The MacDaddy of fitness, the king of all exercises, the god of all lifts.
Call it what you want, but the squat is the best lift for athletic and physical development, period.
No matter the type of sport that you’re in, a healthy dose of squats will take your game to the next level.
And unlike what most people say, squats are a perfectly safe, if you know how to do them correctly.
In this guide, I’m going to show you how to squat for best possible muscle gains, without killing yourself in the process. Everything you need to know, covered from A to Z.
Get ready to unleash the power of the squat.
Why squats are awesome
Squats are awesome because they work your body as a whole.
Quads, hamstrings, lats, abs, erector spinae … you name it, squats work it. From big muscles to small ones, there’s virtually no muscle that’s left intact after a round of heavy-ass squats. Squats do not discriminate.
The picture below shows which muscle groups work the most when you squat.
I’ve already said this a gazillion times, but if muscle mass is what you want, big compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and pull-ups should be the bread and butter of your workout routine. The more muscles a lift works, the stronger the muscle-building signal will be.
And despite what people are saying, squats won’t snap your spine in half. Not only are squats safe (when done with good form), but they’re actually good for your health. Here’s a couple of benefits for doing squats:
- Heavy, high rep squats increase your cardiovascular capacity.
- They help you strengthen your knees.
- Squats help with the recovery of the injured muscles (light strains).
People who claim that squats are bad, are just weak cowards. Cowards, who are afraid of their own freaking shadow. Don’t be a coward, do squats.
And here’s a newsflash for you: mother nature designed our bodies to be good at squats. Just take a look at toddlers. Whenever they want to pick stuff up from the ground, they instinctively assume a deep squat position.
And just think about the last time you were out camping. The best way for you to take a dump, was to assume a full squat position. Yes, pooping in a full squat position is the best way to poop, because this allows the puborectalis muscle to fully relax, thus allowing the colon to empty quickly and completely.
Hopefully now you can see, that squats are a perfectly safe exercise.
Equipment you need to squat safely
Let’s talk about equipment.
No matter where you work out, you need to be able to squat safely, alone. That’s why I want you to train in a squat rack or a power rack. They’ll allow you to drop the weight on the safety pins, in case you get stuck in the hole (the bottom position of the lift).
Squatting inside a power rack or a squat rack will also give you a psychological advantage since you won’t have the fear of “What if I get stuck at the bottom position?”, therefore you’ll have more guts to go into a set and own the weight.
Every gym worth its cash, should have some kind of equipment, that will allow you to squat effectively – power rack, squat rack or at the very least, a pair of squat stands. If your gym doesn’t have these basic training tools, then find a gym that has them.
If you’re doing squats with squat stands, it’d be a very good idea to get a spotter.
Power rack, squat rack, squat stands … what’s the difference?
The picture below, will help you get the difference between a power rack, a squat rack and a squat stand.
Next, you need a barbell and a bunch of weights. We’re talking about barbell squats after all. Squats with free weights, beat machine squats any day of the week, because with free weight squats, you must use all of your muscles (big and small) in order to keep the weight in its place. With machines (e.g. smith machine), the role of stabilizing the bar is taken upon by the machine, leaving your smaller stabilizer muscles out of the game.
Doing squats on just machines can be potentially dangerous, since small, stabilizer muscles won’t get worked as much as the big ones. This leads to overly developed major muscle groups and under developed stabilizer muscles, which is a recipe for injury.
But what if I’m not able to join a gym due to [insert-reason-here] … is there a way for me to train squats effectively at home?
I’m not going to lie to you, but if serious mass is what you want, then you need to do squats with a barbell. Goblet squats, air squats and other squat alternatives that don’t involve a barbell simply won’t be give you a big enough muscle building stimuli.
Get yourself an Olympic barbell set and a squat stand. I found some great deals for you:
Both things should cost about $700 and they’re a great investment if you’re serious about training at home. With an Olympic barbell set, you’ll be able to do all of the exercises required to develop an awesome physique (e.g. deadlift, military press, bent over rows). And it’ll last you for a life time.
One squat to rule them all
There’s a ton of different squat styles known to man, but the most popular are:
- High-bar squat a.k.a. the Olympic squat
- Low-bar squat
- Front squat
The high-bar squat a.k.a. The Olympic Squat
The thing about the Olympic squat is that the bar sits higher on your back (the meaty part of your traps, see picture). This will allow you to keep a more upright torso thus putting more emphasis on your quads and less emphasis on your lower back and hamstrings.
The Olympic squats will have you squat till your thighs go below parallel.
And this type of squat requires you to have a narrower foot stance.
