The squat, often referred to as the king of all exercises, is an amazing full-body activity that builds strength, muscle, and athleticism.
Like deadlifts, a deep and strong squat looks much more impressive than alternatives, such as the leg press, lunge, or leg extension.
But, as with most complex activities, practice makes perfect. You need to invest a lot of time in the activity and understand all the subtle details that go into a good squat. So, without further ado, let’s dissect the squat, see what makes the exercise so beneficial, and go over everything you need to know about it.
How to Perform The Squat Correctly, Step-By-Step
The following instructions apply to the classic high-bar back squat, but you can use many of the cues and instructions for other variations:
- Set the barbell at collarbone height.
- Raise your arms and place your hands evenly over the barbell. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-level apart, with palms pointing to the floor.
- With your hands grasping the barbell, tuck yourself underneath the bar, placing your upper trapezius against it.
- Bring your feet underneath the bar and a few inches apart. Have your knees slightly bent, chest out, and back straight.
- Engage your arms to support the barbell, flex your midsection, and take a breath.
- Unrack the barbell by extending your knees and take a couple of careful steps back to clear enough room for squatting.
- Spread your feet in a natural stance with your toes pointing slightly out.
- Maintain tightness in your upper body, keep your chest out, and take another breath.
- Descend into a squat by first breaking at the knees and then bringing your buttocks down. A helpful cue would be to imagine that you’re trying to sit inside an invisible chair.
- Keep your heels in complete contact with the floor and back straight as you squat.
- Go down until your thighs are parallel to the floor and hold the bottom position without exhaling.
- Squat back to the top by pushing through your heels first and exhale just as you extend your knees fully.
- Take another breath and repeat.
- Once finished, move forward a bit, bringing the barbell over the squat rack’s pins.
- Bend your knees slowly until the barbell rests on the pins and walk out to recover.
Here is a great in-depth video by “Squat University” on how to preform the bench press correctly:
Three Fantastic Benefits of Performing Barbell Back Squats
1. Fantastic Leg Growth
The most notable benefit of the barbell back squat is that the exercise leads to impressive leg growth. Your quadriceps are the primary muscle group that benefits from squats because their primary job is knee extension, which occurs off the bottom position during a squat. Aside from that, your calves, hamstrings, and glutes also work and respond by growing and getting stronger.
2. Impressive Overloading Potential
Another great benefit of the barbell back squat is that the exercise offers an excellent overloading potential. You can keep adding weight to the bar for many years to build muscle and get stronger.
The benefit is incredible because we must continue to push ourselves to keep our muscles from adapting. Squats make it easy because all you have to do is keep adding weight strategically.
3. Whole-Body Stability
The third notable benefit of barbell back squats is the movement’s positive impact on your stability. Supporting a heavy barbell on your back is challenging, which forces your entire core musculature to flex isometrically and keep you stable. As a result, you’re much more balanced and better able to maintain your stability during various exercises.
Four Effective Squat Variations You Can Include In Your Training Program
1. Low-Bar Back Squat
The low-bar back squat is a variation of the classic movement where the barbell rests two to three inches lower on your upper back. Instead of resting the bar on the top of your trapezius, you have to support it on your rear deltoids. The position forces you to maintain a greater torso lean to prevent the barbell from rolling back and falling behind you.
Maintaining a greater torso lean also allows you to depend on hip extension better, which means that your glutes and hamstrings play a more significant role than they do during a high-bar back squat. As such, you can lift up to ten or twenty percent extra weight, assuming your technique is on point.
Powerlifters prefer the low-bar back squat precisely because the movement involves more muscles and allows them to lift more.
2. Front Squat
Front squats are another effective variation that offers some unique benefits. The primary difference is that you support the barbell in a front rack position. Instead of having the bar behind your head, you have to support it in front of your neck, just above the collar bone, and over your shoulders. The position forces you to maintain a much more upright torso to prevent the barbell from rolling forward and falling.
Having your torso more upright forces your entire back and midsection muscles to work extra hard and keep you in position. (Not being able to support the barbell in a front rack position as it gets heavier is a good sign of upper back weakness.) As such, your quadriceps have to work extra hard to extend your knees and bring you to the top position. The effect is possible because a more upright torso prevents you from taking advantage of hip extension and reduces the involvement of your glutes and hamstrings.
3. Goblet Squat
Like front squats, goblet squats are a variation that forces you to maintain a more upright torso. The primary difference is that you’re using a dumbbell instead of a barbell. The second difference is that goblet squats are about holding the dumbbell in front of you instead of supporting it on your shoulders. As such, your biceps have to work extra hard.
Holding the dumbbell in front of your torso forces your back and midsection to work extra hard. Similarly, your quadriceps work more because you can’t rely on hip extension to ascend from the bottom position.
4. Pause Squat
Pause squats are a fantastic variation that strengthens your entire lower body, improves your stability, and cleans up your technique. The primary way to perform the movement is to place a barbell on your back and perform repetitions as you usually would. But, instead of descending and going up immediately, you squat, pause at the bottom for two to five seconds and move up. Doing so is incredibly beneficial because it forces your muscles to work extra hard and stops you from taking advantage of the stretch reflex.
You can add a pause at the bottom of any squat, making it more effective.
The Most Common Squat Mistakes to Watch Out For
1. The ‘Good Morning’ Squat
‘Good morning’ squats are a common mistake, typically seen with the low-bar back squat. The error occurs because your posterior muscles take over the exercise when your quadriceps fail to produce enough force and extend your knees. As a result, you descend into a squat and ascend by elevating your hips and having your torso become more horizontal.
The mistake isn’t necessarily fatal, but it’s harmful for two reasons:
- You can lift more weight that way and trick yourself into believing that you’ve gotten stronger
- You’re taking the emphasis away from your quadriceps and are instead forcing the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) to work extra hard
The best way to avoid the mistake is to be mindful of the possibility and reduce the weight. Doing so will make it easier for you to engage your quadriceps more effectively, forcing them to do all the work.
2. Rounding Your Lower Back
Rounding your lower back is another mistake that can occur with every squat variation. Avoiding that is imperative for keeping your spine healthy and preventing unnecessary strain on the area.
One reason for lower back roundness is the butt wink, which can occur because of mobility issues or anatomical limitations. The butt wink becomes noticeable as you reach the bottom of a squat, and your pelvis tucks underneath your torso, causing your spine to round.
The best way to prevent the butt wink is to work on your hip mobility, as tightness in that area can impair squat mechanics. Aside from that, you should film some of your training sets to determine at what depth the butt wink begins to occur. Knowing that is important for understanding when to stop descending and start moving up.
3. Not Squatting Low Enough
The third and perhaps most common squat mistake is not reaching a decent depth. Failing to squat low often results from too much weight and not having the necessary quadricep strength. As a result, you feel less confident with the movement and are more likely to cut the descent short before moving up.
Not squatting to a good depth isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it makes the movement less effective because you cannot load your quadriceps as effectively. Couple the shorter range of motion with your hips shooting up, and you end up with a modified good morning exercise that trains the wrong muscles.
Avoid the error by descending until your thighs are parallel to the floor, even if that means reducing the amount of weight you’re using.
Looking for new leg exercises? Check out our “8 Best Leg Exercises for Strength and Muscle Gain“