Squats should be a staple in your weight-training program. They're one of the best exercises for building strength in the hips and legs. They're considered a compound exercise, meaning they require action at multiple joints, and they closely mimic movements used during athletic and daily life activities. They not only strengthen and build lean muscle in the hips, thighs, calves, and lower back, but they develop bones and the connective tissue surrounding the hips, ankles, and knees to help protect against injury.
Squats can, however, be somewhat challenging to learn when first starting out. The best plan of attack is to first focus on the technique basics, then constantly check and correct common mistakes.
Squatting Technique: An Overview
The feet should be set between shoulder and hip-width apart with toes pointed either forward or slightly outward. Bend the hips and the knees to push the hips back and lower them toward the floor as if sitting in a chair positioned behind you. Your heels should remain flat on the floor. Your head should stay up with eyes pointed forward. Once the knees are bent to about 90 degrees and the thighs are parallel to the floor, extend the hips and knees to rise back up to standing position. This completes a rep.
Squats can be performed using your own body weight as resistance, but eventually a barbell or dumbbells are required to place enough load on the muscles to elicit development. If using dumbbells, hold one in each hand and allow your arms to hang by your sides with palms facing inward. If using a barbell, it can rest on the back of the shoulders and be held in place with the hands for back squats, or it can be held in place at the front of the shoulders for front squats.
Natural Curvature of the Back: Keep the "S"
Your lower back naturally has a S-shaped curvature and you want to maintain this natural arch as you squat. When you do the exercise, however, particularly with weight, you may not be able to hold the "S" curvature of the spine if you lack adequate strength in your lower back. A common way to try and counter this lack of strength is to arch the back more, which places greater stress on your spine and increases the risk of injury.
If you lack adequate lower back strength and catch your spine overarching or collapsing forward, stick with dumbbell squats or do back and front squats only with a broomstick while you focus on building back strength with exercises like straight-leg deadlifts and back extensions.
Watching the Knees: Don't Let Them Collapse Inward
As you lower your hips toward the floor, your knees should stay relatively in line with your toes. A common issue, particularly for women who naturally have wider hips, is that the knees collapse inward during the descent. Weak hip abductors and adductors can also lead to the inward knee collapse. When this happens, greater stress is placed on the ligaments in the knees and can lead to injury.
To help prevent the knees from collapsing inward as you squat, be conscious of knee placement as you're descending and build strength in the hip abductors and adductors with exercises like lateral band walks or standing hip abduction.
How Low Should You Go: The Truth About Deep Squats
In an ideal squat, you lower your hips until the thighs are parallel or just beyond parallel to the floor. If you're unable to get that low, it's either due to a lack of strength in the glutes or quads, or limitations in ankle and hip mobility.
Lifters will often try to use deep squats, which involve lowering way beyond the thighs reaching parallel to the floor, as a way to improve joint mobility. The concern with deep squats historically, however, is that they potentially place greater stress on the knee ligaments. Studies have found, however, that shallower squats, or not even reaching parallel, place greater compressive forces onto the knees.
Lowering until the thighs are parallel is ideal for keeping knee stress at a minimum. While deep squats may not be as bad as once thought, the heavier the load, the more joint mobility decreases, so they can cause trouble when you start incorporating weights.
Improve Your Squat Technique: Practice Makes Perfect
The only way that you'll become more comfortable and eventually master squats is to do them regularly. Add them into your workouts at least once a week. In the beginning, rather than worry about how much weight you're lifting, focus on technique. Watch your knees, thighs, and back and make immediate corrections as necessary. Squats require coordination from numerous muscles throughout your hips, thighs, lower legs, and back, so understand they'll take time to master.