For many lifestyle magazines and websites, information that’s actionable for the masses sometimes means specifics have to take a backseat in the name of blanket cues and “general” guidelines that may not be quite useful for all. As a fitness writer, I’d like to do my best to start a new trend. There are a lot of myths out there that need debunking.
There are several variations of the classic squat to choose from (barbell, dumbbell loaded, front, back, split, overhead and others), but many of the same basic cues apply to make the lift a success. Let’s take things piece by piece.
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Head and Neck
When performing any squat variation, a common cue is to look up. It’s argued that this can help a lifter keep his spine taller. Though this may be true, it also misaligns the spine by extending the vertebrae of the neck. Since keeping things neutral, especially when bearing load, is the name of the game, a better cue would actually be to look down. If you’re squatting in front of a mirror, I like to tell my clients to keep their eyes focused on their knees or shins when looking through that mirror. The visual cue will also help you achieve your best depth.
Upper and Lower Back
Of course, your back needs to remain straight as a whole. The last thing we want is for the spine to go into flexion (or round), especially as you approach the bottom end of the exercise. If you find that this is happening anyway, it’s a good idea to limit your range of motion for the time being, until you can achieve greater depth with a flat back.
Hips and Legs
Often times, it’s easy to follow the cue “squat like you’re about to sit in a chair.” Again, this has some application, since it encourages you to reach back with the butt – but this is often exaggerated and promotes poor lifting geometry – especially if you’re a long-legged or taller lifter. The truth is, it depends on your proportions. What’s more important is what the knees are doing. Make sure that your knees are pointing in the same direction the toes are as you descend into the squat. In most basic cases, that will mean you’ll have to open them wide as you go downwards to maintain proper alignment. Once you’ve done this, it’ll be easier to give the butt space to travel down between. Try to keep the torso relatively vertical also, and avoid leaning too far forward. Your chest should always face the mirror in front of you, and not the floor.
“Keep the feet shoulder width apart.” I’m kidding. Really. That line is probably my most hated cue when it comes to generalized squat tips. Again, it depends on the proportions of your body. Depending on your frame, different foot stances will promote different depths, and your best depth may be achieved by way of a foot stance that’s much wider or narrower than the next person’s. Here’s the easiest way to test for it:
- Get down on all fours beside a mirror, facing sideways.
- Set your feet and knees at a certain width apart from one another and keep a flat back.
- Push your butt back to the heels by “sitting back”. You should almost look like you’re doing a cat stretch.
- As you push your butt and hips back, take a look in the mirror and note where your spine starts to curve.
- Reset the feet to a different width and try again. And continue repeating. After a few different widths, stick with the stance that gave you the closest proximity of butt-to-heels before rounding started. Take note of this – because that’s the width you should use when squatting.
Lastly, this goes without saying, but keep your heels down. Be sure to apply plenty of force through them, and you’ll effectively use the muscles on the back of your body and reduce knee and back stress.
I heard it’s bad for my knees to pass over my toes when squatting. Is that true? In short, no. In many functional environments, our knees pass forward over our toes in order to properly move. How far the knees pass forward depends both on your mobility at the ankle, and on the length of your levers. Some exercise drills (like wall squats) promote the idea that having the knees pass the toes is a bad thing, but fail to realize that it’s impossible to train someone with the wrong frame to avoid this. Check out this video for more on this.
Isn’t squatting below parallel bad for your knees and back? No. Plenty of research supports that squatting through full ranges of motion is a healthier pursuit than constantly practicing restricted ranges or half-reps. Remember how flexible we all used to be when we were children; there’s no reason why we shouldn’t attempt to recreate those levels of flexibility and mobility as best we can. For many, squatting below parallel can be risky if the lifter’s mobility can’t hold its own. On that note, start by squatting a bit shallower using the cues shown earlier in this article, and work your way down via progressions before adding a bunch of weight.
Putting it all Together
Using these pointers, and with a little practice, you should be able to squat like a champion. My favourite squat variation to make the general public more mobile is the goblet squat. It’s an ideal introductory pattern to help a new lifter learn to squat with proper geometry. Grab a dumbbell and cradle one end. Keep it close to the chest with the elbows facing down. Then, squat deep! Check out the video for a visual.
Remember that adding weight should come second place to achieving full range of motion with good form. My training philosophy asks for lifters to move well, and then get stronger while moving well. Your mobility comes first. Learn to move well using the squat, and you’ll have some of the most productive workouts you’ve ever had.