Not all squats involve holding a heavy barbell near your upper back. In fact, if you've never done squats properly before, you're better off starting with the bodyweight variety to avoid injury. Even without added weight, doing squats with good form allows you to strengthen the quadriceps muscles of your thighs and work your gluteus maximus, the soleus of your calves and part of your hamstrings.
The Hip Hinge
There's one big piece of the squat that a lot of people miss, and without it, you'll tend to experience more aches and pains in your knees. The "hip hinge" is essential for a proper squat, helping you to more easily use your hamstrings, glutes and quads to do the squat. Without it, you are likely to lean forward and place weight on your knees. To practice the hip hinge, stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and tighten your abdominal muscles. Throughout your squat, maintain that tight core. Place your hands on your hips with your fingers touching your hip bones. Then, press your fingers backward and "hinge" your hips backward -- essentially angling your hips backward -- and then bend forward slightly at the torso as you bend your knees.
The hip hinge is the first part of doing the squat with proper form, so practice the hinging part until you can do it while maintaining a flat back. Then move onto the full squat. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed outward slightly. Hinge at the hips and bend your torso forward as you bend at the knees. Keep your chest high as you lower yourself down until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Your arms can move slightly in front of your body for balance. You might have heard that you shouldn't let your knees go beyond your toes, but a little bit of forward motion is actually OK. Since you're hinging at the hips, you'll be less inclined to shift your weight toward your knees. Just don't let the knees buckle in toward one another. Press your heels into the floor. If you can't keep your heels on the floor, go as low as you can while still keeping them on the floor.
Repetitions and Sets
Get out of the "low" pose by pressing your heels and toes into the floor, maintaining a flat back and strong torso, and standing up. Keep your hips hinged until you're almost completely standing. If you're new to squats, aim to do one set of 10 repetitions -- but stop anytime you're unable to maintain proper form. Do your single set of squats three times a week on non-consecutive days. After two weeks, increase your set to 15 repetitions. After another two weeks, do two sets of 10 repetitions and then increase to two sets of 15 repetitions after another two weeks.
Adding repetitions and sets is one way to continue to challenge your muscles and to continue to see muscle growth, but another way to add intensity is to try single-leg squats one day a week. Get near a wall, as these can be difficult and you may need to hold the wall for balance. Start with your feet about hip-width apart, in a split stance with your left foot slightly in front of your right. Sink your weight into the right foot, lifting the left foot and leg off the floor slightly as you place your arms out in front of you for balance. Tighten your abdominal muscles and hinge at the hips, bending your torso forward and bending your right knee to lower your right thigh to parallel with the floor. Aim for five repetitions of this squat variation at first. For a little more stability, you can also stand with a weight bench or chair behind you, placing the top of the unused foot on the top of the bench as you squat with the other leg.
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