The squat is heralded by those in the know as the king of exercises – a full-body strength builder that’s the backbone of most serious training programmes. Among serious gym-goers, what you squat is considered much more important than what you bench, but it’s also one of the toughest moves to get right.
How low can you go?
To see what your squat might be missing, look at any Olympic weightlifter. They’ll typically squat ‘ass to grass’, or as low as possible. This helps them to catch a snatch or clean, but also builds huge strength in the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
You may not want to go that low, because it reduces the amount of weight you can handle. But remember that for a squat to be worthy of the name, your hamstrings have to make contact with your calf muscles at the lowest point of the move.
Also remember that your chest should remain upright throughout the squat. A common mistake with the back squat is leaning forwards until your chest almost touches your thighs, at which point you’re endangering your lower back.
The absolute minimum-depth squat you can get away with is the powerlifting version, sometimes called a ‘sumo’ squat. This is designed to shift the maximum weight while staying competition-legal and involves taking a wider stance, but still getting the hip crease below the knee.
Do you know squat?
What should you do if you can’t manage a normal back squat? One solution is to reduce the weight – there’s no shame in squatting nothing but the bar – but if you’ve been out of action for a while, you may be missing the hip and ankle flexibility required to squat at all.
The solution is to stick with unilateral exercises such as the split squat, which basically involves staying in the ‘bottom’ position of a lunge. The next step up is the goblet squat – hold a dumbbell in both hands like a goblet, then squat until your elbows touch the inside of your knees. Not only does this act as a gentle weighted stretch if you hold it, it’s also impossible to do while leaning forwards so it encourages good form.
The next step up is the front squat. Many strength coaches will tell you this is the only squat you need and it’s certainly tougher to get wrong than the back squat. For a real challenge, warm up with an overhead squat, holding a bar or broomstick in a wide grip fully extended over your head. This takes full-body mobility and it’s a great test of core strength.
Done all those? Then hit the back squat – and watch your legs grow.
Squat better by doing this warm-up three times a week
Door handle squat
Hold a door handle and squat as low as possible, keeping your chest up. Do five sets of three reps.
Face a wall, with your toes as close to it as possible and hands out to the sides. Squat as if you’re sitting on a chair. Do five sets of three reps.
Holding a weight in front of you, squat as low as possible. Pause at the bottom to feel the stretch. Do two sets of five reps.