The squat is one of the biggest exercises in fitness. It is a huge compound movement that can help to improve your fitness and strength in a number of ways. But what if you can't squat properly? How can you improve your squat?
Why can't I squat properly?
Squatting is a natural, functional movement that humans have been doing since the dawn of time. When we were young we would squat perfectly and naturally without even thinking about it. Just take a look at a child playing around, they'll drop into a squat and get back up again without a second thought. As we age, we get less and less good at it as we lose mobility and become sedentary in our lifestyle.
If you can't squat properly, it could be due to lifestyle or it could be due to your personal physiology. If you haven't done a squat since you were a child, you can't expect to do one perfectly first time you try. Like everything, exercises take practice, and you should ask an expert or fitness professional to give you guidance the first time you try to squat.
Some people have more reduced mobility than others, which may also affect your squat capabilities. If you have stiff or weak ankles, you will struggle to squat. Again, practice makes perfect, and with the right physio training, you'll be able to do a full, proper squat in no time.
Squats are a compound movement, meaning they use multiple joints and muscles to happen. A simple body weight squat utilises almost every muscle in the body and arguably once weights are added, no muscle gets left behind. It's a good idea to get well acquainted with the body weight squat before you add weight, so that you can be sure you have good form.
How to do a squat
- Begin with feet just outside shoulder width and toes pointing very slightly outward.
- Find a point to focus on looking straight ahead, don’t look down as this will compromise your spine.
- Head up, sink your weight back into your heels and bend your knees.
- Sink your bum down as low as your hips and flexibility allow.
- Your chest should stay upright and your back remains flat, the knees should follow the toes.
- Driving off your heels, straighten back up to the start position.
How to improve your squat
Lack of Range
A lack of range in your squat is usually caused by stiffness, inflexibility or even ankle instability. If your heels lift off the ground towards the bottom of your squat it is likely that you have either tight hamstrings, ankles or both. Stretching the ankles and hamstrings will help to achieve the full squat depth.
Knees collapse inwards
Your knees caving inwards during a squat is a common sign of weak abductors and gluteus medius, although there can be many other reasons as with any imperfection. Exercises which focus on activating these muscles such as lying clamshells, banded squat walks and single leg lunging can help to activate these areas. This being said, there are olympic athletes whose knees collapse inwards as they compete, who clearly don’t suffer from ‘weak’ anything. So it is not the only cause.
Back caves forwards when squatting
A weak posterior chain can lead to bending forward as the lower back attempts to make up for the weakness and ends up pulling you forward. Strengthening the hips, glutes and hamstrings will enable them to engage better and pull your body back to the correct alignment.
An arched back when squatting can be caused by a multitude of problems, a weak chest, poor posture, a weak trunk or even simply too great a weight can cause the shoulders to arch, compromising your squat technique. Trying to establish the cause of this imbalance can often be the most difficult task, but then there are simple steps which can be implemented in order to address the issue. A weak chest can be worked on by focusing on exercises such as flyes and pullovers, whilst fully engaging the pecs by forcing the shoulders back. A weak trunk can be improved by working on core strength using exercises such as the plank and hanging leg raises.
The barbell squat
Olympic squat, weighted squats, whatever you want to call it, this is when the squat becomes a game changer and has the greatest effects not only on strength but on weight loss, fitness and body composition. Weight training has a whole article of benefits of it’s own which you can read under “strength training”.
The first battle, do I use a neck wrap or not? To barbell squat you will need an olympic bar, collars and a rack. You will not need: Chalk, lifting gloves or a neck pad for the bar. If you hold the bar correctly you don’t need to use a pad to support your back, that’s what you’ve got traps for. What’s more - wearing a neck brace can damage your proprioception, you need to be able to feel the bar properly for effective balance. Padding makes the bar thicker, moving it upwards which causes a more forward lean and emphasises lower back stress. As your weight lifting gets serious and your strength increases a bar pad won’t be any help anyway. Heavy weights hurt.
