Muscles Worked in the Squat
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Squat with Proper Form
- Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
- Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
- Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
- With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
- Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
- Inhale and repeat for reps.
Text and graphics from the StrengthLog app.
Introduction to the Squat
The squat is known as “the king of all exercises” – and for good reason. Squats have been the staple for bodybuilders looking to grow their leg muscles for decades, and in strength and conditioning, they have been used (and still are used) to improve almost every athletic endeavor that is undertaken on two feet.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- How to squat effectively and safely.
- How to train the squat to get big and strong.
We’ll begin with a simple demonstration and a general explanation of the squat technique.
The squat is performed by placing a barbell on the back of your shoulders and squatting down by bending your knees, hips, and ankles.
Here’s how you do it:
- Set a bar in a rack, at about the height of your sternum.
Unracking the Bar
- Face the bar, and grip it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Step up close to the bar so that it touches your sternum.
- Inhale, duck under the bar, and place it over the back of your shoulders. Lift it out off the rack by extending your legs.
- Take one step back with one foot, one step back with the other one, and then use a third step to correct your stance into an even position.
Then comes the actual squat.
How to Squat with Proper Form:
- Inhale and hold your breath.
- Squat down by bending your knees, hips, and ankles. Let your knees track in the same direction as your toes.
- Squat until your thighs are below parallel or until you’ve reached your natural depth limit.
- Reverse the movement by extending your legs. You may exhale on the way up or let out some air by grunting.
Typically, a squat is considered “full depth” if you squat all the way down until your thigh is parallel to the floor or just below: when your hip crease is below your knee’s highest point. The latter is also what is required to get an approved lift in most powerlifting federations.
Major Muscles Worked in the Squat
Which muscles does the squat work?
You’ve already seen this once, but let’s recap quickly.
These are the muscles that need to be strong in order to be strong in the squat, and they are the muscles that primarily and secondarily will grow and get stronger from squat training.
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
While more muscles are involved as stabilizers and synergists, these are the main muscles involved in producing the force necessary to lift the bar.1 2 3 4 5
Some of you might be wondering why the hamstrings aren’t included above. The answer is: because squats don’t work your hamstrings.
Squat Training Programs and Optimal Technique
That was the basics on how to squat, and you are more than ready to start practicing the lift with a light weight.
The squat takes years and years to master, so you might as well get started.
For the rest of this article, we’ll delve into the more advanced stuff:
- Optimizing your technique
- How to get stronger in the squat
- Squat training programs for the …
Read on, friend.
Optimizing Your Technique in the Squat
With the basics out of the way – let’s look at how you can optimize your squat technique for you (or your clients). How do different technique alterations affect your squat performance, its muscle-building potential, and its safety?
Let’s start with your feet, and move up from there.
Foot Position and Stance Width
Squatting is possible with anything from a narrow stance to a wide stance. Typically, you want your knees to track in the same direction that your toes are pointing, which means that in a narrow stance your toes are usually pointing more or less forward, and in a wide stance your toes point quite a bit outward.
Your stance width has large implications for your squatting biomechanics, as it affects how you will have to balance and position everything else above your feet and legs, namely – your body and the bar.
If you stand with a narrow feet placement, with your toes pointed forward and let your knees track forward while squatting, you will generally (but not always) have to compensate by pushing your butt slightly further back and lean your torso slightly more forward to maintain balance.
This will probably also be your most efficient lifting technique in this particular stance, where you distribute the work pretty evenly between the knee and hip extensors.
The alternative would be to shove your knees way forward and keep your hips closer to your feet (like in a front squat) but that would move almost all of the muscle work to your quadriceps, which would have to work against a very long moment arm.
The opposite would be a very wide stance. As you are not shifting any weight forward, you don’t need to send your hips back, and you don’t need to lean forward to maintain balance. It is therefore generally possible to squat with a more upright torso when you are using a wide stance, while still distributing the work evently across knee and hip extensors.
This is especially true for lifters with long (relative to their body) femurs. By pointing your femurs out to the sides, you are essentially “shortening” them, and don’t need to compensate as much with the rest of your body.
Which one to choose?
Between the narrow and wide stance, there is of course a spectrum of everything in between, in terms of medium stances.
Here begins the search for your optimal squatting technique. World records have been squatted by both styles, and the optimal choice for you is more a matter of individualization than “one style is better than the other”.
Try out both narrow and wide stances and everything in between, and see what suits your body better. Some people find that they can squat decently with both a wide and a narrow stance, while others are more distinctly suited to one, and may even be unable to squat with the other.
Since the squat is in some essence a balancing act (you must keep your body + the bar’s centre of gravity over the middle of your foot, or you will fall over), the decisions you make in one part of the squat technique, might affect other aspects. One such factor is your choice of shoes.
Shoes: Flat or Raised Heel?
Shoes are strictly considered not really a technical decision but rather a piece of equipment (more of which we will discuss later), but since they can affect your technique so much, we still find it necessary to cover them in this section.
First things first: any shoe you might choose for squatting should be firm and stable. Squatting in a squishy running shoe will hinder your performance, and will in the worst case scenario set you up for an accident.
Secondly: Flat or raised heel?
Squatting requires a decent amount of ankle dorsiflexion – meaning, bending your ankle joint as you squat down. A narrow stance, feet forward squatting style usually requires more ankle dorsiflexion than a wide stance, feet outward style.6
Therefore, if you squat with the latter, you might only need to look for a firm and hard-soled shoe and then you’re set. But if you squat more narrow-stanced with feet forward, odds are that you might benefit from a shoe with a raised heel. These are typically called “weightlifting shoes” or “powerlifting shoes” or something like that, and come in a variety of brand and heel raise. Mine are Adidas Power Perfect II, and have a bout 15 mm toe-to-heel rise.
Some peoples body types and squatting styles will mean that they will never have the need of shoes with a raised heel. For others (like me), a raised heel might mean the difference between squatting pain-free or not.
Before you make an expensive purchase, you can try out for yourself if shoes with a raised heel might be something for you. Stand with your heels on small weightplates (about an inch thick) while squatting with an easy load, and see how it feels. I do not recommend that you train like this, however, as it could easily lead to accidents.
With the feet and shoes out of the way, let’s jump all the way up to the bar and where you choose to position it, as that will be the next most important decision regarding your squatting technique.
Bar Position: High or Low?
When squatting, you have the option of placing the bar either high or low on your back, and of course everywhere in between.
- High bar usually refers to you placing the bar high up on your shoulders, on top of your trapezius or posterior deltoids.
- Low bar usually refers to you placing the bar low on your shoulders, or even down on your upper back. A common placement is just above the upper ridge of your scapulas, and you will have to lean forward to create a small shelf for the bar to rest on to keep it still.
There are no lines drawn in the sand where a bar placement goes from being “high” to “low”, and neither is it necessary. Let’s just agree that a bar can be placed higher or lower on your back.
The bar placement will determine primarily two things:
- The distance from the bar to your hips. With a low bar placement, you are bringing the barbell closer to your hips. That means you are decreasing the moment arm that your back and hip extensors works against. That, in turn, means you will be able to lift more weight with the same hip and back strength.
- Your torso lean. If you place the bar lower down your back, you will have to lean forward more to keep your centre of gravity over your mid-foot. With a high bar placement, you can keep a more vertical torso. An exaggerated example of this effect is a front squat, where the weight is even further in front of your hips, and your torso even more vertical.
- Knee / hip weight distribution. When you lean forward, you will have to counterbalance by pushing your hips back. This will redistribute some of the workload from your quadriceps to your hips.
To counter the forward lean, and to avoid your abdomen and your thighs coming together and thus limiting your ability to reach depth, it is common to combine a low bar position with a wide stance. A wide stance gets your thighs out of the way for your abdomen, and as for balance, will help you maintain a slightly more vertical torso by “shortening” your femurs in the sagittal (side-view) plane.
The above describes the typical powerlifters squat, and it bears several advantages for powerlifting purposes, where the goal is to squat maximal numbers:
- Better leverage. The lower bar position enables you to lift more weight with the same back and hip strength, since the bar is lower on your back and closer to your hips.
