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!
Oh right… number 6…
Good stuff…. especially #5! I never knew that the closer in you put your feet, the more you hit your quads. I have to keep that in mind. Thanks!
Breaking down the squat this way makes it more likely to do them right. I also like learning why you should do each step. Just like Pat I did not know the closer in the more you hit the quads.
I need to do squats but have been afraid of injuring my knees.This helps a lot, can’t wait to try it at the gym.
Seeing the video really helps me with my form. Now I know why I have had problems with my knees.
Hi: I am a 77 year old woman in reasonably good health but with a lot of belly fat. I am 5’6″ and weigh l50. I exercise with a personal trainer 2x weekly. What do you recommend to get rid of the belly fat.
Hi Rita, working out 2x per week with a personal trainer sounds like a smart idea. Getting rid of belly fat is primarily a nutritional issue, although exercise is essential as well. If you have a personal trainer is knowledgeable about nutrition, you may want to talk to him/her in more depth. If that doesn’t work, you may consider seeking the help of a nutritionist. I’ve had a couple basic nutrition articles on BuiltLean.com that if you haven’t read them yet, you should check them out:
Harvard Nutrition Guide:
Get Lean Eating At Restaurants
7 Reasons to Keep a Food Journal
Best of luck!
My 15 year old son is working out with his football team for the fist time. They do a lot of squats and cleans. His knees push inward when he squats and cleans. what can he do to prevent this? Any muscles he can strengthen to help?
@Jason – My suspicion is that he has weak glute strength. For much more, check out this article/video: How To Increase Squat Depth. Lightening up the weight and getting full depth is one effect way to strengthen the glutes to prevent the knees from caving in. Also give him the cue that there is a paper towel underneath his feet and the he is trying to rip it apart sideways as he squats.
Hey Marc I do yoga about once every week, and I stretch almost before and after workout everytime. But even still when I squat my lower back hurts, despite all the stretching. It feels like overtraining. I had to rest for a few minutes before continuing. Not sure if I have any problems with the erector spinae area but I am worried about how to train my legs without squatting/lunging. I’m not too sure about how much to “arch” the back, since I believe I’m overarching a bit to get power
@Donald – It sounds like you need to see a physical therapist or very knowledgeable personal trainer who can do some “movement screens” on you. A possibly better option and one that I highly recommend is seeing a doctor. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and they might after some great recommendations for you. I think a combo of a doctor + physical therapist is probably your best bet.
New techniques are actually breathe in as you push up.have you heard of this sports science principal as Iap is stabilized
I really like the fact that you promote squats as the “King” of all exercises. I am a competitive Powerlifter of 7 years and I do know, squat. Everyone who trains with weights looks for the quickest / easiest way to become stronger. There are thousands of specialized pieces of equipment clogging up commercial gyms all over the world claiming to do just that. The secret to effectively gaining strength is to consistently Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. Every muscle in the body is taxed when doing these exercises. The reason people don’t train the big three is because they HURT. Suck it up and get under a bar and the rewards will be plenty. Thanks for spreading the word.
A very useful article. What about the weight itself? Doubtless this figure varies for every person, but nevertheless what should be considered when choosing a weight which will both give results and will not be hazardous for the spine.
dmytro – That’s a great question and one that is not easy to answer. It completely depends on your fitness level and whether or not you are using proper form. One person may be able to do a perfect squat with very heavy weight and minimize pressure to the lower back, whereas another may use little weight and maximize pressure to the lower back. Also consider the different types of squats like a back squat vs. a front squat. A front squat puts a lot less pressure on your lower back.
Just a comment. I took a crossfit boot camp class last summer, and a friend of the owners that was visiting was a German guy who had trained under one of the USSR Olympic trainers. While I was working on full squats and power lifts, one of the tips he gave me was to do a front squat with a kettle ball. It worked amazingly well and where my heels use to come off the ground as I went down, I could now do an ‘ass to grass’ move.
I still feel a large pressure in my lower back when I do back squats that does not give me warm and fuzzzies so I avoid them (I prefer deadlifts anyhow – keeping form is much easier 🙂 ), and my knees go in at times too – I will try the towel advice next time I squat. Thanks!
@Kris – Thanks for sharing, Kris. I also really like how kettbell front squats work your core big time!
Another one I just ran into. Do squats facing a wall. I tired it, and it will keep you upright (or else your face smacks the wall) but I found it to not be very visually friendly ;b
What a great tutorial. I’m referencing your page in my blog in a posting tomorrow.
@Tasha – Sounds great!
Hi there Marc
I found your article/tips most helpful – thanks.
A few questions if you will:
1) This morning, as I was training for about an hour, I did 15 sets of 20 repetitions (and in between, jogged in circles in the stadium), but I used no weights. Do you find it more efficient to reduce the number of repetitions from 20 to say 10, but use some dumbbells ?
2) What kind of exercise would you recommend to warm up before starting this training ?
3) I suppose I am not the most flexible fellow in the neighborhood and felt a bit imbalanced while doing the exercise. Can I support myself by holding a fixed object such as goalposts ?
@Tal – Here are my answers:
1) It’s more efficient to use weight from the perspective it will take you less time for similar results. You could consider alternating the rep ranges, so doing both high and low in the same workout, or on separate days.
2) Dynamic Stretching and Foam rolling