How to Squat Correctly For Huge Gains In Muscle

Squat variations, from front squats to overhead squats, have become a favorite part of workout routines among bodybuilders, powerlifters, and many other athletes all for this reason: squats can change your body, and that’s why it’s vital you learn how to squat correctly.

Learning correct form will help you build an incredibly strong lower body. Squats will also bring you multiple physical benefits, like greater flexibility.

These movements can be done in such great intensity that they can trigger the release of growth hormones in your body.

These are crucial for the growth of your muscles, helping you increase muscle mass not just in your legs but throughout your body as well. 

Many, if not, most of weightlifters strongly swear on squatting. Of course, you can gain powerful leg muscles without squatting. There are other exercises you can do to build on your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

Squatting calls for almost every muscle group in the body to work together so you can produce a great amount of force. You can try to be slick and sly, and go for shortcuts in the bench press or deadlift, but you can never cheat through the squat.

If you don’t generate the needed body strength and follow the proper technique, there’d be no way to push the weight up. What happens is you’ll just stay stuck. 

Learning how to squat correctly won’t just earn you the right to clap yourself on the back for doing an awesome job. As a long-term benefit, you get to develop all major muscle groups in your body.

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Female showing how to squat correctly using a barbell

By the time you finish reading this article, you will know exactly how to squat correctly with the proper form along with some of the most useful squat variations for increasing size and strength throughout your lower body.  

Oddly enough, there may have been mixed criticisms about squats, and I’ve heard much about these myths that just don’t have any basis.

If you’re still doubtful over these, read on to find more about how you can make these huge powerful gains through squatting alone and why they should be a staple exercise in your training regimen. 

Which Muscles Do Squats Work?

The squat remains to be one of the most unique movements out there because it engages just about every major muscle group that your body has, all except for the arms, chest, and shoulders.

If you’re able to learn how to squat correctly, this exercise can help develop the following:

  • Quadriceps- are the main muscles for extending the knee. In the deepest of your squats, the quads will be working the most to extend your knees out of the bottom of your squat.
  • Hamstrings– help support your glutes in hip extension and your knee joint as your knees go for the greatest flexion at the bottom of your squat.
  • Glutes– these muscles help bring your hips into a full extension and make sure your knees do not cave in when you’re doing the squat. 
  • Hip flexors– help raise your thigh and stabilize your lower back, and are effectively stimulated during squats. 
  • Erector spinae– running along the outside of your spine, the erectors keep your spine stiff and stretched out as you squat. This prevents your back from rounding as the spine should remain rigid during this movement. 
  • Latissimus dorsi– during the squat, your lats help keep the bar on your back stable. They also protect the spine and help keep your torso upright. 
  • Trapezius– your traps are one of the major muscles of your back covering your upper back and neck’s posterior, so they’re fully engaged as well when squatting. 
  • Calves– as you go down deep into your squat, the outside of your calves, specifically the soleus, brings your shin to a vertical position as you go back up in a standing position. 
Male squating in a power rack.

You might have already known that most muscle groups in your body may have a counterbalancing effect upon each other. For example, when you stimulate one muscle group, another muscle group may be slowed down. 

Take dumbbell curls, for instance. With this movement, you can engage your biceps but your triceps may just barely be stimulated. On the other hand, triceps extensions will deliver a powerful pump to your triceps but not your biceps.

This relationship also exists in your quads and hamstrings. However, with a special muscular contraction called the Lombard’s paradox, the squat can effectively stimulate both of these muscles at the same time.

That’s why learning how to squat correctly should be done the moment you commit to your fitness journey. Squatting is truly one of the most challenging yet worthwhile moves out there.

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How to Squat For Strong Muscular Legs (The Tutorial)

If you want to get shredded, big powerful movements like the squat will give you the total body exercise you need. But it does require proper technique or this movement can be quite risky. and no where near as effective as it should be.

Once you learn how to squat correctly, you’ll understand why squats kick ass when it comes to building muscle and strength. 

