How to do squats

Chris Freytag demonstrating a Basic Squat

The basic squat is an extremely effective lower body move that strengthens all leg muscles including glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. During the squat you use every single lower body muscle, the motion of keeping your balance all while maintaining an upright posture will deliver an entire leg workout with core strength as an added bonus making the squat the ultimate lower body workout.

The basic squat is a user-friendly exercise that anyone can do. Body weight alone is always a great way to build strength and challenge your muscles. That being said, if you have moved past beginner level you can always add holding dumbbells or supporting a barbell to make the squat more effective. However, make sure you use the instructions below and practice a basic squat until you learn how to do it properly and with good range of motion. Range of motion is the key to effectiveness in this exercise. Slightly bending your knees is not truly a squat – it’s a knee bend. To be effective in having a stronger and tighter butt and legs.

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Squats also help strengthen your back when you practice good posture in your squat and pull your abdominal muscles in throughout. Squat can also reduce future injuries by strengthening both the knee and ankle muscles.

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How to Do a Proper Squat

Before you load up your squats with weights, master the bodyweight squat. Here’s how to do squats properly:

  • Stand tall with your hands by your sides, feet shoulder-width apart, and toes pointed forward.
  • Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. You want to “sit” into the exercise, pushing your butt back like you’re lowering yourself onto a chair or bench. Never bend forward at your waist — that will only increase the stress on your spine and throw you off balance.
  • Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.

Squats - How to do them

Benefits of Squats

Squats target two of your body’s biggest muscles (quads and glutes), and enlist the help of your hamstrings and calves to get the job done. And that’s just what it does below the waist. When you do a squat properly, you also engage stabilizing muscles throughout your core. Plus, it can be done with little equipment (or even no equipment in the case of a bodyweight squat), and it only requires a few square feet of space to perform. To maximize its benefits, however, weave multiple squat variations into your weekly routine, like the ones found below.

Common Questions About Squats

If you’re new to squats, it’s normal to have some questions on the best way to add them into your routine. Here are a few commonly asked questions about squats to help you out.

  • How many squats do you need to do in a given workout? That depends entirely on your goals. If you’re trying to build strength, you should focus on doing fewer reps (up to six per set) with heavier weights. If you’re trying to build endurance, it’s in your interest to do more reps (at least 12 per set) with lighter weights. If your focus is muscle growth, a good rule of thumb is to shoot for three sets of 8 to 10 reps using a weight that challenges you to complete them, while still maintaining perfect form.
  • How much should you be able to squat? Strength standards are generally defined in terms of a one repetition maximum (1RM), which is the amount of weight you can lift with perfect form one time. Squatting the equivalent of your bodyweight is average. Squatting 1.25 times your bodyweight is good. And squatting 1.5 times your bodyweight is excellent. Of course, you would never do single rep sets during a workout, so you should focus on lifting the maximum amount of weight that will allow you to complete all of your reps in every set. 
  • How should you start doing squats? Master the bodyweight squat before you even think about adding weights into the equation. Once you’ve nailed the movement pattern and developed the mobility to perform the bodyweight squat with perfect form, you’re ready to load it. Just be careful not to overload yourself right off the bat. Begin with a light weight, and increase the amount you lift gradually as your strength improves. It’s also a good idea to try different squat variations (like the Bulgarian split squat, jump squat, front squat, etc) to avoid hitting a plateau. But take the same approach with each new variation – ease into it until you you can do the move with perfect form, then add weight.

7 Ways to do Squats with Weights

Once you know how to do a proper squat in its most basic form, you can start switching things up a bit. Variation spurs adaptation, which in the context of strength training is another term for muscle growth. Keep the classic barbell back squat in your exercise library, but also try any or all of these seven squat variations with weights to keep your routine fresh and to keep adapting.

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1. Dumbbell squat

  • Stand with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides.
  • Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, then push yourself back up to the starting position.

2. Bulgarian split squat

  • Stand facing away from a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides. Place the toes of your left foot on the bench behind you.
  • Keeping your torso upright, lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the ground (don’t let your left knee touch it).
  • Pause, and then push back up to the starting position. Do equal reps on both legs.

3. Dumbbell goblet squat

  • Grab a dumbbell and hold it vertically in front of your chest, cupping the top end in both hands. Set your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Keeping your back flat and elbows pointed down, push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground (your elbows should touch the insides of your knees).
  • Pause, and then slowly push yourself back up to the starting position.

4. Dumbbell jump squats

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Keeping your chest up and core braced, push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Rise back up explosively, jumping straight up.
  • Land softly, and immediately lower yourself into your next rep.

5. Curtsy squat

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell (or sandbag) in front of your left shoulder with both hands. This is your starting position.
  • Keeping your back flat and your core engaged, step your left foot back and to the right so that your left leg crosses behind your right. At the same time, lower the dumbbell across your body to the outside of your right thigh.
  • Reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Do all of your reps, switch sides, and repeat.