- Better load distribution. As described earlier, the powerlifting-style squat will redistribute some of the workload from your quadriceps to your hips and back. Since the quadriceps are usually maximally taxed in the squat, this will generally let’s you lift more weight.
- Depth. The forward lean and wide stance enables you to set up your squat so that you reach your natural bottom/turning point right under parallel depth (a requirement in powerlifting). This can help you utilize your natural stretch reflex for a strong start of the ascent, which can help you get past your sticking point.
In contrast, the high bar squat is accompanied by a narrower stance than low bar squats. There is a lot of knee flexion (= knee bend) and forward knee travel, and this squat style is often performed very deep. It is the typical weightlifters squat.
This type of squat might mean that you will put up slightly lower numbers (~10%) compared to the powerlifting-style squat, of precisely the opposite reason:
- Longer moment arms for your hip and back extensors.
- Load is focused on the quadriceps which becomes the bottleneck of your performance, and your hip extensors cannot utilize their full strength to help your lift.
- Excessive depth is usually reached in this squat style, which means that your stretch reflex is long gone by the time you reach the sticking point.
Generally speaking, a low bar squat utilizes the hip extensors more efficiently and allows for heavier weights to be lifted. On the other hand, a high bar squat with a more upright torso mimics the catch positions of the snatch and the clean more closely, and might be more useful for weightlifters.7
But before you rush of to change your squatting technique, listen to an important word of advice: Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.
If you are a powerlifter, then yes, there are potential advantages to the powerlifting-style squat that might enable you to get up higher numbers. But what if you (like me) cannot squat with a powerlifting style without inevitably hurting yourself? Then you are stuck with what you’ve got, and you better make the best of it.
I ran my head into a wall for years, trying to train and compete with a powerlifting style squat, but kept hurting my back with it. In hindsight, I wasted my time with it, and should have been further along in my lifting career if I had simply stuck to the weightlifters style squat that my body seems to prefer.
Like fingerprints, our bodies are unique, and everyone won’t get to choose how they can perform the squat in a safe manner. World records have been squatted with both styles. Find a squat style that you can perform safely and consistently, and then start training.
Balance in the Squat
The human body’s centre of mass – also called centre of gravity – is usually located somewhere around your belly button. As you move around, you are always keeping your centre of mass roughly above the middle of your foot – otherwise you’d lose balance and fall over.
The same goes for squatting. As you squat down, you will need to keep your centre of mass roughly above the middle of your foot. You can correct slight deviations back and forth (weight going back on your heels or front on your toes) by using the muscles of your feet and calves, but not much.
As you add a bar to the equation, you will have to take the bar’s centre of gravity in consideration as well. Or rather, your body will do that for you automatically, to keep you from falling forward or backward.
If you weigh 200 pounds and the bar weighs 200 pounds, your combined centre of gravity will be halfway from your belly button (your centre of gravity) to the bar. This combined centre of gravity (you + the bar) will always be centered roughly above the middle of your foot.
You will not need to have a trainer check this from the side, nor video yourself – if you’re not keeping the combined centre of gravity over the middle of your foot, you will fall over.
- The heavier the barbell, the less significant your own body’s centre of gravity will be in terms of balance.
- The lighter the barbell, the less significant it’s centre of gravity will be in terms of balance.
MySquatMechanics does a beautiful job at illustrating this point. Below, I’ve grabbed two screenshots from their model.
The lifter is identical in terms of body weight and body segment lengths in both figures below. I’ve set the lifters weight at 200 pounds.
The only difference between the two figures is that in the left one, I’ve set the bar weight at 45 lbs, and in the right one I’ve set it at 600 lbs.
Notice how in the first picture, the lifters own body weight and centre of gravity is much more dictating the movement and balance during the lift. Whereas in the second picture, the heavy barbell dictates most of the positioning. And the heavier the bar gets compared to your body weight, the closer to vertical the barbell must move.
So why am I going on about this?
Because you must know that your squatting technique will change depending on how much weight you’re lifting.
It has some important technical implications:
- You don’t need to worry about “keeping the bar above your mid-foot”. Your body and sense of balance will take care of this by their own. If you fail to keep your combined centre of gravity roughly above the middle of your foot, you will fall forward or backward.
- If you squat an empty 45 lbs bar in the exact same path as a 900 lbs bar, you will fall back on your ass. So don’t strive to lift an empty bar (or even worse, a 2 lbs wooden stick) in a perfectly vertical line. That makes the faulty assumption that your own body doesn’t weigh anything.
- Most people will have an easier time squatting with a heavier weight than a light one. Because the barbell will be placed in front of their own centre of gravity, which will help them from falling back.
Most people can easily squat pretty deep and with a quite vertical torso if they do a goblet squat (a squat with a weight held at their chest), because of the forward shift in balance. A heavier bar will cause this exact same shift, but since the bar is much closer to your own centre of gravity and the leverage thus is shorter, you will need more weight to feel the effects.
So what is the practical application of this?
- Don’t feel bad if you are having troubles squatting deep with good technique with an empty bar or a wooden stick. Odds are, the weight is simply too light in relation to your own body weight.
- Try increasing the weight on the bar, and see what happens with your technique. Most likely, you will find that you can keep a slightly more vertical torso the heavier the bar gets, since you no longer will need to lean forward to maintain balance.
- Ditch the apps that draw a colorful line of your bar path when you film yourself from the side. The correct bar path will depend on 1) how much the bar weighs, and 2) how much you weigh. Your body will be able to keep your balance on it’s own.
So if you shouldn’t focus on the bar path itself when it comes to technical analysis, what then?
Well, a much better focus would be:
- How you position your feet, stance and bar (high vs low placement)
- How you distribute work between knee, hip and back extensors.
Last but not least: keep training. As you keep accumulating experience squatting, you will consciously or subconsciously feel when microvariations in performance from rep to rep leads to a little better performance, and this will refine your technique as you keep squatting.
The Core Muscles and the Squat
There are many misconceptions regarding the core and the squat. Let’s clear them up in this section, with the help of scientific studies and biomechanical reasoning.
The core musculature is made up of at least a dozen different muscles, both superficial (like your abs and spinal erectors) and deep (like your diaphragm and pelvic floor). The core muscles also surround your spine on all sides: the four abdominals (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, and the internal and external obliques) on the front and sides, and the large muscle group erector spinae on the back, are some of the larger ones.
Depending on the challenge, different parts of your core will have to work.
- Are you loading your core from the front? Like when standing in a plank, a push-up position, or pushing a car in front of you. Then your abdominals will have to work hard, especially your rectus abdominus and the anterior (forward-most) parts of your inner and outer obliques.
- Are you loading your core from the side? Like when you are standing in a side plank, or carrying something heavy in one hand. Then your inner and outer obliques will have to work hard to keep you straight.
- Are you loading your core from the back? Like when you place a bar over your shoulders and do a good morning – or a squat. Then the muscles on the back of your core will have to work hard, meaning your erector spinae and multifidus (= your back extensors). The posterior (back-most) parts of your obliques will also aid a little, but not much. Overall, your abs are not very active (nor do they need to be) when squatting.
That is not to say that your abs aren’t working at all in a squat, but they are very unlikely to be a limiting factor for performance or technique.
This is nothing controversial, and is backed by science. Several studies have shown that the abdominals are not very active during a squat. The obliques are a little more active, but the back extensors (erector spinae and multifidus) are almost maximally taxed.8 9 10 11
So, this might be where someone would say: “Well if these study participants tensed their abs, they could squat even more!”. But where is the logic in that? The abs are spine flexors, meaning they bend the spine forward. You already have a heavy barbell on your shoulders that is trying to do that for you! And your back extensors are fight as hard as they can to resist that force, and keep your back straight. If your abdominals would contract, they would add to the challenge of your back extensors, making it even harder to keep a straight spine.
The confusion likely stems from confusion about the intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). Intra-abdominal pressure is the term describing that when you trap air in your lungs, and your guts and intestants in your abdomen, and tense the muscles surrounding all of this, you increase the pressure in your abdomen. This acts kind of like a supporting balloon of air (… and guts), stabilizing your spine and torso. Your core muscles participate in creating this pressure, but here’s the kicker: that does not mean that all of your core muscles should be maximally active for every given task. The optimal core activation depends on what you are doing!