So let’s take a look at these steps on how you can properly do a squat. 

How to Squat Correctly- Step 1

Setup 

When it comes to setting up for a squat, always keep these things in mind: 

  1. Racking the bar
  2. Positioning the bar
  3. Gripping the bar
  4. Unracking the bar
  5. Positioning the feet

These may seem pretty basic, but have a closer look at how you should maintain these steps at all times. 

1. Racking the bar

One of the most basic things you can do when setting up is to ensure that the rack isn’t set too high or low. You should have the option of unracking the bar without the need to tiptoe or to half-squat. A general guideline is to have one to two inches below the bar’s final height when you’re standing, or roughly above your sternum.

To get the right height, try some adjustments with an empty bar.

2. Positioning the bar

You can try either the low-bar or the high-bar positioning for the back squat. They each have their advantages and potential issues, so you should choose which you think is best suited for you. 

With the low-bar squat, the bar is positioned across the rear delts and mid traps. This enables you to move some more weight while stimulating the hamstrings a bit more. This positioning is also likely to feel more stable and secure. That’s why most newbies go for the low-bar position. 

As for powerlifters and weightlifters, they choose the low-bar during competitions for them to be able to move the most weight. 

On the other hand, the low-bar won’t enable you to perform deeper squats and may cause pain in the shoulders especially when you’re doing this exercise a couple of times per week.

With the high-bar squat, the bar is positioned across the upper traps. One of the best things about the high-bar squat is that it enables you to do much deeper squats. It even puts a bit more tension on your quads while not overstressing your shoulders. These are just some of the benefits that have motivated weightlifters and powerlifters to perform this movement using the high-bar position.

However, the high-bar squat can certainly be more challenging because you need to have greater strength in your upper back. If you’re new to this, it will take you longer to learn the high-bar technique compared to the more straightforward low-bar squat.

So which one’s the best to use? It will definitely depend on your preference and possibly your fitness level. The high-bar squat will most likely stimulate more of your quads while the low-bar squat will engage more of your hamstrings and glutes. Anyway, it won’t be much of a big difference.

I still recommend you choosing which position feels the easier, more comfortable one to use. For many, especially the newbies, they often go for the low-bar squat, at least for their first tries.

Do not forget this piece of advice: when you’re going for the high-bar squat, see to it that the bar rests on your traps and not on your spine. It’s a common mistake, particularly for gym-goers who have small traps. It’s also one of the reasons why they feel like they have to use bar pads and plastic molds.

3. Gripping the bar

Now, when the bar is set in position, try gripping the bar with a thumbless grip or a full grip. 

Doing the thumbless grip will enable you to straighten your wrists in line with your knuckles and fingers. The thumbless grip is a popular choice when performing low-bar squats because this movement calls for greater flexibility in holding the bar and putting more pressure on the wrist, elbow, and shoulders.

 For the full grip, it will be easier for you to have full control over the bar as you keep your hands close. 

When it comes to gripping the bar, my advice to you once more is to choose whichever feels more relaxed and comfortable. Once you’ve made your choice, be sure to grip the bar close to your shoulders.

Don’t fret when some people would tell you that your wrists should be kept completely straight. You can even tilt your wrist to the side at times. The bar’s weight should almost completely rest on your back anyway, so slightly adjusting your wrists just so you could find a comfortable position is certainly okay. In the long run, you just need to develop and practice position awareness.

4. Unracking the bar

Place your feet exactly under the bar, ensuring that the bar is positioned over mid-foot. Squeeze the bar, keep your chest high, and lift the bar from the rack. Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground before taking a step back and moving the other foot. 

Remember, if you have your feet far back, your weight will shift forward and over your toes. On the other hand, if your feet are positioned too far forward, your weight will shift to your heels. These small but impactful factors are often overlooked. While they won’t make you fall on your face or your back, these will result in wasted energy as you stabilize yourself after the squat. 