6. Lateral squats

Squats - Lateral Squats

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides, palms in.
  • Keeping your right leg straight and right foot on the floor, push your hips back and take a big step to your left with your left leg. Lower the weights between your legs and your body until your left thigh is parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Do all of your reps, and then repeat to your other side.

7. Releve plié squats

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out, holding a dumbbell with both hands in front of your thighs.
  • Rise up on to the balls of your feet so your heels are lifted high off the ground.
  • Keeping your chest up, bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor, lowering the weight between your legs.
  • Come halfway up, and then lower again until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Continue pulsing up and down, staying high on the balls of your feet.

4 Squat Variations Without Weights

You don’t need weights to get in a good squat workout. Here are four ways to do squats without weights that will still leave your legs shaking at the end of a few sets.

1. Sumo squat

  • Stand with your feet wider than your shoulders, hands by your sides, and turn your feet outwards slightly.
  • Keeping your chest up, abs engaged, and weight on your heels, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body as far as you can. As you squat down, bring your hands together in front of your chest.
  • Return to the starting position, lowering your hands back to your sides, and repeat.

2. Wall squats with stability ball

Stability Ball Exercises -- Wall Squat

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a stability ball between the middle of your back and a wall. You should be leaning back slightly. This is your starting position.
  • Keeping your knees aligned with your toes, bend your knees to roll your body down the ball until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, then press through your heels to return to starting position.

3. Squat pulse

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms by your sides.
  • Keeping your back flat, chest up, and core braced, simultaneously lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor and bring your palms together in front of your chest in a “prayer position.”
  • Pulse up and down in that low squat position, repeatedly raising and lowering your body a few inches. Continue for time.

4. Lateral resistance band squats

  • Loop a resistance band around both legs just above your knees, and stand with your feet together.
  • Keeping your back flat and core engaged, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Rise up slightly, step your right foot out to your right, and lower yourself back into a squat.
  • Rise up slightly, step your left foot next to your right, and lower yourself back into a squat.
  • Repeat to your left. Continue alternating directions.
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A Better Squat

Squatting is an innate movement, but our sedentary lifestyles often diminish our ability to perform the move. To achieve your proper form, trainer Julia Ladewski, CSCS, recommends visualizing a toddler learning to stand. Keep these cues in mind the next time you perform this exercise:

Tips for squatting

Why You Should Embrace Air Squats

Yes, there’s no doubt that barbell squats, sandbag squats or kettlebell squats are awesome. But air squats are too, for these reasons and more:

  • Air squats are 100% portable. You can literally do them anywhere!
  • They’re silent (unless you grunt a lot) and take up pretty much zero space. If you need to be quiet or simply don’t have much space, you can still do air squats.
  • They engage your entire body. If you do air squats right, not only do air squats engage your legs and butt muscles, they also work your core, back and shoulders.
  • They increase mobility. To be able to squat properly, you need basic hip, ankle, and torso control. Working on your squats will increase mobility and flexibility in each of these joints, and make you less prone to injury.
  • They’re the epitome of functional fitness. We squat every day in our normal lives, and adding them to your workouts makes it less likely you’ll get tired and injured in every day activities.
  • They’ll still make you crazy strong. Do 20, or 40, or 100, and you’ll feel it, I promise.

How to do a Proper Air Squat

Start doing air squats properly and not only will bulletproof your body, you’ll get more out of your squat.

Watch the video or read these written instructions on how to get started:

Step 1: Stand with your feet hip-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Your arms should be hanging loose by your side. Then engage your core muscles and push out your chest slightly by pulling your shoulder blades towards each other.

Step 2: Bend your knees and squat down as if you were sitting into a chair. Keep your weight on your heels and keep your core tight. Your eventual goal will be to touch your glutes to the back of your calves but if you can only get to parallel right now, that’s fine. Make an effort to keep your knees externally rotated (don’t let them collapse inward). As you lower down, you can either raise your arms straight in front of you or keep them bent in front of your chest. Focus on keeping your torso upright and core tight.

Step 3: Straighten your legs and squeeze your butt to come back up, lowering your arms back to your side.

Key Air Squat Takeaways

Ready to squat away? Here are the key points you should remember when attempting an air squat:

  • Keep your weight on your heels.
  • Keep your torso upright with your shoulders pulled back.
  • Your feet should be hip-width apart with your toes slightly pointing outward.
  • Keep your knees externally rotated.
  • Your butt, back, and core muscles should be engaged the entire time.
  • Raise your arms while squatting down and bring them back to your side on the way up, keeping your shoulders back.
  • On the downward portion of the squat, aim to go below parallel.

