as you squat down, the back angle will be determined by the position of the bar on your back. Just try to imagine that vertical imaginary line that the bar path should keep when you squat the weight down. Keep your spine rigid and your knees, ankles, and hips will do whatever it needs to be done in order to maintain the correct angles and bar path.
Your body will do its best to solve every small details of this movement so you won’t need to be coached by anyone. We have a smart body, isn’t it?
Remember this: full depth should be your goal every time you squat. If you have a friend that checks your depth and he tells you that it’s not low enough, check your stance and make sure that it’s proper set up. Not too wide or too narrow, and your knees should track your toes. Shove your knees out!
A short question for you:
What squat depth you prefer – parallel to the floor or lower than that? Explain why.
In case you know someone that would benefit from this guide, you can send that person this page.
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