Olympic squats are best done with weightlifting shoes.
The low-bar squat
The low bar squat, as the name suggests, has you placing the bar lower on your back. The optimal place for placing the bar on the low bar squats is between your rear delts and your traps.
The foot stance is a little bit wider than shoulder width and your feet are pointed outwards at an angle of approx. 30 degrees.
While your quads are still very much involved, the main focus with the low-bar squat is placed on your posterior muscle chain – glutes, lower back and hamstrings.
Low-bar squats will allow you to lift more weight, due to a lower center of gravity.
The front squat
Once you move up the squat ranks, you should try the front squat.
Front squats are great for athletic development and for showing off any weaknesses or imbalances you might have.
Some of the most common reasons why people suck at front squats:
- Poor flexibility in the wrists.
- Poor flexibility in the thoracic spine.
- Weak upper back muscles.
With the front squat, the bar should rest on the groove of your front shoulder muscles. Front squats might be a pain to do at first, but once once you get more time under the bar, you’ll get better at them.
With the front squats, your torso is basically almost vertical, which means that the quads will take on a lot more work and your hamstrings a little bit less.
And what’s nice about front squats is that they allow you to go deep with more ease.
Weightlifting shoes or any shoe with an elevated heel (firm sole) is kind of a must for this lift, since a lot of people don’t have the flexibility in their ankles to do the front squat with good form barefoot.
Which type of squat should you do?
For people that are new to the squat, I believe that the low-bar squat is the best way to go, since – in my opinion – it’s the easiest version to learn and will let you handle bigger weights.
Once you learn how to low-bar squat with good form and hefty weights, I’d highly encourage you to explore other squat styles (especially the front squat).
How to squat (step-by-step)
Learning how to squat is no rocket science. By the time you read this article, you’ll have all of the know-how to become a squat ninja. But in order to become a true squat ninja, you’ll have to spend a lot of time under the bar – no way around it.
But before you do one rep, you first need to get your muscles warmed up and ready to fire. This is done with activation and mobility drills. Activation drills will wake up your nerves and get them ready to fire, while the mobility drills, will help your muscles achieve a better range of motion.
There are a ton of mobility (dynamic stretching) drills on the web. I’ve gone through them all and pre-selected, for your convenience, the five best mobility and activation drills that will give you the most bang for your buck.
Squat to stand with overhead reach
- Pull yourself into the bottom position
- Push the knees out with your elbows
- When in the hole, focus on pushing your chest out
- When you reach up with your hand, you should feel the stretch in your upper back
- Keep your eyes on your index finger as you lift your arm up
Thoracic spine mobility with a foam roller
Side step with hamstring stretch and overhead reach
- I like to first do the leg stretches and then the overhead reach
- In the bottom position, push your hips down and your chest up
- When you extend your leg, go for knee lockout to really get a good stretch in your hamstring
- When you reach up with your hand, you should feel the stretch in your upper back
- Keep your eyes on your index finger as you lift your arm up
- Don’t worry, you’re not actually dislocating your shoulder
- If you don’t have the flexibility for this drill, use a wider broom/grip
Glue bridges with leg raises
- Focus on squeezing your glutes tights
- Hold the butt squeeze for a second or two
And now that you’re all warmed up, it’s time to smash the squat rack.
The squat has three phases:
- The setup
- The eccentric phase
- The concentric phase
The bar should be resting between your traps and rear delts.
Your hands should grip the bar approximately the same width you’d have as in the bench press.
During setup, your elbows can flare back a little bit in order to create that shelf for the bar to rest in, but as soon as you’re ready to start the set, you should bring the elbows in. Upper back must be really tight.
Before you unrack the bar (very important when you’re moving big weights), push your chest out, take a big breath and and unrack the bar. Holding your breath while unracking the bar, will help you keep a stable torso.
The stance for the low-bar squat, should be wider than your shoulder width, since the low-bar squat requires you to use your hips. A wider stance will allow you to open up the hips as you descend into the bottom position.
The screwdriver tip – think of screwing your feet into the ground. This will help you create a stable hip position and it’ll be easier to push your knees out.
The head should be looking at a fixed point in front of you.
Before each rep, breath in through your belly and hold your breath during the lift. This will help you increase the intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure, which will keep your spine in a more stable position
The lowering phase
Start your lift by breaking at the knees and then sit back with your hips as you’re going down towards the bottom position.
As you’re going down, flex your hip flexors – pulling yourself down with your hip flexors will take some load off of your quads and glutes during the eccentric phase and it’ll also allow you to better explode from the hole.
Make sure to push your knees out as your going down since this will help you reach the bottom position, without rounding your back.
