An exercise for your Strength foundation.

Posted: March 25, 2015 in Strength and Conditioning for Health and Fitness
Tags: ,

Tips when learning how to Squat:


The Squat is one of the most important exercises to learn if you want to be stronger. Squatting is a fundamental human movement. Strong people ages ago knew how to squat with heavy loads (Click here to learn about that technique). Before the invention of the modern toilet, everyone knows how to squat to shit. Now that everyone is a “fitness expert”, there are a lot of shitty squats. I am not an expert because I am still learning and I still have a lot to learn. But I make a living by training athletes to perform better and to recover from injuries. And every athlete I worked with who improved themselves squatted (except the Special Athletes who are wheelchair bound). If you are convinced that to squat is an important part of the process that you will undergo to achieve your goal of living better and being stronger, read on and then train better.

This is specifically about the barbell back squat.People always want something unique and there are a lot of squat variations and derivative exercises. This post is not about the variations. It is about the origin of the variants. To avoid confusion, this post describes the barbell back squat. And by that it is the full squat.

Why squat?

squats vs no squats


Men should pay more attention. Men would look like men if they have muscular thighs as well. Photo shows uninjured and healthy males but with a relatively less developed lower body musculature. This affects bearing which may makes the guys look arrogant, or gay, or both! They walk strange too. Swinging side to side as if to show they are so wide to compensate for those skinny legs. Heavy squats stimulate the release of testosterone- the male hormone.

The squat is a very useful movement. As an exercise it has a very wide application ranging from health issues to fitness to athletic performance. It is a compound movement- it uses a lot of main joints and most main muscle groups. It is ground based- a closed kinetic chain movement. It is what others term as “Functional Exercise” and it truly is. It stimulates the mind and body to undergo positive changes. The best way to learn how to squat is to squat under the guidance and supervision of a capable coach. Reading this blog supplements the process and makes you pay attention to important details. It will be wordy to be able to describe some of the details. Be patient in reading if you want to learn and add to your knowledge and skills. Reading this 2,000+ word blog helps you more by improving your awareness of the details of this exercise thereby lessening the chances of injuries or lack of progress due to poor technique. As always, make sure you do this according to your ability at the moment.

Warning: If you are recovering from an  injury, has limited hip and lower back mobility, has balance problems, or has any medical condition that may be made worst by heavy physical exertion, practice utmost caution when attempting to learn how to squat. You are responsible for your own safety. Proceed within your current capability. Better to start light with quarter depth but safe rather than starting heavy and full range but ending up hurting yourself. If you are tight and weak, your squat depth will increase as your mobility and strength improves after weeks of training. Patience is important.

Details to pay attention to:

Stance: Jump up as high as you can. Note the distance between your feet. Your squatting stance should be close to that. It can be a bit wider but not wider than your shoulder width. Besides, try jumping as high as you can with a very wide stance, it is not as high as when your feet are under your hip. A good squatting stance allows you to exert near maximum effort on your full range of motion. The toes should point forward and slightly out. They should never point inwards. A good stance has the feet on hip width apart with the heels under the hip and toes slightly pointed out. You would see a lot of wide stance squats. This does not mean that it is wrong. Wide stances are used if the squatter has limited mobility. Widening the stance also lessens the distance to be traveled by the bar- which lessens the amount of work or enables a squatter to squat heavier due to a shorter movement. But when you are starting to learn the squat, practice with your feet under your hip as shown below. It is also a good basic position to be learned if you want to progress to more powerful and explosive lifts or the Olympic lifts and their variants.

valstrengthtraning squat stances

Top photo shows the feet under the hip with toes pointed slightly outwards. Middle photo shows parallel feet under the hip. Bottom photos shows shoulder width stance with toes slightly pointed outwards.

Posture: take a deep breath and keep your chest up and out. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Now, rack the barbell on your upper back. The center of the bar rests on the muscles of your upper back. Hold the barbell with fingers wrapping the bar with the thumb on a counter direction and “closing” the grip. Hands are placed at equidistant points from the center of the bar. Keep your chin slightly up and look at a point slightly above eye level. Do not slouch.

valstrengthtraining squathighbar

The center of the bar (with knurling) rests on the muscles of the upper back. The Scapulae are retracted and this forms a natural padding by the upper trapezius. Letting the bar rest on the muscles gives proprioceptive feedback as the barbell’s weight and stability. Use of padding sometimes causes instability and sometimes the padding may slip from a sweaty back making it potentially dangerous. Pads are allowed but better be aware of the precautions.

: When first learning how to execute the movement, Squat without any load and practice the described stance and posture and squat as low as you can for around 2 to 3 sets of 10 repetitions. This is a specific warm up too. Then practice using an empty bar (Standard Olympic bar is 20kg, the “Ladies'” bar is 15kg). Use proper hand position and grip. Then lower yourself in full control to a full squat. The heels should stay flat on the floor.  The torso will naturally tilt forwards. If your heels come off the floor as you go deeper, your Tendon of Achilles is tight. Put a small plate under each of your heels to compensate. But make it a point to progress your squatting technique by improving flexibility of your Tendon of Achilles. It also helps to make a “Thumbs Up sign” with your big toes as you descend in the squat to help in keeping your heels flat on the ground. To improve ankle stability, read this: Ankle training Part 1. To improve ankle strength and mobility, read this: Ankle Training Part 2.

squat valstrengthtraining

The model is a young athlete who had ACL reconstruction surgery. He wanted to continue competing so he trains hard. He is now even stronger than before he was injured since he dedicates time and effort to his Strength Training. He can squat a load more than his bodyweight. He can now do the Clean – a powerful and exlosive lift requiring full squat position. He can Clean 57kg- his bodyweight, with ease and confidence.

