You either don’t care about this article because the squat is this basic thing you do just fine without thinking, or you’re dying to see what I have to say because the squat is the most frustrating, impossible, stupid thing you’ve ever tried to do and you’re about five minutes away from quitting entirely because there’s no hope for you.
As anyone who’s tried to learn the snatch and clean & jerk or who does the lifts regularly understands very clearly, the squat as a movement and a position is arguably the most important fundamental skill a weightlifter can possess. The inability to squat well and comfortably makes everything in weightlifting impossible.
The inability to squat well and comfortably makes everything in weightlifting impossible.
Unfortunately, dialing in your squat if it’s not something that comes naturally to you is not an easy process. Not only do you have to learn the motor skills involved with the movement, which seem quite simple until you have trouble with them, but you need to develop mobility and stability throughout the body.
Let’s see if we can sort you out.
Finding Your Stance
The first step is to determine you squatting stance—the width of your feet and the degree to which your toes are turned out (if you believe the ultimate goal for all athletes is to be able to squat with the toes forward, please take a break from this article and read this one
Each athlete’s ideal stance will be individual based on anatomical peculiarities such as hip and femur anatomy and relative upper and lower leg length. Fortunately, we can prescribe some very simple criteria to ensure whatever stance you use is mechanically sound.
To find your stance easily, place your heels slightly wider than hip width, turn your toes out a little, and sit casually into the bottom of a squat, not worrying about your back or any details like that—sit down and relax like you’re going to smoke a few non-filtered Lucky Strikes here.
All you need to do now is adjust the width of your feet and how much your toes are turned until you’re in a position in which:
- Your feet are flat on the floor.
- Your hips are comfortable, i.e. no pinching or pressure—find a position in which the hips move the most freely.
- Each thigh is approximately parallel with the corresponding foot—if you look straight down from above one thigh, your foot is in line with it.
There you go. This is the position that will allow your hips to move through the plane in which they’re most mobile, and keep your knees aligned so they hinge as intended rather than get exposed to rotation.
To find your stance, sit down and relax in the bottom of a squat and adjust your feet until your position meets the criteria described (left). The squat stance should allow the foot and corresponding thigh to be approximately parallel with each other to ensure the knee hinges without twisting (right).
Toe out will generally be about 20-30 degrees relative to the centerline between the feet, but it is possible for somewhat more or less to be “correct” for a given athlete.
If you have serious mobility limitations, you’re going to have trouble finding this position because nothing is going to feel totally right. Find a stance that aligns each foot with the corresponding thigh and makes your hips the least uncomfortable and you’ll refine it over time as you improve your mobility. Be cautious to not toe-out to an extreme degree to compensate for limited mobility.
Here's a video on it:
Controlling Your Trunk
As with any loaded lifting movement, trunk rigidity with the proper spinal position in the squat is critical for both safety and performance. We’re looking for neutral or slightly exaggerated lumbar lordosis (arch or extension) and minimized thoracic kyphosis (the natural forward curvature of the upper back). The combination of these two things will effectively create a single continuous arch of the length of the spine. This position needs to be supported and locked in with pressurization of the trunk and forceful muscular activation around the circumference of the trunk, as well as the top and bottom (diaphragm and pelvic floor).
Relax your abs and take in the deepest breath you can, imagining filling the lungs from the bottom to the top—let your entire trunk expand from the abs to the chest, forward, backward and to the sides. Once you have this breath, lock it in at your throat and squeeze every muscle around your trunk to cinch down around that air and increase the pressure. Do NOT try to suck your waist in—imagine pushing your abs down, and this will typically help you achieve a forceful contraction without losing the breadth of your trunk, which we want to maintain. (See more about breathing and trunk pressurization here
.) Create your back arch and start squatting.
If you have trouble creating or maintaining the proper back arch, there are two possibilities—your hip and ankle mobility need work (see the next heading), or your ability to activate your spinal extensors needs work. You may also have limited thoracic spine mobility, which limits your ability to flatten your upper back and makes the creation and maintenance of the complete back arch more difficult.
To help improve your back extension control, isolate back extension. You can do this in a glute-ham bench, or lying prone on the floor. In either case, curl your back up to lift your head and chest as high as you can (glutes tight)—feel that forceful contraction from the base of your skull to the top of your butt. Once you have a feel for that, relax the arch, tighten your abs to bring your ribs flat (i.e. not protruding forward), and then arch your back again. This will help you get the sensation of arching the entire length of your back rather than simply folding backward at your thoraco-lumbar junction, and help avoid extreme hyperextension. It’s OK to exaggerate the extension here—in fact, that’s what we want. Arch as far as you can to get the feeling—try to touch your upper back to your butt cheeks—you won’t arch this much when you’re actually lifting. You can do this in your warm-up before you squat and in between squat sets.
Finally, if your thoracic extension/flattening is limited, make it better. The back extension practice above will help with this to some degree IF you actually try to extend your upper back like you should. It may help to put your hands behind your head, or reach the arms forward and then lift them up as high as possible as you extend.
For general T-spine mobility, I still prefer the good ol’ foam roller even though apparently it’s not cool anymore. The key is to roll or extend over the roller properly—just like we don’t want to fold over at the TL junction when we extend the spine, we don’t want to do it when foam rolling the T-spine because that means we’re not actually mobilizing the T-spine, but simply reinforcing an already hypermobile joint area.
