There are countless exercises you can do in the gym to build muscle, tone, and improve your overall fitness. But an undeniable fan favorite is the squat.
According to Nerd Fitness, it's effective whether you’re trying to gain muscle, lean out, or even both at the same time. Squats can additionally strengthen your bones and reduce the chance of injury, a must for gym newbies and seasoned athletes alike.
Unfortunately, the squat is also an exercise that many of us get wrong. All you have to do is sit down and stand up, right? Well, that's certainly part of it. But the tiniest mistakes can make good form turn sour.
Whether you’re already stacking plates or you’re new to the squatting game, here are some handy tips on how to keep your squat form perfect when working with a barbell.
How to Ace the Best Form for Squatting
Keep Your Chest Up
Squat University states that it’s ideal for the chest and hips to rise at the same time. This means you should avoid letting your chest fall forward on the way down and up. Sometimes it's due to weakness or simply fatigue. But allowing the hips to rise up ahead of your chest is a big no-no.
Bear in mind, too, that when you do this, you're not reaping the full benefits of the squat. When your hips go up first, you're likely lifting more with your back than your glutes and legs. This isn't how we want to squat, and it can also lead to injury.
Your legs are likely stronger than your back — use them! Chest up.
Push Your Knees Out as You Stand
"Knees out" isn't a style of squatting, as told by Boxlife Magazine, but rather it's a cue to prevent something called valgus torque.
Valgus torque — also called valgus collapse and medial knee displacement — may happen when you have weak hips, tight ankles, impaired quad function, and impaired hamstrings. By improving your mobility and reinforcing proper form, you can avoid this mess.
Athletes will also sometimes allow their knees to cave in and use it as sort of a crutch. While more experienced athletes can get away with this, they're the exception to the rule. Standing up out of a heavy squat with caved-in knees is poor form and can also leave you injured.
Note: Pushing your knees out should not be forced, and it shouldn't be uncomfortable.
Push Your Hips Forward as You Stand Up
In line with keeping your chest up, you should also push your hips forward as you rise to your standing position.
As we talked about earlier, it’s important that your chest and hips rise at the same time. Your hips shouldn’t be left behind, so the trick is to push them forward as you stand up. This ensures that your body stays in the proper alignment and you truly squat with your whole body — not just your back.
Squat Only as Low as You Can Without Compromising Form
Ass to grass! We've all heard it at least once before. And while, yes, breaking parallel is desirable when squatting, you should never sacrifice form for the sake of depth.
PowerLiftingTechnique stresses out that you should never force yourself into a deeper range of motion when your mobility is still in development or when you’re compensating on your form just to go deeper.
One common change you'll see happen when athletes squat beyond mobility is their backs round. Not only will this limit how heavy you can squat, but you're also putting yourself in a position where you're vulnerable to injury.
If your range of motion is currently your limiting factor, considering squatting down to a ball, bench, or box. As you work on your mobility, your squat depth will naturally improve.
We want to repeat: Never sacrifice proper squat form for depth!
Turn Your Toes Out Slightly
It can't make that big of a difference, right? Well, let's talk about this.
The explanation, as explained by PowerLiftingTechnique, is that turning the feet outward ever so slightly can create a broader base of support for when you’re squatting. This helps with your balance because obviously, the last thing you want to do is to fall forward or backward with the weight you’re carrying.
Pointing your toes out slightly may just be a small detail, but this adjustment is a big help in building a sturdier foundation.
Similar to what we said about pushing your knees out on the way up, don't force your toes out. It might feel a little weird (read: new), but it shouldn't be physically uncomfortable, and it definitely shouldn't be painful.
Send Your Hips Back... Maybe
This one can be a bit controversial, so we'll explain both angles and then let you decide for yourself.
Strong Lifts suggests that when you’re on your way down, moving your hips back like you’re sitting on a toilet can help. That's why at the gym, you'll often hear coaches giving the cue, "Hips back," as their athletes squat.
However, others argue that while the hips might shift back slightly on their own, you shouldn't encourage it more. Their reasoning is that when you do, you're putting your body in a position where, as a result, your chest will fall.
Keep Your Neck Neutral
Where your eyes go, your body goes. So, understandably, athletes try to look up as they stand — to help keep their chest up.
This is a good thing, to an extent. But if you're craning your neck up to an uncomfortable angle, then all you're doing is throwing your alignment out of position.
Looking slightly upward should suffice; but to be clear, some athletes look straight ahead, and others still actually look slightly downward. Find something that helps you maintain the right position and also feels comfortable and neutral.
With many of the tips on this list, we want to point out something important: "Perfect" squat form is going to look different from athlete to athlete. This is because all of our bodily proportions are different. For example, someone with very long femurs will have a different position compared to someone with very short femurs. The same can be said with athletes who have longer/shorter torsos.
While putting these tips into practice and perfecting your form is easier said than done, keeping these in mind and forming the habit of practicing the proper form is already a good head start. Achieving your fitness goals and improving strength can be a long journey, and they’re best started by doing exercises correctly — by having the proper form and being mindful of these small tips that can help you in the long run.