Setting up to barbell squat
This is another common trait many will miss, despite the fact they’re in the gym, we can still call these people lazy, as they’re the ones who don’t want to faff with moving the rack to fit them properly, which can lead to poor technique. As someone who is 5 ft 2, I physically HAVE to set the bar up every time, as at most people’s height, I’d be trying to lift it over my head! The bar should be set at a height somewhere between your breast and collar bone. It needs to be low enough that when you stand with knees locked, the bar lifts off the rack, without you going on tip toes. It’s a squat not a calf raise.
Once you’ve set the bar up, it’s time to step under it, place the bar across your shoulders and select your grip. This is another vital piece of the puzzle. Follow these steps:
Step up to bar. Duck under bar. Make sure head is central. For a high placement, the bar sits across the neck, resting on your traps, for heavier weights the bar is usually placed slightly further down, so the weight is more central and therefore less likely to cause damage to the lower back. Keep your hands as close as possible without causing strain, which will flex the upper back and provide “cushioning”. Point your elbows down, straighten your wrists and keep your elbows in.
That’s the setup, so this is the moment where you have a stern word with yourself, big yourself up and then go for it. You should be able to straighten and un-wrack in just two steps, if you have to lift the bar any further out you could put yourself at risk.
The squat technique itself is almost identical to a bodyweight squat, except now you’ve got a badass weight on your back. The main factor here is to make sure you keep your head facing forwards rather than looking up, as this will cause compression at the top of your spine.
Once you have the basic squat perfected, the possibilities of where you can take it are endless. In our next post we will look at squat variations, so keep your eyes peeled!
As much as I find it hard to believe that anyone could ever, EVER grow bored of squats, variety is the spice of life and when it comes to squatting, we can get super spicey. Extra extra hot.
Whilst some would argue not to fix something that isn’t broken, we think that squat variations allow you to give your training a level up and keep your workouts exciting with new challenges.
Squat variations that up the ante
Squats are tough, but these variations are on par- if not tougher!
Adding plyo to any routine sends your heart rate rocketing and super-sizes your calorie burn. Plyometric training basically means jump training.
How to: Start in your regular squat position, with your feet just outside shoulder width. Sink your weight back into your heels ready to perform your squat, sink your bum back as low as you can but instead of driving up as normal, jump. Explode upwards using all your strength and then land softly. Remember just because you’re jumping - it’s not an excuse to half rep- make sure you’re still nailing your squat depth.
Squatting is hard with two legs right? So try doing it on one. These are one of the hardest bodyweight exercises there is. Pistol squats are a 3 in 1 exercise, training strength, balance and mobility in one killer exercise. Pistol squats are also great for eliminating imbalances. Naturally, we have one leg stronger than the other and what tends to happen when we squat, is that the stronger leg takes charge and puts in more work than the weaker one. Isolating each leg individually in exercises like this one not only increases the intensity of the exercise but promotes a balance in strength as the legs learn to work independently of one another in the lift.
How to: Stand on one leg and extend the other leg out in front of you, keeping it straight. Now maintaining your balance extend the arms out in front of you and sink down into a squat on the supporting leg. Your arms and leg should be out in front of you as your hamstring touches your calves at the bottom of your squat. Driving off your supporting leg, stand back up, without using any help from your arms. This can be made easier by performing half reps onto a bench, sitting on the bench being the bottom of the movement.
Pause squats are nasty as they make you stop and wait at the most scary part of a squat. The moment where you wonder whether you’re going to be able to drive the hefty weight across your shoulders back up again. Trust me, it is much harder to come out of a squat pause, than it is in a regular squat where the motion stays fluid.
How to: Set up the barbell and rack for a regular squat. When you reach full depth, pause and hold in this position before returning to the start. Beginners can pause for 2 seconds and work their way up to pausing for as long as 7 seconds.
Barbell overhead Squats
Taking the bar over your head requires a strong core, good shoulder flexibility and exceptional mobility. The overhead squat is also good as a correct exercise for those with tight pecs and over extended shoulders as in order to perform the lift correctly you’re required to stretch and work on the flexibility and strength of these areas. It's also a great tool to mobilize your thoracic spine, ankles, and hips, and will help you feel more comfortable at the very bottom of a squat, front squat, or snatch.