During a squat, your core musculature are trying to solve the problem of keeping the bar on your back, without crumpling forward (flexing) like a cheese doodle. This is solved by doing two things:
- The back extensors are working as hard as they can to resist the barbell and keep the spine straight.
- The other core muscles generate intra-abdominal pressure to aid the back extensors, without creating an unneccessarily large flexing force on the spine which would add to the workload of the back extensors.
In summary, the squat does not train your abdominals to any high extent, nor should it be expected to do so.
Don’t over-analyze the art of bracing during a squat. Take a breath of air and hold it, unrack a bar, and let your body figure out what muscles need to be contracted, how much, and when.
How Deep Should You Squat?
The short answer is something like this.
- If you want general leg strength and maximal hypertrophy: Squat as deep as you safely can, but at least down to parallel (= where your thigh is parallel to the floor).
- If you are a powerlifter: Squat to regulation depth. In IPF, this is until the part of your thigh closest to your abdomen, is below the top of your knee. Generally this is just below parallel.
- If you are an athlete using squats to increase your sports performance: Do a part of your squats as deep as you safely can, and part of them to your sports “working depth”.
For a more nuanced answer, let’s look at the two separate outcomes, muscle growth and strength, in turn.
Before we do that, let’s just go over some quick definitions.
What is a deep squat?
- It is generally considered to be a squat performed to at least parallel depth, or more. This is usually when your knee is flexed to about 120° (where 0° is when you’re standing straight with extended legs).
- A squat to 90° knee flexion is generally called a half squat.
- A squat to 60° knee flexion is generally called a quarter squat.
Here is an example of a 60° (left) and 120° squat:
For this particular model, a 120° squat leads to the thigh bone being parallel to the floor, and a deeper squat would then necessitate more than 120° knee flexion with this same squat style.
So, whenever we talk about a “deep squat” in terms of training effect, we mean a squat to parallel depth or more. This is sometimes also called a “full squat” in the scientific literature.
With that out of the way, let’s look at how squat depth influences hypertrophy.
Squat Depth for Muscle Growth
Two training studies have compared muscle growth from deep squats to quarter or half squat.
The first one, published in 2013,12 had 17 young men train barbell squats three times per week for 12 weeks with progressive weight increases. They were divided into two groups:
- One group trained full squats (120° knee flexion)
- The other trained quarter squats (60° knee flexion)
Muscle growth was measured by MRI, at several points across the thigh, 1 cm apart.
The deep squat group experienced significantly more muscle growth in their quadriceps compared to the shallow squat group: between 4–7% increase in cross-sectional area (CSA). The muscle growth of the deep squat group was significantly greater than in the shallow group in all measure sites except one, as seen below.
Both groups had small to non-existent muscle growth in the back of the thigh (which squats don’t really train that well, contrary to popular beliefs).
So – greater quadriceps growth from deep squats in the first of two studies.
The second study took things a bit further by examining how different squat depths influenced muscle growth in not only the quads and hamstrings but also the glutes and adductors.
Yet again, a group of young men was selected to train free barbell squats, two times per week for 10 weeks.
They were divided into two groups, both of which trained a little deeper squats than in the previous study:
- One group trained squats to 140° knee flexion.
- The other trained half squats, to 90° knee flexion.
Muscle volume was measured in the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus and adductors, by using MRI to take several pictures and then multiplying the muscle area in each picture with the distance (1 cm) between each measurement point.
Results? Significantly greater muscle growth in the glutes and adductors from deep (140°) squats compared to half squats (90°).
Worth noting is that both groups experienced similar quadriceps growth, which stands in contrast to the previous study where 120° squats were superior to 60° for quadriceps growth. Does this mean that 90° squats are enough to elicit robust quadriceps growth, but not for glutes or adductors? Maybe. We’ll see what future research unearths.
Neither group experienced any muscle growth in their hamstrings, which goes to show that the hamstrings isn’t really involved in barbell squatting.
In conclusion, deep squats (120–140° knee flexion) seems to elicit more muscle growth in the legs and glutes overall than shallow or half squats (60–90°).
But what about strength gains?
Squat Depth for Strength
Strength gains from squatting seems to be quite specific. Meaning: you will get better at what you practice.
- If you train in a long range of motion, you will increase your strength pretty evenly in that whole range.
- If you train in a short range of motion, you may increase your strength a little bit more in that specific range than if you would train in a long range, but less (or not at all) in ranges outside what you have practiced.
Let’s start by looking at the strength gains in the two studies we just covered regarding muscle growth.
In the first one, where subjects trained squats to either 120° or 60°, the deep squat group increased their strength by about 20% in both deep and shallow squats. However, the group that trained shallow squats increased their strength in shallow squats by 36% but only increased their deep squats by 9%.
The second one had similar results: the group that trained deep squats improved the most in deep squats (32% vs. 12%) while the group that trained half squats increased their strength more in half squats (32% vs. 24%).
Similar results have been seen in other studies with similar designs: you improve most in the squat depth that you train, but deep squat training has better carry-over to shallow squats, than vice versa.13 14
In conclusion, train the squat depth that you wish to improve your strength at. If you’re capable of squatting even deeper than you “must”, it could benefit you to do some of your training to this deeper level.
Unracking the Bar
The lift begins by unracking the bar, and doing this right can improve your performance significantly.
The overall goal of the unracking process is to get to the point where you are ready for the descent, while wasting a minimum of energy, and maintaining a strong and stable posture.
The bar should be placed at a height where you can comfortably unrack and re-rack it – without wasting unnecessary energy on “squatting up” a bar that is racked too low, nor having to go up on your toes to re-rack a bar that has slid down your back an inch during your heavy squat.
A good rule of thumb is to set the rack height so that the bar is resting at the level of your sternum – maybe an inch higher for high bar squatters, and an inch lower for low bar squatters.
When the bar is at the correct height, it is time to unrack it.
- Grip the bar with your hands at your desired grip width. If you don’t yet have one, a good place to start is with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Step up close to the bar so that it touches your sternum.
- Place your feet under the bar, slightly narrower than your final stance is going to be (more on this below).
- Take a breath, duck under the bar, and place it over the back off your shoulders.
- Exhale and take another breath. Brace your core, lats and traps. Lift the bar out off the rack by extending your legs.
- Take one step back with one foot, one step back with the other one, and then use a third step to correct your stance into an even position.
Don’t go for a walk with the bar – three steps should be enough to get you out of the way for the rack, while still not expending much energy.
Regarding stance width while unracking: If you assume a wide stance when you unrack the bar, you will wiggle more side-to-side as you step back from the rack. This increases the risk that you will bump the weights into the rack on the way out, which can be distracting and put you out of position. Counter this by taking a narrower stance when you unrack, and widen the stance during your three steps back.
By now you have reached the point where you’re standing at some distance from the rack, with your right stance and the bar on your back. Time to squat!
With what we’ve already covered regarding your stance, bar position and squat depth, much regarding your descent is already reined in: You will need to squat down with what you’ve got, to the depth that you need to reach. For the powerlifter, this will be just below parallel.
Two things remain to discuss however, of which the first would be the tempo.
Tempo of the Descent
How fast should you descend in the squat?
The answer probably is: As fast as you can while still maintaining control.
Two primary reasons:
- Energy conserving. A slow eccentric costs more energy than a quick one.
- Rebound effect. The more you are capable of using your tendons and muscles elasticity for a rubber-band effect, the more help you will get out from the bottom.
Now, no amount of rebound effect or energy conservation makes a difference if you injure yourself or miss the lift due to balance or some other technical error. Hence why we say “As fast as you can while still maintaining control.“.
The right descent speed for you might not be the same as for me, but in general, if your descent takes ages you are wasting energy and losing your rebound effect at the bottom.
If you find that you descend very slowly and want to increase your speed, one way to address that is to train a little more in higher rep-ranges, like several sets around 10 reps or so.
