Photography by Kevin Horton
The squat is one of the most revered choices in the exercise catalog because of its uncanny ability to pack muscle onto your wheels.
In theory, it’s as primal as using a bone for a toothbrush — you drape a bar loaded with weight on your back, crouch down and explode up. Easier said than done. Executing the squat properly is anything but basic, so here, FLEX provides a step-by-step guide, plus tips. Get ready to fill out your pant legs!
10 STEPS TO A PERFECT SQUAT
- The bar should rest near your midtraps and rear delts (rather than your upper traps). This will make it easier to balance the weight throughout the exercise.
- Keep your head aligned with your spine by fixing your gaze on an object at eye level. This will help maintain balance.
- Grasping the bar with your thumbs wrapped around the bar, bring your hands as close to your shoulders as possible and press the bar against your back. Squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling your elbows forward will help you support the bar.
- Place your feet just beyond shoulder width; this positioning may vary slightly depending on your flexibility and comfort.
- Maintain the arch in your lower back and push your chest up and out. Contract your spinal erector muscles and abdominals to keep your core tight.
- Keep a slight bend in your knees and contract your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Take a deep breath and hold it as you begin your descent. This will support the spine by increasing pressure inside the abdominal and chest cavities.
- Stick your glutes out as if sitting down in a chair. Descend until your upper legs are parallel to the floor.
Begin the ascent by driving through your heels. Imagine pushing the floor away as you thrust upward with your legs. Keep your heels on the floor to avoid leaning forward.
Concentrate on moving your hips before extending your knees. Keep your hips under the bar as much as possible to avoid leaning forward. This will relieve stress on your lower back.
As you ascend, force your knees out hard and push out on the sides of your shoes. This will help keep tension in your hips for greater strength.
GET TO KNOW SQUAT
10 TIPS TO ENSURE THAT YOU’RE PACKING BULK ONTO YOUR LOWER LIMBS
- FIND YOUR FOOTING. Positioning your feet wide, like a sumo squat, will target the glutes and inner quads. A narrow stance will focus on the outer area of the legs and develop more quad sweep.
- HEAD IN THE GAME. Never look down, because glancing downward will f lex your cervical spine and put pressure on the disks in your neck.
- WATCH YOUR WEIGHT. Do not trade form for weight. A bunch of plates jammed onto the bar might boost your ego, but it won’t improve your legs. Go lighter and perfect the mechanics until your form is sound.
- HOW LOW SHOULD YOU GO? Descend until your upper legs are parallel to the ground. Stopping short of that position can detract from full upper-leg development.
- RAMP UP THE REPS. Consistency with reps could shortchange growth. The majority should fall in the 8-12 range, the legs respond well to higher reps, but don’t hesitate to ramp it up to 15 reps if you feel inclined.
- REST REMIX. Two to three minutes between sets should be plenty of time to recover. But, just as you do with reps, mix it up. Shorter rest periods of a minute or 30 seconds will exhaust the muscle, allow for a larger build up of lactic acid and cause the body to release more growth hormone.
- WRAP IT UP. In the past, it was widely believed that knee wraps prohibited muscle activity, because of the reliance on the wraps’ elasticity. A new study from Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, shows that wraps do not interfere with muscle growth and may even allow you to go heavier.
- BELT ONE OUT. Use a weight belt when squatting up to or exceeding 80% of your one-rep max. An added benefit of a belt: it can further increase pressure in the abdominal cavity for better stabilization of the spine.
- KNEES AND TOES. You’ve heard it before: extending your knees over your toes will cause injury. Not necessarily. A new study shows that trying to prevent this actually placed more stress on the lower back, and that the knees experienced less stress when they did extend past the toes.
- PARTIAL SQUATS. Develop bigger teardrop muscles by performing only the upper half of the movement — with heavier weight — as this is when the muscle receives most of the stress. Do two or three sets of these before moving on to full squats.
GRAB A SPOT. You don’t want to risk damaging equipment or injuring the people around you, so ask for a spot from someone who is strong enough to get you out of trouble when you’re squatting heavy. If a massive amount of weight crushes your spine, you’re out of the gym — as well as out of commission — for a long time.
Not comfortable attempting a 1RM? Not a problem. Take a weight with which you can squat for 10 reps, the 10th being the absolute last you can complete. Multiply that weight by 1.33. That will give you your estimated 1RM.
EXAMPLE: You squatted 300 pounds for 10 reps:
300 x 1.33 = 399 pounds
Round up (400 pounds)
HOW TO SAFELY TEST YOUR 1RM ON THE SQUAT
- When attempting your 1RM, make sure to grab a strong spotter (or two). If you get into a jam with a ton of weight on your back, you’ll be happy for the extra hands.
- If you’re going at it solo — which isn’t recommended — use a power rack and set the safety bars just below the bottom position of your squat so it can catch the bar if you fail on your attempt.
- Take as many warm-up sets as you need. Complete no more than six reps for the first two sets, then drop to one or two reps as you gradually increase the weight toward your 1RM attempt. Remember, you’re trying to get loose, not push your muscles to failure.
- Now you’re warmed up and it’s time to find your max. Choose a weight you can lift for 6-10 reps to failure. Now add 30%-40% more weight. Attempt no more than one rep. If you completed the rep, rest 3-4 minutes and add 5-10 pounds. If you didn’t, remove 5-10 pounds and go at it again after resting 3-4 minutes. The final weight you successfully complete once is your true 1RM. – FLEX