You may be asking yourself, “so why isn’t everyone performing squats?” The simple fact is the squat is a difficult exercise to master, and can be intimidating especially for beginning weight lifters or bodybuilders. The squat has also gotten a bad rap, as being bad for your back or knees. The reason for this bad reputation is because many people just don’t learn to perform the squat correctly, and ultimately they get injured as a result. My sole purpose here is to teach you how to perform the squat correctly with perfect form so you can avoid injury and explode your muscle growth.
The first thing you must do before performing a single repetition is to ensure the squat rack is set up to properly fit you. Adjust the squat rack so the bar is at approximately chest height. This will allow you to unrack the weight without having to come up on your tip toes or waste energy by performing too much of a squatting movement. Also, adjust the cross bars, so they are about an inch below the level of the bar at the bottom of your squatting position. This will allow you to bale out at the bottom of your squat if you need to.
Alright, now that we got the squat rack set up it’s time to get down to business. Approach the bar and center yourself underneath it. The bar should rest across your upper trapezius muscle below the level of your seventh cervical vertebrae. Your seventh cervical vertebra is the big bump you feel at the base of your cervical spine when you bend your neck forward. The bar should NEVER rest on your cervical spine. Position your hands on the bar at a comfortable position.
Now, extend your knees and unrack the bar. Before descending, lock in your low back and pull your shoulder blades back. Your low back should have a slight inward curve (lumbar lordosis). This posture should be maintained throughout the squatting movement. When visualizing this position think of a military man or women coming to attention. This is the position you want to be in before starting the squat. Your feet should also be turned slightly outward.
You’re now ready to begin. When you descend think about sitting back into a chair. As you go down, you should be simultaneously bending at your knee and hip joints, but never let your back round over. It is O.K. for your trunk to bend forward, but this should come from flexion of your hip joint and not from bending at your low back. Actually, it is a must that your trunk flex forward to maintain your balance. If you attempted to keep your back perpendicular to the floor you would lose your balance backwards or would have to allow your knees to go past your toes as you descended. The latter, by the way, is a huge no no. You should never allow your knees to go past your toes. If you do, you’re putting tremendous and potentially damaging pressure on your knees. Descend until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Have a training partner watch you from the side, so you can get a feel for where this position is.
Once your thighs are parallel with the floor, press up. You should now be simultaneously extending at your knee and hip joints. A big mistake I see people making is they extend at their knees without coordinated extension at the hip joint, as well. This causes too much forward flexion of the trunk and they inevitable round their back. They compensate by completing the movement through extension of their low back, which increases strain on the low back and could lead to injury. Avoid this by remembering to keep your low back locked in and your shoulder blades back, as you press up.
Another important point to mention is to always keep your eyes straight forward throughout the squatting movement. Don’t attempt to look at the ceiling or down at the floor. Both can have detrimental effects on your form.
Now that you know exactly how to successfully and safely perform the squat it is time to start practicing. I recommend you use just the bar or broomstick to practice with until you have mastered the proper technique. Use a training partner to give you feedback. Once you have mastered the correct form you can begin adding weight. Never sacrifice your form just to lift more weight. I assure you that if you learn the correct form your muscle and strength gains will soon follow. Best of all, you will avoid injury.