How to Squat


Unfortunately it’s not a day that everyone likes, but leg day is necessary when it comes to weight training. Let’s face it, no one wants to look like they’re defying gravity just by standing, which is why squatting is essential. The squat is the king of all leg exercises and it has a multitude of benefits. Whether your goal is to increase the mass on your legs, gain strength or improve your jump shot, the squat is a key element.

For the novice lifter, squatting can be an intimidating exercise, which is why a lot of people tend to avoid it. The motion isn’t hard at all but like everything else, it does take some practice. As students we sit inside classrooms to learn; however, that isn’t the only place where class is in session. Today we’re learning how to squat.

All the photos below feature CSULB alumni Tee Popoola. Popoola, 33, has a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition, certification as a strength and conditioning specialist, and he’s an experienced bodybuilder and powerlifter. It’s safe to say that Popoola knows his way around a squat and he was more than willing to lend these photographs.

The first thing you want to do when you get under the barbell is center yourself so the weight is evenly distributed. Pictured here is the high-bar placement where the barbell sits on the trapezius - the muscle that moves most of your upper back and neck. If you put the bar too high it can easily slip or cause the bar to roll during the exercise. When you put the bar too low or on the rear deltoids then it becomes a low-bar squat and that requires a different technique altogether.

The placement of your hands, depending on your wingspan, would be about where the indicator rings are on the barbell. The main thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t using your arms to hold the bar up. You are simply pulling the bar in between your upper and middle trapezius to hold it in place.

Once the bar is evenly placed and you feel comfortable, then lift the bar straight up and out of the rack. This is the first time you’ll actually feel the weight on your back and when you’re ready to proceed slowly take a few steps backwards.

In the picture, Popoola is wearing a weight belt and the purpose of the belt is to give the abdominal wall something to push against. This helps protect your lower back and keep you upright during the squat. He also has on knee sleeves, which help keep the knee joints warm. You don’t need a belt or knee sleeves but with them you can move more weight while also preventing injury.

When it comes to foot placement many experts advocate a narrow stance for high-bar squats, but there is no restriction.  

One of the first things you should notice about this picture is that Popoola is holding his breath. He’s doing this because he is bracing hard into his belt with his abdominal wall. Basically, all you’re doing is taking a deep breath and pushing your stomach into the belt. The core is braced to maximize stability in the exercise. What you want to do is take a deep breath while you’re still standing, hold it in for the squat then exhale once you’re standing again.

The other thing you should notice is that Popoola’s knees are over his toes. Knees over toes is important to remember because if your knees don’t track over your feet then the misalignment can cause strain on the knee joints.

The focus of this final picture is the depth of the squat. The hip crease is below the knee; this is called “breaking parallel”.  Stopping the squat at this angle activates the most of the quadriceps, the muscles in your thighs, thus stimulating the most muscle growth. You can also go lower than parallel; this is called squatting “ass-to-grass” or ATG. The ATG squat is more utilized by Olympic lifters to assist in movements such as the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk.” If you don’t plan on getting into Olympic lifting then I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

Popoola also displays a straight back or neutral spine. Maintaining tension throughout the lift will help to keep spine neutrality (or a good posture). If you feel your back rounding it’s possible there is too much weight loaded on the bar. It’s important to warm up and gradually add weight rather than throw on all the plates around you.

Remember 49ers, check your ego at the door and lift smart. Never sacrifice form for the sake of more weight.

If this article succeeded in teaching you about the squat then fantastic, but if you have any specific questions then I can be reached on Twitter: @lifttheiron.