So You Want to Improve Your Squat
Looking for some help getting your squat game off the ground? Look no further: I have five tips to help beginning and intermediate squatters get this absolutely essential lift dialed in. The squat is great, of course, for building muscle in the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. It’s also awesome for burning calories and altering body composition by contributing to fat loss. Additionally, it’s a key exercise for improving athletic performance in terms of strength, power, and range of motion.
So are you squatting yet? If anything is holding you back from starting squats or improving your squats, you need to attack your weak points with intensity so you can reap the great rewards this lift offers when performed correctly. While most of these tips apply to any type of squatting exercise, I have barbell back squats and barbell front squats first and foremost in my mind because they tend to be best once you reach a certain level of squat competence.
Top 5 Tips to Improve Your Squat
How to Get Better at Squats Tip #1: Understand Squat Form
There are many different types of squats that all give you slightly different benefits. As I have said, I myself am a big fan of the barbell back squat and barbell front squat, as well as a good old fashioned bodyweight squat or kettlebell goblet squat for beginning squatters or as warmups for more advanced lifters.
Let’s go over the quick and dirty details of squat form that apply to pretty much any type of squat. At the most basic level, to squat, you must sit back into an imaginary chair. The operative phrase is to “sit back”. If you don’t sit back through your hips, you will have to bring your knees forward and rise onto tippy toes. This is called crouching, not squatting. Crouching is okay with the spine unloaded (i.e., body weight) as you go about your daily activities, but if you are adding resistance with a barbell, dumbbells, or even just a heavy backpack, squatting is healthier for your hips, knees, and back.
As you sink your hips back and down into your imaginary chair, keep your chest up rather than letting your chest sink forward. Keeping your lats and your core engaged will go a long way toward maintaining that upright posture. A back-loaded squat allows for a bit more forward lean, while a front-loaded squat requires you to keep your torso quite upright. Front squats also necessitate a bit more mobility both in the hips and throughout the spine. Both skills are worth developing.
You’ll hear a lot of noise out there on appropriate squat depth, but general guidelines are that for a squat to really “count”, you want to get the crease of your hips below the tops of your knees when viewed from the side. If you are a beginner, focus on getting the flexibility and confidence to make this happen before you start loading up with a lot of extra weight. Squatting above parallel will not do much for you unless, for example, you have an injury or joint replacement that you are rehabilitating, so if you are healthy, devote yourself to mastering full range of motion.
My final point on form for our purposes here: the idea that squatting is bad for your knees is a myth. Our bodies are meant to squat, and if you have a fairly healthy kinetic chain, you can and should squat. Squats are only bad for your knees if you do them wrong, for example, if you crouch down with knees coming forward beyond the toes, or if you allow your knees to cave inward. Viewed from the front or back, you must keep your knees either parallel or shoved slightly outward, and viewed from the side, they must not travel forward beyond the toes, though they can absolutely travel forward relative to the ankle, especially when executing a front squat.
How to Get Better at Squats Tip # 2: Be Consistent, Regressing and Progressing Appropriately
Including squat sessions at least twice each week is generally required to make progress, and three times weekly may work better for you depending on how heavy you are squatting at any given time. Less heavy sessions generally necessitate higher frequency to stimulate enough progress. You will recover faster from lighter sessions than if you squat heavy meaning that you can afford to squat more often.
On the other hand, if you are really pushing yourself for several sets of low reps (between one and five), twice weekly may fit the bill. Many people report good progress cycling between a couple light days and one heavy day per week, or vice versa. This strategy has worked for me personally as well.
There are dozens of different squat programs you’ll find out there. Here are the general guidelines I would suggest for squat progression: If you are a beginner, just focus on stability and endurance: a few sets of higher reps (12-15) at a manageable weight for at least the first month. This can be just bodyweight, or adding small amounts of weight such as a kettlebell held to your chest or an empty olympic bar held in the back squat position.
As that becomes easier and you get hungry for more, switch up your training into strength mode by adding more weight and doing fewer reps (8-10) for three or four sets. Once you’ve mastered that approach for about a month, you have options on branching out into other ways of training squats. If you want to add muscle mass and strength, adding more weight and dropping reps even further (around 5) can work great once you have established a couple months of both stability and strength-style squatting. Most folks will do best cycling through different training styles every month or two to keep progressing.
How to Get Better at Squats Tip # 3: Sink the Bar Like a Plumb Line
You know how a plumb line has no choice but to sink straight down and rise straight back up? Picture the path of the bar as plumb line. The straighter the line, the more efficient the lift and the more weight you will be able to lift safely.
This means you need to use your body to control the bar rather than letting it control you. If you don’t engage all the necessary muscles to keep the bar travelling in a straight line, it can either fall forward or backward, and neither is a good scene for you.
Engaging the core by bracing your abs, locking down the lats by keeping your elbows pulling in and down toward the ribcage, and engaging your hip external rotators by “shoving the floor apart” will all contribute to your ability to keep the bar on stable straight line path.
How to Get Better at Squats Tip #4: Focus on Foam Rolling to Improve Flexibility
If you are struggling to get adequate depth in your squats, or if they just feel really awkward overall, flexibility issues are likely at play. Our culture of constant sitting engenders, among other things, excessively tight hips, hamstrings, and calves.
If you feel like you are going to tip over when you approach or clear parallel in your squats, and especially if your butt is tucking under (cutely referred to as “butt wink), this means your hamstrings are glued down way too tight. If your feet point out like a duck as you squat down, your calves are likely quite rigid. Many, many people have these problems that limit their ability to really get the most out of squatting…and to remain injury-free.
The first step to the solution is to hit the foam roller. Practice self-myofascial release of the hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and quads as if your life depends on it. Roll each muscle for at least 30 seconds each, focusing on each part of each muscle group, hunting all over for tight and tender spots and rolling them mercilessly. Recognize the the quads have four parts each, the hamstrings have three parts, and the calves have three parts. You will likely find tender spots all up and down the different parts of each muscle.
How to Get Better at Squats Tip #5: Follow Up Foam Rolling With Stretching
Directly after spending 30 seconds rolling each of these tight areas, stretch the hamstrings and calves for a minimum of 30 seconds each. These are notoriously stubborn muscle groups, but rolling and stretching will ease each of them to their proper extensibility over time. You’ll also want to stretch your hip flexors and quads.
Dropping into a deep primitive squat position and holding for at least 60 seconds at least once a day will go a long way toward both aiding your flexibility and helping you feel more comfortable in a deep squat position. Grab onto something stable, such as a tree, pole, or heavy table leg and focus on lifting your tailbone, lifting your spine into a neutral position which maintains your normal lumbar curve, and keeping your chest from caving in. Deep tissue massage, although painful, can also prove extremely helpful for unlocking tight tissues.
In addition to the hams and calves, there are definitely other muscle groups which, if tight, will really mess with your squats. If you are unsure about your personal areas of restriction, a certified personal trainer or a physical therapist can perform an assessment to identify where you could use some work.
Flexibility issues are not fixed overnight; as with many aspects of fitness, consistency is the key to improvement.
How to Get Better at Squats: The Bottom Line
Prioritize this awesome lift and it will pay you back in spades. There are few if any exercises better for building strength, muscle mass, mental toughness, and overall athleticism. Be sure to progress at an appropriate rate, remaining patient with yourself as your flexibility, muscle strength, and neurological coordination all adapt and you become able to execute this essential lift smoothly and safely.