Barbell racks and chest benches provide numerous exercises, lifting variations, and comfort to weightlifters of all shapes and sizes. However, the squat is one of the most overlooked, underrated, and most important exercises you can do. Its compound nature allows for several muscle systems to be worked all at once, such as the gluteus, quads, calves, lower back, and core.
But, many stray from the squat rack because they are not comfortable with it or don’t know how to begin. Fortunately for you timid folks, this article reviews the proper squat technique so you can get started and give your body a more well-rounded workout.
Proper Bar Placement
Bar placement is important for executing good squat form. There are a couple different ways to place the bar, two of which are “low-bar” and “high-bar.”
Low-bar placement means the bar is placed below the trapezius muscles, across the posterior deltoid, or on top the scapula.
High-bar placement is where the bar rests on the traps.
For those with a longer torso and shorter legs, a low bar placement may be better as it doesn’t place too much stress on the lower back. Those with shorter torsos and longer legs, placing the bar higher may facilitate keeping the bar centered with your feet without leaning forward.
One study analyzed the high- and low-bar placement in national class weightlifters and power lifters.
The weightlifters used the high-bar technique, while the power-lifters used the low-bar. Results show the high-bar placement spread the weight more equally across the hips and knees, and the low-bar placed more weight on the hip joint. Researchers indicate more thigh muscular activity was seen in the power lifters.
Regardless of which bar placement you choose, never place the bar on the base of the neck. While It may seem natural to rest the bar as high up as possible, this will most likely lead to neck and spinal damage, especially with heavy weight.
You should always be looking forward or slightly up. Never look down while doing squat exercises. This rounds your neck, and with sufficient weight being supported, you may kink your neck. Looking forward maintains spinal alignment.
Bodybuilders give the following tip: pick an eye-level spot on the wall and don’t break eye contact with it. This keeps your head looking where it needs to be while steadying your balance on the decline. It also optimizes power output as you rise from a squatting position.
Proper squat technique engages legs, gluteus, and core, which is why the squat exercise is so beneficial.
Before even taking the bar off the rack, your chest should be up and out, and shoulders should be back. This position provides stability not only to the bar but to your body as you take the bar off the rack and perform the squat.
Keep your torso as upright as possible throughout the exercise. This prevents placing too much pressure on the knees and back. Consequently, research shows the lower back muscles are utilized more efficiently when they are used to support upright posture.
Feet placement is generally shoulder-width apart. However, most beginners start with a wider stance for more stability. However, by shifting your stance, you engage different muscles. The wider you go, the more your gluteus is worked. The closer your feet are, the more the quads are worked.
You may also wish to point your feet slightly outward. This optimizes stability and gives beginners better control as weight is lowered.
Your back should be flat or slightly arched as you lower the weight. Do not round your back because this places excessive weight on your upper back and spine. Rounding your back may be a sign your weights are too heavy.
Hip Is Key
Contrary to what you may see being performed in the squat area, the knees are not the most important joint movement.
By simply just bending your knees until parallel, you place unnecessary pressure on your knees and back and don’t target the proper muscles.
The squat exercise begins with hip movement. The common tip given to people learning proper squat technique is to imagine sitting back in a chair. This requires a gliding hip motion.
Think of your hip as a hinge. Move your hip backwards first and your knees will follow suit. Make sure you are pushing your butt out. This ensures you utilize your hips without leaving all the movement for your knees.
Squat Speed and Depth
Squatting motion should be focused and controlled. Going down to squat position too fast may interfere with balance, injure knees, and throw off form.
According to McLaughlin, squatters should lower their weight around 1.5 feet per second until parallel.
After reaching parallel, push off from your heels and bring the bar back up to standing-height as quickly as possible. This explosive effort engages your muscles and keeps your momentum moving upward. Pushing from your heels gives more momentum and power to your push and prevents buckling or tumbling forward on your toes.
While running shoes are great for transferring and aiding weight during cardio exercises to support the foot and ankle, they are not the best to use during squat exercises.
Wearing flat-soled shoes provides a flat, sturdy foundation. There won’t be any rocking forwards or back with a flat-soled shoe, and this allows for you to steady your balance and get a better push.
Don’t Overdo It
Sacrificing form for weight is a common, yet dangerous practice, and quite frankly, a waste of time. Not only are you practicing improper form and eliminating optimal muscle performance, you can also hurt yourself.
Start with lower weights and work your way up. If you don’t squat regularly, even smaller weights executed with the right form will be effective. After you feel comfortable with the form, gradually increase your weight to a comfortable and safe amount. When you get to lifting heavy weights, a belt may be worth investing as it supports your back and spine.
-  Wretenberg P, Feng Y, Arborelius UP. “High- and low-bar squatting techniques during weight-training.” 1996 Feb;28(2):218-24.
-  McLaughlin, T.M., Lardner, T.J., & Dillman, C.J., Kinetics of the parallel squat. Research Quarterly. 42(4), 1978.
-  McLaughlin, T.M., “Speed kills.” Powerlifting USA, 12(9), 1989.