The high number of repetitions will subconsciously teach you to conserve your energy while you are repping, and thus might make you chip away at some of your technical unneccessarities, like a too-slow descent. Rotate this high-rep work with regular heavier training every now and then, and try to keep the speed in your heavier sets. It will not happen overnight, but can lead to big changes if you practice it during a regular training block of a month or two.
Now, if you descend slowly and it works just fine for you – keep doing it, by all means! This is a highly individual technicality, and you must find what works for you. If you however feel that you might gain a little on the ascent if you could speed up your descent just a little bit, then it might be worth giving it some attention.
Now for the second consideration of the descent: the order in which you move your joints.
Which Joints Move First in the Descent?
Just like the descent, this will be a highly individual technical consideration. But, there do seem to be a majority of lifters that find that their squat feels a lot better when they initiate the movement by pushing their butt back.
Or in other words: begin with the hips.
Yes, if you were to monitor the knees and hips closely, you’d likely find that they both start flexing simultaneously, but the hips flex more than the knees in the initial part of the descent.
To try this out, simply aim to lead with the hips next time you squat.
That was the descent. Now let’s move on to when you reverse the movement.
The Turning Point
We have already covered how deep you should squat. This section covers what happens when you reach that point.
You might already have heard about the phenomenon called the stretch-shortening cycle. It is the name for the fact that a muscle can contract more forcefully if it has first been stretched.
- It is the reason for why you can jump higher if you squat down slightly and then immediately reverse the movement and jump, compared to if you would squat down, wait three seconds, and then jump.
- It is the reason for why you can bench more touch-and-go-style than with a pause.
I have referred to this as the rubber-band effect earlier in this article, because it’s main mechanism is likely that energy has been stored in the muscle and tendonds elastic tissue, which then acts like a spring.
As a rough estimate, I’d say that most people can squat about 10 % more if they reverse the movement instantly compared to a several second long pause squat. Utilizing this stretch reflex effectively can thus bring rich dividends in terms of added weight.
The counter-part is, just like with the descent: how fast can you change the movement (how aggressively can you “bounce”) while still keeping control and avoiding injury?
- The forces placed on your lower body is twice as high if you decelerate the descending weight, turn the movement, and accelerate again in 0.5 instead of 1 second. This means that your tissues and technical integrity will have to withstand twice the force compared to the slower turn.
- Greater skill will be required to execute all the right muscle actions and retaining balance in a quicker turning. It might increase your risk of making a technical mistake.
So, while a quick “bounce” might benefit your performance, it also bears its own risks.
With the turn in the squat, just as with many things, you will have to find your own goldilocks-squat zone of “just right”.
The Sticking Point and Lock-Out
The sticking point in the squat is typically considered to be somewhere above parallel.15
One study filmed elite powerlifters at a competition, and defined the sticking point as the point where the bar slows down to the lowest speed during the ascent, to then accelerate again.16 The logic being that if the weight was any heavier, it would come to a stop at this point.
The researchers found that this slowest point during the movement, followed by an acceleration, was at a thigh angle relative to the floor of 33°, where 0° is when the thigh is parallel to the floor.
From a personal standpoint, this is in line with my experience as a powerlifter, having both competed at and watched numerous competitions: If the weight is way too heavy for the lifter, he or she doesn’t even get out of the hole. But when the weight is just barely too heavy, they seem to fail somewhere above parallel.
When the thigh angle relative to the floor is 33°, you will (depending on your squat style) have squatted down to about a 70–80° knee flexion. That is, somewhere between a quarter and a half squat.
But why does the sticking point occur here? Pretty much everyone is stronger at quarter or half squats than deep squats, it doesn’t make any sense that you would get stuck there. Also, wouldn’t the demands of the knee and hip extensors peak when your thigh is parallel to the ground, as that would be the point when your joints are the furthest from the bar, and thus the moment arm would be at their longest?
What could be the explanation?
My best guess: the bounce.
Due to the stretch-shortening cycle mentioned earlier, you get some help from your muscles’ and tendons’ elasticity, and this powers you through much of the demanding range of motion that is around the bottom and the parallel thigh position. But when the rubber band effect wears off, you are left to rely on your own muscle force, while still being pretty close to a very demanding position.
Logically, this would mean that the sticking point of a pause squat (where you have eliminated the stretch reflex) is different from that of a normal squat. Intuitively, I have the gut feeling that is the case: in a pause squat that is just barely too heavy, you’d get stuck lower than a 33° degree thigh angle. Perhaps around parallel, or even just below it?
However, besides just making your knee and hip extensors stronger as well as trying to utilize the stretch-shortening cycle, there isn’t too much you can do about the sticking point. Except maybe one thing. There is a technique that some lifters use, and that Greg Nuckols have written about, which is to drive the hips under the bar when you reach or approach the sticking point. The rationale is that the demands of the knee extensors have decreased at that point, and by shifting your hips forward you might “lend” some work from the quadriceps to the hip extensors via this shift in moment arms. I haven’t personally tried this technique, but I’ve seen good squatters utilize it often and it might be worth giving it a shot.
If you clear the sticking point, the final lock-out will generally be a breeze.
Re-Racking the Bar
Putting the bar back isn’t very complicated, but there’s a few details I want to mention.
- Correct rack height. We went over this in the section on unracking the bar, but it bears repeating: set the rack so that you won’t have to go up on your toes when you’re putting back the bar.
- Squat it down, don’t good morning it. When you’ve walked into the racks and are about to set the bar down in the hooks, make sure you squat it down rather than just bend forward like a good morning. The reason for this being that you will remain in a stronger position if something should go awry. You could miss the hooks (happened to me) or if you are using a light rack it might even fall over. Keep control over the bar and remain in a strong position until you’re home free.
How to Become Stronger in the Squat
So you’ve decided you want to become stronger in the squat. How do you go about it?
The weight you can squat is determined by the amount of force you can produce in your muscles (primarily the extensors of the knees, hips and back) and transfer into the bar. To squat more weight, that is what you will have to improve.
If you strip it down to the essentials, there are three different domains in which you can improve in order to accomplish this, and those are:
- Muscle & tendon. This is your hardware. A bigger muscle produces more force, and a stiffer tendon transfers that force into your bones more efficiently. Skeletal muscle mass is strongly correlated (~r=0.94) with squat performance.
In training for sports, the principle of specificity reigns supreme. It means that if you want to become better at squatting, then you’d better train the squat to some extent. It does not, however, apply equally to all three points in the list above. Rather, the requirement for specificity increases with each point above.
- To build bigger muscles, you simply have to train them in any reasonable way. Yes, strength gains can be quite specific in terms of vectors, but if you build bigger and stronger quadriceps using leg extensions (for example), you will still have bigger and stronger knee extensors when you go back to the squat.
- Tendons increase in stiffness from all heavy training, and the degree of specificity in terms of exercise choice is quite low here as well.
- Improvements in neuromuscular efficiency and especially technique require more specificity, and you will actually have to practice the lift in which you want to improve. Preferrably at pretty heavy loads.
This means that you can roughly divide your squat training into two distinct parts, or goals:
- Building bigger and stronger muscles.
- Specific squat practice.
Now, squatting in and of itself of course works all the relevant muscles for squatting, but limiting yourself to squats only might limit the amount of productive muscle-building training that you could do, and thus hamper your strength gains – especially in the long term, where muscle mass plays a greater role.17
For the best long-term strength gains, it might benefit you to keep a portion of specific squat practice in your training, and then add in hypertrophy work for the major muscles worked in the squat:
- Knee extensors: Quadriceps
- Hip extensors: Glutes, adductors
- Back extensors: Erector spinae, multifidus
With this in mind, let’s see how this manifests itself in different training variables.
Training Volume for the Squat
The optimal training volume varies widely between individuals and is dependent on several factors, such as:
- Training status. The more accustomed you are to training, the more you can both handle and will likely need.
- Age. Young to middle-aged adults likely recover easier than elderly ones.
- Nutrition. Calories and protein the currencies of adaption. The more you put in, the more you can spend.
- Recovery. Good sleep and low stress increases your ability to endure and adapt to the training.
The relationship between strength (and hypertrophy) gains and training volume follows an inverted U-shape, where both too little and too much training leads to inferior gains.
