5 Ways to a Better Squat
Do you wish to strengthen your core while improving postural stability? How about building more strength and muscle from head to toe? Is improved athleticism among your training goals?Whatever your target, there is one exercise that should be front and centre of your current training programme: the squat. A highly technical movement universally hailed as the king of exercises, the squat is equal parts challenging and rewarding. Despite its undeserved reputation as being the exclusive preserve of extreme athletes, from powerlifters to bodybuilders, this unsurpassed, multifunctional movement will in fact work wonders for almost anyone – of almost any shape, size or training inclination.
Though most of us can, and should, squat, it’s pointless and indeed potentially harmful to do so without first learning proper technique. Squatting incorrectly may not only de-emphasise certain muscles, thus rendering it less effective, but may also set the lifter up for serious injury (back backs and knees being common among those who squat recklessly). To extract each of the many benefits from this all-in-one muscle-builder we should instead ensure that three key criteria are met: the stability to control the movement through a full range of motion, the mobility to reach the proper position, and the mental fortitude to maintain correct form when the body feels like giving out. The best way to achieve all of the above is to learn how to squat effectively and to practice this movement consistently and with complete concentration. From elite athletes looking to improve performance to newbie lifters looking to add size and build strength, the squat gives maximum bang-for-buck. Here are five ways to improve your squat so that you too can enjoy its many benefits.
1. Nail the Essentials
Almost all squatting advice is to do with establishing correct form. Though different rules may apply when it comes to different levels of experience and training goals (for example, an elite level powerlifter will taper their squatting workouts and focus more on the specifics of hoisting mammoth poundages), all who squat must master the basics. Here, four simple rules apply: chest up, hips back, back slightly arched and knees out.
But first we must properly position the bar. Rack the bar at just below shoulder height so you have to bend at the knees slightly in order to both un-rack and re-rack it. Keep the weight positioned across the trapezius muscles of the upper back (create a little “trap shelf”) and pull the bar into these muscles while tightening the back (engaging the lats) and maintaining maximum core tension.
On the descent be sure that the knees do not move forward over the toes and that the heels do not leave the ground. Press with the heels on the ascent (as if you are pushing the floor away) and do not lock out at the top (keep the knees slightly bent to maintain continuous tension on the quad muscles and to avoid knee injury). By keeping your weight on the heels, rather than periodically transferring it to the balls of the feet, you can be sure that your knees will continue to stay behind your toes throughout the movement.
Doing all of the above through a full range of motion can be extremely difficult, so it is therefore important to keep training weights manageable yet challenging enough to produce results. Never exceed your lifting capabilities within a rep range of at least 8-12 (at least in the beginning stages). Add weight gradually in line with your burgeoning strength but not at the expense of perfect form. Finally, treat each rep as its own set: rather than viewing 12 reps as one set of 12, instead consider this ‘set’ to be a series of 12 singles. This way, you’ll avoid the common mistake of looking past each rep, eager as you will often be to ultimately achieve the coveted number 12. You’ll thus focus more on each rep, thereby deriving maximum benefit
2. Go Low
There is no firm consensus as to whether an athlete or gym newbie must squat all the way down (or, as it is frequently described, Ass to Grass – ATG). In fact, some coaches suggest only going to parallel (upper legs parallel with the ground) or slightly below in the interests of injury prevention. If a lifter is very tall and/or lacks core strength and/or cannot maintain a “tuck” in the lower back (a slight arch) then, yes, full range squats are best avoided. However, once these problems are addressed with proper coaching, consistent practice and additional strengthening work (height notwithstanding) then full range squatting is the only way to go. Here’s why.
As with any training movement, full range squatting provides a complete stretch on the downward, muscle-lengthening phase (or eccentric contraction). It is when a muscle is fully stretched that maximum growth can occur and a greater number of performance benefits can be achieved (more muscle microtrauma, greater dexterity and improved hip and ankle flexibility to name a few). Full squatting also builds more total muscle in the lower body (including the hard to target hamstrings) while forcing the whole body to work much harder to power the weight back up from the bottom (which results in more upper body mass, as well).
It stands to reason and is clearly evident that a full squat, as opposed to a partial squat, is much more difficult to complete. As such, more muscle fibers will be called on to complete the job. The result: more muscle and greater neuromuscular efficiency. If all that wasn’t enough, the single most effective way to build an impressive booty is to squat ATG. Take home lesson: regardless of your existing capabilities, you must learn how to squat full range in order to achieve a greater range of gym and fitness benefits. You’ll also look better naked (or partially clothed).
3. Knees Out
It was mentioned earlier but it bears repeating: always squat with the knees out. To achieve knees-out positioning, your stance should be a little wider than shoulder width, with feet angled slightly outward (not facing in or forward). When extending from the bottom of a full (or even partial) squat, the knees often have a tendency to buckle in. This is especially apparent in beginners and when lifting weights in excess of 75% of a one repetition maximum (in other words, heavy!). However, by allowing the knees to cave in (otherwise known as valgus collapse), poor lifting mechanics will be reinforced and injury is likely to occur at some point. As well, hip and posterior chain development (primarily the hamstrings, glutes and lower back) are compromised whenever the knees drift inward. Tension will also be removed from the quads. Have an expert analyse your squatting technique and make any necessary adjustments.
4. Strengthen the Core
Proper squatting technique requires a straight torso. Falling forward mid-squat or, even worse, rounding the back can only lead to poor results (at best) or injury (at worst). The best way to ensure that the torso stays tight when squatting is to maximise core strength. The core (primarily the abs, lower back and hips) responds best to the following three movements: abdominal crunch variations, a hip extension movement (such as the good morning or hyperextension), and the second most effective movement of them all, the deadlift. Pick those that work best for your individual body type and be sure to include each of these movements in your training routine. Your improved core strength will translate to improved squatting technique and superior progress.
5. Proper Breathing
Getting your breathing right can be the difference between a successful set of squats and, by contrast, poor form and subsequent endangerment of the lower back and knees. Always begin your squat by taking a deep breath and then, if needed, continuing to inhale on the descent. Upon reaching the bottom, forcefully exhale as you begin to ascend. Some people get it back to front and thus compromise their form and ability to exert maximum force. By exhaling on the way down you’ll lose tightness in the midsection and lower back. So, as with all movements, always exhale on the way up (or, upon achieving a positive contraction of the working muscle). By establishing the correct breathing pattern, rather than breathing haphazardly (the default setting for most beginners), you will improve strength output, increase training intensity and promote relaxation and recovery.
You Now Know Squat!
Easy to avoid but impossible to replace or replicate, the much-heralded squat continues to hold prime position as the most effective training movement on offer. A lift that outworks all others to build muscle, add strength and improve performance, it’s one that must be part of your training plan, but only if you want more progress in a shorter period of time. Now, armed with the essential requirements and several key training tips, you too can achieve your fitness goals faster via this unsurpassed lift. It’s time you spent some serious time under the bar; that is, the squat bar where you’ll experience rubber legs as a result of hard disciplined effort, rather than social lubrication.
About the author
David Robson is among the world’s leading health and fitness writers. He has written for Bodybuilding.com, Gym & Fitness, Muscle & Fitness and EliteFTS among many other publications. David is also a leading trainer and is President and founder of the New Zealand Wheelchair Bodybuilding Federation (NZWBBF).