Content of the material
- Enjoy quick reads and tips in your inbox
- Common Back Squat Mistakes
- Waiver and Release of Liability
- Sumo Squat or Wide Squat
- How to Set Up Properly For The Barbell Back Squat
- 7 Common Mistakes When Doing Squats
- Back Squat Variations
- 1 1/2 Squat
- Pause Back Squat
- Tempo Back Squat
- Common Issues
- Can’t Break Parallel
- Losing Balance
- Leaning Forward
- Heels Come Up
- Lower Back Rounding
- Knees Cave In
- Fear of Squats
- Clinically Effective Doses
- Frequently Asked Questions?
- How can I Squat more weight?
- How can I increase my Squat Max?
- How many times a week should I Squat?
- How many reps should I do on Squats?
- How do I achieve perfect Squat form?
- Do Squats make your bum bigger?
- Do Squats make your hips wider?
- What can I do instead of Squats?
- Can you do Squats if you have bad knees?
- Why do my knees pop when I Squat?
- What if I hate Squats?
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Common Back Squat Mistakes
Mistake 1: Forgetting about your core and upper body
Failing to create tension by tightening your upper back and core muscles throughout every rep will not only decrease the amount of weight you can lift, but will sabotage your form and set you up for injury. Make sure you remember to pull the bar into your back and keep your core tight throughout the exercise.
Mistake 2: Your knees to collapse inward
If your knees collapse inward, you have some work to do. Technically referred to as valgus collapse, this cardinal sin of squatting puts a ton of stress on your knees and can lead to injury over time.
Also, if you squat with this bad habit, there’s a good chance it will carry over to your sport, which puts you at a huge risk for an ACL injury when landing from a jump or cutting and changing directions.
To fix this issue, imagine pushing your knees outward as you squat. You can also wrap a light resistance band around your legs just above your knees to reinforce the proper position.
Mistake 3: Your heels come off the ground
Another common mistake occurs when lifters come up onto their toes as they lower into the squat. This is usually because people shoot their knees forward to lower into the squat and don’t hinge at their hips. Not only does this decrease the amount of weight you can lift, but it puts your knees in a precarious position to handle heavy weight. So to put it simply, keep your feet flat on the ground.
Mistake 4: Turning the squat into a good morning
If you find that you’re straightening your knees and then straightening your hips, you basically just turned the exercise into a Good Morning, which can put stress on your spine if you’re not careful. This might happen from time to time on heavy reps, but avoid doing this all the time.
Another common mistake is called Butt Wink, which occurs when your lower back rounds or your butt tucks under as you squat. Strength coach Dean Somerset goes into detail on this topic here.
Waiver and Release of Liability
In consideration of the services and/or products offered by Legion Athletics, Inc. (“Legion”) including, but not limited to, nutrition plans, exercise routines and coaching, and in addition to the payment of any fee or charge:
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I understand that fitness activities including, but not limited to, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular exercise, with or without the use of equipment, are potentially hazardous activities that involve a risk of injury and even death, and I am voluntarily participating in these activities and using equipment and machinery with knowledge of the risks involved. I hereby agree to assume and accept any and all risks of injury or death related to said fitness activities.
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I understand that results from using Legion’s products and/or services are not guaranteed, and I agree to not hold Legion liable for any outcomes or lack thereof.
Sumo Squat or Wide Squat
The sumo squat or wide squat involves a variation on foot placement that helps target your leg muscles in different ways. In a sumo squat, for example, you incorporate a bit more inner thigh than in traditional squats. This can be a nice variation to add to your routine if you need a new challenge. Just take care when lowering down and only go as far as your flexibility will allow. Here’s how:
- Begin in a wide stance with toes out at a comfortable angle. Your knees will need to stay aligned with your toes, so don't go out too far.
- To add weight, you can hold dumbbells on the upper thighs, a single dumbbell in front, or a barbell on the shoulders or behind the head.
- Bend the knees and lower down into a squat, keeping knees in line with toes, abs contracted, and back straight.
- Only go down as low as you can without compromising your flexibility or your balance.
- Push back to start without locking the knees.
- Repeat for 1–3 sets of 10–16 reps.
