Squats are probably the most useful exercise you can do at the gym—no other single exercise encourages more muscle growth. With a range of motion that incorporates many different muscle groups in the legs, core and upper body, squats strengthen not only those muscles, but also the tendons and ligaments that connect them. In addition to their strength-building benefits, squats also teach you core stabilization, which is important for almost any athletic endeavor.
Place a neck pad or neck cradle at the center point of a barbell positioned at shoulder height on a rack. Stand upright in front of the barbell so that it is resting across your shoulders and behind your neck, on the dip where your trapezius and deltoid muscles meet. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and your toes at a natural turn-out. Hold the barbell on either side of your neck about one foot wider than your shoulders, with your palms facing forward. Lift the barbell off the rack and step back to give you room to squat. You may want to practice with a dowel or weightless bar if you haven't done this exercise before (see Photo 1).
- From the starting position, slowly lower down toward a fully squatted position, pulling your weight down through your leg muscles as you descend (you might think of this as trying to sit on a stool right behind you). Keep your knees lined up over your toes throughout the movement—do not fall in or bow out. Keep your weight balanced between the balls of your feet and your heels as you go down. If you feel any knee pressure, shift your weight back more to your heels and let your hips ride back more to take some of the weight off of your toes. Push your chest out very slightly in front of you to counterbalance the heavy load on your heels. Your back should maintain a natural arch; do not over-arch (see Photo 2).
- When your thighs are parallel to the floor, you will have reached the full depth of the squat (see Photo 3). Reverse motion and drive up through your feet to return to the starting position (see Photo 4). Do a total of 12 repetitions to complete one set.