The back squat is a core training staple that can build size and strength in your lower body—but are you sure you’re even doing the exercise correctly?
For this basic gym necessity, you shouldn’t settle for anything other than perfect form—especially because it’s such a simple, essential movement that should serve as one of the centerpieces of your training plan. Let Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and associate fitness editor Brett Williams guide you through the move’s subtleties, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential.
Before you grab your barbell and drop down as low as you can go, take note that it’s extremely important to pay attention to the subtleties of the movement here. You’re not just bending your knees and letting the load take you down to the floor—there are other important cues you have to remember to do the squat correctly, especially once you start working with a heavyweight.
Sit Back, Not Down
Eb says Your biggest potential mistake on the squat: Thinking that you only bend at the knees. This isn’t Game of Thrones. In order to squat, you need to bend your knees, and also bend at your torso at just the right time, so that your thighs wind up parallel to the ground when you’re near the “bottom” of your rep.
This can seem unnatural if you’ve never done squat reps before. The best way to deal with it: Think of sitting back, not sitting down. Bend at the knees as you push your butt back. Do this right, and you’ll also avoid what’s known as “butt wink,” a rounding of your lower back that can lead to lower back issues in the future.
Weight In Your Heels
Eb says: It can be very tempting to shift forward onto the balls of your feet as you squat, especially if you’re bending at the knees only. Don’t let this happen. Throughout the squat, think of keeping your weight in your heels, both as you sit back and as you stand up. This will help you sit back properly.
Strong Back, Strong Core
Eb says Your second-biggest mistake on any squat: Thinking of it only as a leg exercise. It’s especially easy to do this on the back squat because the weight “rests” on your back.
Thing is, this is a total body move from the very start. Start each set of squats by approaching the bar, squatting under it, then pulling your torso into the bar, flexing your back muscles. Maintain a tight back once the bar’s on your back, then tighten your core. Keep this tight posture as you do every rep. It’ll help you maintain a neutral spine, and as you start to use heavier weights, it’ll be absolutely critical.
Look Forward, Not Up
Eb says: Where the head goes, the torso will follow. So the last thing you want to do is look up when you squat. Doing this will force your spine into extension, over-arching your back, a risky body position. Instead, look forward a yard or two, and keep that gaze constant during the squat; it’ll help you hold a neutral spine throughout each rep.
Take Your Time
Eb says: The squat is a full-body move that requires multiple muscle groups to work together. That’s very different from a biceps curl, where you move at one joint (the elbow), or even a bench press, where you’re primarily moving only at the elbows and shoulders.
So don’t rush your reps and try to “pound them out” quickly. Whether you’re doing sets of 2 reps each or 10 reps, take your time. Consider each rep its own entity; lower down into it, stand back up, then reset your breath and your mind. This approach will help you hone your form and not rush the move, and it’ll help you get the most strength benefit out of the move. It will also set you up to handle more weight in the future.