Your movements should just be enough to get clear of the rack and nothing more.

5. Positioning your feet

It may take some time for you to determine the best stance width for you. To begin, though, you should place your feet outside of your shoulder-width. If you want to engage more of your glutes as you squat, try a slightly wider stance. What’s important is that, like everything else in setting up, it should be comfortable. Don’t fret too much about your glutes as there are still other movements you can do to target these muscles.

If you find it hard to squat down because you’re always falling backward, you might want to widen your stance with a couple of inches. If you feel like your hips are too tight at the bottom, try to narrow your stance at an inch or two. 

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How to Squat Correctly- Step 2

Descent

Here’s what you need to make a note of when it comes to the decent:

  1. The bar should move up and down in a straight motion and doesn’t slide along forward or backward.
  2. The back remains in a firm, neutral position while the movement is performed.
  3. The knees point to the toes the whole time the squat is being executed.
  4. The elbows remain in place.
  5. For the most part, the head remains in line with the back.

This is how you squat correctly.

Now it’s your turn to perform the squat. As we look into the proper descent, the key to producing a confident yet powerful descent is to make the most of the stretch reflex. You should also avoid wasting your energy during this phase.

First, take a deep breath with the air building in your stomach. As you inhale, the one to expand should be your stomach and not your chest. 

This should be followed with your windpipe being sealed. You can do this by pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

Engage your core abdominal muscles, keep them tight as if you were bracing for a powerful punch in the stomach.

As hard as you can, squeeze the bar, raise your chest, and set yourself down. Keep your knees aligned with your toes and slightly move forward.

Some people recommend never allowing your knees to stretch out past your toes during squatting, as it puts more pressure on the knees.

Don’t worry about this. While you should never intentionally push your toes past the knees, this will naturally take place when you do squats especially as you reach in deep. Research has already shown that this force that occurs on the knees doesn’t cause damage.

What you should never do is to have your knees yield and cave inward, toward each other. You can avoid this by pushing the floor with your feet while keeping them apart.

Once you’ve hit the deepest of your squat, this is the point where you feel the lower back is beginning to round, you can now perform the last part of your squat- the ascent.

But let’s have a look first at one of the most controversial issues being debated about squatting properly. How low should you really go when squatting?

How Deep Should You Squat?

The best answer you can have to this question is that you squat deep enough to go “below parallel.”

Bending your knees to 90 degrees or so is enough to stimulate high muscular activity levels in your quads. Squatting even to parallel is an assuring factor for bigger and stronger legs. 

What you should do is to reach a point wherein the focal point of your hips is below the top of your knees. Your thigh bones should extend equally and be made parallel to the ground or slightly lower.

If you’ve had gone to the gym a couple of times now, you might have observed that some people don’t really achieve the “below parallel” recommendations. Many don’t even get close to parallel as they reach deep into their squats. 

What do these all mean? They’re not making the most of the benefits that squats offer. That’s why you should learn how to squat correctly and go deep as you can for you to:

  • Gain more size and strength 
  • Engage your glutes more
  • Take more load off your knees
  • Develop a stronger lower back
  • Produce greater force

So does this all mean you have to go as low as you can and squat as deep as possible? Not really, because full squatting calls for greater mobility than most people can exhibit.

It can also be very challenging for people with long torsos.

If you can do a full squat comfortably, that’s great for you as it does offer additional benefits in terms of strength and muscle-building. 

If you can’t manage a full squat, even the parallel squat, don’t worry. Just simply do your best and reach parallel when you squat, and focus on increasing your mobility. The right time to do a full squat will just come.

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How to Squat Correctly- Step 3

Ascent

We’ve come to the final part of how to squat correctly, and that’s ascending.

A common mistake during an ascent is when people relax a certain part of their body, such as their abs or upper back. When one part of the body brings weight pulling to a stop, it’s much more difficult to finish the movement.

