The squat is often called “the king of exercises” and for good reason. It is a compound exercise that works pretty much your entire body. You can produce huge strength and muscle gains when you add squats to your workout routine. But all too often people add them into their programs without first making sure they understand the movement pattern. You may see someone do it in the gym and try to emulate what that person is doing. The problem is that the person you are watching may not be performing them properly and if they are it is hard to understand all the components of the squat that are important to perform it the same way. Let’s go through some of the basic steps necessary to set up and complete a barbell squat.
First, stand behind the bar and place your hands evenly on each side the bar, then pull yourself under the bar. Placing your hands first helps to ensure that you are keeping the weight distributed evenly across your back. You want to rest the bar across the top of your upper traps (this is called the high bar position and is most common, we will talk more about high vs. low bar in a future post). Your elbows should be held about parallel with your trunk, not directly under the bar and not flaring out behind you. The shoulder blades should be pulled down and back to create tension and pin the bar to your shoulders.
Foot positioning will be a little different for everyone, but a good place to start is shoulder width apart with the toes pointed straight forward. You can turn the toes out upwards of about 20 degrees because everyone’s anatomy is different, but they need to be relatively forward to create optimal glute activation. Additionally, some people may need to get a wider stance to allow the hips to flex optimally at the bottom of the squat, preventing the low back rounding at the bottom. It is good to get your feet in place with the bar still on the rack. Getting set up before stepping back with the weight will be more efficient because it reduces the amount of adjustments you need to make while holding the weight on your back. Ideally you will take one step straight back.
Once you step back and get into position, screw your feet into the ground by driving your knees out. Keep your core tight and maintain a stacked spinal position throughout the movement, this is what is called spinal neutral (again this is slightly different for everyone). The path of the bar should travel in a straight vertical line over the middle of the foot. The knees should travel in line with the toes, do not let them cave in. Your knees may travel over your toes depending on your bony anatomy, this is okay as long as it is not painful.
If you want to start adding squats to your training or even if you already have and you feel like they are not optimal, then it is a good idea to start without any weight. It’s important to be able to perform a perfect body weight squat before progressing to additional weight. When ready to add weight to the movement, you could use a PVC pipe to mimic a barbell and work on your upper body positioning. Progress to a barbell only, then start adding weight to the bar.
This is by no means everything that goes into the barbell squat, but it should be a good starting point or give you a couple of things to think about to improve your form.