Squatting is a foundational movement we develop even before walking. Take a moment to watch a toddler play with their toys. Notice the perfect squat they drop into as they’re picking something up or spending time near the ground?
Humans naturally start squatting properly at an early age, yet some lose the proper mechanics over time and begin associating squatting with knee and back pain. When done correctly, however, the squat is a safe and effective exercise for nearly all populations.
A well-done squat is essential for sitting and standing (Think: getting in and out of a car and, yes, even using the restroom). It’s also beneficial for improving mobility and building strength to walk and run. It can aid lower body speed and power for athletes, and, aesthetically, it is the number 1 builder of backsides.
Use this step-by-step approach to learn the basics of this valuable movement, which is accessible to all ability levels.
STEP 1: HINGE BACK
The trick to learning a great squat is sitting back with your hips, rather than driving your knees forward over your toes. Your weight should be distributed throughout the soles of both feet with an emphasis on driving into your heels.
THE DRILL: BOX SQUATS
Training your squats over a box help with the comfort of pressing your hips back and down, rather than driving your knees forward. For a bigger challenge, practice with a lower box.
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart (or slightly wider). Stand 6–12 inches in front of a bench, chair or plyo box, facing away from the platform. While keeping your weight firmly on the floor through your feet, sink your hips down and back. Gently tap the box with your behind, then return to standing. Avoid fully sitting or rocking backward onto the box.
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STEP 2: DRIVE KNEES OUTWARD
A common fault in squatting is having your knees collapse inward — also known as a valgus knee collapse. This comes from a lack of hip and glute engagement. One way to recruit the proper muscles is to imagine standing on a large piece of newspaper and pressing your feet apart while still on the floor, as if trying to tear the paper in half. A miniband placed just above your knees can also be a helpful tool to teach proper muscle activation and alignment.
THE DRILL: MINIBAND SIDE WALKS
Place a miniband just above your knees. Press your knees outward over your middle toes and resist the band as it tries to pull the knees in. This is the feeling you should have during a squat, attempting to drive your knees outward throughout the movement.
With the miniband just above your knees, lower into a quarter-squat position with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Stay in the quarter-squat position and step into a wider stance with your left foot. Next, bring your right foot back to a shoulder-width distance without dragging it on the ground. Ensure your toes stay pointed forward at all times and your posture remains upright. Repeat in the other direction.
STEP 3: MAINTAIN A NEUTRAL SPINE
When squatting, the movement should occur in your hips, knees and ankles — not the torso. A neutral spine (shoulders pulled down and back, and a steady natural curve of the lumbar spine) should be maintained throughout the entire movement. This is especially true at the bottom of the squat when hips tend to tuck under.
THE DRILL: HIP HINGE
You should aim to maintain a braced core and neutral spine throughout your squat to protect your back.
With your feet about shoulder-width apart and shoulders pulled down and back, bend at the hips and hinge forward as far as you safely can. With one hand, reach around and touch your lower back. If you feel two bumps on either side of your spine, you are in a neutral position. These bumps are your erector spinae muscles, which provide support for your spine. If those bumps disappear (and especially if you only feel your spine), your lower back is rounded.
STEP 4: DROP IT LOW
While there has been some controversy around the proper depth of the squat, the correct approach is to squat as low as you can while staying pain-free and maintaining a neutral spine. The lower the squat, the more the glutes are activated, so gaining hip, knee, and ankle mobility to achieve a slightly deeper squat is a great goal.
THE DRILL: TRX SQUATS
The TRX Suspension Trainer allows you to maximize the range of motion in your squat by slightly unloading your body weight.
Adjust your TRX suspension trainer to mid-length. Stand facing the anchor point and hold the TRX handles with your hands in front of you and your elbows slightly bent. Sink your hips straight down and back while avoiding “falling backward” onto the straps. Press into the floor with your feet and return to standing.
STEP 5: PRESS BACK TO THE TOP
When you’re in the bottom of the squat, remember to “tear the paper” with your feet and fully extend your hips forward at the top of the movement.
THE DRILL: GLUTE BRIDGES
The press up from the bottom of a squat is identical to that of a glute bridge, emphasizing the importance of fully extending your hips on the top of the movement.
Begin by lying flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips off the ground. Press your hips up until your knees, hips and shoulders are in a straight line. Hold for three seconds and return to the floor.
STEP 6: PUT IT ALL TOGETHER (AND ADD LOAD, IF NEEDED)
It’s important to understand that squatting does not have to be a heavy exercise that involves dropping your hips all the way to the ground. Squats can be performed in many ways: bodyweight, in the pool, using a TRX suspension trainer, etc. Additionally, any range of motion that is safe is acceptable and beneficial.
Only after perfecting the above five steps with proper form should you add an external load, like a barbell or dumbbells.
MASTER THE MOVE
By keeping the weight in front of your body, the counterbalance created allows you to move deeper into your squat while feeling more confident with an added load.
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell against your chest. Your feet should be a little wider than shoulder-width apart with toes turned out slightly. Drop your hips straight down and back with your chest up and shoulders down and back. Pretend you are separating that piece of newspaper with your feet and engage your glutes as you press back up to the starting position.
BARBELL BACK SQUAT
Considered the “king of all lifts,” it’s best to use a spotter for squats with added weight.
Place the barbell just beneath your neck so it rests on the “squishy” parts of your shoulders. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and drop your hips down and back, while keeping the back angle and shin angle parallel to one another. Choose a depth that is challenging and safe for your knees and hips. Pretend you are separating that piece of newspaper with your feet and engage your glutes as you press back up to the starting position.
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