The ultimate guide to the perfect squat, with or without weights
You’ve been going to the gym long enough. You don’t need to waste money on a trainer whom you're paying by the hour to count your reps. You’re a vet, right? You’ve got your headphones on. You’re crushing it. Except for that nagging pain in your shoulder. Come to think of it, your knee has been acting up. Whatever. You gotta make gains.
But you know those people who keep staring at you from across the gym? They're not admiring your physique. They're cringing. And it's about time someone says something to you before you break your body apart. Kenny Santucci, a certified personal trainer (NASM, CPP, TRX, Kettlebell), CrossFit and triathlon coach, is that man. He’s leaving all the nice guy crap in the locker room. He is here to help you — but it starts with someone finally telling you, "you're doing it wrong."
So you’re squatting 500 pounds? That’s cool. Are you squatting below parallel? Are your knees on fire? Is your back about to bust wide open? Yeah, you in the Smith machine, rocking out with your giant headphone—you’re doing it wrong.
Before you start packing plates on the barbell so that you can make sure your Instagram feed is indeed poppin’ and your Snapchat family knows you’re all about that squat life, let’s make sure that you at least have the basics covered.
First, your feet should be shoulder-width apart, your toes pointing straight ahead as much as possible. You’re going to want your knees tracking over your toes. You want your knees tracking over your toes, or slightly outside, so that you can keep the proper squat position, generate enough force and engage more muscles. To do this, pretend you’re screwing your feet into the ground, squeezing your butt on the way up and rotating your thighs out slightly.
You don’t want your feet turned out like a duck. That might feel like it’s easier to drop deeper into the squat but it’s actually more challenging to then keep your knees in line with your feet. If you’re squatting correctly, it will actually strengthen the stability in your knee joints. If your knees are caving in, you’re dumping a bunch of pressure on your patellar tendon and knee ligaments. Yes, that’s bad.
Your knees are hinge joints. They are designed to hinge, not hold up 400 pounds (raise your hand if you’re squatting 400). If your knees hurt when you’re squatting, You. Are. Doing. It. Wrong. It’s time to ditch some weight. It doesn’t make you less of a man to rock out with an empty bar or focus on bodyweight squats until you get your form together.
The squat starts by initiating action at the hips. You need to drive them back and down. If you start with bending your knees, you will end up on your toes, which can lead to a number of very bad, very painful mistakes, like shooting your ass up first and putting the bulk of the weight onto your back. You’re always going to want to keep the weight on your heels, your chest up. That starts with initiating at the hips.
Range of Motion
If you’re dealing with a knee injury, your quarter squats are acceptable. Otherwise, I promise you no one gives a sh*t that you can squat a whole house if you’re not breaking parallel. Cool story, bro. Full range of motion — or breaking parallel — means your ass goes below your knees. Not only are squats that don’t break parallel not recognized by any weightlifting authority as a legitimate rep, but you’re also not getting the benefit of engaging all the muscles in your legs by reaching full depth. In other words, you’re inflating your numbers and wasting your time. Getting below parallel activates your glutes (and women love a dude with a squat booty too), hamstring and hips. If you want to do useless exercises, stick to the elliptical.
Keep A Strong Core
Now, pay attention because this is important: Just because you’re driving your hips back doesn’t mean you’re going to stick your ass out. Do not hyperextend or arch your back. You must maintain a solid core. Before you begin your squat, take a deep breath into your belly and hold your abs tight. Now, as you drive your hips back, your chest and shoulders will tilt forward slightly. That’s okay. As long as you keep your head back and your upper back and abs tight, you’ll be able to protect your back.
Worse than arching your back is collapsing your chest and rounding your back. Do this only if you are looking for a reason to visit the emergency room. Remember: abs tight, head back, engage your upper back muscles and pull your elbows back and down. Don’t move until you’ve set yourself up properly.
WTF are you looking at your feet for? Get your eyes up! Find a spot ahead of you that’s at eye level and keep your eyes fixed on that. That will help you keep your head neutral, which will assist in eliminating that hyperextension or chest collapsing.
Quick Squat Checklist
Set your feet:
- Shoulder-width apart, squeeze your butt, rotate your thighs out and create an arch in your feet. About two-thirds of your weight should be on your heels, about a third on the balls of your feet.
- Set your core: Breathe into your diaphragm, hold that breath tight with your abs, pull your elbows back and down, get your head back and eyes forward.
Push your hips back and down, driving your knees out, until you break parallel. Drive through your heels, keep your chest up and head back and stand up.