How to Set Up Properly For The Barbell Back Squat
#1) Find your squat rack! It’ll look something like this, with an unattached barbell:
A. Squat Stand:
B. Power Cage/Squat Rack:
C. Half Rack (Least favorite*):
*I don’t like Half-racks without adjustable safety bars – if you want to squat deep the barbell might hit the immovable bars! Not cool. Aim for the A or B options if you have the choice!
Note: a squat rack is NOT the same thing as a Smith Machine, where the barbell is attached to the machine, and slides up and down two bars:
You do NOT want a Smith Machine.
You need a completely unattached barbell in order to do a barbell squat properly and safely. Don’t squat in a Smith Machine.
#2) Set the height of the bar to be about the same height as your collarbone.
Not sure how to set the height of the bar? I got you:
If your options are either too high or too low, it’s always best to set the pins slightly lower than you need them.
You don’t want to have to get up on your toes to rack/unrack the bar, especially as the weight gets heavier.
#3) Decide if you are going to do a high bar squat, or a low bar squat. Either is fine, but there IS a difference:
The “Low Bar Back Squat” is the most common form done by beginners, general lifters, and powerlifters.
It’s also the form taught in Starting Strength, one of the best books for beginners on the market.
So we’ll be focusing on that version for the rest of this section:
#4) Always squat with just the bar to start – as we discuss in “How much weight should I be lifting,” even if you’re planning on squatting 500 lbs, always start with just the bar!
7 Common Mistakes When Doing Squats
The squat is a basic movement, but those new to lifting often fall victim to a handful of common mistakes.
Let’s take a look at some of the big problems and how to fix it!
#1) Coming up on your toes with your knees forward during your squat
It’s important to keep your heels on the ground the entire time you’re squatting.
You should be driving down through your heels, and in order to do that, they need to be on the ground!
While some of your weight will be on the balls of your feet, you never want all of your weight to be on the balls of your feet or your toes.
You should be able to lift your toes up off the ground and wiggle them at any point and it shouldn’t change anything about your squat.
#2) Not going deep enough on your squats
Your squat should hit at least parallel (middle image above) – where your hip joint goes below the knee.
Depending on what you’re training for, you can go lower, but in order to maximize the muscles worked in the squat, it needs to be done to at least parallel or lower (you can see lower in the upper right image).
If you squat above parallel (a partial squat) you’re leaving the hamstrings out of the movement. This puts more pressure on the knee – the force put on your knee is actually reduced as you drop below parallel.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about squats and knee issues.
The deeper the squat, the more glutes that are activated as well. This will result in more muscle being created from the squat, as shown by this infographic:
Now, a deeper squat is typically harder, both strength and flexibility wise.
However, depending on your goals, squatting to parallel may make more sense.
If you’re struggling hitting depth there could be many causes – you could have poor ankle mobility, tight hip flexors and/or hamstrings, weak glutes, or poor pelvic alignment (among many other things).
This is something we work closely with our coaching clients on, and often prescribe ankle and hip mobility drills to help clients reach proper depth on squats!
#3) Knee Positioning
When you squat, you want your knees to track along with your toes.
This means if you are looking down at your knees and feet, your knees should be aligned at the same angle as your feet throughout the movement.
This infographic shows you the correct knee position for a squat:
Everyone’s exact positioning is going to be slightly different, but they should not be on the outside or the inside of the foot.
#4) Back Positioning
Your chest should be up and your shoulders should be back, like you’re King Kong about to pound your chest proudly.
Your body should stay in this position the entire time.
You don’t want your shoulders to round forward, but you also don’t want to hyperextend your back either.
Keeping your spine in a neutral position will help your spine safe and build a strong foundation throughout the heavy squat movement.
#5) Head Positioning
Many coaches will tell their lifters to look up, as that is the direction in which you want to be moving, but this is actually the last thing you want to do.
Take a second quick and look at the ceiling (I’ll wait! 🙂 ).
Now, see that position your neck vertebrae are in? That is a very unsafe position for your spine to be in, especially when more weight starts getting included in the equation.
You also don’t want to be looking directly at the floor.
Look straight out in front of you the entire time, with your head in a “neutral” position. Your chin should be in a position where you could hold a tennis ball between your chest and your chin.
#6) Attempting to keep your shins vertical.
Unless there is a current underlying knee issue that would cause additional pain – the shin can and should go past vertical in the squat. This will often allow a deeper squat which will build more strength and stability in the knee.
A forward lean in the shins is also present when we engage in any number of daily activities such as walking up steps or standing up from a chair. Squat as deep as you are able, but do not focus on holding a vertical shin.”