The easiest way to do this is to keep tension on your abs and attempt to keep your back flat as you roll up and down the T-spine. We’re not really trying to arch the back around the roller here, but get some movement of the thoracic vertebrae in relation to their neighbors.
After rolling, you can do some static holds over the roller by reach your arms up overhead and trying to relax around the roller—but keep your abs tight and ribs flat so the movement is confined to the T-spine where it should be. Keep in mind that if this is done properly, you’re not going to see a significant arch or much movement at all—that’s fine, because the movement is where it should be.
Here's a video on it:
Settling into the Bottom Position
Full depth in a squat in the context of weightlifting is very simple: the knee joint closed as completely as possible with the spine still properly arched and the weight balanced across the whole foot (a relaxed spine will allow you to sink a little deeper, but we’re not relaxing that thing when squatting because we’re not idiots). Anything less than that is not full depth, and don’t bother arguing about it—just get better at squatting so you have more to offer the world (note that depth can appear very different among individuals based on proportions even if full
by my definition).
The bottom position, like the stance, is simple:
- Feet flat with the weight balanced across their length with a very slight preference for the heel if possible.
- Head up and eyes forward. The ground isn’t going anywhere, and if it is, your squat is the least of your concerns.
- Back extended from the top of your butt to the base of your skull with neutral or very slightly exaggerated lumbar extension.
- Knees closed so the upper and lower legs are stacked on top of each other.
For mobility improvement, the spiderman lunge (or, if you prefer, the non-gender-specific spider person lunge) and squatting ankle stretch will give you the most effect for your investment of time and effort. Do these stretches in your warm-up and between every set of squats in your workout… and every other spare moment you have.
If you alternate the spiderman lunge with the superman hold described under the previous heading, you get what I call the superhero complex
, and that will make it more enjoyable.
The spiderman lunge and squatting ankle stretch will give you the most effect for your investment in improving hip and ankle mobility for the squat.
Refining Your Movement
Finally, even if you have a good bottom position, you can mess up the movement between it and the top of the squat.
Let me just clear this up quickly: if your bottom position is correct, whatever happens between the top and bottom is not a mobility issue. I see people talking about limited mobility when a lifter’s knees dive in through the middle of a squat, and yet in the bottom position, the knees/thighs are exactly where they need to be. Does this lifter suddenly lose flexibility in the middle of each squat? Of course not—so stop confusing people.
We want to sit directly down and stand directly up—we don’t want our butts detouring 3 feet backward on each rep. The hips will move back somewhat because they have to, but we want to remain as upright as possible as we squat and stand.
The hips will move back somewhat because they have to, but we want to remain as upright as possible as we squat and stand.
This requires you be strong in exactly the way that supports this movement and posture. If you’ve always squatted by sitting back and leaning over, and/or you’ve always deadlifted and pulled from the floor with high hips, you’re going to struggle to do this with any kind of load.
Here's a video on this:
The forward tip in a squat—hips moving back, chest moving forward, and hips shooting up faster than the chest/bar initially—happens when there is not enough quad strength relative to posterior chain strength, which is the natural result of training with the type of squat and pull I just described. The only solution is to retrain your body until it has the proper balance of strength to maintain the posture you want with more weight.
First, make sure the majority of your squatting volume is done with the proper posture and movement—this means do more reps and sets below the weight threshold after which your position goes to hell. You can still squat heavy and imperfectly, just limit those exposures relative to the good ones.
Next, throw some pause squats into your program. These will not only help prevent tipping from uncontrolled bounces out of the bottom and by allowing you to focus on and control the movement better, but will help strengthen the bottommost range of motion properly, which is where the unwanted tipping occurs—the body tries to get the knee joint more open as soon as possible to give the quads better leverage. Front squats will get even more quad in there, but pause back squats will be very helpful, especially since you’ll want to tip even more in your back squats.
Finally, while you’re working to refine this motion, remember that a slow but properly positioned squat is superior to a fast but improperly positioned squat. Doing it right is going to feel slower and more difficult initially—you’re weak in that position, plain and simple. You’ll feel faster doing it wrong for two reasons—you’re stronger that way, so it may actually be a little faster; more likely it’s an illusion, however—your hips shoot up quickly, which is the speed you feel, but the bar lags behind, meaning it’s actually going slower. Have the discipline to fight for the correct position even when it feels awful because that’s the only way it’s ever going to stop feeling awful eventually.
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the valgus knees, knees-out, hip torque clusterfuck. In short, the thigh and corresponding foot should remain in line with each other throughout a squat. This means the knees are above the feet—not inside, and not outside. If the knees are collapsing in, you can push them out—until they’re in line with the feet where they should be. If your knees are in line with your feet already, quit thinking so much and just stand up because everything is cool.
If you have wiggly, spastic knees in the squat, it would be a good idea to throw in some unilateral leg work for some hip stability such as lunges, step-ups (actually done with the up leg, not by pushing off the down leg), even 1-legged RDLs if you’re feeling fancy. Mainly, when you’re accumulating all of your good reps in training, focus on maintaining constant tension throughout your legs and hips as you squat and keeping the knees moving along the line of the feet so your body is naturally trained to do it.
If you want more info on this topic and a touch of vitriol, read this
It Takes Time
Make every squat rep you do count toward improvement, and invest the necessary time and effort into whatever additional work is necessary, such as stretching (or mobilizing
as I guess we’re supposed to say now). Like reading this article, which is about 7 times longer than I intended, developing a great squat if you don’t have one naturally takes some time, but is possible and will be well worth the time and effort.