A step-by-step guide to proper squatting technique.
Somewhere along the way, the squat—always the kind with a heavy barbell against your traps—became the demarcation line between hardcore and softcore. Make them the foundation of your leg days and you were serious. Avoid them and you were just taking up gym space. That line has grown fuzzy at best since the squat-free reign of Dorian Yates. Clearly, there are many ways to inflate your wheels to monster-truck size. And yet a loaded bar at eye level in a power rack can still separate a gym’s true participants from its spectators.
1. SET THE BAR
If your gym has a barbell that has a strip of knurling in the center, that’s a squat bar, even if it’s stranded far from the squat rack. Use it. The center knurling will subtly bite into your shirt and traps to help you keep the bar steady.
2. RACK IT
The bar should rest in the supports of a power rack at just a little lower than shoulder height so you can comfortably lift it off by standing straight. Position the safety bars so they’re just below the depth the bar is going to go. Many people leave the safeties too low, as if they’re only an obstruction to avoid. Even if you have a spotter hugging your waist and especially if you don’t, the safety bars can be your best friend if you fail and need to bail. However, that’s only true if they’re high enough that you can set the bar on them without folding yourself up like a lawn chair.
3. TIGHTEN YOUR BELT
Whether or not you wear knee wraps or sleeves is a personal choice, dependent mostly on your knee health. However, we do recommend you wear a lifting belt for at least your heaviest sets of squats. In addition to supporting your spinal erectors, a cinched belt will pull your waist in and remind you to keep your upper body tense.
4. GET A GRIP
Generally, your grip should be approximately the same width you take when you bench-press. If your shoulders are so tight that this grip is uncomfortable, you can go wider. Just understand that then the bar will be less stable. You may have seen people squatting with their hands against the collars or even over the edge of the plates, but this is not recommended for your heaviest sets, and your lighter sets should prepare you for your heaviest sets. Once you’ve set your grip, squeeze the bar, and keep doing so throughout the set. This helps you contract your shoulders and back.
5. POSITION THE BAR
It’s a given that the bar needs to be properly centered. Whether to place it high or low isn’t so obvious. If you go high, it’ll be against your traps at the top of your shoulders. If it’s low, it’ll be about two inches lower, resting on the top of your back. Traditionally, bodybuilders squat high-bar because this keeps you more upright and involves quads more. Powerlifters squat low-bar, which requires a greater forward lean. However, you need to find which style works best for your body type. Taller bodybuilders may need to hold the bar lower to get low. Also note that a low-bar position will allow you to squat 10 to 20% more by incorporating more force from the glutes and hamstrings.
6. TIGHTEN UP
Squeeze your shoulder blades to tighten your upper back. Raise your chest up. Consciously doing this will keep your torso upright and stiff, which will in turn help you maintain proper form and keep the bar locked in place.
7. UNRACK IT
Raise the bar off the supports by standing straight, and then take a step backward with first one foot and then the other.
8. TAKE A STANCE
Try a shoulder-width stance. If you can’t stay reasonably upright and get to parallel, widen your stance slightly until you find the right position for you and your body type. Generally, if you have longer legs, you’ll need a wider stance. Your feet should be angled out at 30 degrees. This means if straight ahead is 12 o’clock, your right foot should be at 2 o’clock and the left one at 10 o’clock. And they should stay flat on the floor and unmoving throughout the set.
9. FACE FORWARD
Some squatters look up to help them keep their torsos upright. Doing so is certainly superior to looking down. (Never do that with a bar on your back.) However, it’s best to look straight ahead. This is the safest position for your neck and the best way to keep your back tensed. The middle of a heavy set is no time to alter your form, so ignore mirrors after your warmup sets. Don’t close your eyes, but don’t let your reflection affect your form. To analyze your technique, have someone record your entire set from the side.
There are two schools of thought on breathing while squatting. We’ll call the first the just-do-it school and the second the hold-it school. Just-do-it prescribes that you forget about it and breathe as necessary throughout each set. Therefore, you’ll have one less thing to focus on. The hold-it school prescribes that you inhale just before descending, hold it, and exhale either when the rep is done or as it’s being completed (or if you hit a sticking point). Hold-it maintains that it’s easier to keep your torso tight if you’re not breathing. Each school has its advantages. Experiment to see which way works best for you and your squat.
11. GET DOWN
The shortest distance for the bar to travel is a straight line. This means it needs to follow a path as close to vertical as possible. However, this doesn’t mean that your back should stay vertical. Your back will lean forward as your hips go backward. In this way, you’ll be folding slightly, and that’ll keep the bar descending straight down. Ideally, it should stay over your midfoot throughout each rep. How much you lean forward is somewhat determined by your height. Taller squatters with longer legs will need to bring their hips farther back and their chest farther forward.
Your knees should come out over your feet, which are themselves angled outward, while your hips simultaneously travel backward. Your knees will stop moving forward when the bar is approximately halfway down, but they’ll keep bending as you continue lowering your hips. Meanwhile, your lower back should maintain its natural arch but not accentuate it.
12. BOTTOM OUT
How far down to go is a topic of some debate. Bodybuilders like Tom Platz, who had the roundest wheels of all time, used to go glutes to ankles, as low as they could go without digging a hole in the floor. Others have built world-class legs while never hitting parallel. Generally, however, the zone where your femurs are just below parallel to the floor (knee side slightly higher than hip side) is the target. This marks an official squat in powerlifting and can be considered a full rep in bodybuilding. Below parallel is also the hardest part of a squat to get to and get out of. That’s the reason it’s called “the hole” and why so many squatters avoid it. But its difficulty is precisely why you should go there. By breaking parallel you can be assured you’re getting the maximum muscle stimulation out of every set.
But how exactly can you be sure you’ve gone deep enough without an X-ray machine to see the angle of your femurs? A squat is considered below parallel if your hip crease (the line formed where your thighs connect to your hips) is below the top of your knees. You can have someone watch and/or film your squats from the side to monitor this. You can also practice by setting a box just below parallel and squatting down to it. After a while, you’ll come to feel when you’ve gone low enough.
13. GET UP
Getting out of “the hole” is the hard part. Never dawdle there. As soon as you hit it, get out of it. Bring your hips up and unfold your knees simultaneously. Remember to stay tight. Keep your chest up, your spine only slightly arched, and your upper back constricted. As you rise and unfold, your knees will travel backward and your hips will go forward, but the bar should stay over your midfoot the entire time. After about the halfway point, the remainder should be smooth sailing. But don’t get sloppy. Stay tight and let your knees, hips, and upper body straighten simultaneously. Some bodybuilders avoid straightening their legs fully between reps in order to keep constant tension on their legs, but the benefits of this are minimal. Lock out very briefly to complete a full squat.
Each rep should be precisely like the one before. With practice you’ll get into a groove so that correct form will come naturally and you’ll hit your target depth on rep after rep, rhythmically, like a piston rising up and down.