The squat is a great strength-builder, and should be a staple of any good resistance training program. It works the major muscle groups in the upper legs: the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, as well as the erector spinae muscles in the back, and the core muscles.
The squat is also a difficult exercise, and one that a lot of people get wrong. It’s very important to learn how to do a proper bodyweight squat to build strength and motor control, prevent injury, and to build a foundation that can be improved by adding resistance. Once you master the bodyweight squat, there are several squat variations and progressions that you can use to keep improving your strength.
Standard Bodyweight Squat:
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. Look straight ahead, focusing on a spot in front of you. Extend your arms out in front of you to help with balance.
- Brace your abs, keeping your spine neutral with a slight natural curve in your lower back.
- Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back. It’s important that this begins the movement, rather than starting the movement by bending your knees.
- After pushing your hips back, bend your knees to lower your body towards the floor. Keep your chest and shoulders upright and maintain focus on a spot in front of you to keep your upper back and shoulders from rounding.
- Keep your knees in line with your feet, don’t let them move inwards towards each other.
- Squat down in a slow and controlled manner until your hip joint is lower than your knees.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom.
- Drive through your heels to return your body to the top position. Keep your abs tight throughout the entire movement.
The standard bodyweight squat is difficult for many people due to issues with body control, flexibility, and strength. Common form mistakes are not squatting to the full depth (hips below the knees), heels coming off the floor, knees caving inwards, lower back rounding, too much lean forward at the waist, and dropping down to the bottom position instead of lowering the body under control.
Keep in mind that everyone’s squat will look a little different, depending on their limb length and mobility. That’s the case with all exercises, but for some reason the squat tends to bring out more internet form critics than many other exercises. Don’t worry about your squat looking perfect, focus on moving your body under control and squatting as deep as you can.
Many people are unable to perform a bodyweight squat properly, but attempt to perform weighted squats anyway. That’s trying to build strength on a weak foundation, and it’s not a good idea. Take the time to learn how to perfect your bodyweight squats before moving to weighted squats, and you’ll make safe and consistent strength gains once you start adding weight.
If you can’t do a good bodyweight squat yet, train with these exercises:
Many people struggle to balance and keep their weight on their heels when doing squats, so they’re unable to do a full-depth squat, or they compensate by leaning forward too much.
To help correct this problem, use a solid object to help you balance. Hold onto a sturdy doorframe, pole, table leg, suspension trainer, etc. in front of you and lower yourself into the bottom squat position using the standard bodyweight squat technique (pushing your hips back before bending the knees, keeping the chest and shoulders up and preventing the back from rounding). Focus on shifting your weight back into your heels, using your grip on the doorframe to help hold yourself in a stable position. Try to minimize the amount of assistance you need to use and focus on keeping your body tight as you hold the bottom position for 5-10 seconds, then push through your heels to return to the top position.
For many people, lowering themselves down to the bottom position is the hardest part in terms of balancing their weight. If that’s the case for you, use your grip on the doorframe to keep yourself stable while lowering down, then try to use as little assistance as possible when returning yourself to the top position. Over time, gradually decrease the amount of help you need from the doorframe until you can perform the full movement on your own.
How will this help?
The counterbalanced squat introduces the entire squat movement pattern, while using your hands to provide added stability. Practicing this movement and gradually decreasing the amount of extra support you need will help ingrain the movement pattern and build the core and lower body strength you need to squat properly.
Find a sturdy box, bench, or chair. Stand in front of the box with your back to it and perform a slow and controlled squat until your glutes just touch the box. Focus on shifting your weight back into your heels. Pause for a moment before pushing through your heels to return to the top position. Gradually lower the height as you become more comfortable and proficient, until you’re performing full squats.
How will this help?
Similar to the counterbalanced squat, this variation helps you focus on keeping your weight back and gradually building the motor control and strength you need for the full squat. Squatting down to a sturdy box, bench, or chair provides a mental and physical safety net: if you do lose your balance and fall backwards you can just sit down.
Stretches and Mobility Exercises
Issues with flexibility in the hips and ankles can make it tough for many people to do a full squat. If you have those issues, regular stretching and mobility exercises to help improve your flexibility are important. Even if you don’t have trouble with flexibility or mobility, it’s always a good idea to stretch and perform mobility drills to keep your muscles and joints healthy and prevent pain or injury.
Foam rolling can also be helpful for increasing mobility. Try rolling (or using a lacrosse ball) your glutes, calves, and feet to help loosen up problem areas.
Once you’ve perfected your bodyweight squat form, there are many ways to progress. The most common way is to add resistance with the barbell back squat, but you can also do barbell front squats, dumbbell squats, or goblet squats with added resistance, or work on a more advanced bodyweight squat variation, like the pistol squat.