How to: Take a wide grip of the bar, if your elbows were bent, they should be at 90 degrees. Take the bar overhead so it's in line with your heels. Imagine the bar is an elastic band and stretch it as tightly as possible above your head. Pulling at the bar forces you to stretch out your arms and lock the elbows. Your squat form doesn’t change from that of a bodyweight squat, however now you have a weight overhead to focus on. As you sink into your squat don’t let the bar move forward of or behind your heels and make sure you still reach below parallel before you rise back up to full extension.
Box jumps take plyometric jumps and add a height target. Box jumps improve your speed, power and strength. The only problem with box jumps, is they require something to jump on. Though, this isn’t limited to your gym's plyometric box stack, you can use a gym or even park bench and even stairs if need be.
How to: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Sink into your squat to load the legs into a quarter squat, use your arms to add momentum and launch yourself up onto the bench/box/step. Bend the knees to cushion your landing and squat before then jumping backwards off the bench and onto the floor, again landing softly.
Squat variations to take it down a notch
Squats are tough and sometimes, a full on squat session may just be too much, but that’s not an excuse to skip your workout entirely! Just tone it down.
A wall squat is easier than a regular squat as you use the wall to support the bulk of your weight. These are great for conditioning those who have had previous injuries.
How to: Start with your back against the wall and lower yourself down the wall by walking your feet out. Your thighs and calves should make a right angle, with your thighs parallel to the floor.
A Trx squat can be used either way, it can make a squat harder by adding greater depth and plyometrics, or it can aid the second part of the squat by allowing something to pull yourself back up with, providing extra support.
How to: Grab both Trx handles in front of you, extend the arms and sink down into a squat, using the handles to support you, pull yourself up using the handles as well as the force from your legs.
Nobody wants to be called chicken legs, so be sure to add these squat variations to your routine to build your strength, power and ensure no-one can question whether you skip legs day.
Leg day gets mixed reviews: some love it, some hate, some skip it altogether. But whether you're a fan or not, the legs are the biggest muscle group in the body, so it's important to train them. Especially if you are a runner, cyclist, or footballer, you'll need strong legs to excel in your sport. Follow Sundried's leg workout routine with advanced exercises to get the most out of your training.
Jog on the spot
3 minutes, this is a light jog to start elevating your heart rate.
Pelvis and hip openers
This workout requires a lot from your hips and pelvis, so it’s important you warm up effectively. To wake up your hips and pelvis, we start by bending one leg to bring your knee up in front of your chest and then circle your knee out away from your body, opening up your hip flexors. Repeat this 10 times on each leg.
Start with your feet wider than shoulder width and point your toes out. Squat down as low as you can and hold for a few seconds. Feel the stretch in your inner thighs and hip flexors. Do 4 or 5 to warm up your joints.
Lunge with torso rotations
The final warm up exercise is a lunge with torso rotations. With each lunge forward, twist your body towards the outside of your hips. Complete 10 per side.
Squat jump with floor touch
Start by standing with your feet together and jump both legs into a squat simultaneously, as you do, touch a hand to the floor before jumping back to the start position. Complete 20.
Jump into a lunge sinking down until your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Explode up and switch legs so you land in a lunge on the alternate side. Do 10 reps on each side.
Facing forward, lift your knee up and extend the lower leg to snap into a front kick with your toes facing up, leading with the heel. Alternate between legs each time. Complete 20 reps, 10 kicks per leg.
Try this one standing up for an extra balance challenge and calorie burn. Bend your supporting leg to provide a bit of extra stability and then lift the other leg off the ground. Kick backwards, leading with your heel. You should feel this one in your glutes. Complete 10 reps on each leg.
These are essentially side steps with squats included. Sink into a squat, rise back up, then step to the side and repeat. 10 each way.
Grab one dumbbell and hold it in both hands, the heavier the better. Sink into a squat and swing the dumbbell through your legs and then up to in front of your face with your arms extended. As the dumbbell reaches in front of your face you should thrust your hips forwards, before returning to your squat position as the dumbbell passes through your legs.
