Whether you’re a weightlifting junkie, CrossFit aficionado, bootcamp warrior or yoga lover, your workouts likely include one of the most basic movements the human body makes: the squat.
Just because squatting is something our ancestors did from the very start doesn’t mean squatting with good form comes naturally to everyone — especially when we spend more time sitting than squatting.
How can you make squats more comfortable and effective? Whether you’re air squatting, front squatting or getting into chair pose, here’s how to make the most of the movement.
If you think about squatting as a vertical motion only, it’s going to feel a lot harder to “hit depth,” or squat down to parallel or lower. Instead, think about sending your hips back before you bend your knees, like you’re going to sit in a chair. To get a better feel for this idea, grab a medicine ball.
“You should start in front of the ball, but make sure the ball is at the center of your body,” says Brooke Emory, a certified personal trainer at Fhitting Room. “Send your hips back until your butt touches the top of the ball. This ensures you have a full range of motion and have weight in your heels.” Then, stand back up. Eventually, you’ll be able to remove the ball, knowing from muscle memory that you’re going low enough.
“Head positioning is key,” says Michael Piercy, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of The LAB in Fairfield, New Jersey. “Many people will look up into the ceiling or down during squatting, causing problems with spinal alignment.” If your spine isn’t aligned properly, it can make squatting uncomfortable, and in barbell variations, possibly make you more prone to injury.
Piercy solves this problem by cueing athletes to find a focus point at eye level, which keeps the head in optimal position, and thus the rest of the spine.
“A squat should be glute-driven,” says Shana Verstegen, fitness director at Supreme Health and Fitness in Wisconsin. But many people are quad-dominant, which means their glutes don’t necessarily take on the bulk of the work in a squat.
“If your mobility allows, try to squat lower than parallel, without breaking form,” Verstegen suggests. This can help transfer some of the load to your glutes. “Also, pretend you are separating the floor with your feet as you stand. Not only with this further engage your glutes, it will help keep your knees and spine properly aligned.”
“We often think of squatting as a north-south movement,” points out Brian Nguyen, CEO of Elementally Strong. “By pre-engaging the sideways falling muscles in your core (the muscles that keep you from falling sideways), you can reverse-engineer your way into some amazing squats.
“Use an anchored superband to pull you from the waist to your right for 90 seconds,” Nguyen suggests. Then, try squatting with good form with the band still around your waist. Repeat on the left side. “Now when you squat outside the bands, you should feel like you just went from a 4-cylinder to a V8 engine with increased muscle engagement.”
For this one, you’ll need an immovable bar or table that hits about waist height. Grab the table with an underhand grip. “Applying a bicep-curling force, pull yourself into a deep squat,” Nguyen instructs. “Do this for 90 seconds and vary the tempo and amount of force you curl/pull with. The pulling turns your ‘uprightness’ on, so make like you have a book on your head you don’t want to fall off.
Add to that a cue that probably sounds silly, but can make a big difference in teaching your body to maintain the right position throughout the squat movement: “As you descend, try to make a ‘big butt,’” Nguyen says. “This will drive your hips back for improved squat positioning.”