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.
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.
- 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.
- Draw in the naval to maximize stability.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.