Cool down yoga
Once you've completed the workout it's time for the cool down. Yoga poses can be a great way of relieving tired muscles and the following stretches will help prevent stiffness post-workout, although you should expect to ache when you’ve worked that hard!
Recline hero pose
The recline hero pose provides a deep stretch to the thighs, hip flexors and ankles and is an easy move to master. Start by kneeling on the floor with your legs pressed together and feet very slightly wider than your hips. Keeping the tops of your feet flat on the floor with your toes facing towards you, exhale and sit back in between your feet, without changing their position. From here you can then place your hands on the floor behind you and lean your weight backwards. Gradually lean back and shift your weight from your hands, down to your elbows and then lay back as far as you can. Continue to the next pose by supporting yourself back up onto your elbows and then hands.
Wide angle seated forward bend
In a seated position, open your legs as widely as possible, keeping your toes pointing towards the ceiling. Exhale and bring your torso forward, folding in half with your chest as close to the floor as possible. Hold for as long as is comfortable.
Thread the needle
Lay on your back, with your knees bent and feet on the ground. Cross one foot over the other leg so it rests on the thigh. Lift the other leg off the ground and feed your hand through the gap in your legs to pull your back leg up towards your face.
Whilst these stretches will aid recovery, it’s inevitable your legs are going to ache. Make sure you nourish yourself and hydrate properly to aid recovery.
There is lots of bad advice out there on how to squat (or how not to squat!) We look at 4 of the biggest squat myths to ignore and why.
1. Your knees can never go over your toes when you squat
The theory that knees should never go over toes was found in a study that found maintaining a vertical lower leg as much as possible reduced strain on the knee during a squat. However, the study only looked at two dimensional models of the knee joint, so it lacked consideration of forces working from above, at the hip, below, and at the ankle, which all receive considerable force in this position
Further research by Smith and Fry in 2003 compared unrestricted squats, where the knee could travel freely over the toe, to squats where a vertical board was placed over the lifters shins and physically prevented the knee moving over the toe. Whilst forces on the knee were reduced by 22% due to the restricted range of movement, forces were increased by 1000% on the knee joint.
The reason we are told to ensure our knees don't go over our toes is actually less about our toes and more about our centre of gravity and muscle recruitment. With the weight shifted back, we get more muscle activation from the glutes and hamstrings, whereas when our weight is shifted forward the focus is more on the quads and anterior chain. So… knees over toes is a myth as the toes simply serve as an arbitrary point and the guideline should really be more to do with how to balance load, but the knees over toes works as a simplified guideline.
2. Deep squats are bad for your knees
Look at how a child squats, in fact most children will spend the majority of their time in what looks like a deep squat. That’s a big hint that it’s not bad for you, as a child will not put themselves in a position that causes them pain, they move in our natural movement patterns until they are taught otherwise.
What then happens is our kids grow up and we start introducing the pattern of sitting behind a desk all day. That’s 7-8 hours of sitting and what that does to our flexibility is where the issues arise.
Contrary to popular belief, squatting deep is not bad for the knees - studies have found there is no difference between partial, parallel and deep squats impact on the knee. In the study by Clinical Biomechanics, five female athletes were studied throughout squats with varying degrees of flexion at the knee and concluded that squatting from 70 degrees to 110 degrees of knee flexion had little effect on patellofemoral joint kinetics.
Another study by The Journal of Biomechanics found that the deeper the squat, the less pressure is created inside the knee. The journal of strength and conditioning research also completed a study which concluded that parallel squats with heavy weights are less effective at increasing strength than deep squats with a lighter weight.
Obviously, there is not a one-size-fits-all perfect squat, but in most cases, gradual progressive training to the full range of motion of a deep squat will be effective.
3. If it doesn’t break parallel it doesn’t count
Myth. Despite the research supporting squat depth as seen above, failing to squat deep doesn’t mean that the squats don’t count. In fact squatting to parallel is probably the most widely used squat because it is arguably the safest form of squatting and the easiest to perform.
