The Proper Way to Do a Squat, According to Experts
Squats are a popular functional exercise that can work your entire body.
And they’re not just for powerlifters!
Let’s take a deep dive into this compound movement exercise covering the benefits, the different muscle groups worked, and the proper form for performing this move to protect your back.
We will then cover 7 variations you can add to your fitness routine today!
What Are the Benefits of Squats?
There are numerous benefits to squats. As you can tell, you can potentially work your entire body with this one exercise.
But it goes a little deeper than that.
Squats strengthen your muscles and knee joints. They burn fat which in turn, promotes weight loss. They strengthen the lower body and improve the flexibility of your lower half (1).
Squats aren’t just for building muscle mass. This exercise is categorized as “functional fitness” (2).
This means the functional movement of the squat mimics a common movement pattern you perform in your everyday life.
Think bending and lifting. These daily tasks are a good reason to start squatting now!
Functional fitness emphasizes stability in your core and trains all of your muscles to work together.
Squats are time efficient, can prevent injuries and because they can be performed as a bodyweight exercise, they don’t require equipment (2).
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
Squats are deceptive. As you can guess, they target your lower body like your leg muscles but they also sneakily work your core muscles and your upper body.
Let’s take a closer look at the muscles squats work to get you closer to your fitness goals (3)!
First, let’s start with the muscles of your lower body.
Squats target your quadriceps. Commonly called your quads, these are the large muscles in the front of your thighs.
Next up are your glutes. This muscle group is part of your posterior chain and made up of your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata, aka your TFL.
Your adductors are located in your inner thighs while your hamstrings are on the back of your thighs.
Moving down, you’re also working your calf muscles. Your calves are made up of 2 muscles: your gastrocnemius and your soleus.
To keep your posture, you’re also going to need your erector spinae.
These are the tendons and muscles in your back that surround your vertebral column in your torso.
These run from your lower back to your neck through all 3 sections of your spine: lumbar, thoracic, and cervical.
Moving up your back, you are engaging your upper back and your latissimus dorsi, aka your lats.
These connect your shoulders to your hips.
You also need your abdominals and obliques to control the movement in the squat.
To make this a full-body workout, you can add weights to target your arms as well!
More on that later.
What Is the Proper Form For a Squat?
As a personal trainer, I say this all the time. Proper form is imperative for any exercise that you perform. Full stop.
As a lifter, using good form will prevent injuries, encourage proper breathing, and work the muscle groups that you are actually trying to target (4).
As a squatter, you want to keep your knees in line with your feet.
You also want to keep your weight in the balls of your feet. This will prevent you from tilting forward.
With that in mind, you keep your heels connected to the ground throughout the entire movement.
Lastly, straighten your back and keep your posture upright in a neutral position.
Remember these as we move into how to perform a proper squat.
A common mistake is if your body leans forward.
A lack of mobility may also hinder your ability to perform the full range of motion. Work with your body.
The Basics: Proper Squat Form
Note: be sure to warm up properly before attempting the squat exercise.
- First, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your toes should be slightly pointing outward.
- Straighten your arms in front of you at chest level so they are parallel with the ground, fingertips reaching.
- Your gaze is forward.
- Slowly start to bend at the knee joints, sending your hips back by hinging at the hip joints.
- Keep your chest up and back muscles straight. Retract your shoulder blades and tap into your core strength.
- When lowering, your trunk will remain parallel with your tibias (aka your shin bones) and your knees will stay in line with your feet.
- Take a deep breath. Lower until your quads are parallel with the floor.
- Pay attention to your knees, they should not pass the front of your foot. Both feet stay firmly planted on the ground throughout the entire exercise.
- Press firmly through your feet and thighs returning back to the starting position by unfolding the front of your body.
- Your shoulders and hips will rise at the same speed (4). That is 1 repetition.
Still unsure of the squat depth? Shorten the range of motion in a partial squat or try the hack squat on a Smith machine!
7 Squat Variations
For all of the variations below, please refer to the correct form guide above to set up your squat.
Don’t add too much weight to start, work up to a heavy load. You can use kettlebells, medicine balls, or free weights to build strength.
Feels like a bit much? Use resistance bands instead!
There are other variations not covered here such as jump squats, sumo squats, split squat, and variable resistance squats.
Consider these after mastering them below.
Regardless of the option you choose, continue to focus on proper form for the best squats and powerful muscles.
1. Bodyweight Squat
The bodyweight squat is also known as the air squat or traditional squat.
It is the classic version of this effective exercise that utilizes just your body weight to achieve results.
For to perform this variation, follow the instructions below.
- Start in a standing position in which your body is upright and your spine is neutral.
- Position your feet slightly wider than your shoulder-width, toes turning out, and keep your legs straight.
- Hold your chest up and place your hands on your hips or raise your arms straight out in front of you, palms facing down.