Research into resistance training volume is carried out primarily on beginners or intermediate trainees. Generally, a low weekly set volume (less than 5 sets/week) is good, but a high volume (more than 10 sets/week) yields slightly better strength gains in this population.18 The upper limit of productive training volume (= volume that still leads to better results) is less researched, but might be in the vicinity of 15 sets to failure per week for new or intermediate lifters.19 Stopping your sets a few reps short of failure will likely increase the number of sets you can perform and recover properly from.20
Training to failure is not necessary for optimal strength gains, and might even be counter-productive, especially in the context of complex, multi-joint exercises like the squat.21
Below are some general volume recommendations in terms of working sets of squats. They are based partly on the research litterature and partly on our own experience of training and powerlifting.
The recommendations pertain to working sets. That is: sets that are challenging, but are generally not performed to failure, instead leaving 1–2 reps in the tank.
- Low volume, 6–9 sets per week: This is a suitable volume for the beginner lifter that is simultaneously getting used to deadlifting maybe once a week, and thus is acclimatizing to a lot of new stress. It might also be suitable for the intermediate lifter that is either tapering, or taking a minimalistic approach to squatting while perhaps focusing on hypertrophy work for the squat musculature.
- Medium volume, 10–16 sets per week: The goldilocks zone, and probably a nice target volume for a majority of people in the intermediate stage. Recovery demands will be quite low if this is the only training you do for the lower body, but if you add in deadlifts and squat accessory training, the total volume will place quite high demands on your recovery. This might be a suitable volume for an advanced lifter who is tapering.
- High volume, 17–24 sets per week: For the intermediate lifter who is stuck on a plateu and wants his or her squat to ascend to the next level, or for the advanced lifter. Recovery demands are high, especially if this is coupled with deadlift training and accessory work. Most will have to gradually increase their volume to this level over a long period of time, and some lifters might simply find it to be too much for them, and that medium volume works better.
Training Volume for Muscles Used in the Squat
For optimal squat gains, you will probably want to train the prime mover muscles more than you can do if you’d only use squats. Variation in exercises performed likely increases the training volume you can adapt to, by lowering the risk of over-use injuries.
A recent meta-analysis found that 9+ sets per muscle per week resulted in hypertrophy gains of 8.0% over a period of 12 weeks, compared with 5.9% for less than 9 sets per week.22 However, most studies in the meta-analysis (12 out of 14) were conducted on previously untrained participants, and research on well-trained lifters is lacking. In most studies the sets were also performed to failure; stopping the sets short of failure likely increases the volume you can do and recover from.
If your squat volume is along the lines of medium (10–16 sets/week) or even high volume (17–24 sets/week), then you are already training all the prime movers reasonably well. Add in deadlift training at least once a week, and you have a solid foundation of training for all the prime mover muscles. However, both squats and deadlifts can be quite strenous, and there might be room for some “easier” exercises to top things of, for a small additional increase in gains. Read more about this in the section “Auxiliary Exercises”.
Training Frequency for the Squat
In meta-analyses conducted on mostly (~90%) untrained populations, resistance training frequency doesn’t seem to impact gains in strength or hypertrophy much as long as the total training volume is the same.23 24 25
However, the total training volume that you can positively adapt to is likely higher with a higher training frequency, as you’ll hit the maximum number of sets that can be productively performed in a session, before you’ll hit the maximum number of sets that can be productively performed in a whole week.
Therefore, training frequency might be an important mediator for training volume. Do you want to train a lot? Well, sooner or later you’ll have to distribute the training on more days, before your current workouts swell beyond the scope of what is productive to do in one session.
A rough limit on the number of work sets of squats in a single session might be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12 sets for an experienced lifter, but you might want to split the training volume to two sessions earlier than that, perhaps at 10 work sets.
Here’s how you might distribute the aforementioned volume recommendations on different training frequencies:
- Low volume, 6–9 sets per week: 1–2 sessions per week.
- Medium volume, 10–16 sets per week: 1–3 sessions per week.
- High volume, 17–24 sets per week: 2–4 sessions per week.
Contrary to what some might believe, recovery after squatting seems to happen about as fast as recovery after both deadlifting and bench pressing.26 27 Habituation to a high training frequency thus seems most important.
A survey of 104 mid-level swedish powerlifters revealed that they, on average, train squats 2.2 ± 1.0 times per week. In comparison, they train deadlifts 1.6 ± 0.8 times per week, and bench press 2.3 ± 1.1 times per week.28
About 2–3 squat sessions per week is not a bad starting point for someone who also trains deadlifts or similar lower-body movements.
A classic way you might go about planning your squat workouts is the “Heavy, medium, light”-template:
- If you only train squats once a week, it should be a heavy workout.
- If you add in a second workout, that workout should be medium.
- If you add in a third workout, that workout should be light.
Heavy, medium and light primarily refers to the overall stress of the workout, and does not neccesarily mean that you have to train with heavy, medium or light weights. You could use fairly heavy weights in all three workouts, but use changes in volume, reps and how close you train to failure to adjust if it is a hard workout or not.
If you are aiming to increase your squat frequency even more, another classic method is this:
- First increase the frequency. Add another squat session to your week, but don’t increase the overall volume. Instead, just split your current volume over one more workout.
- Then increase the volume. Slowly ramp up the volume by adding easy sets, so that you are well on the safe side of not doing too much, too soon.
- Finally increase the intensity (load). When you are accustomed to your new frequency, you might start to increase the intensity of load you’re using.
Load & Reps
Your strength can improve from training with both high and low loads, but when you compare them head to head, lifting heavy weights is slightly more effective if you want to get better at, well, lifting heavy weights.
A meta-analysis of 14 studies with mostly untrained participants found that training with more than 60% of 1RM led to significantly higher strength gains than training with 60% or less.29
There are several rep and loading strategies that work, as long as you heed the principle of specificity (lifting heavy every once in a while) and progressive overload (adding weight or reps).
Without getting into periodization practices, here are three basic templates for how to structure your workouts in the context of the two principles mentioned above. Try to increase weights/reps over time.
- Pyramid training. Increase/decrease the weights in a pyramid fashion during your workout. E.g. go from 6–10 reps at 60% of 1RM, up to 1+ reps at 90%, and back down to 60% again. That way you’ll get some practice at heavier weights, while still getting a good amount of volume in.
- Slug away at 80%. The range of about 75–85% of 1RM is the powerlifters bread and butter. It’s heavy enough to be specific training for max attempts, but not so heavy that it burns you out. It’s typically possible to accumulate a large, effective volume at this intensity. Something like 6–10 sets x 2–4 reps might be appropriate for one workout.
- Heavy with auxiliaries. Warm up to one max effort set at 85–90% of 1RM, maybe follow up with 1–2 lighter back-off sets, and then fill in with volume from your favourite auxiliary exercises for legs, glutes and back.
Of course, you do not need to blend heavy and light sets in the same workout, but can spread them out over different workouts as well. For instance, you could train around 80% of 1RM in workout 1, around 70% in workout 2, and around 90% in workout 3.
Auxiliary Exercises for the Squat
Auxiliary exercises can generally be divided in two groups, based on their desired training effect:
- Hypertrophy. Exercises that strengthen and grow the muscles used in the lift.
- Strength/Technique. Exercises that strengthen the movement, or improve the performance or technique of the lift.
Note: one exercise might fit in both categories.
Let’s explore the two categories and give some examples of appropriate exercises.
Supplementary Exercises for Muscles Used in the Squat
The primary movers in the squat are the knee extensors (quadriceps), hip extensors (glutes, adductor magnus), and back extensors (erector spinae), so that is the muscles you should be most concerned about getting to grow.
The options for hypertrophy exercises are many, and more a matter of personal preference than anything else. If you can do an exercise with a decent range of motion, get a nice muscle contact, and it doesn’t hurt – then you can probably use it to build muscle.
Here are a sample list of exercises that you might use to supplement your training for the muscles involved in the squat. If you are hitting both squats and deadlifts hard, you might only want to pick 1–2 of the exercises below, and do 2–3 sets at 1–2 workouts per week. If you squat with a low volume (relative to your training level), you can increase the volume of supplementary exercises.
