Squats are a staple in any strength training routine.
As a Faculty of Sport and Physical Education student, I’ve seen firsthand how beginners often struggle to nail the perfect form.
However, over the past 25 hours, I have tirelessly sifted through various resources to bring you the most accurate and effective squat guide.
This article aims to clarify all your doubts and transform your squat game, providing step-by-step instructions, benefits, common mistakes, and different variations of squats you can try.
- The bodyweight squat is an all-encompassing exercise that targets several major muscle groups.
- This guide walks you through each step of a proper squat form, explains the benefits and muscles targeted, and outlines some common mistakes beginners make.
- We’ll explore a variety of squat variations to keep your workouts interesting and challenging.
How to Do Squats Properly: A Step-By-Step Guide
To do squats properly, follow the steps listed below.
- Prepare yourself
- Position your feet
- Establish your posture
- Extend your arms
- Begin the squat
- Lower your body
- Check your form
- Go down as far as you can
- Pause at the bottom
- Push up
- Squeeze your glutes
Let’s cover all these steps below a little bit more in-depth.
1. Prepare Yourself
Before plunging into squats, warm up your body. This will prime your muscles for the workout and reduce the risk of injury. A simple routine could include some jogging in place, jumping jacks, and dynamic stretches like leg swings or lunges.
2. Position Your Feet
Your feet are your foundation. Assume a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing slightly outwards. This stance will help maintain balance during the squat and align your knees correctly.
3. Establish Your Posture
Proper posture is crucial. Keep your back straight, chest up, and engage your core (imagine pulling your belly button towards your spine) to protect your spine and improve stability.
4. Extend Your Arms
Extend your arms in front of you. They counterbalance as you lower your body and help maintain your center of gravity.
5. Begin the Squat
Initiate the squat movement by pushing your hips back and bending your knees. Imagine you are about to sit down on an invisible chair behind you.
6. Lower Your Body
Keep your upper body and chest up as you lower your body and ensure your knees track over your toes. This keeps your joints in a safe position and distributes the force evenly.
7. Check Your Form
Always be conscious of your form throughout the movement. Ensure your chest remains upright and your knees are over your toes. Form trumps repetitions every time.
8. Go Down as Far as You Can
The depth of your squat plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of the exercise. Your inner thighs should be parallel with the floor or lower if your mobility allows it.
9. Pause at the Bottom
Hold the bottom position for a second. This pause ensures you’re working through the full range of motion, enhancing the workout’s effectiveness.
10. Push Up
Push back to standing through your heels while keeping your chest up. This phase is as important as lowering your body, so take it slow and focus on your form.
11. Squeeze Your Glutes
Engage your glutes as you ascend. This will provide additional power for the ascent and further work your glute muscles.
Return to your starting position and prepare for the next repetition. Take a moment to check your posture and positioning before starting another squat.
Squat Form Checklist
Let’s recap the steps you need to take to ensure your bodyweight squats form is correct. Each step includes key things to watch for to perform a squat correctly:
Ensure your feet are shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing slightly outwards. The exact width can vary depending on your body, but never let your feet be wider than shoulder-width apart.
Maintain a straight back throughout the movement. Avoid rounding or excessively arching your back. Keep your chest up and your eyes forward.
Engage your core to provide stability during the squat. This means tightening your abdominal muscles as if preparing for a punch to the stomach.
Begin the squat by pushing your hips back like sitting in a chair. This helps to ensure that your knees do not extend over your toes, reducing potential stress on the knee joint.
Your knees should track over your toes throughout the squat. Avoid letting your knees cave inwards or push too far outwards.
Aim to squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor or even lower if your mobility allows. Do not compromise form for depth; only go as low as possible while maintaining good form.
Your weight should be distributed evenly across your feet, but lean more towards your heels. This provides balance and promotes engagement of the right muscle groups.
Extend your arms parallel to the ground to help balance. Your arms can move naturally with the motion of the squat, but avoid excessive swinging.
Pause at the Bottom
Take a brief pause at the bottom of the squat. This ensures you’re not using momentum to stand back up, making the squat more effective.
Rise with Control
Push up from the bottom of the squat through your heels, keeping your chest up. The ascent should be controlled and deliberate, not rapid or jerking.
Squeeze your glutes at the top of the squat. This ensures full hip extension and maximum engagement of your glute muscles.
Inhale on the way down and exhale as you rise. Proper breathing helps maintain your blood pressure and can aid in core activation.
Aim for consistency in your form throughout all your reps. It’s common to let form slip in later reps, so always check in with your form, especially as you begin to tire.
Prioritize safety above all. If you’re unable to maintain proper form, reduce the weight you’re lifting or the number of reps. Squatting safely and effectively will prevent injuries and ensure you’re truly strengthening your muscles.
Squat Variations to Add to Your Workouts
After mastering the form to perform basic squats correctly, it’s time to mix up your workout routine with these squat variations.
Each comes with a brief description of how to perform it and its unique benefits:
The barbell squat is an advanced weighted squats version of the standard squat .
This variation increases the intensity of the workout and stimulates muscle growth and strength.
How to Perform Barbell Squats
- Place a barbell on your upper back, keeping your shoulder blades tight for support.
- Perform the squat as usual while maintaining the bar’s balance.
Front squats are excellent for targeting quadriceps muscles such as vastus lateralis, medialis, intermedius, and quadriceps femoris .
How to Perform Front Squats
- Assume a standing position with feet shoulder-width apart; toes slightly pointed out. Rest a bar on the fronts of your shoulders, elbows high and in line with your shoulders.
- Engage your core musculature, push your hips back, and flex your knees while maintaining a straight back and elevated chest.
- Lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your knees tracking over your toes.
- Drive through your heels to return to standing with your hips and knees fully extended.
The additional weight from the dumbbells will provide a challenging workout for your entire body.
How to Perform Dumbbell Squats
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height (or hanging).
- Keep your elbows close to your body and perform the squat following the basic form.
Jump squats enhance your explosive power and agility, making them great for athletes.
How to Perform Jump Squats
- Start in a regular squat position and lower your body.
- Instead of standing up normally, explode upwards into a jump.
- When you land, ensure your knees are slightly bent to absorb the impact.
Goblet squats are a great way to improve your form and depth while targeting your core.
How to Perform Goblet Squats
- Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands at your chest.
- Perform the squat as usual, but keep your chest more upright.
Sumo Squat Pull to Press
This full-body exercise improves strength, stability, and mobility.
How to Perform a Sumo Squat Pull-To-Press Exercise
- Take a wider-than-usual stance, with your toes pointed slightly outwards.
- Hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell with both hands.
- Perform a squat, and as you rise, pull the weight up to your chest and press it overhead.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This challenging variation targets your quads, glutes, and core and enhances balance.
How to Perform Bulgarian Split Squats
- Stand in front of a bench or a step.
- Extend one foot behind you and rest it on the bench.
- With your front foot, squat, ensuring your knee doesn’t go past your toes.
This is an advanced squat variation. Pistol squats demand a high level of strength, balance, and flexibility.
How to Perform a Pistol Squat
- Stand on one leg, and extend the other straight in front of you.
- Lower your body into a squat while keeping the extended leg off the ground.
Shrimp squats significantly challenge your balance, mobility, and strength.
How to Perform a Shrimp Squat
- Assume a standing position on one leg and bend the knee of the other, holding the ankle behind you.
- Lower yourself into a squat on the standing leg, with the other leg’s knee aiming to touch the ground.
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
Squats work the following muscles:
- Quadriceps – These are the muscles at the front of your thigh and are heavily engaged when you squat.
- Gluteus maximus – Your glutes, or rear-end muscles, play a crucial role in the squat, particularly during the upward phase.
- Hamstrings – The muscles at the back of your thighs assist in the upward phase and provide balance.
- Core muscles – Your abdominal and lower back muscles are also engaged in a squat, providing stability and support for your upper body.
Secondary muscles targeted include the calves, hip flexors, and even upper body and back muscles, as they help maintain posture and stability during the movement .
What Are the Benefits of Squats?
The benefits of squats are listed below.
- Full Body Workout – As a compound exercise, squats work for multiple muscle groups simultaneously, offering a highly efficient workout.
- Strength and Muscle Building – Regular squatting helps to build lower body muscles and strength and contributes to better hypertrophy .
- Enhanced Mobility and Balance – Squats can improve flexibility in your lower body and core strength, enhancing balance and coordination.
- Burn Calories – Because they engage many muscles, squats are an excellent calorie-burning exercise.
- Improved Bone Density – Weight-bearing exercises like squats can help to increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Squats
To maximize the benefits of squats and minimize the risk of injury, it’s important to avoid these common mistakes:
- Not Going Low Enough – Aim to lower your body until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground.
- Letting Knees Cave In – Your knees should track over your toes during the squat, not collapse inward.
- Lifting Heels Off the Ground – Keep your heels firmly planted to maintain balance and avoid unnecessary strain on your knees.
- Rounding Your Back – A straight back is crucial to prevent lower back injury.
What Happens if You Do Squats Wrong?
If you do squats wrong, here is what can happen:
- Knee Injury – Squatting with your knees caving in or letting your knees extend beyond your toes can strain the joints excessively.
- Back Pain – Rounding your back during squats can lead to pressure on the lumbar spine, potentially causing lower back pain .
- Reduced Effectiveness – If not performed correctly, squats won’t target the muscles they’re meant to. This means you won’t reap the full benefits of the exercise.
- Increased Risk of Falls – Improper form, especially when using additional weights, can disrupt your balance, potentially leading to falls and subsequent injuries.
How Do Beginners Start Squatting?
Beginners should start squatting with their body weight only or by being supervised by a fitness expert, preferably a certified personal trainer. To perform a squat properly as a beginner, you should practice the form and technique as much as possible before increasing the amount of weight you lift.
How Do I Know if I’m Squatting Correctly?
If your back is flat, your knees don’t cave in, and you don’t perform a butt wink, you are squatting correctly. These three are essential for the proper squat form.
What’s the Best Way to Progress With Squats?
The best way to progress with squats is to use principles of progressive overload. This means increasing reps, sets, external resistance, shortening rest periods, or switching to a more difficult squat variation.
How Many Squats Should I Do a Day?
You should do as many squats as possible a day without entering the overtraining state. This means you should do something more difficult regarding squats for every next workout to ensure progress.
How Many Calories Do Squats Burn?
The amount of calories burned while performing squats largely depends on several factors, such as your weight, exercise duration, intensity, and metabolic rate. However, as a rough estimate, Harvard Medical School suggests that a general 30-minute weight-lifting session can burn between 90-133 calories for a person weighing 125 pounds and 133-200 calories for a person weighing 185 pounds.
What Gym Equipment Should Beginners Use to Perform Squats?
Beginners should use kettlebells to perform squats.
Kettlebells are the best functional fitness equipment for beginners since they allow a greater range of motion and will effectively exercise your stabilizer muscles.
I suggest reading our guide on the best kettlebells for beginners to pick the one that best suits your needs, budget, and goals.
In the comments below, let me know your thoughts on proper squat form and what is the hardest thing for you to adopt.