Man doing a barbell squat in a fitness space

Your Expert-Approved Guide to Squats Is Here

When one gym bro wants to size up another, their opening question is likely to be “whaddaya bench?”, as in what’s your max bench press. A better question, however, might be to ask “whaddaya squat?” because there’s a good argument that the latter is a better indicator of your lifting ability and strength.

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“The squat is sometimes referred to as the ‘king of exercises’,” says strongman champion and owner of Spartan Performance gym, Jack Lovett. “That may or may not be true but there’s a good reason why it’s so popular. It builds mass across your entire lower body as well as in your spinal erectors while increasing full-body strength levels.”

Benefits of Squats

Mental Strength: When you hit the squat rack it’s not just physical prowess you’re developing. There are mental benefits, too. “I like the fact that you have to be mentally strong to perform a heavy squat or, better yet, a heavy set of 20 reps,” says Lovett. “Such sets aren’t the only way to train but they guarantee results if you are mentally strong enough to get through them… The most reliable way to improve is to work in areas that are out of your comfort zone. Excelling at the lifts you find toughest will make even the most stubborn muscles grow.”

Improved Athletic Performance: You’re likely to find that incorporating squats into your training plan makes you more effective on the sports field, as well. Doing jump squats, for example, can “simultaneously improve several different athletic performance tasks,” such as sprinting and jumping according to a report in the Journal of Sports Science And Medicine. Those lab-based findings are backed up by Lovett’s in-gym experience, too. “When you train your squat you increase your force production potential, which will come into play in power training,” he says. “Remember, the number one way to increase power is to get stronger in key barbell lifts, not just doing lots of box jumps.”

Full-Body Muscle Development: As Lovett shared above, squats performed with weights or without help to develop muscle mass and strength in the lower body, but the stability factor impacts everything from your core to your back as well.

The case for adding squats to your workout routine is clear. Our expert guide to perfect squat technique, advanced tips, and key variations will help you reap the move’s rewards and ensure you’re the envy of your followers on the ‘gram or fellow gym-goers when it’s safe to return to

Perfect Barbell Squat Form

“The key to mastering the squat is to nail the basic technique from the start,” says New Body Plan founder, Joe Warner. “You should aim to make the movement pattern for every rep look as similar as possible, regardless of how much weight you’re lifting.”

Here are Warner’s top form tips for the barbell back squat:

(Note: apart from the weight and arm positioning, the same form can be applied to a bodyweight squat or a goblet squat)

  • Stand with the bar across your back, your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart, and your elbows pushed forwards to engage your lats (back muscles) to build a solid upper body position.

  • Your feet should be roughly shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly. Before you lift, imagine you’re screwing your feet into the floor to build a stable base.

  • Take a deep breath, brace your core, and (keeping your chest up) simultaneously bend at the hips and knees to lower towards the floor.

  • Go as low as you can without collapsing forwards or tucking your pelvis under. Ideally, your thighs will be at least parallel to the floor but don’t sacrifice technique to chase depth.

  • You can push your knees out to the sides slightly at the bottom of the move to open up your hips and increase your range of motion.

  • Once you have gone as low as possible, push through your heels and mid-foot to rise upwards and gradually exhale as you go. Pause, take a breath, and go into the next rep.

Advanced Squat Tips

Bag a new squat PR with these tips from World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation champion and creator of Lift Strong Look Strong, Tom Hamilton.

1. Keep a Straight Path

“From a technical point of view, you want to make sure the bar path is good: it should be straight up and down,” says Hamilton. He recommends filming yourself or getting a friend to watch to ensure you maintain straight form. If it isn’t straight, there are two things likely to be happening.

One: Your hips might be shooting up from the bottom. “You’ll see this happen with taller lifters or people with slightly longer torsos,” he adds noting that it “might also be a quad weakness,” in which case you would want to add some extra front squats to your routine to develop those muscles.

Two: You might be falling forward, which is likely a technical issue. “Think about driving your upper back into the bar, and experiment with changing where you’re looking,” – Hamilton adds that while many recommend keeping a neutral head position and looking down at the ground, when he does this he falls forward, so try it and see what works best for you.

2. Stay Tight

Hamilton notes that your back can never be too strong for a squat. “Keep it tight, keep the shoulder blades squeezed together,” he says. When it comes to additional exercises to help keep your back tight and strong, he prefers rows, particularly chest supported rows, over pull-ups because they “take the lower back out of the movement so you can train it more often.”

3. Find Your Foot Position

As mentioned above, feet should be facing forward or slightly open – Hamilton teaches to have toes slightly open. “Anywhere from 10 to 30 degrees of external rotation will work,” he says. This is because “you find it’s a lot more comfortable to hit depth, because you’re already externally rotated, and the glutes are switched on and ready to go.” If a client has a natural turn out that would be an exception, since they might need to work on turning their toes inward.

