THINK YOUR SQUAT FORM IS ON POINT?
The squat seems easy enough, right?
I mean all you’re doing is putting your butt towards the ground, then standing back up. You do a squat movement every day when you’re sitting down to eat, taking a seat at work, or hitting up the restroom.
Sure, it’s a loaded question, but if traditional squats are so easy to do, why do so MANY people screw them up?
How is such a simple range of motion so damn technical?
I’ll tell you why: The little things matter… A LOT!
And don’t get me started on all of the squat variations like split squats, goblet squat, and single-leg squat. Sure, form can be tricky, but the benefits of weighted squats far outweigh the potential negatives. It’s not like you should just stop doing squats, especially if your goal is bigger leg muscles.
Learning how to squat with proper form is one of the most fundamental places to start if you’re trying to make pain-free gains in your legs.
The squat is one of the best functional movements, which means it does more than just improve leg strength. It strengthens your joints, reduces your risk for injuries, and improves your hip hinge movement pattern.
Maybe most of you know the basic squat. You might even know the common mistakes to avoid.
BUT there’s a really good chance you are making the mistake I’m about to talk about.
And guys, listen up: This sneaky and common mistake is one that you MUST fix. This one squat flaw is the most subtle but it’s the one that can cause the most damage to your knees and back if you keep doing it!
HOW TO DO A PROPER SQUAT: THE BASICS
Let’s review how to perform one of the best functional exercises: basic weighted squats.
Then I’ll discuss the squat mistake that can do some serious damage to major muscles if not fixed.
Before you begin the barbell squat, make sure that the barbell is at the right height on the rack. You shouldn’t need to go on your tippy toes to retrieve the bar.
Most importantly, skip the heavy squats for now to focus on form.
The bar should go across your traps. Don’t lay it across your neck.
When you flex your upper traps, they create a nice shelf for the barbell to go.
As you get into the starting position, step under the bar, and put your feet shoulder width apart. Make sure your entire foot is on the floor. Don’t let the heel or ball come up.
The barbell should also line up with the center of your foot.
If you have a stance that is posterior dominant, or where the barbell is too far back, you’ll feel this right away.
It’ll feel like you’re being pulled backward, and that’s the last thing you want as you’re doing the squat exercise.
Proper squat form requires that you keep your head up. Not so much so that you’re staring at the ceiling. You also don’t want to be looking at the floor.
Focus on a neutral position, one where you can look straight ahead.
You’ll maintain this head placement throughout the exercise.
ANGLE OF YOUR BACK
Keep your back angled slightly forward but straight.
You should feel confident holding a barbell on your back throughout the entire movement. You shouldn’t be worrying whether your back is arched or about to collapse.
DIRECTION OF THE KNEES
As you descend, your knees will go to or beyond 90-degree angles. Think about pushing the knees to the outside. Your knees should NEVER move inward toward one another.
If your knees cave inward, an easy fix is to perform squats with a resistance band looped just above the knee.
This will help to train the muscles and correct those muscle imbalances and weaknesses.
Proper squat form requires you to keep your elbows tucked throughout the movement.
A nice bonus is that when the elbows are tucked, this help you engage the traps to form that shelf I discussed above.
Think about a Superman stance with a strong upper body. The shoulders are back and, most importantly, the chest upright.
If you’ve done everything else correctly, you’ll notice that your chest is already here; it’s sticking out.
LINING UP THE FEET
When you squat, your feet should be on a line with the toes pointed out.
Before you squat down with that barbell, you better make sure that you have square feet.
THE ONE MISTAKE YOU’RE PROBABLY MAKING
Now, even if you nail all of these squat position checkpoints, there’s still one thing that you could be doing dramatically wrong.
You can still mistakenly allow your hips to open up.
When this happens, it creates a rotational torsion on the pelvis.
Here’s the scary thing about this common exercise mistake: your feet won’t have to change position for you to open up your hips.
BIGGEST SQUAT MISTAKE: NOT SQUARING HIPS
This can lead you into a false sense of security where you think you’re performing the movement correctly but you’re not.
It might be very small in absolute motion, but this can lead to biomechanical changes in your squat that can cause hip, knee, and back pain over time.
And here’s the thing: This is a very easy issue to develop because we’re all asymmetrical people.
Too many people have to sit all day and they develop imbalances in the muscles around their hips. Others have an actual leg length imbalance that will cause something like this. But the torsion that’s going on here is a very common problem.
This is a bad position for your knee, especially if you count up all the reps of squats that you’re doing. And this also applies to deadlifts and other lower body exercises as well.
HOW TO MAKE SURE YOUR HIPS ARE SQUARED
So, you want to make sure that your hips are squared off just like your feet, chest, and shoulders.
How do you do that if it’s already something that you can’t perceive?
Even worse, how can you correct this if it’s already something that your body has adapted to?
In order to fix this squatting mistake, you have to consciously contract your glutes before every repetition of the squat.
SQUEEZE YOUR GLUTES
I squeeze my glutes together as tight as I possibly can, and that levels off the hips. This will correct the alignment of the pelvis and make sure that your hips are not left open prior to the descent.
A lot of guys will come up from a squat and kind of hang out, but they never achieve full extension. Go the extra mile, contract the glutes into full extension, and that’s going to set your hips properly so that everything’s in line.
If deadlifts are a part of your barbell lower-body workout, then you should already be used to this. The deadlift makes it easier for us squeeze the glutes and move into full extension.
Think about that squeeze at the end of a deadlift when doing your squats. It takes just an extra second per rep but will pay large dividends to both your joint health as well as the gains you can see from your leg workouts.
One of the best ways to make sure you’re performing a squat correctly is to record yourself.
You can set up a camera or a phone, or have your buddy or a personal trainer record you so you can watch the downward motion and the movement pattern as a whole.
I recommend doing this every leg day, especially if you’re currently struggling with keeping your hips square.
Stick to light weight and focus on proper form. Keep yourself safe by leaving the ego at home.
Remember, when it comes to lifting and strength training, it’s the little things that matter. And this really hits home when we’re talking about the proper form of a squat.
Using this small correction in how you move your hips, and not only will you correct some of these biomechanical flaws you have, but it’s going to allow you to lift more weight.
Guys, my focus is on putting the science back in strength training.
I want to make you stronger, more functional, and athletic. And if you guys want a complete program to help you do that, check out my ATHLEAN-X programs.
- The squat is one of the most important compound lifts you can do, but it’s also one of the most difficult lifts to get right.
- Even if you have perfect form, there’s one common squatting mistake that you’re probably still making: opening up your hips.
- When your hips are open, you are at a greater risk of injury, especially in the knees and lower back.
- To correct this, make sure to squeeze your glutes after every rep to reposition the hips.
- Record yourself performing squats from a side angle to make sure you’re achieving proper form and full extension.
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.