#7) Too much weight on the heels/on the outside or inside of feet during your squat
When trying to fix coming up on your toes, or your knee positioning, it is common for people to focus so much on keeping their weight on their heels that they forget to keep the balls of their feet on the ground!
Some of your weight will still be on the ball of your foot – if you are truly only having weight on your heels, it’s pretty hard to balance.
To the same effect, if the inside of your foot or the outside of your foot comes up off the floor, this is also not a good thing!
How do you know if you’re making these mistakes? Simple!
Record yourself doing squats.
And so does anybody else who is serious about improving their squats.
Often we look VERY different than we think we look when doing an exercise, so having a video of the movement is often the only way we can improve.
If you can’t self-diagnose your squat challenges, let us help!
Back Squat Variations
Below are three back squat variations that can be done to improve your strength, form, and power.
1 1/2 Squat
The 1 1/2 squat entails lifters performing a full rep, then a half rep to complete one full rep. This variation is great for increasing time under tension, improving postural positions, and sharpening mental awareness during the squat. Be warned: this one burns.
[Related: Best Home Gym Squat Racks on the Market in 2021]
Pause Back Squat
The pause back squat is performed identically as a regular back squat, except that the lifter will perform a pause and isometric contraction at a given stage in the range of motion. Most commonly, the pause will occur at the bottom of the squat. However, you can also pause at parallel, halfway into the squat, or at any other stage where there may be a weakness or need for improvement.
Tempo Back Squat
Tempo training during the back squat can improve muscle growth, increase angular strength and coordination, and improve a lifter’s awareness and understanding of the balance and positioning within the squat. To do this, choose a cadence (for example, two to four seconds in the eccentric phase) and learn how to engage muscle groups and maintain tension under load.
[Related: How to Build Your First Workout Program]
Can’t Break Parallel
If you can’t break parallel when you Squat, your stance is too narrow. Put your heels shoulder-width apart and turn your toes 30° out. Then Squat down while pushing your knees out. This creates space for your belly to move through your legs. Most people can instantly break parallel by fixing their Squat stance. If it doesn’t work for you because your hips are tight, do the Toddler Squat described below to increase your flexibility.
The bar is balanced when it moves over your mid-foot. The middle of your foot is your balance point. Test this by standing with the bar on your back. Lean slightly forward with straight legs and feel how the bar pulls you forward. Lean slightly back and feel how it pulls you back. Stand tall with the bar over your mid-foot and feel how it’s now balanced. Bar over mid-foot is your strongest position where you can stand forever.
If the bar is not over your mid-foot at any point when you Squat, you’ll lose balance. You’ll lose balance forward if the bar comes over your toes. You’ll lose balance backwards if it moves to your ankles. The easy fix is to think of moving the bar in a vertical line over your mid-foot. Make sure you stand with your heels shoulder-width apart and toes 30° out so you can keep the bar over your mid-foot when you Squat.
Don’t use machines because you lose balance when you Squat. The only way to learn how to balance the weight when you Squat is to balance the weight when you Squat. You don’t learn it by relying on a machine that balances it for you. As soon as you move to free weights, you’ll have to start from scratch again. Start with free weights immediately and stick with them. Start light and Squat in the Power Rack if you’re scared of injury.
You’ll lean forward on the Squat when your hips raise faster than your chest. Squat up by moving your hips and chest at the same time. Don’t let your hips raise faster than your chest or your torso will end too horizontal with the floor. This can cause the bar to roll up your back, to your neck, and pull you forward. Keep your back angle constant on the way up. Your hips and chest must move up at the same time.
Heels Come Up
Your heels will come off the floor if you Squat with a narrow stance. Put your heels shoulder-width apart. Turn your toes out 30° and Squat down by bending your hips and knees at the same time. Hips back, knees out. Your knees should move the first half of your Squat and then stay there while your hips keep moving. Don’t let your knees come too forward or the bar will end over your toes, pull you forward and raise your heels.
Don’t Squat with a plate or piece of wood under your heels. This is a band-aid solution that creates new issues instead of fixing the bad Squat form. Squatting with elevated heels stresses your knees more by moving them further forward. It’s also unstable and thus dangerous for Squatting heavy weights. And it doesn’t fix flexibility issues or bad Squat form. Keep your heels on the floor instead of putting stuff under them.