The lifting phase
Once you reach bottom, you want to explode back up with control in order to make good use of the stretch reflex.
Make sure that the bulk of the weight is carried out through to the floor via your heels.
Push yourself up in an explosive manner yet still controlled. End your rep by locking your knees and thrusting your hips forward (you do this by squeezing your ass really tight).
Once you’re at the top, exhale and get yourself ready for the next rep.
That’s it … you’ve successfully completed one rep. Now just do all of the reps in a set and you’re going to send your body a very powerful muscle building signal, guaranteed.
To put everything into practice, here’s me doing a set of low-bar squats.
It takes a lot of practice, if you want to get good at squats.
First, you want to nail down the form and once you got the form down good, it’s time for you to work on your squat strength. When you’re a squat newb, it’s a good idea do squats every day, just for practice’s sake. But as soon as you start to lift heavier weights, take the frequency down a notch (three to four days per week).
For big legs, I found that high rep squats work best. A rep range from 10 to 15 is a great start and once you get some feel for the lift, you’ll be able to see if a lower rep range suits you better. Pick a weight with which you’ll be able to do ten reps, but no more than fifteen reps.
With each workout, try to add one more rep to your set. Work your way up, until you reach the top of your rep range. And once you do that, bump the weight up for your next workout by 2.5 percent and start again with the low end of your rep range.
Here’s how this looks like in real life:
- Workout #1 – 10 reps @ 200 lb.
- Workout #2 – 12 reps @ 200 lb.
- Workout #3 – 15 reps @ 200 lb. (next workout, bump up the weight by 2.5% which is 5 pounds)
- Workout #4 – 10 reps @ 205 lb.
- Workout #5 – 11 reps @ 205 lb.
If you squat for more than one set, lower the weight by ten percent for the next set. Let’s say that you squat for three sets, here’s how you should drop the weights:
- First set: 12 reps @ 200 lb. (lower the weight by 10%)
- Second set: 15 reps @ 180 lb. (lower the weight by 10% and for the next workout, bump up the weight of the second set by 2.5%)
- Third set: 12 reps @ 162 lb.
And if big legs is what you want, then make sure that squats are the first lift of the day. You’re the most fresh and strong at the start of your workout, which means that you’ll be able to use a lot more weight compared if you put squats last in your workout. The more weight on the bar, the better the muscle building signal.
Practice. Practice. Practice. That’s the key to a big squat.
And don’t forget about the diet and sleep. You can’t outlift a bad diet and bad sleep, so make sure that most of your foods are wholesome and that you get at least eight hours of sleep per night.
Troubleshooting common squatting problems
A lot of folks who start with squats, will no doubt have some issues that will prevent them to squat with good form. This is due to years of bad health habits, poor posture, sitting too much, etc. But fortunately, with a bit of work, you’ll be able to squat with good form in no time.
Below is a list of three most common squat issues and how to deal with them.
If you can’t squat deep, you most likely have tight hamstrings.
The cure for this issue is to work on increasing the range of motion of your hamstrings. This is best done with a small, dense ball, like a baseball or a lacrosse ball.
To check which part of your hamstring is most tight, stand up with straight legs and bend over to touch your toes (you can elevate one foot, like I did in the pic below in order to really isolate the stretched hamstring). As you reach for the toes, you should get the feel for which part of your hamstring tightens up the quickest and stops you from touching the ground. Put your finger on that spot.
Sit on a firm surface like a wooden bench so that your legs can hang from the edge, without touching the ground. Lift one thigh and place the ball under the tight area of your hamstrings. Move your torso a bit forward to apply pressure on that tight spot and then flex your quads, to bring the leg up.
You should feel your muscles move and expand around the ball. Place your hands on the leg worked, to hit those tight knots with some extra pressure. Use as much pressure as you can handle.
Do five slow reps for each leg.
This will help you fix those tight spots that hurt your ability to squat low.
Limited ankle mobility
A quick way to test whether your ankles are lithe enough for squats, is to assume a full squat and do a squat on one leg a.k.a. the pistol squat. If you can’t switch from foot to foot, without toppling on your ass, then you need to work on your ankle mobility. Check the video below to see, how you can check the mobility of your ankles.
If you found out that your ankles are not mobile enough, this is a great drill to increase your ankle mobility.
If you don’t have an elastic band, you can do the exercise below, but I highly recommend that you buy an exercise band.
Knees caving in
This is a really common problem with beginners, especially when coming out from the hole. This could be due to weak hamstrings, weak adductors, weak glutes or a combination of all three things.
