Align Yourself with Proper Squat Technique

People are protective of their squats. We do them because they deliver superb hypertrophy for the lower body and core if done properly.

Even if you can’t go deep, squats work the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and your abs all at the same time. It’s not suprising that people get very fixed in their ideas about the best way to squat, especially when the media perpetuates these ideas.

But form – using the correct muscles for the movement – is incredibly important if you’re asking your muscles to lift something heavy over and over. Whether it’s an on-the-spot strain or a muscle compensations (and injuries) that happen over time, improper form has major consequences. So I was surprised to learn at a recent NASM workshop that squats are supposed to be done quite differently than how most people do  them. That being said, you should listen to your body and perform squats that work around your own limitations (read on).

Fallacy #1: Keep Your Body Straight

We’ve all heard that you should keep your body straight as you go down into a squat. Unfortunately, staying upright puts a lot of pressure and strain on your lower back. You should lean forward instead of trying to stay upright and stick your butt out as if sitting in a chair. How do you know how far to lean forward? Your tibas (shinbones) should be parallel to your spine as you go down. Look in a mirror or ask someone to check you do this. As you squat down, your tibias and spine will lean forward. Be sure not to arch or round your back.

Correct barbell squat form

If you’re leaning forward, then you will actually be looking towards the floor as you go down, not straight ahead… which brings us to the next fallacy.

Fallacy #2: Look Straight Ahead

We’ve all heard that we should keep our eyes looking straight ahead as we sit down into a squat. Presumably, this so that we don’t fall forward. I recently saw a woman doing barbell squats in the gym and it made me wince. She was straining her neck to look up and it looked like a completely unnatural position. The only thing that looking forward does is cause you to arch your back and strain your cervical spine and neck. The correct position for your head is in a neutral position, in line with your spine. A way to remember: face follows sternum.

Fallacy #3: Don’t Let Your Knees Overshoot Your Toes

It’s one of the biggest injury prevention tips you’ll hear and it is completely valid for some exercises. But in squats, if you lean forward as you are supposed to, with tibia in line with torso, your knees must overshoot your toes. Since your glutes and quads will be taking most of the load (if done correctly), there shouldn’t be undue pressure on your knees. You can’t see it in the picture, but from above you could see my knees going past my toes. However…

A note about knee pain…

If you have knee issues, you should check with your doctor before doing squats. And if you have knee pain during squats, you should stop. My opinion – for all it’s worth since I’m not a doctor – is that if you have knee issues or if squats cause you knee pain, you can’t possibly have proper form (i.e., knees overshooting toes) using this technique. Without proper form you may end up straining your lower back… and then you’re stuck with bad knees and a bad back. Tip: Try ball squats, which are done with a straighter back and knees behind toes.

How to Squat Correctly

Please pay very close attention to all details about form. Even foot position is important so that you have proper alignment in your body. These instructions apply to squats with a barbell or dumbbell and front squats. On front squats you’ll find yourself in a slightly more upright position.

  1. With a barbell on your shoulders or dumbbells by your sides, stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart and toes pointing forward. Toes pointing out can cause muscle imbalances. The knees should be over the second and third toes and should stay in line with the toes.
  2. Draw in the naval to maximize stability.
  3. Slowly bend the knees and lower the hips towards the floor, sticking your rear out as if sitting in a chair. You will lean forward so that your tibias (shinbones) and torso are parallel, and your knees will overshoot your toes if you are doing it correctly.
  4. Keep your head in a neutral position and in line with your spine (face follows sternum); you’ll be facing downward towards the bottom of the squat. Go down as far as you can with good form – no arching or rounding your back.
  5. Keeping the weight evenly distributed in your feet, drive upward into a standing position.

Let me know how you like using this corrected form on squats – it feels different and may take some getting used to.

*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a certified personal trainer. This information was obtained from fitness professionals at the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

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Comments

  1. Squats- gotta love ‘em! :) After all my NASM learning and learning my own body more, I’ve discovered that my best squats are actually dumbbell squats with a stability ball. I have some neck and back issues so barbells and machines are a no-no, but these hit the glutes just right for me!
    Casey (The Hippie Health Nut) recently posted..A Day at the Trampoline Park!My Profile

  2. Nice blog article. I actually thought about this and tried it at the gym based on an earlier tweet of yours and you are right. I found that sometimes I did the squat wrong, but if I wasn’t focusing on “proper technique” or what turns out to be improper technique, my body actually aligned itself properly and naturally.