If you think your heels come off the floor because your hips or ankles are tight, do the Toddler Squat every day for 10 minutes. This will increase your flexibility for Squats. But remember stretching doesn’t fix bad form. If your heels come off the floor because your stance is too narrow, then widen your stance. Stretching won’t fix that. You have to fix it by Squatting with your heels shoulder-width apart, toes out and knees out.
Check your shoes as well. You need hard soles that don’t compress under the weight. That means no running shoes with air or gel filling. The weight of the bar will compress the soles of running shoes when you Squat. It will compress it unpredictable ways which can cause your heel to come off the floor. Try barefoot and check if that keeps your heel down. Then get shoes with a hard sole like Chuck Taylor’s.
Lower Back Rounding
Lower back rounding during Squats is bad for your spine. it compresses your spinal discs and can herniate them. Your lower back will round if you Squat with your knees pointing forward. This puts the front of your hips in the way of the top your thighs. Your hips can’t go below parallel because your thighs are in the way. Squat with your heels shoulder-with apart, toes out and knees out. Your lower back will stay neutral.
Your lower back will also round if you go too deep. Squat down until you hip crease is below the top of your knees. But don’t go deeper and ass-to-grass or your lower back will usually round. If you insist on going deep, make sure you Squat high bar so your torso can stay upright. Squatting ass-to-grass with a low bar position doesn’t work. Your lower back will round at the bottom because your torso is less upright.
The Buttwink is usually just lower back rounding. Don’t go lower than below parallel and push your knees out – solved. Sometimes the buttwink is the result of overarching. You can’t keep your lower back overarched at the bottom. It will move to neutral which can look like lower back rounding. But it’s just a reset. Squat with a natural arch like when you stand. Ribcage down, lower back neutral, abs squeezed. No more buttwink.
Knees Cave In
Squatting with your knees caved in is bad for your knees. It twists your knee joints. Some knee caving in may happen during heavy Squats and max attempts. But excess knee caving in on every rep and set will cause pain inside your knees. Overtime this can cause a knee injury. Your thighs must stay inline with your feet when you Squat. This prevents twisting of your knee joints and ligaments. It keeps them safe.
Keep your knees out when you Squat. Push them to the side. Push them out both when you Squat down and when you Squat back up. External hip rotation is the goal: rotate your right thigh clockwise and your left thigh counter-clockwise. Your toes should be 30° out so your feet and thighs are parallel. Your heels should be shoulder-width apart. Don’t Squat with a wider stance of it will be harder to keep your knees out.
Banded Squats can help keeping your knees out. Loop a resistance band around your thighs and Squat. The band will cue you to keep your knees out. You can use a light kettlebell but the focus is to Squat right, not heavy. Do Banded Squats as a corrective exercise after your Squats and on your off days. Expect to feel this in your glutes and groin muscles which work when you Squat with your knees out.
Fear of Squats
Fear of Squats is normal. The weight can be tough to Squat. You can fail or injure yourself. Your body has therefore good reason to perceive Squats as a threat. That’s why you may feel fear when you approach the bar. You may also feel anxiety leading to the workout, like when driving to the gym. I’ve been Squatting for 16 years and still experience fear sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s part of the game.
The best way to overcome fear of Squats is to Squat. Every Squat set you finish safely is positive feedback. This feedback grows your courage and confidence over time. It doesn’t remove the fear of Squats. It just teaches you to be comfortable Squatting despite feeling fear. Because you know, from Squatting safely over and over, that everything is going to be just fine. This is like cognitive behavior therapy for Squats.
The key is positive feedback. Failing a rep isn’t negative feedback. Failing a rep without Power Rack, getting stuck under the bar and then injuring your back is. That causes more fear. You have to Squat safely. Squat in the Power Rack, set the safety pins and use proper form. When you Squat safely this way without injuring yourself because the pins caught the rack, you know you’re safe. This is positive feedback.
Don’t hesitate failing Squats on purpose a few times to overcome the fear of the unknown. This way you know how it will feel like when you fail to Squat a real and heavier weight. When you approach the bar and you feel fear coming up, don’t pay too much attention to it. Notice it, take a few deep breaths to calm you down, and walk to the bar. Setup as you always do, unrack the weight and do your Squats.
Clinically Effective Doses
Many ingredients in supplements don’t have any scientifically validated benefits, and many ingredients that do are often underdosed to the point of irrelevance.
