Proper form on squats is a must. You will be using heavy weights on squats which make proper form even more important.
I want to go over all of the different aspects of squat form so you know what to work on when practicing the squat.
Follow these 13 tips to proper squat form.
These are all applicable to squats with a barbell on your back and only applicable for low bar squats (recommended but not required at all times). I actually recommend changing squat types every few months after you've gotten really strong on each type of squat.
1. Squat Stance
Starting right is a must and the squat stance is where you'll begin. Get this right or your squat may be flawed from the beginning.
- Stand with heels at shoulder width or slightly wider
- Too narrow won't allow proper depth
- Too wide tightens your hips in bottom position
- Your stance width is measured from heel to heel
- Not too wide and not too narrow as both will prevent a proper squat
If you need to work on your flexibility and mobility to improve your squat, do so with dynamic stretching exercises as a warm-up and cool down to every workout including cardio workouts and weight lifting workouts.
2. Squat Foot Position
The foot position you choose is also very important. Don't keep your toes pointed straight ahead as many people do. You need to angle them outwards.
- Point toes outwards about 30 degrees from center
- Keep your entire foot in contact with the floor at all times
- Do not elevate your feet or wear shoes that elevate your heels
- If you raise up onto your toes during the descent or ascent, work on sitting back more on your heels
Make sure you follow the above guidelines for foot position. Also make sure you are wearing shoes that allow you to keep your feet flat on the floor. If you don't have the proper weight lifting shoes at this time, go barefoot. Don't slip with socks, though! And don't get kicked out of the gym because you aren't wearing shoes.
3. Squat Knee Position
Your knees must not get out of line with the direction your toes are pointing. Keep them in line as explained with the following squat guidelines.
- Your knees should follow in line with your foot position as you squat
- Work on pushing your knees out as you squat
- Don't let your knees cave in at all
- The weight may be too heavy if your knees are caving inwards
- Push your knees out and hips back when squatting down
Squats will improve your knee health if you follow the guidelines above. Your knees must stay in line with your foot positioning.
4. Squat Bar Grip
As with all of these squat form guidelines, the grip you take on the barbell is very important. Make sure you practice until you get this right.
- You should not be trying to support the weight with your grip
- Use the narrowest grip possible that your flexibility allows
- A narrow grip will keep your upper back tight and provide a better support structure for the heavy barbell
- Use a wider grip if required but also work on your flexibility so you can move to a narrow grip later
- Pinch your shoulder blades together before unracking the barbell
- Use broomstick dislocations to increase your mobility and flexibility so you can move to a narrow grip
Your grip feeds over to other very important parts of proper form for the squat. Please make sure you take the grip on the bar as described above. Your upper back needs to be tight to create a proper platform for the heavy barbell to rest.
Pay attention to the grip Mark Rippetoe takes in the video below:
Notice how he can support the weight for long periods of time because he has created a great base for the barbell to rest on his upper back. Also notice how his wrists do not bend back but stay in line with his forearms.
5. Squat Bar Position
Getting the barbell in the correct position on your upper back is very important so you can focus on the actual reps during the squat and not worry about the barbell moving or bothering you during the exercise.
- The bar should be below the trapezius muscles around your neck
- The bar should be in the correct position before lifting out of the power rack
- Bar should be immediately under the bone you have at the top of your should blades
- Thumbs should be on top of the bar and your wrists aligned with your forearms (not angled)
- The barbell should be centered on your back
- Don't go too low on the bar position or you'll have trouble keeping it in place
- Keep your upper back tight
- Keep your chest up
- Do not use a barbell pad or towel to help pad the bar
Remember, this page is for proper form on squats with the low bar squat version. The low bar squat is the recommended version to start with here at WLC, but I do highly recommend implementing all types of squats over time with your workouts.
6. Squat Head Position
You will not be looking upwards when squatting. You can hurt your neck this way. Follow these squat guidelines instead:
- Do not look up when squatting at any time
- Leave your head in a slightly downward position
- Hold a tennis ball or lacrosse ball between your chin and neck to find the perfect head position
- Keep your head position in line with your spine
Choose a spot on the floor in front of you to focus on when squatting once you have your head in the correct slightly downward position.