Should You Squat Every Day?

Will squatting daily improve your results? We asked personal trainer Daniel Ventura to break it down for us.

How often should you squat?

“You could say that you can squat as frequently as you’re able to recover,” says Ventura. “You need to let the recovery process take its course to get the full benefit of the training that you’ve done, so it doesn’t make sense to rush it. If you’ve done a good quality barbell squat session then you won’t be ready to do the move again the following day.” He adds that, if you practice mobility work and take recovery seriously – all while sticking to a healthy diet and good sleep regimen – then you should be able to fit two or three squat sessions into a week.

Does that still apply if you’re performing different squat variations?

According to Ventura, if you are going to work on your squats multiple times in the week, you should be tackling different variations. “You could do a barbell back squat in one session and a barbell front squat in another,” he says. “You could also introduce a less challenging version of the exercise into the same session, so you fatigue safely.” For example, you could add a bodyweight or goblet squat to your barbell squat session to lighten the load on your body.

What else should you be aware of?

The type of squat you are doing will impact the recommended frequency, shares Ventura.

“If you’re trying to build strength and you’re doing heavy back squats to failure then you will only do that a couple of times a week,” he adds. “If you’re doing fat loss circuits that include sets of bodyweight squats then you can do that more frequently because the main challenge in a high-intensity workout is cardiovascular rather than focusing on recruiting and breaking down as many muscle fibers as possible.”

Common Squat Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The mistake: Poor breathing

“A lot of people don’t know how to breathe when they have a heavy bar on their back,” says Lovett. “The best result is that you don’t lift as much weight as you could. The worst is that you get injured at the bottom of the lift because you’re too relaxed when you pause.”

The fix: Learn to brace

“Breathing is an integral part of the brace, which you do to create intra-abdominal pressure,” says Lovett. “Take a deep breath before you start the rep and brace your abs. Hold your breath as you lower, then exhale as you come up. Finally, take a breath at the top.”

The mistake: Not gripping hard enough

“You need to grip the bar as tightly as possible to create tension throughout your entire upper body,” says Lovett. “If you don’t have torso tension, you’re more likely to fall forward.”

The fix: Use your hands

“I prefer a narrower hand placement. You should be aiming to bend the bar over your back,” says Lovett. “Drive your elbows back and down to secure the lats. The tighter you grip the bar, the better your lift will be.”

Key Squat Variations

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How:

  • Position the bar across the front of your shoulders, resting on your palms, which should be facing up with your elbows high.

  • Your feet should be roughly shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly.

  • Simultaneously bend at the hips and knees to lower as far as you can without rounding your back or tucking your tailbone under.

  • Keep your chest up and elbows high to maintain a strong position then push through your heels and mid-foot to return to the start of the move.

When:

“You can either use this as the main squat variation in your workout or, if you’re an experienced lifter, you could perform it as an assistance exercise after the barbell back squat,” says Warner.

Why:

“Holding the bar on the front of your shoulders shifts the emphasis on your quads, so it is excellent for strengthening that muscle group.”

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How:

  • This move is best performed with a kettlebell but you can also do it with a dumbbell.

  • Hold the kettlebell to your chest, gripping it by the handle with your elbows tucked in to your sides.

  • Your feet should be roughly shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly.

  • Simultaneously bend at the hips and knees to lower as far as you can without rounding your back or tucking your tailbone under.

  • Keep your chest up to maintain a strong position then push through your heels and mid-foot to return to the start of the move.

When:

Warner notes that this is one of the most versatile squat exercises. “I’d use it as an assistance rather than the main move in a squat workout because the load is comparatively light. You can also include it in a kettlebell fat loss circuit.”

Why:

“It’s great for beginners because the lighter load makes it a safe option and the position of the weight encourages you to keep your torso upright, which is something that a lot of people struggle with.”

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How:

  • Press the bar overhead and stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly.

  • Brace your core and simultaneously bend at the hips and knees to lower as far as you can without rounding your back or tucking your tailbone under.

  • Push through your heels and mid foot to return to the start of the move, keeping the bar above your head before going into the next rep.

When:

“Like the front squat, this can be used either as a main squat variation or as an assistance exercise,” says Warner.

Why:

According to Warner, it’s great for improving stability as well as developing core and shoulder strength. “If you switch off your core you’ll lose control of the weight. [This variation] is often used by Olympic lifters because they need to be good at controlling a heavy bar overhead. For the general population, it’s probably not the most important squat variation.”

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