Squats are the KING of all exercises because they are a “functional” exercise that affect your ability to live a full, healthy life. Anything from getting out of a chair, to squatting down to pick something off the floor requires squat strength. Especially as we get older, proper squat technique is absolutely critical to maintain health and longevity.
The biggest problem with proper squat form is not having enough mobility in your hips, legs, and upper back. For more detail, see: How to Increase Squat Depth & How Deep Should You Squat. Check out the video above for 7 basic tips to squat with perfect form every time, assuming you have enough mobility.
While there are several different squat variations that I will be introducing in future posts, here are the 7 tips in more detail to ensure you squat with perfect form every time:
1) Proper Squat Technique: Hip Hinge
When most people try to squat, the knees protrude far over the toes, the butt goes straight down, and the heels come off the floor. This happens because proper squat technique requires some hip flexibility, proper balance, and a “hip hinge”.
Each time you squat you should hinge your hips so that your butt moves backwards during the downward phase of the squat, your knees will no longer protrude well over your toes (if you are tall, this may happen, but make sure it does not put pressure on your knees). Finally, the pressure of the squat will be on your heels instead of your toes and you will be able to get more depth to your squat.
2) Proper Squat Technique: Straight Head Position
One major mistake people make when they squat is rounding their necks, or looking down at the ground. The spinal alignment is automatically thrown off, which makes the squat a very dangerous exercise, especially if you are using a lot of weight.
Sometimes I pick a spot on the wall that’s in line with my eyes as I am standing straight, then as I squat down, I keep my eyes on that spot. My head is automatically in the correct position.
3) Proper Squat Technique: Chest Out/Shoulders Back
A key theme with the squat is to make sure your spine is in proper alignment. By keeping your shoulder back and your chest out, your lower back will most likely have the correct natural curve. If you instead round your shoulders and sink your chest in, your spinal alignment will be thrown off.
4) Proper Squat Technique: Slightly Arched Lower Back
As you can see in the picture to the right, the bottom of the spine (known as the lumbar spine) has a slight arch. You should keep your lower back flat, to slightly arched as you squat.
Hyperextending your lower back by arching too much, or rounding your back can put significant pressure on the intervertebral discs, which are soft gel like cushions that protect each vertebrae. If the disc ruptures because of too much pressure, a portion of the spinal disc pushes outside its normal boundary, which is called a herniated disc and may require surgery to repair. I can’t emphasize enough to make sure your lower back is flat to slightly arched throughout the entire squat movement.
5) Proper Squat Technique: Athletic Stance, Toes Pointed Out
Use an athletic stance for the squat so that your knees are slightly bent, feet are firmly planted on the ground, and toes pointed outwards slightly, which helps with stabilization. The wider you put your feet, the more it works your glutes and hamstring (back of the leg), and the easier it will be to stabilize. The closer in you put your feet, the more your quadriceps will be emphasized (the front of the leg).
One common mistake when people use too much weight is that one, or both knees will cave in towards their center. Make sure to keep your knees out and choose weight that is appropriate for your level.
6) Proper Squat Technique: Exhale Up/Inhale Down
Breathing is very important for squatting in particular because it is a challenging exercise. Improper breathing can make you light headed, or nauseous, and in extreme cases, some people even black out.
As you are lowering yourself, remember to take a deep breath in, then as you are pushing up, breathe out forcefully. Always keep this breathing pattern. Towards the last few reps, you may consider taking a few extra breaths at the top of the squat position as you are standing for some extra energy.
7) Proper Squat Technique: Depth of the Squat
The depth of the squat primarily depends on your hip flexibility. If your hips are very flexible, then you may be able to squat “below parallel” (hamstrings are below parallel with the floor) and if you have poor hip flexibility, then you will be “above parallel”.
In general, try to shoot for your hamstrings about parallel with the floor, which deeply engages your thighs, hips, and glutes. Some powerlifters will squat “ass to grass”, which I think for most people is too dangerous. If you can go lower than parallel that’s fine, just make sure you don’t experience any pain in your knees, or lower back, and always keep your lower back flat, to slightly arched.
A couple other tips to keep in mind is as you are practicing proper squat technique is to look at the profile of the squat as you are standing sideways towards the mirror. You may also consider videotaping your form as well.
I hope these 7 tips have been helpful for you, and if I left anything out that you think is important, or you have any questions, please leave a comment!