In this series, we’re helping you master basic exercises — as if you had a personal trainer by your side! Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge to perform these moves properly in order to get better results and prevent injury.
No matter what workout routine you do, there’s a chance the squat will make an appearance. We do a lot of squatting during our normal daily activities so it may feel so familiar that you assume you know how to do it. But do you really know how to do squats correctly?
The truth is, there are a handful of small mistakes that can make the squat less effective, which opens the door for injury. You might not even notice that you’re making these mistakes.
What does a squat do for the body?
Squats are meant to work your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, while engaging your core. They improve your strength and stabilization, and have been shown to increase thigh muscle mass and improve vertical jump and sprint performance.
Small adjustments in the way we perform a squat can drastically alter the demand they have on our muscles and the effectiveness of the exercise. For this reason, it’s important to understand the common mistakes made while performing squats.
Common mistakes people make when squatting
Many of my clients start their squat at the knees. I recommend initiating movement at the hips. Putting too much pressure on your knees can cause dangerous strain, and it’s not necessary to complete an effective squat. To do this, pretend that you’re reaching your hips and glutes back to sit down in a chair behind you.
At the same time, make sure that you’re reaching around a 90-degree angle at the knee when squatting. The positioning of your knees is critical in how effective a squat is and bending your knees at a 90-degree angle helps to activate the right muscle groups. I see a lot of people bending too far down to the point where their butts almost touch the floor, which places too much strain on your back.
When lifting the body back into standing position, many people rely too much on the hamstrings, instead of pushing down through heels to stand. This mistake is a major reason why people don't see the desired results in their glutes and hamstrings.
How to do a modified squat
If you experience pain or lack of balance while squatting, don’t worry. Squats are common, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t tricky. Start with a modified version to get the form down before graduating to a full squat.
- If you lack balance, use an exercise ball against a wall. Lean against the ball and perform a traditional squat. Having the wall there behind you can be comforting, and ensures that you engage the right muscle groups.
- You can also modify squats with the help of a chair. Stand in front of a chair with your arms out in front of you so that they are parallel to the floor. Bend at the hips and sit back until you feel yourself touch the chair. This will help you practice proper form and master the 90-degree angle, ensuring that your knees do not push out past your toes.
How to do squats properly
1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward. (As you move through the exercise, be mindful that your knees never go forward past your toes.)
2. Keep your chest up and make sure not to tilt your head down. Pull your navel in toward your spine to engage your core.
3. Bend at the hips and knees while keeping your heels and toes on the floor.
4. Slowly sit back into a squat position with your chest up, your shoulders back and abs in. Make sure that your knees are not crossing over your toes, and that you are as close to a 90-degree angle as possible.
5. Straighten your legs by pressing into your heels to stand back up. Squeeze your glutes at the top, tilting your pelvis forward.
How to do squats with dumbbells: Once you master the basic squat you can take things up a notch by adding weights. Simply hold one dumbbell in each hand and keep your arms at your sides. As you squat down, slide the weights down your legs, keeping your shoulders down and chest open. Keep your arms glued to your sides as you return to stand.
4 exercises that will help you squat better
These exercises will teach you how to properly engage your body when doing a full squat.
Counter mini squat
Prep your body for the real deal by standing a few feet in front of a counter, holding onto it with your fingertips. Reach your butt back and sit down into a mini squat. Press down through your heels to stand back up. Repeat 10 times.
Prep your feet to properly do a squat. Start with your feet as wide as your hips. Press down through your heels to lift your toes up off of the ground and then release them. This prepares your heels and the backs of your legs to engage as you press down to come up from a squat position. Repeat 10 times.
Standing pelvic tilts
Stand with your feet a foot away from the wall with your back pressed against the wall. Pull your abs in to tilt your pelvis so that your low back presses harder into the wall. Release, and repeat 10 times. This is the abdominal engagement you want to feel while you’re doing a squat.
Kneeling on a mat with your knees as wide as your hips and hips upright over your knees, pull your abs in and reach your arms forward in front of you. Then gently lean back to move your glutes toward your heels. Come back to the starting position and squeeze your glutes. Repeat 10 times.