How To Squat

I’ve recently been getting a lot of emails from friends, family, and internet folk asking me to check their form and help them with their technique. Many of these people are very new to lifting and need the basics. So, I thought I might as well post the information that I have been pulling together for them so that they can have it all in one spot. Also, I thought it would make a good page for other people who want to learn.

This is a working document of cues, videos, diagrams, and tips that I have found helpful to ME, in my years of lifting. I did not invent these ideas, I learned them, and now I am sharing them. I have tried to cite my sources as much as possible, but if I’ve included a video, image, or idea that I didn’t cite, please let me know and I will happily add the appropriate citation.

I’ve included some of my own training videos for visual reference. Please remember that these are my TRAINING videos, meaning, I am still practicing, because my technique isn’t perfect. Take it easy on yourself and allow yourself to suck in the beginning. Be open-minded and enjoy the process of getting better and growing stronger.

 

Setting Up

Bar Position & Grip

The VERY first thing you want to do is figure out if you want to squat “Highbar” (the bar is sitting up high on your traps) or “Lowbar” (Bar sitting slightly lower, on the meat of your rear shoulder muscle).

squat
This diagram is from, Mark Rippetoe’s book — Starting Strength

Highbar, forces your chest more upright — generally allowing for a more open hip-angle, and a tighter angle at your ankle and knees. Highbar squats are primarily quad dominant and will get you some damn nice quads. I personally do not train highbar, so I am not going to go into the details of it. That said, I think highbar squatting is perfectly fine for normal for people who aren’t crazy about pushing their max lifts, and getting a giant ass. If you just want to squat some weight and get some nice quad muscles, this lift is just fine. Also, highbar is the go to squat for Olympic Weightlifters, due to it’s closer resemblance of the bottom position of a ‘clean’. If you are looking to develop more focused quad strength, or need to work on balancing out your leg muscles, highbar is a great lift for powerlifters.

Lowbar, is how I lift, and how most powerlifters lift. Lowbar puts the bar lower on your back, below your scapula bone, resting on the meat of your rear-deltoid muscles. Because of the lower bar position, you will need to drop your chest forward a bit to keep the bar stable over your mid-foot. Because of this forward leaning chest postion, you will generally activate more muscles from your posterior chain (ass and hamstrings) than highbar squatting. Most lifters will be able to lift more weight using a “lowbar” position because of that fact.

ALL OF THE INFORMATION FROM HERE ON OUT WILL BE ABOUT LOW BAR SQUATS

Grip & Walk-out:

OK, so now you know where you want the bar to go — but what is the best way to get it there? I would recommend you watch these two videos to decide for yourself. To be noted, you should ALWAYS start with the empty bar. Unless you are very new, in which case you can practice with a broomstick or a PVC pipe until you get more comfortable with the movements. NEVER jump under a loaded bar first. Even after years of lifting I always warm up with the empty bar first.

The first video is by Mark Rippetoe, the author of Starting Strength, and the go to source for all things lifting. Rip has a wonderful, very detailed description of the lowbar position and how he advocates gripping the bar and setting up to squat in this video:

 

I used this set up for years, but I have since switched to a different style. That said, I think the Starting Strenght style grip/set-up position is great for beginners (and many advanced lifters as well). It can very successful forces a nice tight upper back position, which is hard for beginners to grasp in the beginning. My primary critique of this grip is that it is often hard for people with poor shoulder mobility to get their elbows up and their hands on top of the bar like he recommends.  Without that shoulder mobility, it is actually very hard to ever experience the tight upper back that is the primary benefit of this grip style. Because of this, I have gotten nasty shoulder injuries from this grip style, and have seen many other lifters get it as well. This grip works really well for some people and it is by far the most popular and socially “correct” way to squat within the lifting world, I just don’t prefer it personally.

I currently use SSPT’s squat set-up and grip style, as described by Matt Gary and Sioux-Z Hartwig-Gary in this video:

 

SSPT’s set up is more focused around competing in powerlifting, hitting (beyond) adequate depth, and handling maximal loads. I also find it much more comfortable and natural.

If you watch both videos, you will notice, the grip Matt Gary recommends is different than the one Marc Rippetoe recommends. Up to you what you want to do. Aside from the fact that I just do what my coach tells me, and Matt is my coach, I prefer actually GRIPPING the bar, rather than just pinning the bar down on my back like Rippetoe recommends. This grip immediately removed all shoulder issues I used to experience. I can’t say that will be the case for everyone, but that’s what happened to me.

