Squats are the most effective exercise for shaping your legs and glutes and for building lower body strength. This compound exercise is also one of the biggest calorie burners and one of the most versatile. Once you’ve mastered the basic squat, you can incorporate squat variations into a workout to work your muscles in a slightly different way.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when doing squats? Using sloppy form. Why is form so important? Good form maximizes the results you get and, even more importantly, reduces the risk of injury. Here are some squat tips to help you get the most out of squats and stay free of injuries.
Squat Tips: Warm Up Well Beforehand
Never grab a pair of weights and do squats at the beginning of a workout when your muscles are cold. Do a ten minute warm-up to increase blood flow to your lower extremities and get your muscles primed to work. Jumping jacks, jogging in place and high knees are all good ways to increase flexibility and raise your core body temperature. After the warm-up, do a few sets with light weights or no weights.
To maximize the depth of a squat, your hip flexors, abductors and adductors have to be flexible. If they’re tight, it’ll limit how deep you can go and reduce muscle activation. If you have chronically tight hip muscles, add more flexibility and stretching exercises to your fitness routine or do a weekly yoga workout to increase joint mobility. Work on your core exercises too. Lack of core stability can limit squat depth as well.
Squat Tips: Practice Form without Weights
Form is critical for getting the most benefits from squats and for lowering your risk for injury. Begin without any resistance at all until you’ve mastered proper squat form. Watch yourself in the mirror or have someone knowledgeable critique your technique as you squat. Your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart when you’re in the starting position. Sit back into the squat as you descend while maintaining a neutral spine. Descend until your hips are parallel to the floor. Keep weight on your heels, not your toes, to maintain balance. When you rise, keep your spine and torso straight as you drive your hips forward until you reach the starting position.
Train yourself to squat to the right depth using a bench or box that’s the appropriate height. For beginners, the right height is where your hips are parallel with the floor. Touch the side of the box or bench with your buttocks each time you descend to ensure you’re going low enough. You’ll get more muscle activation if you descend slightly below parallel, but learn to do a standard squat with hips parallel using perfect form before going deeper.
Squat Tips: Sit Back Into Squats
When starting a squat, push your hips and butt back BEFORE bending your knees to squat. As you slowly descend, keep your spine neutral and don’t round your back. A fast tempo forces your glutes and hamstrings to do more of the work and takes some of the load off the quadriceps. You need your hamstrings and glutes to both play an active role as you advance to heavier weights.
Squat Tips: Use Proper Tempo
Make sure you’re descending at a slow, controlled rate. Many people descend too quickly. It’s hard to maintain good form when you’re lowering yourself too fast. Plus a quick descent increases your risk for injury. A slow descent increases tension on your lower body muscles for a greater training effect and more benefits.
Squat Tips: Wear the Right Shoes
Running shoes are fine for running but they’re terrible for squatting. You need a heel that doesn’t “give.” Some running shoes have a gel or air sole that’s compressible. Plus, heels on running shoes are often elevated. This can reduce stability and throw your balance off. The best shoes for squats are flat ones with heels that don’t compress. Wearing the right shoes will improve your form and reduce your risk for injury. Skip the fancy, expensive shoes and stick with a basic shoe with a firm, flat heel.
Squat Tips: Do Squat Variations Too
Working your lower body muscles in different ways keeps your muscles growing and changing. Once you’ve mastered standard squats, try variations like split squats, goblet squats, sissy squats, narrow dumbbell squats and single leg squats. Don’t attempt single leg squats until you’re a pro at standard squats. One-legged squats require good core stability and balance, but doing them has the added benefit of improving your balance skills. Always do one-legged squats without weight until you’re comfortable doing them.
Squat Tips: Transition Over to Deep Squats
Once you’ve mastered standard squats, try deeper squats, where your hips descend slightly below parallel. Deep squats activate more muscles and burn more calories than squats where your hips stop at parallel. Contrary to popular belief, research doesn’t support the idea that deep squats are bad for your knees. You should still approach deep squats with caution until you’ve mastered form. Start with no weights and gradually transition to using resistance. Only go as low as you can while emphasizing form and not rounding your back. You can still get benefits doing deep squats that stop at parallel. Don’t risk injury by forcing yourself to do something that doesn’t feel comfortable to you.
Squat Tips: Do Squats First
Do squats at the beginning of your workout when you’re not fatigued to lower your risk for injury. Avoid doing squats after you’ve done lower body cardio where your muscles are tired. Doing squats with already fatigued muscles increases the risk for injury.
The Bottom Line?
Squats and their variations are one of the most effective exercises you can do for your lower body. They’re ideal for building leg strength and shaping your hamstrings and glutes. Plus, you’re using large muscle groups, which creates a metabolic effect that scorches more calories and promotes muscle growth. The most important thing you can do to get the full benefits of squats and avoid injury is to master the form first without using weight. Only after you have perfect form should you gradually increase the resistance. Enjoy doing squats and their many variations!
Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2001 Jun;16(5):424-30.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1765-74. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182773319.
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