The squat is possibly the most important exercise for building strength, power and muscle. Whether you perform bodyweight squats to develop improved endurance, jumping squats for more power, or weighted barbell squats for strength, they all provide you with a great workout and fitness gains. Along with deadlifts, bench press and rows / pull ups, it is one of the 4 most important strength training exercises.
Squats work the largest muscles of the body, the glutes (Gluteus Maximus) also known as the buttocks. They also work the quads (Quadriceps) or outer thigh and other muscles in the legs (hamstrings, calves), the spine and core, being especially good for strengthening the lower back. Sprinters, martial artists, swimmers, skiers and dancers all benefit from the squat. In fact, every athlete will benefit from this exercise.
The squat looks a simple exercise to perform but requires practice and good tuition to get it right. The squat really is a very natural exercise though.
The Perfect Air Squat
Pictured above is my son demonstrating his squatting position. Not bad for a first attempt.
Young children are often seen squatting low when playing and resting naturally into a deep squat position. Often this position is close to the ideal posture for an adult too. As we grow older our hips become less flexible, making a full squat position feel unnatural (the chair is a killer!). However, with practice and regular stretching you can improve your flexibility enough to do a full squat again.
To squat, you stand with your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointing outwards slightly. Then lower your body down so that you sit between your legs. You should keep your back straight and your neck in a neutral position by looking forwards during the exercise. It is tempting to look down to check your own posture but ideally you should have someone else perform this task for you when you are first learning. Your knees should not extend beyond the tips of your toes. This ensures that your weight is kept back and also to prevent excessive pressure on the knees.
Progression to Weighted Squats
The following video takes you through the bodyweight squat which is the best place to start when learning to squat. All squats follow the same principle. Whether you are holding a barbell, dumbbells, performing a front squat, bodyweight squat or jumping squat you need to ensure that your posture is excellent and that you perform the exercise with great care and attention.
Notice how the instructor here keeps his back straight and his eyes looking forward. He then demonstrates a barbell squat.
Squatting Techniques – Avoid Injury, Be Safe
There are many opinions on what makes a good squat. Some people insist that a squat goes deep and that you should practically be sitting on the floor in the squat position while others will stop at the point when the thighs are parallel to the ground. Whichever method you chose it is very important to work on your flexibility, as this ensures that you can complete the full range of motion with much less risk of injury.
Even if you never plan to squat below the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor you should stretch on a regular basis to ensure that you can comfortably sit in the low squat if need be. The more flexible your muscles are the less risk of injury you are likely to suffer.
Another area to consider is how far forward you move. We mentioned earlier in this article that your knees should not extend beyond your toes, however, some weight lifters believe that this is OK. The truth is that no 2 lifters are the same physiologically, so what could be safe and optimum for one person could cause an injury in another. To reduce risk of injury it is important to learn what your own limitations are and work to this level.
Many professional lifters use a show with a slightly larger heel specifically for the squat as this allows you to squat deep without over-stretching. Ideally you should always improve your flexibility though, as this can eliminate the need for extra heel support. What is most important in the squat is that the drive comes from the heel first and not the toes.
Really if you plan to take squatting seriously as a weight training exercise you need to get access to the squat rack / cage that can “catch” the bar to prevent you having to go too low, especially if your muscles fail during a lift. A good spotter is also recommended.
Front Squat – For Core Strength
Front Squats are not something that you would at first associate with core strength. Unlike the standard squat where the barbell is supported across the shoulders, the front squat is done by supporting the bar in front, across the top of the chest and front of the shoulders. As you can see from the video below of Vencelas Dabaya when squatting you should aim to go very low and return immediately, while keeping the upper body solid.
The front squat engages the abs more than the back squat, which makes it a great core strengthening exercise that can be combined with one of the best big compound movements.
There are two ways to hold the bar when front squatting. The first is the cross-armed approach (which Vencelas Dabaya uses in the video below) and the other is to support the bar with a grip similar to what you would use in a shoulder press, i.e. palms facing forward at about shoulder width apart. In both cases the elbows are kept high to help guide the barbell away from you, should it fall.
With the cross armed method the bar is mostly held in place against your clenched fists. This is possibly the only weight training exercise where you are not actually holding the bar, so may feel a little odd at first. It is always wise to practice with an empty bar and then with a light weight to start with (this also acts as a warm up) to ensure that your form is good, you are comfortable, and that there are no twinges in the deep squat position that you had not noticed.
