How to Do Squats: A Step-by-Step Guide
Welcome to Do It Right, a new series where we cover essential skills that everyone should know. From staying fit to caring for your gear and beyond, each Do It Right post calls on expert advice to help you learn something new across a wide range of topics.
The Skill: How to Do Squats
Here, we cover how to do barbell back squats, the classic version of the squat.
Lee Boyce, Toronto-based strength coach, speaker, owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems, college professor, and internationally published fitness writer. Despite having undergone reconstructive surgery to both knees just a few years ago, I have recorded multiple full-range squats over 400 pounds. I know or thing or two about doing them correctly.
What You Need
Plain and simple: A barbell, weight plates, and a good old fashioned squat rack. If your gym is worth its salt, it should have no shortage of these.
How to Do It
1. Get your setup right. Make sure the bar is securely positioned in the hooks. The bar should rest around upper chest level, not shoulder level. This will make it easier to get in and out of the rack when it’s time to perform a set. Usually, squat cages have safety pins that can be placed to the height of your preference; set them so they’re just below the lowest point the bar will reach during your squat. (This level will vary depending on your height and how deeply you squat.)
2. Practice without weight. Before handling the bar, go through the motions of a squat and pay attention to your form. Try a few different foot placements (starting with them just a bit wider than shoulder width apart) and see what feels best and also allows you to keep your feet flat throughout the entire movement. Once you find a comfortable position, remember it—you’ll use that same position when you squat with the bar. It’s also important to limber up your body before you squat. Try following this drill to prepare yourself:
3. Face the bar and grasp it with both hands. Most people like to hold the bar with hands placed a few inches outside shoulder width. Hold tight and duck under the bar to place it on your back. As you do this, create a “shelf” for the bar to rest on (using your upper traps) by squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your chest proud. Make sure the bar is nested on the meaty part of your traps, not higher up on your neck.
4. Lift the bar. With both feet square, stand up to lift the bar out of the hooks, then carefully take two steps backward. Place your feet in your preferred squat position, keeping them flat on the ground. Squeeze outward on the bar with your hands (like you’re trying to rip it apart).
5. Dig deep. Keep your eyes focused on a spot a few meters in front of you on the floor. If you’re in front of a mirror, focus around the knee level of your reflection. Take a deep breath, expanding your lungs down into your stomach. Tense your abdominal muscles and maintain that tension throughout the movement—in this case, it’s OK to hold your breath.
6. Lower your body. Pretend you’re about to take a seat in a chair by dropping the hips back as the knees bend. This will keep your heels down and keep you stable. Think about spreading your knees to keep them in line with your feet as you descend; this will also create space for your butt to travel downward. Aim for your butt to make it lower than your knee level, and try to maintain a tall, upright posture with your upper body.
7. Raise your body. Dig in with the feet to drive your way back up to the top position. Near the top, you can finally let that big breath of air out. You’ve just done a successful back squat.
Prefer to learn how to do squats with a video? Here’s a step-by-step tutorial for the visual learners out there:
How Deep Should You Squat?
When it comes to squats, one size does not fit all. Generally speaking, squatting to a depth where the thigh becomes parallel to the floor is a good guide—as long as your technique (as described above) remains on point.
Beyond that, what matters most is that you achieve your desired squat depth with a safe range of motion. Going deep in a squat requires good flexibility and good form. If you go too deep, your body can contort itself: The spine loses its flatness, or the heels elevate off the ground. Be aware of these missteps and use a range of motion that suits your body and mobility levels.
What About Other Squat Variations?
Squats are a very important move to learn and master, but barbell back squats won’t be the perfect choice for everyone. Take the time to explore the many squat variations to see what feels best for your body. Depending on the nature and placement of the load, the squat can work various muscles in very different ways. Front squats, goblet squats, safety bar squats, zombie/Frankenstein squats, and heels-elevated squats can all be smart alternatives to back squats.