But more than weak muscles, I think it’s just a bad habit, that’s easy to fix with this cool tip. Just take an exercise band and double it up around your knees. As you sit back/down, make sure to keep your knees out.
This drill will help you root in the habit of knees out, guaranteed. You can do this drill every day, for three sets of as many reps as you can handle.
For a beginner there’s really no need for any kind of squatting accessories. I’d even suggest you lift barefoot in order to get maximum power output. With that said, there are a couple of things most people should know about, when it comes to squat accessories.
When you start to lift heavy ass weights, it’d be a good idea to wear a lifting belt on your heaviest set. Belts help you protect the spine, by increasing the amount of pressure that can be applied to the spine by the muscles that support it.
Good lifting belts are those kinds of belts that are the same width all around (usually four inches).
It’s highly recommended that you perform squats with your t-shirt on and not your tank top. The t-shirt covers more skin area and this is a good thing, especially when you start to sweat. Sweaty skin is slippery and that’s not good to keep the bar in place.
Stay with 100% cotton shirts or 50/50 poly/cotton because fully synthetic stuff is slick under the bar.
As for the shorts, always wear something stretchy, because you don’t want to inhibit your range of motion. Either wear pants that stretch or baggy stuff that won’t restrict your range of motion.
If you’re doing the low-bar squat, then there’s no need for special shoes. Just use a shoe that has a firm, flat sole – like good ol’ Chucks – or even better, lift barefoot.
If you’re doing the olympic squat or the front squat, I’d highly recommend that you get hold of some good weightlifting shoes. You can try and look on Amazon or eBay for a good deal (used shoes), because the price for new weightlifting shoes start at around $200.
Just please, never do squats with shoes that have a soft sole (air or gel fill). You’ll get hurt if you wear those things.
I think that everybody should do some basic self-maintenance work on themselves.
The drills I showed you before, are great for this task.
Here are the top three things you’re going to need for doing maintenance on yourself:
You can get all of these things for cheap and they’ll last you for a lifetime. Talking about a great investment.
You need to track your lifts. If you don’t do that, then you won’t have a clue of how much you’ve squatted the last time you were in the gym. You’ll never build muscle mass unless you’re making some kind of progress – more reps, shorter rest periods, more weight lifted, etc.
If you own a smartphone, you can get hold of an app like Gym Hero, to track the lifts that you do.
But with all that tech stuff and what not, I still use a plain notebook and pen to jot down my lifts. Call me old school, but I just like the idea of being able to write whatever comes to my mind, while I work out.
The things you need to track are:
- Sets for each exercise
- Weight used for each set
- Reps for each set
- Rest between sets
Credit goes where credit is due.
Most of the stuff I learned about squats was taught to me by a bunch of cool dudes on the internet. And I think it’d be a fair deal to give those guys a shout-out. They very much deserve it and I suggest you check more of their stuff.
First and foremost, I’d like to thank Jonnie Candito from Candito Training HQ for making videos about squats with tons of value in them. He has an awesome YouTube channel which I highly recommend.
Eric Cressey is the Chuck Norris of the fitness world. Joking aside, Eric is the president and co-founder of Cressey Performance, and he also has a personal blog, where he has a ton of articles and videos about how to get stronger and improve your athletic performance. You can check it out by clicking here.
Kelly Starrett is the king of all supple leopards. He wrote the bible about how to perform self-maintenance on yourself called Supple Leopard – strongly recommended. You can find out more about Kelly on his website Mobility WOD (wod stands for workout of the day).
Mark Rippetoe has a great book written about the subject of getting stronger titled Starting Strength. In his book he shows you how to do all of the basic lifts – squat, deadlift, bench press and other lifts – with good form. If you’re interested to know more about the subject of strength training, than this is your book.
More squattin’ less talkin’
We can talk about the perfect squatting form all day, but to tell you the truth, no amount of reading and researching will help you as much as actually doing the squats.
Now that you’ve read everything, it’s time for you to head out to the gym and bust out a few sets of squats.
Get as much practice under your belt as possible.
Good luck and stay strong.
And if you’ve enjoyed the article, I’d love for you to share it on social media. Below is a link to share it on Twitter … click on it, to earn the gratitude of the squat gods ;)
“Squat 2x your body weight or more w/ this guide: How to Squat — The Ultimate Guide http://nobrainermuscle.com/how-to-squat/ via @dejanantic” – Click to Tweet
PS: As always, in case you have any questions, feel free to ask me anything in the comments section below. I’d also love to hear how squats helped you gain muscle mass or if you got injured doing them.
Let’s get this conversation started.
Photos: Gregor Winter
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