- Deadlift (if you’re not already doing them) (knee, hip and back extensors)
- Front squat (knee, hip and back extensors)
- Bulgarian split squat (knee and hip extensors)
- Leg press (knee and hip extensors)
- Belt squat (knee and hip extensors)
- Leg extension (knee extensors)
- Hip thrust (hip extensors)
- Kettlebell swing (hip and back extensors)
- Good morning (hip and back extensors)
Squat Variations to Strengthen or Improve Technique
The best exercise to improve your performance and technique in the squat, is the squat, but that doesn’t mean that there are no more tools in the toolbox.
Here are some of the most common squat variations that you might use to strengthen your squat, or improve your technique. They are generally more taxing than the hypertrophy exercises listed earlier, and also cut in more into your other squat volume. Working sets of the exercises listed below should probably be traded in for your regular sets of squats if you’re already training at a high volume, rather than piled on top of it.
- Pause squats. Can be used to improve overall technique, and strength around the position that you pause in. We generally recommend pausing in the bottom position, and for a count of three. Pausing in the bottom position also helps engraining a feeling of what correct depth is.
- Tempo squats. Slowing things down increases your control and body-awareness, and also gives to more time to correct errors. This can be used as an aid to improve technique. I have personally used this to create more opportunity to correct errors like knees caving in, butt wink, and going up on the toes. You can choose to slow down the tempo on the way down, up, or both.
- Box squats. Can be used for a variety of purposes, including: Finding correct depth, limiting the movement in case of injury, practicing technique and body awareness in the bottom, and training your strength from the bottom.
- Front squats. Shifts the workload more to your quadriceps and unloads the hip extensors slightly. Increases the demands of especially upper back strength. Can be used to strengthen quadriceps and upper back, and teach a more upright squatting posture. Can be helpful for “good morning”-squatters.
Training Programs for the Squat
That’s a lot of information about squatting, but how do you convert that into a practical training program?
Below follows a few different sample programs, for beginners, intermediates and advanced lifters respectively. Let’s define these three groups based on how long they would need to train to make a noticeable strength gain. In the squat, that could be as little as 5 lbs/2.5 kg.
- Beginner: Someone who is new to squatting, and gets stronger between almost every workout.
- Intermediate: Someone who has been training squats for a couple of months. No longer gets stronger every workout, but still makes noticeable strength gains on a weekly basis.
- Advanced: Someone who has been squatting diligently for at least half a year, and no longer makes significant progress every week. Needs at least a month of consistent training for noticable strength gains.
What separates a beginners training from an advanced lifters? Primarily two things:
- Volume: To continue bringing about new adaptations from the training (i.e. getting bigger and stronger), you need to increase the stimulus. This will obviously be done in one part by increasing the weights you’re training with, but the other part is by increasing the total number of sets and reps you do. Throughout the course of your career, your training volume will need to increase.
- Specificity: The earlier in your training career you are, the more general you can afford to be and still make gains. The more advanced you are, the more specific your training will have to be. For the squatter striving to increase his 1RM, this means that you will increase the amount of training you do at a high intensity (high % of your 1RM) throughout your lifting career.
Lets have a look at the sample programs.
Beginner Squat Program: 2–3x/week
There’s no need to get complicated with a beginners squat program. Get in the gym 2–3 times per week, practice a few sets of squats, make sure to increase the weight or reps regularly.
Our beginner squat program is laid out like this, and it is a great starting program for a beginner. So is our beginner barbell program.
Here’s how a workout could look.
- Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
You warm up, and then do 3 sets of 5 reps at the same working weight. If you got all 5 reps, then you increase the weight by 5 lbs/2.5 kg the next workout. If you don’t manage 3 sets of 5 reps, keep training with that weight every workout until you get it, then increase the weight.
A training frequency of 2–3 squatting workouts per week is great for keeping the technique fresh and your body mobile. This goes for both beginners, intermediate and advanced lifters alike.
Stick with this as long as you’re making gains on it. When you no longer can increase the weight by 5 pounds/2.5 kg and work your way up to 3 sets of 5 reps (as in: you’re stuck at a given weight/rep combo), then it’s time to switch to an intermediate training program.
Intermediate Squat Program: 2x/week
Instead of aiming to make noticeable strength gains every workout, the intermediate lifter will strive to make progress from week to week. Therefore, the lifter will only really push their limit once every week.
The intermediate lifter will likely need slightly more training volume than the beginner lifter, and will also need to train closer to his or her 1RM for the best strength gains.
Increased muscle mass will begin to play a greater role for long-term strength gains, and therefore some hypertrophy-focused training is added.
Here’s how an intermediate squat program with two workouts per week might look:
Intermediate Workout A:
- Squat: 5 sets x 3 reps x 80% of 1RM – once you can complete all reps, increase the weight by 5 lbs/2.5 kg for the next workout.
- Good morning: 2–3 sets x 5–8 reps
- Leg Press: 2–3 sets x 8–15 reps
Intermediate Workout B:
- Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps – with 10% lighter weight than on workout A.
- Bulgarian split squat: 2–3 sets x 8–12 reps
- Leg Extension: 2–3 sets x 8–20 reps
After you’ve exhausted this program, and have gone several weeks without being able to hit 5×3 reps with a new weight, it is time to move forward to an advanced squat program.
Advanced Squat Program: 2x/week
The advanced lifter acknowledges that the sweet newbie gains have come and gone, and you will likely only see noticeable strength gains (5+ lbs) every 1–2 months on average – if you’re even that lucky. Squat Samba, the squat program in our app, is 6 weeks long, which we’ve found to be something of a sweet spot for many lifters.
It is harder to give samples of advanced training programs since as lifters progress in their training, they become less homogenous, and the importance of individualization increases. Therefore, we will describe how we’ve designed the progression in Squat Samba so that you can use that information to plan your own training. Or, if you’d prefer: download our app, register for premium, and try the program.
Squat Samba is designed so that you can train it continuously for several cycles in a row. You squat twice a week: one heavier session progressing mainly in intensity (% of 1RM) and one lighter session progressing mainly in volume.
The breakdown of the programs progression is this:
- The volume (in terms of sets of squats) increases over the first few weeks and peaks in week 3, following an inverted U-shape. The final week, containing the max attempt, functions as a taper and also something of a deload before the next cycle.
- The peak % of 1RM climbs from 85% in week one, to 102.5% (your new max attempt) in week 6.
- The average % of 1RM increases gradually over the course of the six weeks, from 71–72% of 1RM in the first few weeks, reaching 76% at most in week 3 and 6.
Here’s a visual representation:
The gist of the program is this:
- You start off in a somewhat comfortable place, and then increase the volume and your training weights gradually from there, trying to push your limits just enough to stimulate new gains.
- You finish the training cycle with a taper and a max attempt in week 6.
- If the program seemed productive to you, and you believe you will benefit from another cycle, increase your submitted 1RM and go through another cycle of training.
- If you believe you need more training volume, switch to the high volume version.
Useful Equipment for Squatting
Let’s have a look at some of the most useful and important equipment considerations for squatting.
We will be covering:
- Knee sleeves
- Knee wraps
Shoes for Squatting
When choosing shoes for squatting, there are two main things to consider:
- Stability. You’ll want a firm or even hard sole, to keep your foot stable while lifting. Avoid soft and wobbly jogging shoes, as their instability will hurt your performance and increase injury risk. For optimal force transfer into the ground, you need good ground contact.
- Heel height. Should you use a flat shoe with no heel-to-toe drop, or a shoe with a raised heel, like olympic weightlifters use?
The latter point is where the right answer will be different for different persons, and it will depend on your squat style, anatomy and personal preference:
- Generally speaking, those using a high bar position, narrow or medium stance, with feet pointing mostly straight forward (“olympic style”) will benefit from a raised heel. Those using a low bar position, wide stance and feet pointing more to the sides, will prefer a flat shoe.
- Some people will have a body structure that is better suited to using one or the other type of shoe. This might be influenced by your segment lengths (long vs short femurs), joint structures (hip, knee and ankle), and more.
- For some people, one type of shoe will just feel way more natural than the other.
There are, of course, exceptions, and the list above merely contains suggestions and generalizations.
For me personally, buying a pair of Adidas weightlifting shoes with raised heels finally, after much frustration, made my squat technique “click”. Others may use shoes with raised heels for a while, and then when they switch back to flat shoes find that it suits their new style or strengths better than it used to do.
The take-away? Don’t be afraid to experiment with both shoes and technique. I’d venture a guess, based on my experiences, that about 50% of squatters benefit from a raised heel, and the other 50% is better off with a flat shoe.
To find out which half you belong to, try both. You can mimic a raised heel by placing your heels on small weight plates, a wood plank or something similar to get a feel for it. I don’t recommend that you train that way, as it might increase your injury risk, so if you find that elevating your heels feels good to you, I recommend that you buy a pair of shoes with raised heels.
A lifting belt is typically between 2 to 4 inches wide, and aids you by increasing the intra-abdominal pressure.30 31 This stiffens your core, and helps most people squat about 5–10% more weight. At least after they have been accustomed to wearing a belt – it can be quite uncomfortable in the beginning.
If using a belt enables you to squat more weight, than that will most likely be positive for the training effect in your quads and hips. They get to work against a heavier weight, while not getting any direct help from the belt.
But what about your core? A common argument is that a belt will weaken your core muscles by doing the work for them. EMG-studies does not support this argument, as they either find small or no differences in core muscle activation.32 33 34
The belt probably changes the muscle activation pattern in some ways, however, and it might be a good idea to train both with and without a belt, so that you practice both activation patterns.
We recommend that you use a belt if you compete in powerlifting or a similar sport where you can use a belt in competition (given that it actually improves your performance, of course). You might also want to use a belt if you are a bodybuilder or train for general strength and hypertrophy, as the belt will likely give your working muscles a better training stimulus.
If you don’t train to compete in powerlifting, then it probably doesn’t matter too much if you use a belt or not in your training. On the one hand the belt might enable your legs and hips a better training stimulus, but on the other hand you might want to practice bracing your core without a belt if you’re going to use your strength without a belt. The answer might lie somewhere in between, and you might be best off using a belt periodically, or only for some of your sets.
In recent years, knee sleeves have become all the rage. I believe they where originally intended to mostly give warmth and light support, but the latest generation of thick neoprene sleeves have been unquestionably been found to increase the performance in the squat, and is now a staple in most powerlifters’ gym bags.
The sleeves convey at least three benefits:
- Warmth. They make your knee and part of your quads warmer, which generally just feels really good, especially if you are a bit worn down by joint aches.
- Proprioception. By giving you skin contact when you’re moving, the sleeves increase your awareness of how your knees are moving, which confers a greater sense of control and stability in the squat.
- Rebound. Obviously, warmth and increased proprioception on it’s own can be performance increasing, but anyone who have tried squatting an empty bar wearing stiff sleeves immediately feel that they also have a significant rebound effect, increasing the amount of weight you can lift by some ~5%.
So should you use them?
- If you compete in powerlifting and they are allowed? Sure, they will help your performance.
- If you just train for fun, and want to build big and strong legs? If you feel like it.
Sleeves can be a boon for achy joints, and make your training more fun, but keep in mind that the stiffer varieties definately increase the weight you can lift. As with a belt, perhaps the best route is the one in between: use knee sleeves periodically in your training, or only for some of your sets.
Knee wraps have been around in powerlifting and strength training for a long time, and are still used in both training and equipped powerlifting competitions.
In contrast to knee sleeves, the purpose of knee wraps isn’t so much to give warmth (you don’t keep them on for that long) or proprioception, but almost entirely the performance enhancing effect they have via rebound. The performance increase you get from wraps is double (or more) that of which you get from stiff knee sleeves, and thus they are an important tool if you compete in a federation or class where they are allowed.
Should you use knee wraps even if you don’t compete in equipped powerlifting? Well, you should never say never, and it is not completely uncommon for both weightlifters and bodybuilders to use them in their training (albeit probably not wrapped as tight). However for the classic powerlifter or the general squat enthusiast, I’d say that a couple of knee sleeves could fill the same spot, but which much less pain and hassle.
Common Problems in the Squat
Out of the three powerlifts, the squat is usually the one people have the most problem with.
In this section we troubleshoot some of the most common ones.
General Squat Mobility
There are two common problem areas where people lack the mobility to be able to perform the squat in a safe and efficient manner. They are:
- the hips
- the ankles
There are at least four different ways to approach this to find a solution:
- Squat more. Using a joint in the desired movement is often the best way to improve its mobility and range of motion. If you’ve never squatted before, give yourself lot’s of time in the beginning to accustom yourself and your body to squatting. Your body will adapt, and you will get a little better each week. It might benefit you to spread your training volume over a little more workouts per week, to get more frequent practice.
- Experiment with stance. Try placing the bar lower, widening your stance, opening up your hips and pointing your toes out. This kind of low bar-style reduces the requirement of ankle mobility, but has higher requirements of hip mobility. Alternatively, try placing the bar higher on your back, feet closer together and toes poinint forward. This requires good ankle mobility, but lower hip mobility.
- Get lifting shoes with raised heels. As we’ve covered in the section on shoes, a raised heel acts like “artificial ankle mobility”, and can work wonders for your squat technique. Test if shoes with a raised heel might be for you by placing your heels on small weight plates or a thin wooden plank or such, and squat.
- Try to increase your joint mobility directly. A common exercise for increasing your mobility for the squat is to squat down and hold onto a support in front of you to keep your balance, and then try to stretch out everything that feels tight. You can also use a kettlebell or other weight for balance by holding it to your chest. Repeat this a few times daily for quick mobility gains, or as a warm-up before squatting. A more aggressive approach for increasing your ankle mobility is to squat down, and place a barbell on top of your knees, pushing them down. The barbell could be lightly loaded, so that it weighs 60–90 lbs/30–40 kg. Hold it on top of your knees with your hands, and oscillate up and down in this position.
Back Rounding / Butt wink
“Butt wink” is when your back rounds (e.g. your spine flexes) in the bottom of a squat.
It is usually the symptom of one of three things:
- Lack of mobility. Your hip joints simply reach their maximum point of flexion, and to keep getting lower, your body has to round your back. Se the section above for tips on increasing your squat mobility.
- Balance. With the stance, bar placement, bar weight, and your own body’s weight distribution, you might need to tuck your butt in to retain balance and not fall back. In this case there are two solutions: 1) See if this is only a problem at light weights (relative to your body weight). Then, as you progress from the warm-up, the problem may disappear. 2) Experiment with other stances and bar positions and see if you can find a squat style that enables you to squat without a butt wink.
- Motor control. You might have the requisite mobility and stance to squat without butt wink, but you lack the motor control to keep your spine erect and stable. In this scenario: take off so much weight that you have total control of your spine, and can squat without butt wink. Then slowly and gradually increase the weight over the following weeks of training, while still retaining a straight spine. Use your phone to video each of your sets, or have a workout partner helping you see when you do it right.
Is butt wink dangerous? We don’t really know for sure. If you do it and get pain from it, then you should most likely avoid it. If you don’t get pain from it, you’re probably fine. But still, just like we recommend you to strive for a neutral back in our deadlift guide, we recommend you to strive for a neutral back while squatting, and it might be wise to work on it, to see if you can minimize it with time. Check out the list above, as well as the other tips in this guide, to see if you can find something that helps.
Goes Up on Toes in the Bottom
If you find that your heels loose contact with the ground and that you shift your weight up on your toes in the bottom, you are likely having a mobility issue as adressed in the former section on general squat mobility.
Your body is simply trying to solve the task of squatting down deep enough without losing balance, and with the current movement strategy solves that by going up on your toes a little bit.
Try the tips outlined in the section on general squat mobility. The ones pertaining to ankle mobility were:
- Squat more. This will increase your overall mobility in this movement. Especially try more warm-up sets.
- Experiment with your stance. Try decreasing the requirement of ankle flexion by widening your stance and pointing your toes more outward.
- Get lifting shoes with a raised heel. This will give you artificial ankle mobility, which will help with this issue.
- Increase your ankle mobility. By using the tips outlined earlier, my favourite one being the one where you place a weight (a bar or a kettlebell) on top of your knees to push them down, while still keeping you heel on the ground.
Knees Caving in
Knees caving in somewhere on the way up is a common sight in especially new lifters, and seems more common in those who begin with low levels of strength and muscle mass in and around their legs and hips. It is common among young, adolescent girls that might have had a growth spurt, but whose muscle mass hasn’t yet catched up.
Knees caving in might be a potential risk factor for knee injuries, and it is generally recommended to try and keep the knee in more of a straight line between your hips and feet.
What is happening is that the muscles that adduct (“move in”) your thigh overpowers or outworks the muscles that abduct (“move out”) your thigh. Your adductors, especially adductor magnus, is a powerful hip extensor in the squat, but as the name implies it also adducts your leg. This movement will have to be countered by your hip abductors, two of which the bigger ones are gluteus maxmimus and medius.
These muscles will have to get coordinated with each other, where they cooperate to help you squat effectively and safely.
There are two good approaches to make this happen:
- Squat with a rubber band around your knees, or have someone push your knees together. This will force you to activate your abductors (gluteus medius and maximus) more, and acts as a reminder to push your knees out. It might help engrain this in your nervous system, so that you do it even after you remove the resistance. Try this out during your warm-ups, or even in most of your squat sets for several workouts (maybe even weeks), and see if that does the trick.
- Lower the weight and train with correct technique. This is the most obvious route: just lower the weight to a level where you can control it, and simply rack up good squat sets where you make sure to keep your knees out. This will also engrain this new technique adjustment, and from here you can gradually start increasing the weights again, without losing your new form.
Hips Rise Too Fast (“Good Morning Squat”)
When weights are approaching 1RM, or you are getting close to failure, it is very common that the squat turns more and more into a so called “good morning squat”.35
This is the phenomenon where, after the turn in the bottom, you start to rise up, but your hips rise way faster than your shoulders (or the bar), leading to a very forward-leaning position.
What is actually happening, when this occurs?
The lift (after the bottom) gets separated into two distinct phases:
- Your legs are extending, which raises your hip, but without moving the bar much or even at all.
- Not until the legs are more extended and your torso angle is looking kind of like the beginning of a deadlift, does the bar finally start to move as you extend your hips and raise your torso.
What is the biomechanical implication of this?
- Your legs extend without raising the bar much (or at all). This means that your quadriceps have extended without much or any resistance, which in turn means …
- Your hip and back extensors have to do all the heavy lifting. If your legs have extended but you are left in a forward leaning stance, that means you will have to lift the weight using the muscles that extend your hips and keep your spine straight, like in a good morning or a deadlift.
Essentially, work has been shifted from the knee extensors to the hip and back extensors.
There might be several reasons for this, but the most likely one is simply that your quads aren’t strong enough to extend against the weight bearing down on them, so they pass over part of the work to the hip extensors.
It is very unlikely that this is due to a weak core or weak glutes, both of which seem to be common (mis-)conceptions. If your core or glutes are weak, it would make sense to pass work away from the core and glutes to your quadriceps, thus leading to a more upright, knee-dominant squat. Which is the complete opposite of a good morning-squat.
Is it a problem?
Not necessarily. It is rather an indicator of where your strengths and weaknesses are right now. Most people will be limited by their quad strength in the squat, and if you display this kind of lifting style, you are likely no exception.
The solution in that case would be to focus training on the quadriceps, without overtraining them and risking injury.
Here are three examples of routes you could take to prioritize your quad strength while still practicing the squat:
- Train squats as usual, but add in extra direct quad work. Like leg extensions, leg presses, or bulgarian split squats.
- Switch some of your squats to more quad-intensive variations where it is harder to pass over the work to the hips. Like front squats, safety bar squats, or zercher squats.
- Train squats, but lower the weight and reps to the point where you can complete all reps without your hips shooting up. Counter the volume loss in weight and reps by increasing the number of sets.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about squatting. Can’t find the answer to your question? Leave a comment, and we’ll try to answer!
Are Squats Bad For My Knees?
No, quite the opposite: The squat is an effective way to strengthen your knees and retain their health and function as you age.
Too much, too soon of any exercise is a recipe for injury however, so the dose makes the poison. In order to build your knees up rather than break them down, you will need to progressively increase training volume and load over time, and allow for proper rest between workouts.
Neither is there any evidence that deep squats are more dangerous to the knees than half or quarter squats. A literature review of the subject was published in 2013. It is titled Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and Weight Load36 and includes 164 studies. They conclude that the fear of injury due to deep squats is unfounded, and the advice to half- or quarter squat for knee health might even be counter-productive, as it might not allow the knee to get stronger in it’s full range of motion.
Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion of the review:
When compared with half and quarter squats, in the deep squat, lower knee joint and spinal joint stress can be expected.
Provided that the technique is learned accurately under expert supervision and with progressive training loads, the deep squat presents an effective training exercise for protection against injuries and strengthening of the lower extremity.
Squats load the knees, and that is neither inherently good nor bad. It can be done in detrimental excess, or it could provide an appropriate stimulus for growing and strengthening your tissues.
Why Do I Get Back Pain From Squats?
It is not uncommon to hear lifters complaining of a low back ache after squatting. I’d guess that the most common explanation for this is either one of the points below, or a combination of them:
- Dose. Doing too much, too soon. Training with too high a volume or too heavy weights, and not allowing sufficient rest between workouts.
- Technique. Using a “bad” technique in which your volume tolerance is even lower. For some, this might take the form of excessive rounding of your lower back in the bottom of the lift (“butt wink”). For another, it might be excessive anterior pelvic tilt throughout the lift.
If any of the two above seems like a likely cause of your pain, then you will have to start experimenting with it:
- See if the problem ceases if you ease up on the volume and load for a bit, and build up gradually again.
- Film yourself lifting and look for opportunities to improve your technique, or take help from someone knowledgeable. We are all built differently, and what might be an ideal technique or shape of the spine during the lift for one person, might not be so for you.
How Deep Should I Squat?
As covered in the section on squatting depth, the general guidelines are something like this:
- If you want general leg strength and maximal hypertrophy: Squat as deep as you safely can, but at least down to parallel (= where your thigh is parallel to the floor).
- If you are a powerlifter: Squat to regulation depth. In IPF, this is until the part of your thigh closest to your abdomen is below the top of your knee. Generally this is just below parallel.
- If you are an athlete using squats to increase your sports performance: Do part of your squats as deep as you safely can, and part of them to your sports “working depth”.
Should I Squat Low Bar or High Bar?
First of all: squat with whatever style that you can squat. For many of us, our bodies make this decision for ur, and we may find that only one style of squatting really works well.
If you are lucky enough to be able squat with both styles, then you can pick a squat style depending on your goal:
- Powerlifting. Most (not all) people seem to be able to lift about 5–10% more weight in a low bar squat style than a high bar. This is obviously beneficial if you are competing with the amount of weight that you can lift.
- Weightlifting. If you are training for weightlifting and using squats as a supplemental exercise, then you probably want to stick to a high bar squat style as that mimics the positions of weightlifting more closely.
- General hypertrophy and strength. Both are probably just fine for this, and I think you should stick to the one you prefer. If you really are completely indifferent as to what style you use, I’d venture a guess that there might be small benefits to a high bar style, as that generally allows for a little longer range of motion.
Read more in the section on bar position.
Should I Get Squat Shoes With a Raised Heel?
Maybe! In my experience, about 50% of squatters benefit from using a raised heel. In the beginner stage, this percentage might be higher.
- If you prefer squatting with a high bar, weightlifting style of squat, then yes: very likely would you benefit from squat shoes with a raised heel.
- If you prefer squatting with a low bar, powerlifting style of squat, then no: you’re likely to benefit from flat shoes, although still very firm and stable.
The poins above are not set in stone, and there are absolutely exceptions. They are simply guidelines.
Read the section on shoes for squatting for more details in this matter.
That’s it! You’ve reached the end of our squat guide.
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