For some people, though it has greater muscle activation, squatting below parallel just isn’t possible, be it due to lack of flexibility, lack of strength or lower back issues.
If the lower back rounds when the athlete performing a full squat breaks parallel, it's time to stop. Rounding of the back during this phase of the squat places intense pressure on the lower vertebrae of the back. Research has shown that during the deepest phase of the squat, this compression is six times greater than at the top of a squat.
As your spine flattens out with a heavy barbell across your shoulders, a large amount of pressure is imposed on the discs in your spine. Eventually, if your form isn’t spot on this can lead to tissue damage and back pain. Repeatedly sliding out of a neutral spine position increases your risk of serious injury and a hunched back. All of which can be avoided by squatting to parallel, or even breaking parallel but rising before your bum tucks.
Work on flexibility by performing bodyweight squats and gradually sinking lower until you can break parallel and enter the full squat without compromising your spine. Dynamic warm ups and flexibility work will help to increase your range of motion.
4. Look up as you squat
As much as you may enjoy staring at your squirming face as you squat, “head up” is one of the worst commands you can give to a client. The logic behind it was/is that the body goes where the head leads and therefore if you look up, you will be less likely to fail your squat. However, with a heavy load across your shoulders looking up increases the amount of pressure on your neck and could potentially lead to slipping the discs in your neck. Ideally, the aim should be to keep your spine in neutral alignment. For most people you need to keep your eyes forward and tuck the chin slightly.
Now you’ve sorted fact from fiction, why not check out our page on Squats.
I’m sure by now you know that squats are good for you in more ways than one, but to keep improving your routine needs to change every 6 - 8 weeks. Adding squat variations into your programme can enhance your leg training, recruiting new muscle fibres and creating strong, powerful legs.
Why do a Kettlebell Goblet Squat?
A goblet squat is often performed elevated so that a greater depth can be achieved, greater depth means more muscle activation, so more bang for your buck.
It’s better for those with back injuries
Unlike the traditional back squat, the goblet squat is executed by keeping the body in an upright position, which results in less strain on the lower lumbar and spine.
Adds variety to your routine
Adding different squat variations challenges your body to stabilise during new movements to develop greater strength and function.
Mobilises the hips through a full range of potion
Goblet squats are great for developing better hip mobility, improving strength through the full range of motion.
Goblet squats are volume friendly
Goblet squats aren’t designed for your one rep max, they are however, volume friendly. Keep your heart rate up by working to time rather than repetitions.
Develop grip strength
Goblet squats require you to develop grip by holding the weight in front of your chest. This static position loads the forearms and increases grip strength.
Statically train the biceps
Holding the kettlebell in front of your chest to perform a goblet squat is technically isometric loading of the biceps. Whilst they won’t take the full brunt of the load as they are supported by other muscles, it all helps.
How to Kettlebell Goblet Squat
- Grab your kettlebell by the horns and hold it with your biceps flexed, in front of your chest.
- Take a wide stance. Your feet should be just outside shoulder width, with your toes pointed slightly out.
- Sink your weight back into your heels and drop into your squat. Focus on keeping your chest lifted, your shoulders back and don’t let your back arch.
- Go as low as you can in the squat without letting your heels come off of the floor. If your heels lift, try taking a slightly wider stance.
- As you reach the bottom of your squat, allow your knees to point out before driving up to return to the start position.
Ready to crank it up?
Kettlebell Goblet Squat to Press
Repeat the steps above but this time instead of holding the bell with both hands as you drive up, set the bell down at the bottom of the movement and grip it again with one hand.
Now, as you explode up, flip the bell to sit on the back of your wrist and drive it up so it rest above your shoulder. Th bell should be dragged halfway diagonally across your chest and then flip to the back of your wrist just before you reach your shoulder.
Flip the bell back down and grab with the other hand to goblet squat, before repeating the motion on the other side.
The better you get at this the less likely you’ll be to bruise your wrist, although it’s probably best to move your watch out of the way.
Kettlebell Training Progression