The squat is an essential exercise for anyone who is serious about weight-lifting. Although the squat is a fundamental movement, it is easy for beginners to get it wrong. Here are 11 top tips to get you in the right direction and make the most of this compound movement.
#1. Feet flat
A few people squat on the balls of their feet, lifting their heels off the ground. Often, they are unable to do otherwise or they would lose their balance. When you squat, your feet should be flat on the ground for maximum stability. To prevent your heels lifting off, adopt a wider stance, even a sumo squat if necessary. Alternatively, you can place weight discs under your heels. However, this is not as stable as the feet flat on the floor. Also, this new position will minutely place emphasis on your front quads. But if this what you want, you are better off doing front squats.
#2. Back arched
The back plays a crucial role in the squat as it transmits power from the thighs to raise the bar. A rounded back is a no-no at all times. Remember to keep a slight arch in your back as you bend your knees. Lean forward and push your chest out. This has the benefit of opening up your ribcage and allows you to take a deep breath. Don’t lean forward too much otherwise it will become a good morning exercise and with the weight, place way too much stress on your lower back.
#3. Weakest link
The squat is a compound exercise that involves many more muscles than just the quads. If any of these muscles become weaker than the rest, you will not be able to make any more progress. Just like in a chain, your squat is as good as its weakest link. If you have a weak lower back, it will hamper your progress. So you are advised to strengthen your weakest muscles.
Conversely, your quadriceps may become so powerful that they are hardly tired in the squat because other muscles like the back give up first. In that case, pre-exhaust your quads in an isolation exercise like the leg extension. Then move on to the squat.
Breathing is crucial in the squat to get the most out of it. As with all other weight-lifting exercise, you breath out while exerting the effort. So when squatting, breath in as you lower yourself into position. Hold your breath as you push up and exhale forcefully as you go past the sticking point. Your breath plays an important role in keeping pressure in your abdomen and your core rigid. Sometimes you may have to catch your breath between two reps as the squat is such a demanding exercise.
#6. Head & knees
Look in front of you at all times. It not only helps you maintain your balance but also keeps your spinal cord aligned with your body.
Don’t lock out your knees at the top of the movement but keep them slightly bent to keep tension in your quads throughout.
#7. Knee alignment
I also see some people, especially those with pencil-thin legs, closing their knees together as they reach the bottom of the movement. Never do that because it creates shear forces on your knees and you could get a long-term injury. Always keep your knees pointing forwards or slightly outwards during the exercise. In fact, your knees should be aligned with your feet. If your feet are slightly pointed outwards, you don’t want to have your knees face inwards. This would mean your legs would be twisted.
#8. Feet width
Adopt a narrow stance to place emphasis on the vastus lateralis, the external part of the quads and a wider stance for more emphasis on the vastus medialis, the teardrop muscle on the other side of the quads. Or just place your feet in a position that is most comfortable to you. Note that the narrower your feet width, the less you will be able to lift.
#9. Your abs
Did you know that the squats work out your core muscles, including your abs? If you do heavy sets of squats, you might not need to do any ab exercises. In fact, with the extra calories burnt during the squat and the your metabolism still highly active afterwards, the squat is perhaps the best way to get a six pack!
#10. Go deep
Finally, don’t pile on the weight only to squat down by a few centimetres. If you don’t work your muscles their full range of motion, they will shorten and you will feel stiff and inflexible. You might have heard that going too deep can place too much stress on the knees. There is no clear consensus on this so to be safe, I go all the way down till my hamstrings touch my calves when warming up and with heavy weight, I go until my thighs are parallel to the floor.
#11. Onto the next level
To push yourself to the next level through plateau, load the bar with more weight than you can squat, unrack the bar and squat a few centimetres as I advised not to. This is does not count as a set or even a squat but merely to get your body used to handling very heavy weights and to know how it feels.
Image attribution: ironworkout.com