If you begin to relax your upper back and chest while halfway through an intense squat, you might lose the bar speed and tend to tip forward. In turn, there will be more pressure on other muscles for them to work harder. If they’re unable to do so, you bring the rep to an end. 

That’s why many of the recommended guidelines for ascending are meant to keep your body tight. For instance, some of the most helpful cues for newbie weightlifters include the following:

  • Instantly explode out of the bottom of the movement the moment you reach the required depth. 
  • Imagine throwing the bar off your back as you get back up. This may help increase your speed as you ascend. 
  • Again, push the ground firmly with your feet apart while driving your hips under the bar.

You may have observed that there’s this point above parallel with which the weight may feel heavier and slows you down.

One of the better things you can try to power through this tough spot is to forcefully explode out of the bottom. Make sure you keep the air in your lungs and exert force onto your hips under your body.

One more thing before we move forward. There’s another issue that people often experience when doing the ascent, which is the rounding back.

Do You Have to Keep Your Back Straight When Doing Squats?

Definitely, you should keep your back straight during a squat. Many have struggled in keeping their backs straight as they rise out of the bottom of a squat.

You may feel tempted to lean forward, but rounding your back won’t produce good results. Especially when adding more weight to your squat, you should maintain a straight back to avoid placing unnecessary stress on your neck and spine.

One of the common reasons why people find this difficult is because they allow their buttocks to rise faster than the chest. This is caused by placing excessive weight on the bar.

When you aim for squatting with more weight than you can handle, your form will be affected. Here are some ways on how to cope with this issue:

  • Go for a lighter weight that you’re more comfortable with. Do this until you’re able to finish every rep without rounding your back at any time during the squat.
  • Keep your back as tight as possible. Many weightlifters don’t focus on their legs when doing squats. Instead, they pay more attention to raising their chest and pulling the bar to their back. 
  • As I’ve mentioned, imagine throwing off the weight from your back and then, thrust your hips from under the bar. 
  • You can build greater strength in your quads by doing more squats and engaging in accessory exercises.
  • Finally, be able to brace properly. Inhale as much air as you can until you feel like your lungs are at about 80% full. Retain this air throughout the rep. Do not exhale this air when you’re ascending. This will make it very challenging to maintain the tightness and straightness of your back. 

Effective techniques for bracing and breathing are key factors to maximize tension during your squat. With these, you’re able to lift as much weight as possible while keeping your back in good health and shape. 

3 Squat Variations You Have to Try 

We all know the barbell back squat reigns supreme when it comes to squat variations. But you should know that it’s not the only squat that will bring multiple benefits to your body.

You should try some of the best squat variations out there that can be performed as standalone exercises or as supplementary moves to the back squat. These include:

  • The front squat
  • The single-leg squat
  • The goblet squat

The Front Squat

One of the best things about the front squat is that it emphasizes your quads and upper back. With this variation, you can go deeper into your squat compared to the low-bar squat.

The front squat doesn’t put as much stress on your knees and lower back. This is beneficial if you choose to give your joints its well-needed break or if you’re currently dealing with joint issues. 

A downside, though, is that you can’t carry as much weight and could cause discomfort issues especially if you’re new to lifting.

You also need to demonstrate some decent wrist mobility, that’s why some people tend to cross their hands as it makes the grip more comfortable. However, this move could cause instability and may not work effectively with heavier weights. 

That’s why it’s better if you carry on with the traditional front squat grip, even if you’re able to stick with one to two fingers per hand on the bar. 

The Single-Leg Squat- The Bulgarian Split-Squat      

For the single-leg squat, we’re looking at the Bulgarian split-squat that’s been making waves in the weightlifting community. It’s also a staple workout for high-level strength coaches- and for all the excellent reasons. 

As a single-leg movement, you force your core to work hard so you can maintain your balance. 

Compared to traditional squats that put a substantial load onto your lower back, the Bulgarian split squat significantly takes away your lower back from this hefty equation. Why? Because this squat focuses more on your legs. Your stabilizing leg is positioned behind you on a raised area. 