  3. Your passion for teaching this stuff is awesome. I love it. I need to start adding some weight to my squats. They’re too dang easy now. I don’t feel the burn anymore ‘lest I’m doing squat jumps. I’m open to any advice you have to make my squatties more challenging.
    Yum Yucky recently posted..Bikini Monday- Your Non-Exercise Excuses Are ValidMy Profile

  4. Awesome article squats is one that you must always do correct .hope this helps people.I personally think once you do squats correct it can help strenghth your knees that’s just my opinion happy squating people today is my leg day =)

    • Casey thanks so much for sharing your modifications.

      Brock I’m glad you’re focusing on proper technique. It can feel odd at first and I found I needed to practice it. You probably adapted right away!

      Josie, nice job recognizing you need to amp it up, and thank you so much for your sweet comment (I really DO so love teaching!). Definitely you want to progress to more weight regularly, but you can also decrease the rest times. Do you use an Olympic bar? It weighs about 45 pounds and forces a lot of stability by being so long. Another way to progress squats is to do them single-legged. That’ll burn you up quick! :)

      Ndem, that’s a great point about squats possibly helping your knees. I think this *might* apply to people who do not have knee problems… though I will check it out. Thanks so much for stopping by :) *UPDATE* I checked with my trainer friend @deb_roby, who says squats won’t strengthen the knee joint and may not be the best way to strengthen the knee muscles.

  5. just a thought:
    while doing a lifting move as part of a pre-employment physical, my knees cracked. not once, but every time. The person giving me the test asked if i had been working out at all, and if I was in the habit of using the leg sled for my quads. I was, and I did. He cautioned that as i added weight to my regular lifts, I needed to work the other heads of the quad more than i was. to do this, he said use lighter weight and point my toes IN for the movement, and then move my feet and point my toes OUT. angling my feet brought the other quad muscles into play, and created a more balanced relationship around my knee.
    now, my knees don’t crack.
    i don’t know how well this will work on a squat rack or with just a barbell. Suzanne, what are your thoughts? And I, too, admire your ZEST for teaching!!!!
    gene @boutdrz recently posted..Humidity and HydrationMy Profile

    • Woot Gene, I’m so glad you got that figured out. There are ways to fix knee problems and I’m not knowledgeable in that area. When I had knee pain walking up and down stairs years ago I was told to strengthen the medial part of the quad, and it did help. I would venture to guess that squats would NOT be used to recuperate a knee; there are exercises that hit those quad muscles specifically and with less risk/strain.

  6. @Suzanne: Welp, the bar is in the garage. It’s brand new for over 4 years now when I bought it for hubby as father’s day gift. He still hasn’t used it, but since garage is also the man cave, it’s off limits to me. Can’t access the bar. Grrr!

    I’m doing squats maybe 4X week, so I will do more one-legged squats. You’re right. They do burn me out fast but it didn’t click in my brain to do them more frequently. doh! (and thank you)
    Yum Yucky recently posted..Bikini Monday- Your Non-Exercise Excuses Are ValidMy Profile

  7. …and since I’m all up on your blog right now, do you have any good exercises to target the inner thighs with no equipment?
    Yum Yucky recently posted..Bikini Monday- Your Non-Exercise Excuses Are ValidMy Profile

  8. Wow..since I’ve been doing a crap ton of squats it’s nice to read something to tell me how to do them right. :)

    As always, you ROCK, sistah..
    ragemichelle recently posted..Techno GiraffeMy Profile

  9. agreed! squats can be stressfull, as you’ve pointed out.
    keep up the great work!
    gene @boutdrz recently posted..Humidity and HydrationMy Profile

    • Josie – As a matter of fact I did post about inner thigh sculpting awhile back (http://workoutnirvana.com/sculpting-your-inner-thighs-and-glutes/). Definitely don’t recommend thigh adductor machines. And, since I’m here…. squats 4x a week is a bit excessive, oh fellow beast. As I preached before, you could end up with pattern overload, i.e., jacked up knees. 2-3x a week is good, and don’t forget to mix it up with other leg exercises which I’m sure you do… there’s lots of variations of squats but throw in lunges, leg press, etc. xoxo

  10. SheBANG! UBER GREAT POST! Love the info – love the pics – always so smart and helpful! Soooooo can’t wait for your help and guidance next week – woooot! But lest we not forget the altitude thing – I get a handicap, right????
    Kris @Krazy_Kris recently posted..Too Darn Hot With Ella Fitzgerald Music MondayMy Profile

  11. I have always paid no attention to the knee/toe line. Primarily not due to spinal position, but that’s a relative thing — from an engineering perspective.

    From person to person the relative length of torso, femur, tib/fib, and foot are all different. That is, with a strong relative difference between any of these, the knee-toe line is just empty space.

