Mastering the Fundamentals: The Squat

greg everett

The squat is easily the most contentious exercise in fitness and athletic training, ranging from the greatest exercise ever created to the most dangerous depending on whom you ask. Some people find the topic of squat safety interesting; I’m not one of them. If you’re curious about the science of squatting and its orthopedic safety, there are better places to go to assuage your fears. As a weightlifting coach and weightlifter, my athletes and I typically squat in some form every day.

As you can guess, we’re not afraid of getting hurt by it.

The squat is foundational to athletic strength training. The majority of effective training will involve some kind of squatting movement in one form or another, and squatting strength and mobility provides a base for producing ground-based power, absorbing the force of ground impact, and joint stability. It also produces butts that are nice to look at, if that sort of thing is a concern for you.

Determine Your Purpose

How exactly you perform the squat depends on what you’re using it for. How you squat for weightlifting (i.e. performing the snatch and clean & jerk) will often be different from how you squat for general fitness. Personally, I’d prefer fitness enthusiasts to squat the same way weightlifters do if and when possessed of the adequate mobility, but I’ve also been accused of having unreasonable expectations of people.

In all cases, the goal should be to eventually squat to a depth below parallel—that is, the crease of the hips reaching a level below the tops of the knees.

This is actually healthier for the knees, contrary to popular notions, and will ensure that more of the legs and hips are involved in the movement.

For most individuals, this depth will be sufficient indefinitely, and may for many take time to progress to through a combination of improving flexibility, stability, and strength.

If you intend to eventually perform the Olympic lifts, you’ll need to work toward an Olympic style squat—this means literal rock bottom with the knee joint closed as much as possible with the back still set in a proper arch and the feet flat.

Stance

What we’re looking for in the squat stance is fairly simple but very important. We want to ensure that the knees are hinging properly—not being rotated—and that the legs are positioned such that the hips can move properly—allowing the individual to sit into the proper depth without forcing the pelvis out of position, which forces the spine out of position. And, of course, our stance should ensure a squat free of pain or discomfort. Stances will vary among individuals based on factors ranging from current mobility status to the shape of the pelvis and femur and their interaction (the former can be changed; the latter cannot).

To find a beginning stance, place your heels just outside hip width and turn your toes out to whatever degree feels comfortable (within reason—generally this means about 10-30 degrees from the centerline).

Once you begin squatting, make minor adjustments until you establish a stance and width that keeps each thigh parallel with the corresponding foot—in other words, your knees hinge correctly without any twisting—and allows free movement in the hips—that is, you don’t feet any compression, pinching or other indications that the movement of your thigh is being restricted.

Sitting into the Bottom Position

In any squat, you’ll be aiming to maintain the balance over your feet just slightly behind the center—just slightly more pressure on the heel than on the balls of the foot. You’ll also need to take a deep breath and pressurize your trunk to stabilize your spine in its neutral arch throughout the movement. Additionally, you need to keep your knees moving in line with your feet—don’t allow them to move inside or outside the toes to any significant degree.

If you’re going for the entry-level or fitness squat, our bottom position is just below parallel. In order to maintain balance and distribute the load well among all the muscles of the legs and hips, you’ll be sitting the hips back somewhat. This doesn’t mean leaning way over and sticking your butt so far back that your shins are vertical. Unless you have very big feet and very short femurs, your knees will still be at least a little farther forward than your toes in the deepest position. You should feel tension in your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors—not any of these dramatically more than the others.

Sit the hips back slightly as you bend the knees, lowering yourself at a controlled speed and maintaining constant tension throughout the legs until you reach the bottom position. Keep your head up and your eyes straight ahead.

As you reach the bottom position (crease of the hips below the top of the knee), you should feel increasing tension in the glutes and hamstrings in particular. Begin standing again by using that tension to change directions, continuing to squeeze your abs. Keep your head and chest up as you stand, maintaining the balance across your feet.

If you’re ambitious and are shooting for the Olympic squat, how you start is important. Rather than beginning by sitting back with the hips, bend simultaneously at the knees and hips to sit more directly down into the bottom position. You still need to maintain slightly more pressure on the heels than on the balls of the feet, but you’ll be attempting to maintain as upright a posture as possible without sacrificing the balance over your feet.

Maintain your trunk pressure and keep your abs tight so that as you reach the bottom of the squat, you remain rigid and can maintain your upright posture as you change directions. When first learning, maintain a deliberate speed into the bottom position. When you have sufficient mobility to sit in all the way until your hamstrings are on your calves, your trunk rigid and back arched properly, and your weight balanced properly over the feet, you can learn to use the bounce in the bottom to improve the speed of your recovery.

Practice the bounce first by sitting into the bottom of a squat and gently bouncing a few times a few inches to feel the elasticity of your legs in this position. When you have a feel for it, squat from the top at a controlled speed until reaching about parallel depth, and then accelerate into the bottom, bracing your trunk tightly, catch the bounce you practiced, and drive back up immediately, leading with your head and chest.

Keep in mind that both the Olympic squat and the bounce, in particular, should be used only if you possess the requisite mobility and have the back and abdominal strength to maintain a rigid trunk throughout the movement.

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