Foot Position

Once you have the bar positioned on your back and you walk the weight out of the rack, you will want to check your foot position. Your feet should be about shoulders width apart and your toes should be are pointing out a little. The exact width and angle will vary from person to person, but the diagram below is a good starting point.
feet
Image from Starting Strength

You will see in my training videos that I have a rather wide stance and very outward pointed toes. This is just what is most comfortable for my body. Some people have more narrow hips and feel most comfortable with a narrow stance, and some are the opposite. It really depends on your body, the size of your hips, the length of your legs, and the flexibility of your hips and calves. Experiment a little bit to see what’s most comfortable for you.

Head Position

No matter what squatting style or grip you choose, you will want to relax your neck and keep a neutral head position. There is no need to look at the ceiling as you squat. While this is very popular among high-school football teams and terrible stock photography on T-nation… you can strain your neck muscles doing this and should avoid it.

Mark Rippetoe advocates staring at a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you and I generally think this is a good place to look for almost everyone.

I personally have an issue with my chest falling forward while squatting, so I like to keep my gaze straight ahead, as a way of reminding myself to keep my chest up a little more. This is just something that has helped me personally.

Squatting!

Big Breath

One of the most important things to mention about squatting (and lifting in general) is that you need to get TIGHT in your belly and back. Tight before standing up with the weight. Tight before walking the weight out of the rack. Tight before squatting. You get tight by taking a HUGE breath of air and pushing it against your belly. Imagine, you are about to get punched in the stomach, or you are about to take a massive dump, or you are about to give birth to a GIANT baby. All of these things simulate the same effect. Take a big breath, hold it in, and push it down into your guts. Blow up that power belly!

In both videos, the coach talks about taking a BIG BREATH OF AIR before unracking the weight and before every squat. This is important. This will brace your back, and keep your spine safe. It will also make handling heavy squats easier.

Knees OUT

Once your feet are in this position and you are nice and tight, it’s time to start going down! First thing I like to focus on is pushing my knees OUT! Your knees should be tracking in the same direction as your toes (which, if you remember, are pointing out a little).

As mentioned in Starting Strength, a good drill for this is practicing first without the bar. If you were to squat down without the bar, and push your knees out with your elbows, you would feel a stretch in your groin… this is the kind of position you should be simulating. This will help you make room for your hips when sitting down into the hole and avoid a hip impingement. This will also activate the muscles on the inside of your thighs, your adductors.

Worth noting, women tend to want a bit wider stance and more outward pointed knees and toes than men. This isn’t a rule, but just an observation.

Below is a picture of an Olympic lifter, note her knees and toes pointing out at the same angle. This is a good example of what I mean when I say, “knees out”knees

Butt Back

Many beginners are scared of letting their chest come down and have a hard time balancing themselves because of it. You have to let your chest come down a little to get your back at the right angle, and to keep the bar over the center of your foot. See the low bar squat diagram below. One way to do this is to think about pushing your butt back, as if there is a tiny chair behind you (maybe even put one there so that you can touch your butt to it and then stand up).

backsquatImage from Starting Strength

Pushing your butt back a little not only helps you balance properly on the way down, it also helps pull your hamstrings, glutes, and entire posterior chain into the lift. These are BIG muscles (or at least they will be soon! AMIRIGHT?!) and they are very strong and powerful. It is important that you remind them that they are going to work hard on the way up, by putting a little pressure on them on the way down.

Get Deep

I will be very open about my opinion that if you are not squatting to depth, YOU ARE NOT SQUATTING. You have no right to discuss your numbers and you have no right to make comments on the lifting technique of others. You aren’t squatting.

The official rule, if you were to compete, is that the crease in your hip has to pass the top of your knee. Even if you DON’T want to compete this is a good goal as it will work far more muscles & take a lot of bad pressure off of your knees (by forcing your hips to do the work). Also, squatting deep will make you far far far stronger. You will notice that in order to do this you may need to remind yourself to push your “knees out” and your “butt back”.

Most importantly though, just commit to it and don’t be scared. YOU CAN DO IT.

depth
Diagram from the USAPL Rulebook

UP!