- Breathe in and hinge your hips back by bending at your knees and hips, allowing your hips to ease backward.
- Keep your spine neutral and ensure that the bend in your knees follows the line of your feet.
- Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor ( or further if you have good hip mobility).
- If you are experiencing knee joint, ankle pain, or any sort of issues, control the depth of the squat. Do not lower past 90-degrees into a full squat (2).
- Pause, then return to the starting position.
2. Dumbbell Squat
Adding weights to this exercise is an effective way to target your arms.
- Stand up straight and hold evenly weighted dumbbells in each hand, palms facing your legs. As you lower, let your hands track down your calves.
- Position your legs using a shoulder stance with the toes slightly pointing out.
- Keep your chest up high and look straight ahead for the entire exercise.
- Sit your hips back as you flex your knees to squat down. Ensure that the bend in your knees follows the line of your feet.
- Continue squatting down until your thighs are parallel to the floor ( or further if you have good hip mobility and flexibility). Pause, then press through your heels to the standing position.
- Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions. Aim for 10-12 reps for 2-3 sets.
3. Front Squat
For this variation, you’ll need to use a barbell with the weight of your choice loaded onto a squat rack. It should be level with the middle of your chest at the front of the body.
- Step into the rack and lower into a quarter squat. The bar will be touching the front of your chest and shoulders.
- Continue holding the bar, bending at the wrists, and bring your elbows forward and high. They will stay here for the remainder of the exercise.
- Stand to remove the bar from the rack.
- Take a step back and get into the starting position. Bending at the hip flexors, move through your desired number of reps (6).
4. Overhead Squat
- Grab that barbell again for the overhead squat.
- This time, instead of having the barbell across your chest and shoulders, raise the bar over your head with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Spread wide through your clavicles. Your arms will stay in this position for the remainder of the exercise.
- Complete your reps and sets.
5. Pistol Squat
Take it up a notch with the pistol squat. This is an advanced exercise that not only works your legs but challenges your balance.
- Start by standing on your right leg. Stretch the left leg out in front of you without a bend in your knee.
- Your left leg will remain in the position throughout the movement.
- On an exhale, lower into your deep squat until your right hamstring is touching your calf. Pay attention to your ankle mobility.
- Your left leg will be parallel to the ground. Pause.
- Then press firmly into your right foot, using strong core muscles, as you rise back to the starting position.
- Keep your arms extended in front of you if you’re a beginner. This will help you keep your balance.
- With experience, you’ll become comfortable enough with the exercise that you can consider adding free weights.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
6. Goblet squat
Goblet squats require holding a kettlebell.
- To perform, hold the kettlebell by the handle with both hands, in line with your chin, elbows pointing downward.
- Set yourself up for the standard squat position with your feet about hip-width apart.
- As you squat, both elbows will stay to the inside of your knees, past the top of the knee.
- Perform your desired number of reps.
Don’t have a kettlebell? Substitute with a free weight or medicine ball. For beginners, don’t start with a heavy weight. Work up to the heavier weight by mastering the basics.
7. Barbell Back Squat
- To start, set up the barbell on the squat rack so that it is at the same height as your upper back.
- Take a firm grip on the bar in the rack, hands comfortably wider than your shoulders. Duck beneath it and stand up with your feet directly under the bar. The bar should rest high on the back and shoulders.
- Slowly straighten your legs to push upwards, lifting the barbell off the rack and take one step back.
- Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, and toes pointing outwards slightly. Hinge your hips back, bend at the knees with your spine in a neutral position.
- Keep your abs engaged as you lower your body down slowly until your thighs are parallel to the floor. At the bottom position, your body should be at a 45-degree angle. Make sure your toes are in line with your knees.
- Push up through the heels to straighten your legs, hips, and knees until you are back at the standing position. Hold the bar in place as you perform your squat reps.
- Repeat to complete 8-10 repetitions for 2-3 sets.
Do Squats Make Your Butt Bigger?
The short answer is not quite.
While the lower portion of the squat will do work the muscles in your haunches, it takes a variety of strength training to increase the size of your butt muscles.
Also, remember that every body type is different and each body has different needs for muscle development.
Train your entire body, not just your glutes and you’ll be on your way to a bigger backside in no time (7)!
How Many Squats Should You Do a Day?
You can do squats daily if you’d like but that’s not the most efficient plan.
Ideally, you should aim for proper squat training 3 times a week, completing three sets of 10 – 20 repetitions.
This will provide your body with much-needed rest to recover for peak athletic performance. (2)
How Many Calories Do Squats Burn?
As we’ve covered above, every body is different. There are many factors that determine how many calories your body burns in a workout.
These include your age, weight, muscle to fat ratio, etc.
Focus on proper form in your workouts to build muscle. For each pound of muscle you gain, your body can burn up to 50 – 70 calories more. (2)
That being said, increase the weight you’re using in your squats to build muscle, lower your risk of injury and accelerate your metabolism.
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