The Better Way to Squat

By Darren Stehle

When did you first learn to squat?

Do you remember your first visit to the gym? Did you follow instructions from a fitness magazine or a personal trainer?

Well guess what? You don’t know squat, Jack!

The truth is that you didn’t learn how to squat from a personal trainer, a YouTube video, or a glossy men’s health and fitness magazine.

You learned how to squat so long ago that you don’t remember — as soon as you started to walk you learned how to squat.

At the beginning you might’ve fallen down on your butt, but with a little bit of practice you figured it out on your own.

Just look at how a baby or a little kid squats all the way down, butt almost touching the ground (this is sometimes called the ‘rice-patty’ squat). They ‘sit’ naturally in a squat, knees out to the side to accommodate their balance.

little_kid_squatting

Fast forward 15, 20 or even more years. How is your squat now?

My guess is that for most people you really couldn’t tell me if it’s good or bad.

Here’s something that I’ve learned from working with my personal training clients over many years:

It’s very easy to teach the squat.

However, it can be extremely challenging for the individual to learn the squat.

The reasons?

You were probably never taught about healthy posture.

Sitting behind a desk all day long isn’t great for your back, hip flexors, and every other part of your body, including your digestive system!

As a population we don’t exercise often enough. We stand on the escalator instead of walking. We eat processed, sugar-rich foods and gain too much fat around the mid-section.

Improper movement patterns repeated overtime replaces healthy movement with disfunction and pain. This list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

Squat Instruction

There are a lot of good trainers and strength coaches teaching their clients how to squat. This isn’t an attack on any of them. This is how I teach the squat — generally speaking.

Please understand that my method of teaching is by no means the right one, the only one, or perfect. There is no such thing.

The best coach will work with the person in front of him or her and teach to that person’s skill level and preferred learning style.

There is no single or universal way to squat, but there are constructs to work within to get the best results for the individual. There is also no such thing as universal contra-indications — there is only the individual’s needs. For example:

  • Physical: are there structural (bone, joint, spine) issues;
  • Emotional: are they afraid, open-minded, do they hold back a part of their body because of a past injury, do they believe that can or cannot do a particular exercise, and;
  • Learning style: are they a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner?

Being aware of the individual’s needs and accommodating them as much as possible, will get the best result and a more positive learning (and retention) experience.

Lesson #1

I want you to go into your bathroom and close the door behind you. Now sit on the toilet. Viola! You just did a perfect squat .

Okay, so it might be a bit more complicated than that, especially you if you have any knee, hip, back issues, or injuries.

However, sitting down onto the toilet (or sitting down onto a chair) is an excellent approximation of the squat. You’re sitting to a depth that you would normally squat: where your upper thighs are approximately parallel to the ground (relative to your height). You sit (or you can think of it as pushing) your hips back as if you’re sitting down on something, e.g. the toilet seat.

How To Squat

Teaching The Back Squat From The Bottom Up.

Note here that I’m teaching a general squat position. Teaching a sumo or front squat requires different direction.

Stance

Stand inside a squat cage or power cage, and hopefully facing a mirror, arms at your sides, no bar. Stand with a shoulder-width foot stance. What does that look like?

Looking straight ahead, notice the centre of your shoulder joint directly above your arm. Now place your heels directly under that visual location.

Your feet should be parallel to each other or slightly externally rotated. They should also be symmetrical — one foot should not be more forward than the other. If the floor is tiled or hardwood, find a line and either align your heels or toes across that line.

We are doing all of this without the bar.

Remember the toilet exercise? Now squat. How did that feel you? Take a look at where your feet are now. Are they in the same position as the initial set-up or have they moved in anyway? If it feels like you should have a wider heel stance or slightly more external rotation, adjust and retest. If the adjustment felt more comfortable you have found your stance.

If any of this feels awkward, place a bench or box/step behind you and squat onto that. It’s amazing how a physical object can influence and direct your nervous system to respond more naturally. You know how to sit onto a chair, but when asked to think about what you’re doing, it’s as if you’re learning the movement for the first time.

Arms & Hands

The position of your hands on the bar will depend on your shoulder flexibility. The tighter your shoulders and/or chest muscles, the wider you may have to grip to accommodate holding the bar.

Generally speaking, here’s a great way to determine your grip width:

Face the mirror. Raise your arms above your head and then lower your arms to bend your elbows to 90°. Your forearms should be parallel to each other. Notice your hands directly above your elbows. That’s your grip width.

Bar Placement & Getting Under The Bar

You will need to determine the height of the pins in the rack relative to your shoulder height.

Stand inside the squat rack with your shoulder beside one side of the frame where the pins can be adjusted. Set the pins just below the height of the top of your shoulder and set up an Olympic barbell so that it’s centred in the rack. You are going to practice with the bar — no additional plates.

Approach the bar and get directly under the centre of it — use the lines on the bar to visually assist with your position.

Your feet should be directly under the bar. With the back of your shoulder in contact with the bar, take hold of the bar with your pre-determined grip width. With your hips slightly behind you and your chest up (wow! sort of looks like a squat, eh?!) stand up straight to lift the bar out of the pins. Take one normal length step back and set your foot position.

If you had to stand on your toes to get the bar off the pins, lower the pins by one setting and start over.

Knees

Are your knees locked or slightly bent? There’s no consensus on this one, however, this is what I teach:

Having your knees slightly bent makes it easier to allow the hips to drive back in the squat. It helps you to focus on contracting your quads prior to sitting back, and shortens the hamstrings, which could be pulling on your hips, making it harder to hold a flat back.