It prevents and addresses muscle imbalances, which may happen oftentimes with barbell squatting. This movement also enables you to go deeper into the squat, calling for more flexibility in your hips. 

A noticeable issue with the Bulgarian split squat, though, is that you can’t carry as much weight, just like most dumbbell exercises.

The Goblet Squat

The goblet squat basically uses the same movement as the front squat, only this time you’re using a dumbbell and not a barbell. 

Always hold the dumbbell firmly close to your chest, as if you were carrying a large goblet. Otherwise, failure to do so will indicate that you’re only doing a basic squat.

The best thing about the goblet squat is it’s very convenient. You don’t have to use a barbell, so if you’re lacking in equipment, like when you’re traveling, the goblet squat can be a decent option.

It will also work well if you’re experiencing back pain or shoulder problems that are keeping you from performing squats with a barbell. 

Get to Work! Here’s An Effective Squat Workout You Should Try

Here’s a basic, very straightforward squat workout you can perform to incorporate some of these variations and some additional routines to engage the hamstrings.

High-Bar or Low-Bar Barbell Back Squat

After warming up, you can begin with these:

For beginners: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70 to 75% of 1 RM (repetition maximum)

For advanced: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% 1 RM

Front Squat

For beginners: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM

For advanced: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM

Bulgarian Split-Squat

For beginners: 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM

For advanced: 2 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM

Romanian Deadlift

For beginners: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM
For advanced: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM

Standing Calf Raise (optional)

For both beginners and advanced: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70 to 80% 1 RM

Also, here are a few tips on how to complete this workout:

In every set, you should not get to the point of complete muscle failure. When we say muscle failure, this means the point where you can’t sustain the weight anymore. You can’t keep the weight moving so you just have to end the set.

You can take most of your sets to a point that’s close to failure (like one or two reps closer), but rarely to the point of complete failure.

In my experience, I have never trained to the point of absolute failure when it comes to risky workouts like the squat, deadlift,

On the other hand, I hang on to my failure sets for leg extensions, hamstring curls, calf raises, and other isolation exercises. It’s really a naturally occurring outcome from pushing for continuous overload in contrast to predetermined programming.

Take a quick break of about 3 to 4 minutes in between every set. This will provide your muscles with ample time for rest and recovery, allowing you to regain strength so you can give it your maximum effort for every set.

As soon as you’ve reached the max of your rep range for one set, try increasing the weight. For example, if you squat with 135 pounds for 6 reps during your first set, you can add 5 more pounds for each side of the bar during your next set.

Now you have 145 pounds of weight. If you can properly carry this for at least 4 reps, this will be the new weight you’ll be focusing on until you can properly squat with it for at least 6 reps.

If you only complete 3 reps or fewer, decrease the load by 5 pounds so now you’re at 140 pounds. Closely monitor your next set. If you’re still getting 3 reps or fewer, decrease the weight by another 5 pounds so you’re back to the 6-rep load. Focus on this until you’re able to complete 2 sets of 6 reps with this weight. Once you can properly do this, you can gradually add to the weight on the bar.

Key Points to Remember

Squats are one of the most ideal exercises to build the major muscle groups in your body. If you learn how to squat correctly, you can effectively engage your quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and back. You will produce powerful results when it comes to strength, flexibility, and muscle-building.

Learning how to squat correctly can be summed up into a couple of cues and guidelines, and a dash of grit and determination in you.

You’ve learned the crucial factors that can affect your squats, including the proper setup, descent, and ascent, not to mention breathing and bracing, the placement of your feet, the tightness of your back, and the depth of your squat. All of these, when done correctly, will certainly help you in setting up stronger, more solid squats.

Hopefully, this article on learning how to squat correctly will help you in preventing the common mistakes many people do, especially when just starting out with their fitness journey. I hope you get a lot better at doing squats over time once you start honing in on these tips!

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