Do them often, and you’ll soon be an air squat master!

What My Squat Workouts Looked Like

My squat program was as simple as it gets.

I just did a basic progressive overload. In other words, I squatted based on how I felt that day and each week I tried to do a little more than I had the week before. No fancy periodization scheme, no crazy Bulgarian squat protocol, no 20–rep squat program.

I also rotated front squats and back squats each workout. Back squats on Monday, front squats on Wednesday, back squats on Friday, etc.

Example 1: About halfway through the program, I had a workout where I did 120 kg (264 lbs) for 4 sets of 2 reps. The next workout, I did 120 kg for 4 sets of 4 reps. And I just kept making small increases like that — based on how my body felt each week — for the next 16 weeks.

Example 2: If I started a workout and didn't feel too hot, then I'd back it off a bit.

During one streak of three workouts I did the following…

  • 4 sets of 5 reps with 110kg
  • 4 sets of 3 reps with 120kg (this was tough, so I dropped it the next workout)
  • 5 sets of 5 reps with 110kg

In the past, I used to be so focused on hitting my goals in a program. I was obsessed with following a detailed program or some complicated rep scheme that was never designed with my body in mind.

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This time, I just told myself, “Do a little bit more today than you did last time.”

Here's the deal: you'll never get stronger if you don't place a larger stimulus on your body (more reps or more sets or more weight), but it's useless to pressure yourself to perform like that every workout. If you follow that basic principle alone, then you'll make gains.

Supplements

I’m not a big fan of supplements. Most of them are supported by a lot of marketing and very little science — not a good combination.

I’m even less of a fan today than I was when I did this experiment. If I had to do it all over again, my only supplements would be whey protein and fish oil.

That said, I want to be completely open and transparent about this whole experiment, so here's a list of what I took during those 16 weeks: fish oil, whey protein, liver tablets (which are basically a tablet of protein), B–vitamin complex, and a multivitamin.

I typically took them in the following order…

  • Breakfast — fish oil, liver tablet, multivitamin
  • Lunch — fish oil, liver tablet, multivitamin, B–vitamin complex
  • Post–workout — protein shake
  • Dinner — fish oil, liver tablet, multivitamin
  • Pre–bedtime — protein shake

While I think the supplements did help my progress, there were too many other factors going on for me to say for sure.

As I already mentioned, I was never missing workouts, I was getting great sleep, I was eating everything I could find, and I was living a low stress lifestyle. There were too many other great things going on at once for me to say whether or not the supplements made any difference.

Bottom line: if I were picking different areas to focus on (training, diet, recovery, supplements, etc.) supplements would be at the end of the line.

Lessons Learned

If you want to learn how to squat more, then I think these lessons are key. I also believe that these can apply to many of other goals in life.

  1. Decide what your most important goal is and focus on that. Everything else is secondary.
  2. If something is important to you, measure it and track your progress.
  3. Build volume first so that you can handle the intensity later.
  4. Sleep well and find ways to reduce stress in your life.
  5. It's better to use the ideas you have than to spend all of your time searching for better ideas.

Whatever your fitness goals are, I hope you found this to be a useful discussion about how to squat more.

And with that said, I'll leave you with some simple advice for life: smile often, travel far, and squat heavy.

Let’s Recap How to Squat Properly

Keep you back and spine straight. You need to push your chest out and pull your shoulders back. You must not bend your back forward.

Keep your lower back straight as much as possible. If you lean forward or if you lean too much backwards that puts huge pressure on your lower back.how-to-do-a-squat

Keep your head straight. Pay attention to not looking the ground. Find a spot on the wall that is in front of you and keep your eyes on it while you do squat.

The proper way to breath. Exhale when you go up and inhale when you go down. Proper breathing helps a lot to finish the number of reps you want and even with handling heavier weights.

Point your feet a bit outwards. This helps to engage your hamstrings and glutes when you do the movement. It is also good to open your hips and keep the position.

The depth of the squat you can do depends on the flexibility of your hips. The more flexible they are, the deeper you can go down. The rule of thumb is to go down at least to have your hamstrings parallel with the floor.

A lot of bodybuilders go so deep that their butt reaches the ground. If you can go down so deep without any feeling of pain in your knees and lower back, then you may go down so deep. However, reaching the parallel position is enough, I never risk to have injuries.

Use weights that you can handle. Lifting too heavy weights almost always results in improper performance. Depending on the number of reps you need to use weights that are heavy enough to develop but not too much.

These are the most important rules of proper squatting. Follow these tips to have more efficient and safer leg workouts. The best is of you do this exercise in front of a mirror so you can see yourself and correct your mistakes. If you are total beginner, start with bodyweight squats first.

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Father (36) working out for over 20 years and living a healthy life. He loves learning languages and trying out new things.

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