How to do the perfect squat

by Jeff Rothstein, MS, CSCS, CES
Director of Strength and Conditioning, PT Center for Sports Medicine

Squats

The perfect squat is different for every body:

  • A power lifter may utilize a low bar position to maximize hip torque and minimize anterior knee displacement, both of which will result in a slightly heavier one-repetition maximum (1RM).
  • A collegiate athlete may utilize a front squat to minimize forward torso lean, which will maximize range of motion and anterior core activation.
  • A pre-adolescent trainee may utilize a goblet squat to encourage proper squat form, as well as those benefits associated with a front squat, but without the significant spinal loading.

Regardless of which squat you choose, there are a few technique guidelines and cues that should be followed to ensure safety and maximize results. Keep in mind that while the following guidelines are for those working with weights, the points about engaging muscles and proper form remain the same for anyone doing squats with or without weights. And, for best results, consult with your physical therapist about exercise techniques that are right for your fitness level.

  • Engage your core.

Before un-racking the bar, brace your abs as if somebody were going to punch you in the stomach. This core activation will help you avoid losing the neutral spine alignment which is so paramount to a perfect squat.

  • Use your latissimus muscles (in the upper/middle back, below the shoulders) to stabilize your body.

The lats are an incredibly powerful muscle group which insert all along the spine. Once the bar has been un-racked, fully engage them to add even more stabilization. Think about pulling the bar down as you would in an old-school, behind-the-neck lat pulldown.

Perfect squat cropped

  • Balance your weight over your heels.

To minimize stress to the knee and maximize posterior chain recruitment, think about sitting back on your heels. Your heels should be glued to the floor, and you should be able to slightly wiggle your toes at the bottom position of a squat. Obviously, if you take this cue too far to the extreme, you risk falling backwards, so perfecting technique with bodyweight or a light external load is highly recommended.

  • Downward movement should be slow and controlled.

Always lower down with control. Although the squat is an excellent choice for developing power, the eccentric portion of the lift should be done slowly to minimize injury.

  • Pay attention to upper leg alignment.

Squat - Excel PT

Ideally, the bottom position of the squat will be slightly below parallel or lower. However, some individuals may find that flexibility issues in the hamstrings and hip flexors and/or mobility issues in the hip and ankle may limit their abilities to reach that depth safely. If this is the case, dedicate several weeks to improving these limitations before adding any significant weight to the bar.

  • Push with a quick burst of energy for your upward movement.

Once proper depth has been achieved, explosively push away from the floor. This portion of the exercise improves your power and strength, so maximizing bar speed is the primary objective. The more explosive the lift, the greater the use of type II muscle fibers in your legs, and the greater the potential for improvements in muscle size.

  • Use that booty.

Squeeze your glutes as you complete the lift. This encourages full hip extension.


Squats are an excellent tool for improving lower body strength and power. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a figure competitor or a professional athlete, learn how to perform the Perfect Squat and enjoy the results!

Jeff Rothstein, MS, CSCS, CES Jeff Rothstein, MS, CSCS, CES, is an exercise physiologist and the Director of Strength and Conditioning at the PT Center for Sports Medicine, a Physiquality network physical therapy clinic in Akron, Ohio. A certified strength and conditioning specialist, he is particularly interested in sport-specific strength and conditioning and ACL injury screening and prevention.

 


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For further reading, look through our selection of articles on sports and fitness, in addition to the below links:

One-repetition maximum. Wikipedia, December 6, 2015.

Bodybuilding.com.

Cressey, Eric. Six reasons anterior core exercises are essential. Cressey Sports Performance, October 30, 2014.

Fitocracy. Wide-grip pulldown behind the neck. YouTube.com, September 11, 2013.

How good is your form at the gym? Physiquality, March 2, 2012.

Exercise technique: Front squat. National Conditioning and Strengthening Association.

Goblet squat. Muscle and Fitness.


Header image © Everkinetic via Wikimedia.



The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.