They’re sometimes referred to as the king of all exercises, and with good reason. Squats are a full-body fitness staple that work the hips, glutes, quads, and hamstrings, and sneakily strengthen the core. Squats may help improve balance and coordination, as well as bone density Weight lifted in strength training predicts bone change in postmenopausal women. Cussler, E.C., Lohman, T.G., Going, S.B., et al. Department of Physiology, Faculty of Human Movement, Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2003 Jan;35(1):10-7.. Plus, they’re totally functional. Time to banish those sloppy squats and help perfect the go-to move.
The Bodyweight Squat
Become a bodyweight squat pro, and you'll be ready to move on to weighted squats in no time! Just follow these steps.
1. Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, hips stacked over knees, and knees over ankles.
2. Roll the shoulders back and down away from the ears. Note: Allowing the back to round (like a turtle’s shell) will cause unnecessary stress on the lower back. It's important to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
3. Extend arms out straight so they are parallel with the ground, palms facing down (like your hands are on someone’s shoulders at a 7th grade dance). Or, if it’s more comfortable, pull elbows close to the body, palms facing each other and thumbs pointing up.
4. Initiate the movement by inhaling and unlocking the hips, slightly bringing them back. Keep sending hips backward as the knees begin to bend.
5. While the butt starts to stick out, make sure the chest and shoulders stay upright, and the back stays straight. Keep the head facing forward with eyes straight ahead for a neutral spine.
6. The best squats are the deepest ones your mobility allows. Optimal squat depth would be your hips sinking below the knees (again, if you have the flexibility to do so comfortably). Pro tip: Squatting onto a box until the butt gently taps it will be a reminder to squat low.
7. Engage core and, with bodyweight in the heels, explode back up to standing, driving through heels. Imagine the feet are spreading the floor (left foot to the left, right foot to the right) without actually moving the feet.
If You Like It, You Should Put Some Weight On It
Beginners should start squatting with no added weight (bodyweight only!) and up the ante only after proper form is nailed down. (We don’t all have to be like this guy.) When using more weight, it’s more difficult to squat deeper, and deep squats with less weight trump shallow ones with heavy weight when it comes to making us stronger Knee Joint Kinetics in Relation to Commonly Prescribed Squat Loads and Depths. Cotter, J.A., Chaudhari, A.M., Jamison, S.T., et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012 Oct 18..
While there are many ways to squat, three of the most common weighted variations are goblet, back, and front squats.
This squat (sadly) does not include a goblet full of wine (though we’ve found no studies disproving the effectiveness). Instead, hold a kettlebell, dumbbell, or medicine ball at the sternum (center of the chest). With a slight bend in the knees, drop into a squat, going straight down and then standing straight up (do not reach back with the butt as you would for a bodyweight squat). When performing a goblet squat, drop the elbows between the legs inside the knees for a full range of motion. Goblet squats are great for beginners (and also experienced lifters) since they keep us from leaning forward (holding weight in front of the chest makes for a stable position).
Squats are much more challenging with a barbell, so if it’s your first time, it’s best to ask for a trainer’s guidance. For back squats, the weight rests on the traps (in one of two positions: low or high), where it’s generally easier to squat a heavier load. Hands should be facing forward, along the same plane as the shoulders, with elbows pointing down to the ground (arms will form a "W" along the bar). Keep hips back, and follow the same form for a bodyweight squat (ya know, minus holding your arms out of course!). The back squat is different from the bodyweight squat in one important way: breathing. When you're squatting a barbell, inhale before you descend, hold your breath for the squat, and exhale only once you've returned to standing.
The front squat requires getting comfortable with the front rack position. When front-squatting with a barbell, this means resting the barbell just above the clavicles, right on the neck (the ends of the bar will rest on the shoulders if they're wide enough) and laying on the fingertips, with elbows up and pointed out and triceps parallel to the ground. While it may seem unstable to hold the bar with just the fingertips, the collarbone is a solid shelf for the bar, so the hands are only needed to prevent the bar from rolling. As long as the elbows stay up, extending straight out from the shoulders, the bar will be secure. For the descent in a front squat, the body will stay signifcantly more upright than it would in a bodyweight or back squat. Do not reach back with the butt (as you would with a back or bodyweight squat), as this will angle the body forward, making it difficult to stand the weight up. A great way to maintain an upright position is to think about keeping the elbows up and pointing forward throughout the movement.
The front squat can also be done with dumbbells. With one in each hand (palms facing in), rest a dumbbell lightly on each shoulder. Execute the squat, keeping the triceps raised and elbows up and pointed out.
Squat Snafus (and How to Fix Them)
Mistake No. 1: Not dropping down low enough
The fix: Take a slightly wider stance, which allows the body to stay steady while it squats deeper, and engages more muscle groups. It’s easy to want to squat just low enough so the thighs are parallel with the ground, but squats can be much more effective when we drop as low as possible (the hip joint lower than the knee joint) while still maintaining good form, Greatist Expert and trainer Dan Trink says.
Mistake No. 2: The knees drift inward
The fix: Turn the toes out (between 5 and 20 degrees, to be technical) to keep knees from caving inward. Knees should track in line with both the ankles and the hips to help avoid injury and get deep in the squat. Glute bridges and lying clams will help knees from caving, says Greatist Expert Jordan Syatt. Another way to prevent the knees from coming in is to think of the cue "knees out" throughout the movement, says Greatist Expert Erica Giovinazzo.
Mistake No. 3: The body leans too far forward
The fix: Put most of your weight in the heels when lowering into a squat. The weight distribution will help keep the torso upright throughout the entire movement rather than causing you to teeter forward. It will also help keep the hips back and down, outside of the heels. Think of spreading the floor apart by driving outward through the back/outer portion of the heel.
Mistake No. 4: Descending too quickly
The fix: When weight is added, moving too quickly could increase chances of injury. It’s okay to explode with power when returning to a standing position (so long as the body remains controlled), but sitting into the squat should be a little slower to maintain proper form.
Mistake No. 5: Not warming up
The fix: Warming up is important before taking on such a complex move. It’ll help prepare the body’s joints and muscles for movement, and might even help prevent injury once heavy lifting gets underway. Jumping rope, rowing, and doing bodyweight squats help prep the body for movement, or try glute bridges to open up hips, which will allow the body to get lower in a squat. If squatting with a loaded bar, start with an empty bar and add weight slowly.
Thanks to Erica Giovinazzo for demonstrating the movements.
Originally posted November 2012, updated October 2014.