Serious Squats: Good Form, Great Legs

Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith
The squat is the complete lower body exercise. This seemingly simple down-and-up motion seriously challenges everything below the chest—quads, glutes, and hamstrings, plus lower back and abs—making it pretty much unbeatable in terms of benefits per rep. That said, simple doesn't mean easy: Get the squat wrong and you’ll not only fail to reap many of its many benefits, you'll also risk serious injury.

Feeling worried? Don't be—learning the proper form is relatively easy, and once you've got it down squats will give back more than you can imagine. To help you learn how to squat correctly, consulted Devin Wicks, ACE, AFAA, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams. He provided an overview of general squat tips, a proper form check list, a guide to choosing your weights and reps, and, on the following two pages, detailed overviews of both the standard barbell squat and its more challenging cousin the front barbell squat.

Getting Started: Squat Tips
Before you delve into the squat program, consider these general tips on barbell squatting:
  1. Begin with a bar: The Olympic bar alone weighs 45 pounds. That's more than enough weight to begin with as you learn the basics. Start out doing your squats using the Olympic bar without weight on it until you have nailed the form.
  2. Face a mirror: Do your squats in front of a mirror if at all possible, so that you can check and recheck your form as you go.
  3. Having trouble? Elevate your heels: People with long legs or long thigh bones may find it hard to squat properly. If this describes you, or if you have ever had difficulty keeping your shoulders back in a squat, try elevating your heels. Many gyms provide small mats to put under your heels; you can also use a couple of weight plates. Set the mats or plates one to two feet back from the rack so that you can step back onto them once you have the bar in position. Elevating your heels can also help protect your back—it’s definitely worth a try if you struggle with squats.
  4. Think about sitting down rather than sitting back: For weights-free fitness squats, people often push their hips behind them as they squat, weighting down the heels. For a weightlifting barbell squat, however, you don’t really want to do that. Instead, as you squat, imagine yourself sitting down on a low bench placed just behind your heels. This will keep your weight better distributed as you descend.
Proper Form: A Checklist
Wicks recommends you bring the following form checklist to the gym with you until you are sure you have the proper form.
  1. Stand with feet shoulder distance apart
  2. Position your feet at a natural turnout (30 to 45 degrees)
  3. Keep your back slightly arched
  4. Lift your chest
  5. Maintain tight abs
  6. Track your knees with your toes; don’t let your knees fold in or bow out
  7. Keep your hips square throughout motion; don’t let them buckle or swivel
  8. Lower your shoulders and hips at the same rate
Of this list, pay particular attention to the final item—the most common cause of form failure and injury. When people fatigue in squats, they typically begin coming up out of the squat with their hips first and shoulders second. "This is when disc herniation happens,” Wicks says. Be sure to bring your hips and shoulders up at the same rate, and at the point that you no longer can, stop or reduce the weight.

Sets and Reps: Choose Your Goals
If your goal is muscle growth (hypertrophy), Wicks advises three sets of squats with eight to 10 repetitions in each set, three days per week. You should use heavy weights in this case—take each set to fatigue. Note that fatigue is not the point at which you could not do another squat, but the point at which you could not do another squat while maintaining proper form. Be conservative with weight increases. It is much better to do eight reps with lighter weights cleanly than eight reps with heavier weights poorly.

If your goal is to develop strong and lean legs, use far less weight and do three sets of 15 squats with lighter weights three times per week. In this case, you will build leaner muscle and leg endurance rather than mass.

Choose a Squat Exercise
Click through to the following pages for an overview of the two most popular barbell squats, including step-by-step photos:

Standard Barbell Squats
Front Barbell Squats