Let's talk squats! If you ask me, the squat is the king of all exercises. When I started weightlifting, I wasn't even able to perform a proper bodyweight squat. But I worked hard to improve my technique.
However, the squat is one of the most commonly screwed-up exercises.
Let me go through some of the most common mistakes, that I see daily in the gym and give you some tips. I know the squat can be quite tricky to master, but it's not impossible. Practice is key.
Wrong bar placement
This one's not too obvious, but many people place the bar asymmetrically on their back, which makes it more difficult to balance the weight.
Make sure to focus on the right placement when you grab the bar and orientate yourself on the markers on the bar. You can also ask a gym mate to spot you and correct the placement if necessary. Try to have a mirror in front of you, to check, if possible.
Heels coming off the floor
If you perform a squat and your heels are coming off the floor, put the bar back into the rack! Your heels are one of the key pressure points during a squat. Therefore, it's crucial to transfer the force effectively from the ground, through the body and to the bar.
Keeping your feet on the ground is essential for optimal balance and strength. Try to push through your heels, because that's where most of the power for a squat comes from. If you can't squat without lifting your heels, try to stretch first, to improve your mobility.
Short range of motion
For maximal thigh development, you want to squat as low as you can. Aim to squat at least to the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor (90-degree knee bend).
Basically, the deeper you squat, the more your glutes and hamstrings get to work.
However, if it's painful for you or you're just not flexible enough to squat below parallel, don't force an ass-to-grass squat.
When squatting, you want to maintain a neutral arch in you cervical spine, meaning you want to look directly forward.
Turning your head up, curves the cervical portion of the spine, which could be a risk factor for disc injuries. Always keep your spine in a straight line!
You drop way too fast
Always go down in a controlled way. You don't want to bounce. Bouncing into and out of a squat is cheating. If you can't do a controlled squat with a certain weight, you shouldn't be squatting that weight at all. You'll also contract your muscles less, which means less results!
"Falling" into a squat might also lead to serious knee injuries. The perfect squat is a combination of speed, control and contraction.
You're rounding your lower back
Let me get this straight: A round back during any exercise is never good. Rounding your lower back puts huge amounts of stress on your lower spine. Especially if you lift very heavy weights, the risk of injuries increases.
Focus on a neutral lower back - neither round or hyper-extend it.
You lean too far forward
This one happens a lot, too. When squatting, many people end up leaning too far forward, at the bottom of the movement. When they then go back up, they straighten their legs and their entire torso is almost horizontal to the floor.
By doing so, you put a lot of stress on the lower back and you take your quads out of the game.
The right angle depends on your leg-to-torso ratio and whether you perform a low-bar or high-bar squat. If you perform a low-bar squat (bar below the traps) you will automatically lean more forward than with a high-bar squat.
To fix this problem, keep your upper back tight and your chest out.
Your elbows flare out
When you perform a high-bar squat, you want to have your elbows in the right position for the best support.
Make sure that your elbows are pointing towards the floor, as you tighten your shoulder blades and lift the bar off the rack. Lock in at the beginning of your squat and it will be much easier to maintain for the whole movement.
Handy tips to improve your performance
Think twice about using a squat pad
Nearly every gym has a soft neck pad next to the squat rack, to help cushion the weight across your traps. However, think twice about actually using it, because it makes it really difficult to balance the bar on your back.
Check your shoes
Some people wear running shoes when lifting weights. I mean, come on! They are called running shoes for a reason. Wearing the wrong shoes, makes the whole thing much more difficult, than it needs to be.
How? It creates an inherently unstable structure for the squat. Instead, wear shoes with a harder, flat sole (I love to squat in Chucks), slightly raised heels (powerlifting shoes) or squat barefoot.
A good form is more important than adding more weight
Leave your ego at the door! Loading up the bar with weight, but squatting down only a few inches is something I see far too often. Learn to perform with proper form first and then add the weight.
Improve your breath technique
A squat can be a really heavy exercise, which requires a lot of energy. Take the time to breath deeply and properly in between reps.
Furthermore, many people breathe out, as they lift the weight. But, actually you want to hold your breath until you reach the top (end of the movement). By holding your breath, you'll increase the intra-abdominal pressure, keeping your core tight and strong.
Think twice about using a belt
In some gyms it's almost like a fashion statement to wear a lifting belt. People who barely squat or deadlift their own body weight, wrap belts around their core. Even for warm up sets.
If you can answer one of the following questions with "yes", you could think about buying/using a lifting belt:
- do you have a back/spine/core injury?
- do you bench press at least 1.5x your body weight?
- do you squat at least 2x your body weight?
- do you deadlift at least 2x your body weight?
None of the above? Then you most likely don't need a belt!
There you go. Now you have everything you need, to perform a perfect squat. I know squats aren't easy, but they're so worth doing!