You knees should be visually somewhere between over your ankles and feet so that when you squat, they travel in the direction towards the toes — not inside (collapsing) or outside (bow-legged) the centre-line of the feet. Generally speaking it’s best to keep the knees from passing over the toes. The further the knees travel in the horizontal plane, the more stress about the knee joint.

Test your squat and assess.

Shins

Squat again. What is the angle of your shins, relative to the floor?

Generally speaking, you want to keep a vertical shin, or shins that are perpendicular to the ground. When you sit back into the squat, your hips should move back before your knees bend, your upper body should hinge forward to accommodate your centre of gravity, and your knees should maintain a mostly neutral position. That is, your knees shouldn’t drive forward ahead of the toes. For most people this will either hurt or lead to sheering forces within the knee joint over time that will cause damage and potential future injury.

Inner Thigh/Ad-ductor Muscles

Be aware of your inner thighs contracting, as if they were squeezing a large medicine ball between your legs. What you don’t want to do, is to collapse your thighs, bringing the knees closer together. You want to be aware of activating the inner thighs.

If you’re not sure if these muscles are firing, flick your inner thigh with your finger as you perform a squat. Can you feel the muscles contracting?

Hips & Back

The position of your hips will be relative to curvature of your lower back. This is where having a pair of expert eyes is useful, but here’s what you can self-assess.

Turn to the side so that you can see how your back moves in the mirror. Set up as per the points above. How does your low back look?

http://www.fitinlondon.com/graphics/postures.jpg

A healthy back looks like a long, gentle S-curve (see the image above).

The top of the ‘S’ is at the top of your head. neck, and as your spine slopes down your upper back and starts to gently curve in the opposite direction to form the lower half of inside of the ‘S’.

It’s difficult to explain in words, but a healthy back has a ‘healthy lumbar curve’.

When you squat, most people will say, “Keep your back straight.” That’s a bit of a misnomer.

What you want to do is to fix your spine in place, so that the position of your spine is fixed through both the lowering and raising of the squat, from your hips to your neck, without change.

To set your hip and back position, squeeze your lower abs by squeezing your bum and sphincter, as if you are trying to (ahem) ‘hold it in.’

You may also need (if you have excessive lordosis — curvature of the lower back) to think of pulling the front of your pelvis upwards, to reduce the curve in your low back.

To do this, use those lower abs/butt tightening technique and hold the abs and glutes tight throughout the entire squat movement.

If your abdominals and glutes are not tight in all phases of the squat you risk hurting yourself in some way.

Once again, test your squat and assess.

Chest, Upper Back & Shoulder Blades

Your chest and sternum should be up. Male or female, just think about having a  proud, chest up and forward posture.

As a visual, think of any military posture and what a soldier’s upper body stance looks like.

Your shoulder blades should be moderately pulled together and down. You will probably have to do this automatically to keep your chest up.

A word of caution: make sure when you push the chest up you do it through the upper back and don’t arch your lumbar spine.

For some people this would be a better cue: use your lats to pull your shoulders down and back — this will help to lift your chest.

Head, Neck & Eyes

Your head and neck should be in line with torso. Your head should be pulled back over the mid-line of your torso, as opposed to pushing or straining forward.

This is the most common mistake I see in squatting: people arch their neck and look upwards. The problem with this is that the arch of the cervical spine will influence the arch of the lower spine. Over arch the neck and you can wind up over arching the lower back.

Here’s how things should look: your head does not move during the movement. Your neck is fixed over your shoulders, with tension in the muscles of the upper traps to keep your head in place.

Your eyes are gazing straight ahead, neither up or down. Your eyes should always be looking straight ahead RELATIVE to where your body is during the squat.

In the deepest part of the squat, your trunk is angled down towards the floor. If you have kept your head in line with your spine, you should be looking at where the floor meets the wall  (if you’re using a squat rack and facing a mirror).

Breathing

Always exhale with exertion — when you push, pull or punch you get additional force and abdominal bracing using the diaphragm to exhale.

When you lower in the squat, you want to brace with the abs. Take a deep breath, puff up your chest to expand your rib cage, contract your abs and buttocks, and slowly lower. Doing this is the preferred method of creating a ‘weight belt’ to protect you back.

From the bottom of the squat position, once you begin to push the floor away, pressing the bar back up, slowly but forcibly exhale through pursed lips to keep your abdominals tight to brace your low back.

Note that holding your breath as your lower may be contra-indicated in some people. If this is the case, inhale slowly on the way down, but be sure to activate and maintain your abdominal bracing during the lower.

DUDE! Are We Ever Gonna Squat?

You want to squat better, don’t you? Explaining how to squat in an article is time-consuming, but I’m going to great lengths to show you all the aspects you should assess and be aware of to have your best and safest squat ever.

So let’s pull it all together. By now you’ve performed a number of squats. I expect you might be sweating!

Putting It All Together

Using all of the above cues, now you can perform a proper squat.

Sit on that toilet seat. Sit your hips back, allowing your knees to bend to follow your hips until your thighs are parallel to the ground or slightly above (we will leave the ‘butt-to-the-ground’ squats to the Olympic lifters and the gifted for now).

Pause for one full second, make sure your abs and butt are still squeezed tightly, your inner thighs are contracted, your knees are in line with your feet, or just slightly over towards the outside of your toes, and then push the floor away from you, coming up the reverse of the way you went down.

Squat a few more times, using a slow decent, pausing in the bottom position, and slowly reversing the movement to the top. Take your time to feel what your body is doing.

To rack the bar, take one step forward, sit back as if to squat to rack the bar.

How did you do?

© 2013 Darren Stehle. All Rights Reserved.