See this image to understand the above points:
Notice how the image shows the head inline with the spin and a slightly downward head position.
7. Unrack Squat Bar
Unracking the barbell is another vital piece of performing the squat with proper from and technique. You don't want to waste energy on unracking the barbell. If you do it right, you'll save energy for the actual reps.
- The barbell should be at the middle of your chest before unracking
- Place both feet directly under the barbell
- Do not place your feet in front of or behind the bar
- Keep the natural arch in your lower back
- Keep a very tight upper back with a narrow grip on the barbell
- Raise your chest before unracking which leads to a tighter upper back
- Imagine unracking the barbell as the top portion of a quarter squat
Unracking the barbell properly is something most people take for granted. Don't. This step is very important to proper squat form.
8. Walk Back w/ Squat Bar
Always unrack the weight properly and then step back with each leg. Don't waste energy here. Only go back one step with each leg and start squatting.
- Always step backwards
- Don't go forward as you want to step forward when you're finished with the set
- Only take one step back with each leg to conserve energy
- Use your hips to move more than bending your legs
- Don't do a reverse lunge or bend your legs excessively when stepping back as this will waste energy
Get this right, and you'll conserve energy for the actual squat reps. Trust me, when the weight gets heavy you'll need the energy. If you need to take a second small step to give yourself room to squat, do so. Be careful.
9. Squat Down
Now it's time to do the squat! You will begin the squat by moving your hips back like you're going to sit down.
- Begin by moving your hips back
- Push your knees out
- You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings
- Ensure the bar is moving in a vertical line over the middle of your foot
- Use a camera to ensure bar moves in vertical line
- Check all prior guidelines for correctness if not moving in vertical line over the middle of your foot
The squat down is confusing to many people. Follow the above squat form guidelines to get it right and never look back. Practice makes perfect.
10. Squat Up
The positive portion or the concentric portion of the squat is where you'll be lifting the weight from the bottom position.
- Your hips must drive upwards in a vertical line
- Hips should not move back or forward but vertically up
- Move chest up when driving hips at same rate
- Push your knees out as you drive the bar vertically upwards
- Don't allow your knees to cave inwards
- The bar should follow a vertical line over the middle of your foot
- Use a camera from the side position to ensure you are squatting with proper form
Always double check your squat form as you increase the weight from workout to workout. Sometimes heavier weights will affect our squat form. Always check your form and technique with a camera.
11. Proper Squat Depth
You should always be doing full squats. A full squat means you need to break parallel as explained below.
- A full squat means your hip crease is lower than the top of your knees when viewing from the side
- Use a camera to ensure your squat depth is correct
- Anything less than a full squat is dangerous
If you have the flexibility to go lower, you can and should go even lower in the squat. Most people do not have this flexibility. If you attempt an increased squat depth and notice your lower back rounding at the bottom, you should work on flexibility before attempting again. This can be very bad for your spine.
12. Breathing During the Squat
Breathing properly is another important part of the squat. You need to be practicing this with every rep.
- Hold your breath as you are squatting down and squatting up
- Take a deep breath at the top of the squat while standing and directly before you squat down
- Hold your breath through the entire rep including the bottom position
- Breathe out at the top after you've finished the rep
- Breathe as much as you want between reps at the top of each rep
- Always take a deep breath and hold before squatting down
Most people never learn to breathe properly during the squat. Now you know how. Practice this and perfect your squat breathing technique. If a squat rep lasts longer than normal because you are struggling, you can breathe out slowly on the way up.
13. Racking Squat Bar
You're almost finished but not quite yet. Let's finish this off with placing the barbell back in the power rack, squat rack, or squat stands.
- Finish your last rep in a full standing position
- Walk forward with the weight until you hit the uprights
- Feel both sides of the barbell hit the uprights of your squat rack
- Bend through your legs to rest the barbell easily onto the rack
Racking the barbell properly should look like the reverse actions of unracking the barbell. Practice all of this and you'll have a perfect squat!
To finish out this page on squats with proper form, I want you to watch a video of Mark Rippetoe teaching how to do squats properly:
There are many things that are wrong in the video at certain points, but Coach Rippetoe is teaching. I thought you would like to see the video. Please ignore some of his language. One day he might learn to talk without the trash. He's still a great teacher of proper squat form.