Many videos on YouTube, and much of the squat advice found online, will treat the squat with a one-size-fits-all approach. These “squat tips” often miss the mark because the squat is not a one-size-fits-all situation.
There are definite squat rules that should be followed, but squat tips must be taken with a grain of salt. Or in this case, a grain or two of knowledge.
A Tale of Two Squats
Some people are natural-born squatters. Meaning they have the ability to put a bar on their back and just, well, squat.
You might think to yourself, Squatting isn’t that hard, what’s the big deal? Sure, just about anyone can step up to a squat rack, heft a barbell onto their back, and squat. But just because they squat that bar doesn’t mean it was successful.
A successful squat = execution with good form
In my personal experience, squatting was not an easy thing. It took me years to master this move, but I’m so glad I finally did.
Leaning forward at the bottom of the squat, only squatting a quarter of the way to parallel, and rounding the back, are not the makings of a successful squat. In order to get the most out of the exercise, and avoid injury in the process, a few guidelines should be met:
1. Maintain a straight bar path
When descending into the bottom of the squat, the path of the bar should not veer forward of, nor behind your center of mass (COM), but instead travel straight down.
The center of mass where the squat is concerned is located at the middle of the foot. Maintaining a straight bar path over mid-foot yields a more successful squat, and lessens the possibility for injury.
When the bar path drifts forward, your weight shifts forward onto the balls of the feet, throwing off the balance of the bar in relation to the COM.
Because the bar is now in front of your center of mass, the squat will be more difficult to complete as your body must expend extra effort to do so. Hello, sore knees and lower back. When the bar remains over mid-foot throughout the squat, it will be far easier to successfully complete the movement.
2. Squat to parallel or lower
The parallel position in the squat is marked by the crease of the hip falling slightly below the top of the knee. Parallel is often incorrectly characterized as the back of the legs parallel to the floor at the bottom of the squat.
When performing the squat it is important to reach at least parallel before coming back up, otherwise it’s just a partial squat, which is very hard on the knees. Partially squatting creates a shear on the knees because, as the knees and tibias are naturally forced forward during the descent, there is no counter balance provided by the action of the hips dropping low. So most of the stress of the partial squat lands squarely on the front of the knees.
Squatting to parallel or lower is actually good for the knees. Many times trainees are advised to avoid the squat altogether, which stems from the blanket assumption that squats are damaging to the joints. But in actuality, the squat, when performed correctly, not only is the safest leg exercise for the knees, but also produces more stable knees than any other leg exercise does. (1)
3. Maintain a neutral spine
Throughout the squat, the back should be kept neutral from the tailbone to the crown of your head. A slight arch in the back is acceptable, if kept to a minimum. But rounding of the back is never okay. Rounding occurs when the squatter is trying to achieve a lower depth than their flexibility will allow (lumbar flexion), or when the back is just not strong enough to handle the load on the bar (thoracic flexion).
Cervical extension–looking up–during the squat is not recommended, as a neutral spine is the safest position while moving a heavy load. It is often thought that an upward gaze will help the lifter get out of the hole (bottom of the squat), when in fact it actually hinders the action.
Looking up during the squat can pull the chest, knees, and hips forward slightly, which could potentially throw off that all-important bar balance discussed earlier. Instead of looking up, pick a point a few feet in front of you, keeping your head in line with the spine, and focus on that point throughout the squat.
It’s all Relative
While all of the form rules above should be followed, this is where the squat rules and “squat tips” part ways. Often new squatters are given the same advice as the next person. But no two squatters are alike. This is due to differing body proportions. For instance, two people may be coached to sit back into the squat, like sitting onto a chair, but the results of each squat can and will look different. One person might maintain a straight bar path and successfully complete the movement. But the other person might not achieve depth (parallel or lower) at all, because in order to do so the bar would drift behind the COM, making the squatter fall backward.
Body Mechanics & Leverages
The reason natural-born squatters are successful without much effort is due to their ideal body proportions. They have leverages that enable them to squat straight down without wavering from their COM. Most often you’ll find these ideal squatters have a shorter femur length in relation to the length of their torso. This is what enables them to make the squat look so effortless.
Those of us with longer femurs (or comparatively longer) compared to our torsos, end up having to basically fold over in order to maintain our COM. If you’ve ever tried to squat with an upright torso position and felt like you were going to fall backwards, it’s pretty safe to say you might belong in this group. Welcome, we have coffee and snacks on the table at the back of the room. Help yourself.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with folding over while squatting if that’s how the bar must travel in order to remain over the mid-foot. Most long-legged folks will have to do this. Here’s an excellent video that helps explains how different body proportions affect the squat:
Making the Squat Your Own
There are 3 main things regarding the squat that will differ from person to person:
1. Squat Stance
The squat stance refers to the width between the feet in relation to the rest of the body. It is often recommended to place your feet at, or just outside, shoulder width. But you must pick a stance that is right for you. In order to determine the best stance for you, try this little experiment:
Another factor in the squat stance is the degree to which the toes are pointed out. When squatting you should turn your toes out 10-30 degrees. They should not point forward. This is because, as you squat down, the knees should track in line with your toes. And turning the toes out to a degree will cause the squatter to push the knees out so they track over the toes, enabling the ability to sink further into the squat, making it easier to achieve depth.
2. Bar Placement
There are two bar placements commonly referred to in the squat.
High Bar – The barbell is placed high on the trapezius.
This placement is ideal for squatters who tend to excessively fold over in the squat, or for those that want to focus more on quadriceps development.
Low Bar – The barbell is placed lower on the back, across the rear deltoids (shoulders).
3. The Descent
The manner in which you begin the descent of a squat depends on the bar placement and your proportions.
Breaking at the Hips (Sitting Back):
The squat cue known as “sitting back” is best used in a low bar squat. With the bar lower on the back it is easier to keep the bar path over the COM when using this cue. At the bottom position, the knees will be over the toes or just behind.
Breaking at the Knees & Hips (Dropping Straight Down):
This descent is best used in the high bar squat. The high bar squat requires little to no folding over to remain over the COM, therefore, dropping straight down is the ideal way to descend. At the bottom position the knees will be over the toes or just past them. Yes, it is okay for your knees to extend past your toes, contrary to popular belief. Sometimes it is necessary when trying to achieve depth.
When first learning to squat, or just looking for squat fixes, it really is hard to know which advice to take. Understanding that the squat is an individual thing will save you a lot of time and frustration, and will point you in the right direction. Much more goes into crafting a successful squat, however, so please stick with me!
1. Rippetoe, M. (2012). Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition Wichita Falls: Aasgaard.