The final (and some may argue, most important) part of squatting, is getting back up 🙂

No Thinking: The first rule about standing up from the squat is that you FUCKING DO IT. The second you are at the bottom of your squat, you should already be standing back up. DO NOT SIT DOWN THERE. The bottom of a squat is no place to be thinking, breathing, looking around, feeling scared, second guessing yourself, or trying to decide if you are doing it right. If you got yourself down there, you now owe it to yourself to stand back up without looking like a confused idiot 🙂

Stay tight: The second rule, is to stay tight and don’t collapse!! Keep your air in your belly, keep pushing your knees out, and don’t drop that nice tight bottom position!! You just put a lot of effort into setting yourself in the right position, now it’s time to actually USE all those big muscles we just talked about activating. If you descended properly, your hamstrings and ass muscles will be nice and tight, and they will help you bounce out of the bottom. Use those muscles to help bounce you up.

Drive with your hips: Third rule of standing up is to drive with your hips – BIG power for your squat comes primarily from your HIPS, so use them. The second you feel your hamstrings pulling tight at the bottom, DRIVE UP WITH YOUR HIPS!  Use that big ass, and all that power you have stored up in your nice tight belly to help DRIVE the bar up! Instead of thinking about standing up by opening your knees, think about standing up by opening you HIPS – it will look very similar in the end, but the power output will be very different. Your glutes are very strong muscles, use them.

More Reps?

If you are doing more than one rep, it is important that you re-tighten your back and take another HUGE breath in between every rep. Also, PLEASSSEEEEE don’t dick around standing there with 200# on your back. You think and rest in between sets, not in between reps. If you have a barbell on your back, you are doing WORK!

BIG BREATH. SQUAT. REPEAT.

LIKE A MACHINE!!!!

Rack the Bar

When you have stood all the way up and have finished your set. You just walk straight back into the uprights and drop the bar on the J-hooks.

Exhale.

Congratulations, you just squatted 🙂 Go eat some food!

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8 thoughts on “How To Squat

  1. LOL! “…without looking like a confused idiot.” LMAO!

    This is an amazing resource! Beyond the fact that it’s well laid out and entertaining, it’s information from an actual WOMAN who does the actual thing out there in the real world….I love that!

    As one of the rookies who stopped *just* short of begging for help shamelessly…..thanks!

  2. Thanks Shannon ❤ I'm so happy that you find it helpful! I can't wait to see your videos!! Be patient and don't give up. You are gonna be rocking it in no time 🙂

    • Thanks Pat, I’m glad you liked it! Getting low will be a fun challenge for you and those super long legs, but I have seen much taller guys do it. 🙂 Good luck!

  3. Seems to be a little bar torque on your ascent. Is your right leg stronger than your left?

    Maybe I’m imagining it. Do you worry about hips rising before chest? Or, as long as the bar is travelling in a somewhat straight line do you call it good?

    The great Lyle McDonald says to pick a spot in front of you when you walk out and keep your gaze fixed on it throughout the movement. I dunno. Seems to work for me. Can’t imagine looking at the floor: invitation to a nose-dive!

    Can I just say though I’ve read a few descriptions of what it feels like to squat and this is one of the best. Honestly it is as much a mental as physical challenge for me. Probably because i don’t have great mechanics for squatting so it’s never going to feel like a natural movement. I spend far too long with the weight on my back talking myself into the next squat, because they are crazy HARD. Anyone who says they ain’t, ain’t squatting.

    In my book. Props to all ye who squat!

    • Haha, Nice observation!! Ohhhhh if you only knew how much stronger my right leg is than my left 😉 My right leg is a FULL INCH bigger in circumference than my left!! Terrible. I want to blame years of rollerskating in one direction as a teenager, but really, I think I just favor it in everything I do.

      I do worry about my hips coming up first. It is a big struggle for me (probably my biggest, other than my knees caving… which I believe to be related). I am very posterior dominant, have a weak core, and I am “blessed” with these amazingly long femurs. All in all, it makes keeping the bar over my foot extra challenging and fun 😉

      Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you liked the post.

  4. This is fantastic – thanks so much for putting it together! I’ve been lifting for a couple of months and love the hip opening cue – can tell it will be really useful.

    Also, I never want to read another exercise post which doesn’t end ‘Go eat some food’.

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