Knees: they flex or bend to their full range. When in motion, they normally would follow where the toes are pointing. They should not move towards the midline. A mirror or a coach would provide feedback. As seen from the above photo- the line made by the knees  and hips (femur) are pointing slightly outwards. In standing up from the squat, the knees should not drift towards the midline like in a knock-knee position.

Leg angle: Depending on the length of the leg, the thigh, and torso, there are differences on each person’s leg angle in relation to the ground in the full squat position. As long as it allows a stable full squat position, the imaginary plumbline from the knees to the ground usually goes past the toes as the knee bends to a full squat.

full squat valstrengthtraining

Elbow position: elbows should be almost under the bar. The forearms should be more vertical rather than horizontal. This is a minor part but better start learning more efficient technique rather than having very slow progress due to accumulated small “bad habits”.

elbow pos squat valstrengthtraining

When unracking the bar, grip the bar with a closed grip- thumbs and fingers would make a closed circle. The grip is near the shoulder, and the forearms almost vertical. Maintain this grip position until you finish the last rep until you rest the bar back to the rack.

 elbowposition squat valstrengthtraining

Execution: Warm up as described above.Set the height of the bar on the squat rack to your lower chest level. Load the bar evenly on both sides with a light load in relation to what you can lift. Follow the described posture above as you position yourself under the bar. Both feet should be directly under the bar. Unrack the bar from the rack and onto your upper back by standing up. Take a couple of steps back and align the toes as described above. Choose one of the positions. You can take a quick look at your toes when doing this but don’t make looking down a habit. You want to look up so that the cervical spine will extend. If the cervical spine extends, it is easier to extend your upper back. You do not want a slouched back when squatting.

Eccentric part: Take a deep breath and hold it. Contract your abdominal muscles as if preparing for a strong punch to the stomach. Slowly lower the bar by pushing your butt backwards, and bending the knees. Keep your chest expanded and shoulder blades retracted. As you go lower, your torso will naturally lean forwards but just enough to position the line of the center of mass of the bar inside your base of support and preferably at a point very near the midfoot. Focus your eyes on a point on the wall which is a round a meter higher than your head level. Continue your controlled descent until you reach the bottom position.

Concentric part: Just after reaching the bottom position, push your heels against the ground. Keep your neck extended by focusing on that point on the wall. Slowly release some air as you go up. Do not let the knees point inwards. Stand up straight but position your upper back so that the bar is balanced. Repeat the cycle until you finish the required number of repetitions, then step forward, let the bar hit the rack, then slowly slide the bar down to rest on the rack.  Come out from under the bar when the bar is safely resting on the squat rack.

Beginner’s Training Load, Volume, and rest: (click this:) squat-practice-load-volume-valstrengthtraining

Technique is affected by mobility, flexibility, strength, knowledge of the squat biomechanics, and other factors like focus and determination. This blog helps to address some of the knowledge aspect. To address the flexibility and mobility part, click this: Quick stretch and exercise for reducing back discomfort.

There are other variations of the back squat on the stance, bar position, and depth. The variations may be due to different torso and leg lengths. It can be also due to specific goals like to allow for the heaviest load to be lifted from the start position like in powerlifting. The above description is a very good way to start learning how to squat and it prepares the trainee to progress to faster and explosive lifts derived from the Olympic style lifts. Learn and be good in one technique first, then if you need to, learn other techniques as well.

To be honest, I originally did not squat like the description above. I learned how to squat from bodybuilders, and I had great results for my goals. Then I learned from videos and from reading articles and magazines. My stance became wider. And, like most people that time, I believed that full squat is not good, and that the knees should not go past the toes. But after observing, reading, discussing, listening, re-learning from more experienced Olympic weightlifting coaches, and most of all squatting more, I began to realize that some of what I believed were true then may not necessarily be true for all. My stance became more natural, and the depth went all the way to full range of motion, and the load went a lot higher than when I was much younger and stronger. I realized that there would be some differences but the most applicable one for beginners up to elite lifters would be what was described above. Of course there are some who, due to limited range of motion, or inherent body structure, would have to squat differently to get better results. There are so many variations with the barbell as well as with other equipment. Click here to read about how to squat heavy even if you have no access to a weights room.

To avoid confusion from the different squatting techniques, the trainee should have a clear goal. This will guide her or him on how to start learning and probably how to squat for some time. It may change but then again, it may go back to this original form. The best indicator of the effectivity would be the accomplishment of your personal goals in relation to the squat. Learn how to squat. It is a fundamental skill if you want your weight training sessions to be more productive. Train better, Live Better!

  1. […] to train big muscle groups with enough intensity so that they would increase your metabolism. The squat exercise trains the gluteus maximus,  gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, adductor magnus and longus, […]


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