That’s why we only use the choice ingredients and precise doses shown to be effective in peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Frequently Asked Questions?
How can I Squat more weight?
If you want to Squat bigger weights, here’s what you should do:
- Squat low bar. Use a lower bar position, where the bar sits at the top of your shoulder-blades. This instantly allows you to Squat at least 10% more weight.
- Use a belt. Wear a weight lifting belt that is the same width all around. This increases torso strength by giving your abs something to push against. Another 10% increase.
- Use the Power Rack. And set the safety pins to catch the weights. This increases confidence under the bar so you go after more reps without being afraid of failure.
- Do Pause Squats. Once do Squats where you stop at the bottom for two seconds before coming back up. This builds strength in the hardest part of the Squat.
- Improve your form. The more effective your form, the shorter the movement and the more muscles engaged. Tape yourself and improve your form.
How can I increase my Squat Max?
If you Squat mostly sets of five or eight reps, and you want to increase your 1 repetition max, then you need to do more singles (sets of one reps).
The easiest way is to do a heavy single before you do your sets of fives. Warmup, work towards a heavy single, then lower the weight and do your sets of fives.
Doing more singles will get you used to unracking and Squatting heavier weights. Your skill will improve which will increase your Squat max.
How many times a week should I Squat?
At least two times a week, ideally two times. One time is not enough as that’s not enough practice. It’s hard to improve your Squat technique when you only do it once a week. Twice a week is better as you get double the practice. I Squat three times a week.
How many reps should I do on Squats?
Beginners who Squat less than 140kg/300lb and want to get stronger fast, should focus on Squatting mostly sets of five reps. Check my StrongLifts 5×5 workout for an example.
How do I achieve perfect Squat form?
Do Squats as often as you can, ideally three times a week. Record your Squats so you can see what you’re doing. Review your form against the tips in this article. Correct mistakes that you find yourself doing.
Do Squats make your bum bigger?
Squats work your legs, including your butt and things. Those muscles will get stronger and bigger from Squatting bigger weights. Most guys find they have to buy bigger jeans after a few months, as their previous pair got tight around the thighs (but loose at the belly).
Do Squats make your hips wider?
No. Hip width is determined by your bone structure. There’s not much muscles on the sides of your hips. Nothing can get bigger there. Your glutes will get bigger, but they mostly grow to the back, not the sides. Most guys find their waist decrease from Squatting (because their abs get stronger). Squat don’t cause wide hips – that’s a myth.
What can I do instead of Squats?
You can do high bar squats if low bar squats hurt your shoulders.
But not exercise works your body through the same range of motion and with maximal weights like Squats. Substituting Squats will always mean working with less weight (glute bridges, lunges, dumbbell Squat), a shorter range of motion (Deadlifts) or without the need for balance (Smith Squats, leg press).
There’s no substitute for Squats. That’s why Squats are king for strength and size.
Can you do Squats if you have bad knees?
Many guys with bad knees have told me their knees feel better since they started to Squat. This s because Squats strengthen your leg muscles which provides your knee joint more support. The key is to start light, use proper form, and progress slowly (check StrongLifts 5×5). As long as your knees feel fine, keep going.
Wearing knee sleeves for Squats can help you if you have bad knees. The knee sleeves will keep your knee joint warm, and lubricate them. Knee sleeves can also act like mental support, making you more confident to Squat.
Why do my knees pop when I Squat?
Nothing to worry about. It’s like when you crack your knuckles. Just gas bubbles popping in your joint form the change in pressure. There is no evidence that popping joints will cause arthritis. My knees, shoulders and back pop sometimes when I lift. It’s not an issue. Just warmup properly, and make sure you Squat with proper form.
What if I hate Squats?
Squat more. Most people who hate Squats are bad at Squats. That’s why they hate Squatting. So they avoid Squatting which makes them hate Squats even more. Because you can’t get good at Squats if you don’t Squats. You have to Squat to get better at Squat.
Rule of thumb: whenever you hate an exercise, that probably means you’re not good at it. The proper response is to do that exercise more until you get better at it. Your technique will improve, your strength will improve, and this will make you start enjoying it.
- Wisløff U, Castagna C, Helgerud J, et alStrong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players British Journal of Sports Medicine 2004;38:285-288.
Featured image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock