Author: Mike Perrozzi
Hello again faithful Anytime Fitness readers! Today I am going to breakdown and discuss proper squatting mechanics as there are a lot of misused cues and just bad suggestions overall on what should be an absolute staple in everyone’s workout plan. First, let’s break down why this is: squatting is one of the more fundamental movement patterns that we have in our arsenal. Most people should be able to squat down to a proper depth relative to the size of their femur and tibia/fibula bones in order to perform every day movements such as slinging themselves up from and lowering down to a seated position without the use of support and getting down low to inspect something, tie a shoe, play with an animal or small child without pain or difficulty. It is also a proven method to achieve better bowel movements if you’re able to relax in the position on the back of our haunches and can increase stamina and longevity in your knee, hip, and even ankle joints. I personally favor a set of ten squats with a deep squat hold for thirty seconds as the first thing I do before my workout over walking for five minutes on a treadmill or elliptical.
Furthermore, what exactly is a squat and how do we differentiate it from other lower body movements? A squat by definition is a quad dominant exercise, a movement pattern which is achieved through maximal flexion (bend) at the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Compare this to a hip hinge (more commonly used when performing a deadlift exercise), which is a hip and glute dominant movement achieved through maximal bend at the hips only, and minimal bend at the knee and ankle joints. Picture one as “sitting down” and the other as “bending over”: both carry with them their own set of unique functions and effects on body composition with much overlapping between the two. As a result, both should be completed in the gym on separate days to avoid too many compressive forces in the lumbar spine in a single workout (dispelling the myth of an all encompassing “leg day” for the serious lifter, but this is a different topic).
For now, let’s focus on how to squat properly and address some of the various cues that I have heard over the years and their validity. For parody sake, let’s assume we are talking about the most commonly envisioned version of this exercise that people think of when they think “squat”: the barbell back squat. This is where a barbell is loaded onto the back of the individual (be it high or low bar), and is certainly NOT the best variation when it comes to body composition or even functionality, but I will do my assessment on it because it is most commonly done by average gym goers.
Cue #1: Don’t let your knees go over your toes
Easily the most misconstrued and misinterpreted of all squatting cues, this one has good intentions but falls short for anyone considering actually anatomy. Due to the various lengths and leverages we as people have, no two peoples squats are going to look exactly alike. Also, this is largely dependent on your ankle mobility as well: the more you are able to dorsiflex your foot (bring your toes to your shin) the further your knee will migrate over your toes and the better depth you will achieve. This is not a bad thing so long as you have built the requisite strength to tolerate this deep end range. Your shins are not meant to be perfectly vertical during any type of squat not performed on a machine (hack squat, smith machine squat, even a sissy squat requires something to hold you in place). The cue came into existence to teach people to initiate the movement by sitting their hips back FIRST instead of trying to maximally bend their knees, which is good advice but once you have grasped this, it does not matter how far your kneecap reaches relative to your toe.
Cue #2: Screw your feet into the ground
This has been used to get people to force external rotation at the hip (spin their knees out) and much like the first cue, it has merit but the application is not all that great. The number one thing you want to avoid during a squat is for both knee varus (knees flaring out) and, more commonly, knee valgus (knees caving in) to occur. Since the latter is more common and we see knees driving inward due to inactivity at the hip (more specifically, the glute medius) to keep them in line with the second and third toe on your feet.. However, this does not need to be achieved by artificially trying to spin your feet outward as you come up out of the hole (bottom position) of a squat. Tibial rotation at the foot is not linked to movement at the knee as well as some coaches think it is; you’re better off practicing band walks to prepare these gluteus medius muscles prior to squatting. And I am a firm believer that there is not enough friction through the ground to achieve better glute development from doing this either, so don’t ask.
Cue #3: Squeeze the bar hard and try to break it in half
This cue gets my approval as it forces you to engage your lats and create tension throughout your entire body, causing more muscles to fire and the exercise to stimulate more muscle growth overall. The more tension you can create in your body, the more challenging you will make this already beast of an exercise (which in turn will lead to a more effective workout just by squeezing the hell out of a bar).
Cue #4: Look up as you come up from the bottom position
This cue is absolute crap and will only lead to a neck strain. I always look a few feet in front of me on the ground when squatting, and doing any exercise that requires me to maximally bend at the hip. Think about it: if the rest of your spine is trying to stay neutral as you lean forward into your squat, why would you want to throw the cervical portion of your spine (neck) into extension like you’re knocking back a shot of tequila? The answer is you wouldn’t, so don’t do it.
And those are the major sticking points for squatting. Just be sure to set the bar up in a comfortable position on your back (those with worse shoulder mobility and more forward lean will probably prefer a lower bar placement), take a big breath in as you step back and descend with control, bracing your abs outward as you do so, and then exhale loudly (grunt if you’d like) as you explode out of the bottom position the same way you went down. For an in-person review of your squat and more in-depth description of it in action, feel free to reach out to me at the gym or at firstname.lastname@example.org for some private lessons. Thanks for reading!