For a lesson on perfect form, just watch Vencelas Dabaya front squating 5x200kg. He was world champion in 2006 in the under 69kg category in weightlifting.
More Squat variations
There are many variations to the basic squat. We briefly mentioned a few earlier, such as the dumbbell squat and front squat. Here is a round-up of the most common squats.
- Back Squat: This is the basic barbell squat with the bar held across the upper back, resting on the shoulder blades.
- Hack Squat: Here the bar is held behind your legs. You lift the bar from the ground and stand up with the bar resting behind your buttocks.
- Overhead Squat: This can only be performed with a lighter weight. You perform the squat with the bar held directly overhead.
- Front Squat: The front squat is discussed more here. With it you hold the bar to your chest and squat.
- Dumbbell Squat: Simply hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides and squat.
- Dumbbell Front Squat: Hold your dumbbells at your shoulders and squat.
- Box Squat: With a box squat you sit down on a low box (or stool) when squatting and rest your muscles for a second before standing up again. When sitting down you site back slightly.
- Pistol Squat: Also known as the one-legged squat, you simply squat using 1 leg with the other leg stretched out in front off your body to keep it off the ground. Great for balance.
- Split Squat: Another one-legged squat, but the other leg supports the body by resting the food on a chair / bench behind you.
- Sissy Squat: This is done without weight. You need to hold onto something for support, then as you squat down move your weight onto your toes while leaning back. Imagine how people look when doing a limbo dance under a bar!
- Hindu Squat: Also called a baithak. It is a squat developed in India where you lift your heels off the ground and squat low. It is a bodyweight squat often used to develop strength and power in martial arts. Focus is on speed and endurance.
- Smith machine squat. Simply use a Smith Machine. Design to assist when no spotters are available and generally not recommended due to uneven pressure on the back and legs while squatting.
- Diddly Squat: What happens when you get tired. Now is the time to stop and rest (joke).
Regardless which type of squat you chose to perform the same basic rules apply – keep your feet set at shoulder width (or slightly more apart), toes outward slightly, knees not extended over toes, back straight and look forward. Work daily on your flexibility and never try to do too much too soon. Work with an empty bar for a while to improve your technique. Always warm up well before squatting to reduce risk of injury.
200 Bodyweight Squat Challenge
When trying to get fit and lose weight it is important to challenge yourself whenever possible. This provides you with new goals and also helps to motivate you to work harder.
One fun challenge is this simple 5 minute test to see how many bodyweight squats you can perform. This is an endurance workout that also requires good strength in the thighs. Your target should be to do 200 squats in 5 minutes. This gives you an average of 1.5 seconds per squat.
It is important that you do this challenge with good form, that is when squatting your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Anything less is a cheat and should not be counted!
All you have to do is start squatting, and squat as many times as you can in 5 minutes. If you need to stop you can, but you should not rest for more than a few seconds before carrying on.
This is a fantastic endurance workout that many martial arts workouts include as part of their training. In some martial arts systems, being able to squat 500 times, forms part of the grading at the higher levels (along with being able to do 500 push ups and 500 sit ups).
If you are not usually in the practice of doing volume based exercises, you will find that you are really sore for the next several days. However, keep working on your 5 minute squatting workout and in time your legs will become stronger and more powerful. You will probably not be able to achieve this until you have become much stronger and fitter, but it is a fun goal to aim for.
Bodyweight squats require no equipment at all, you can even do them barefooted. There is no excuse for not performing bodyweight squats as part of your exercise routine, and they will really help you to lose weight too.
Once you meet the challenge and achieve your goals you can challenge your self to do something else, such as 200 push ups in less than 10 minutes.
More Squatting Resources
This article really should be considered a very brief introduction to squatting. It is advisable to seek out a strength training or bodybuilding coach early on in your training to ensure that you do not develop bad habits.
- Barbell Squat (power lift) – EXRX.net. These pages take you through various squat variations and provide some excellent instruction on how to squat with good form.
- Squats: How to Master Proper Technique Once and For All – StrongLifts.com. This article explains why full, deep squats are safe and not ad for your knees. There is more advice on avoiding injury.