    Also, the slight lean forward places the shoulder joints directly over the ankle joints, which distributes the majority of the load perfectly over the hip/glute area. An engineer find the math in that, and math is never wrong — at least in the non-quantum world.

    BTW: This is your best, most informative post yet!
    Emergefit recently posted..EM2 Linder…My Profile

  12. Oh gracious, squats are killer for me, haha! You are rockin’ them, though!
    Rach recently posted..My Sister Came to Visit!My Profile

    • @Kris – You just have a way with words, girlfriend. Thank you <3. I can't wait to see you!
      @Roy – So interesting coming from someone who is so intuitive about training. I love hearing your perspective. Thanks as always for sharing and thank you for your very generous words xo
      @Rach – :) Yes, they can be killer but also pretty mellow if you use less weight and try different variations. Love it when you stop by, thanks :)

  13. Good post. Thanks for sharing.
    One of my major issues with squats is I have tight muscles in my shins and tendons in my heels so I can’t go down very far unless my legs are really wide or my heels are raised up somehow.(Like, I literally find it easier to squat in high heels! It’s weird)

    • This is an excellent question. If your calves and shins are tight (or any muscles), then indeed your form will suffer in various ways. Please don’t do squats without first foam rolling your calves, TFL/IT band, piriformis, and even lats. There are videos online but here are two articles, one of which I wrote on the subject: http://fitblogger.ca/flexibility/ and http://www.livestrong.com/article/82717-exercises-using-foam-roller/. I highly recommend buying a foam roller for home. The ones at the gym are usually too soft.

      After you’ve foam rolled (if you are that tight you should do it every day or every time your work out), do a few static stretches, to stretch your calves, hip flexors, and glutes. Again you can find these in my article or online. Remember that if you can’t have proper form, you’re better off not doing an exercise, but foam rolling and stretching can fix these problems nicely :).

  14. I’ve recently started doing weighted squats and found that my lower back was KILLING me. Like, not just the muscles were working, but they were cramping up. This is perfect timing for me, because I find myself spending a lot of time focusing on making sure my knees don’t go past my toes and not enough time making sure my back is in the correct position. I’ve also found, after asking some of the instructors at the gym, that focusing on holding my abs in makes a big difference.

    • I’m so glad you’re being careful with your back and form. If it ever hurts definitely don’t do it. Is it better now? Drawing in your naval is excellent form bc it stabilizes your back and entire core. Let me know how it’s going!

  15. The photos are super helpful – thanks!!

  16. Having taken and passed both the CES and PES I recognize how your shins and back should line up. What I was not aware of , but totally makes sense to me is the neck position. Pretty much every exercise you do should have your head in a neutral position so I probably should of known this. I do have a question. I have read research and viewpoints on both sides. How far do you squat down. Some say squatting down to only 90 degrees is hard on the knees. I have read that it is better to do a full squat instead. If you think about it that is really a more natural position. As a small child this is a very natural position. Do you have any thoughts on this? Also I have found teaching squats starting from the bottom is very helpful and just a more natural way for people to learn how to squat. This eliminates the feeling of falling back that many experience when learning a squat starting at the top.

    • Hey there- NASM says to squat down “only as far as can be controlled with compensating.” They imply that you should start with three-quarters position and go lower as your range of motion and strength improve. This is only if there are no compensations. I’ve heard of starting at the bottom (with little or no weight), which may be a good option for teaching people how to stay on their heels. I suppose good knees are also a requirement for this :). Many people have little real glute activation going on and need to start with chair or ball squats. Thanks for stopping by, love the convo.

  17. Hey Suzanne-

    I notice that you don’t mention anything about proper squat depth. Also it appears that you are significantly above what would normally be considered a full squat (hip joint below patella) in the photos you’ve provided. This is unusual to say the least coming from a strength and conditioning coach. What’s your reasoning behind not insisting, as most of us strength coaches would, that anything less than below parallel doesn’t count? I’m very curious.

    Take Care,
    Rob

    • Hi Rob! I should probably update the post a bit. I wrote it after attending a NASM workshop and was still pretty green as a trainer. Not that long ago, granted, but I’ve grown a metric shit ton as a coach since then. I appreciate your observation, however… Yes, squat dept is important. I never bother squatting any weight with which I can’t go parallel or slightly below. But as the excellent coach I’m sure you are you’d surely agree that blanket generalizations are a bit irresponsible. Those with hip or ankle mobility issues could create even more problems by trying to go ATG. Overall, though, we agree: squats without proper depth are a waste of time.

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