Perfecting Your Squats

Squatting Like A Pro

Everybody knows about squats. Most people have done them before. Why are they so important? And, most importantly, how do you do them properly? Let's find out.

Why are squats so good?

Grace getting ready for a barbell squat

Squats are one of the most well known compound movements. Wait. What is a compound movement?

Examples of compound movements are squats, deadlifts and chin ups. These exercises recruit a lot of muscles throughout the movement which makes them fantastic additions to any program as they give you more bang your buck (or butt).

Any movement that activates more muscle at one time is a bonus and they compare very well against single muscle movements like bicep curls. If you’re looking for strength or fat loss, you want to be hitting more muscle groups with each movement.

Squats engage mainly lower body and core - quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back and core, but anyone that has done them in their many variations will know that it feels like the whole body is working. If you're doing it right, you'll be feeling it all over.

It’s also a great mobility movement for your ankles, knees and hips - all joints that need extra help when you sit down a lot.

When I’m training someone for fat loss, I make sure that there are compound movements in the program, as far as their experience in the gym and mobility will allow.

As with any exercise, it is far more important to do it right than to do lots or to load up the weights. Squats are no exception and I see plenty of people getting it wrong.

What not to do:

  1. Not letting your knees go past your toes. People think it’s bad to send the knees over the toes but this is essential for your ankle mobility and it helps all the way along the chain of your joints from knees all the way to shoulders

  2. Butt winking! When you’re in pelvis bobbles at the bottom of the movement as you try to get back up. This is about ankle mobility again. Only go as deep as you can do it perfectly and then deepen it as you get more mobile. And also:

  3. Rushing into it. Take your time setting up, especially with the barbell movement. Plant your feet, get your posture set, engage and pull in the belly, pelvis in the right place and then move in. Make sure you give your hips and pelvis an extra tuck when you get to the top which will set you up nicely for your next rep.

  4. Not breathing at all or breathing back to front. There are a few different schools of thought here and I like to apply the same logic that Olympic and Power lifters do: Deep breath in at the top, hold it all the way down, especially at the bottom point, and then breathe out slowly as you come back up. You can also breathe in all the way down and then start breathing out as you lift up. Either way, being full of breath at the bottom is essential for the lift back to the top, to make sure you are tight and have the power to get up again. Not breathing at all, well, you can imagine that that's not a good idea. You'd be surprised how often I need to remind people to breathe. It's a natural instinct to stop breathing during concentration and strain. Breath control is something that needs to be learned as much as how to move.

  5. Going too heavy or too fast. The best way to an injury. Start with a lower weight than you think! Body weight squats are absolutely fine, so are bar squats without additional weights. It is, as always, so important that you can do the movement perfectly before you attempt to add weights to it. Also think about your tempo. A good rule of thumb is that any movement should be slow on the release and faster on the power. For squats, that means slowly down and faster back up (you can hold briefly at the bottom too). Another example is wood chops or anything on a machine with weights attached - slow movement to release the weights and faster to engage them. No one likes the sound of the stack of weights smacking back to ground and this helps you improve your power and stability (and avoid injury).


Doing it right

I've selected a few of my favourite squat variations below. Let's make you the master of squats! If you have any of these in your program, this will help you get them just right to maximise the goodness and help to prevent injury.


Squat Variations

Using Dumbbells or Kettle Bells


Hack Squat

The high heel elevated movement really gets into the quads. You can do it with or without the squat machine. This is more of a beginner exercise as it helps you develop strength and, if you’re more advanced, overload the quads.

To elevate your heels, try a wedge or a weights plates, like 2-10kgs under your heels.

Kettle Bell Sumo Squat

Holding the kettle bell upside down, take a wider stance and point your toes out slightly.

Although this is still quad dominant, you still hit the abductors and adductors. Make sure, like in any squat, on your upward movement, you drive your feet into the ground through your heels.

Good at any level but perhaps more intermediate. Wider than your normal squat stance.

Using a Barbell


Barbell Back Squat

Bar on your back, on the meaty bit of your traps and not on your neck. Don’t attempt this until your basic squat is 100%. Have you feet just outside of hip width apart. Feet straight forward or toes a little out depending on your leg length. Make sure it’s still a deep squat. Make sure your elbows are pointing backwards and not winging out to the front or the side.

If you’re struggling to get the depth or getting a butt wink, elevate the heels slightly. This will be due to your ankle mobility. If you are finding the depth difficult, do calf raises and knee to wall ankle mobility - more on that later.

Front Squat

Slightly more advanced because of the mobility you need in your shoulders forearms, wrists and fingers. It’s harder with the weight is on the front so really challenges your stability as well.

It loads even more through your quads but also your VMOs (that teardrop muscle at the front).

You can use different grips, depending on your mobility.

Place the bar pretty much against your neck, resting on the meaty bit of the front of your shoulders. As you’re lowering into the squat, drive those elbows up to make sure they don’t sink down as you go through the movement. Drive your elbows up even more than you think, it needs to be quite exaggerated to stop you from leaning over forwards too much, keeping that back straight.

In this video you can also see how long it takes me to get set before I start the movement.

Zercher Squat

More advanced. If you’re an athlete you’ve definitely had this in your program. It can be quite uncomfortable as you’re holding the bar with your forearm. Really front loads the body, quads ,VMOs (really important for athletes). Great variation for people who are a bit more advanced and want some technical moves in their program.

Bring the elbows between the knees as you squat down and make sure you set the rack up at a much lower height than you normally would to make the set up easier. Loading is much lighter than usual front squat.

Single Leg


Front Foot Elevated Split  Squat

One of the first exercises I use, everyone can benefit from this one and I use it with most beginners.

Place your foot on a step, then send the knee forward, with your back foot on the toes.

Great if you sit down a lot down in an office!

Keep you back straight, poster nice and tall, front foot flat, back on the toes great for balance.

Bulgarian Split Squat or Rear Elevated Split Squat

Bit more advanced than the front foot. This loads your front leg a lot more, opens up the hips, creates stability and balance in your squats.

Take your time and don’t rush into it. Make sure your balance is completely stable before you go into the movement.

Front Foot Step Up

Great for balance. This is a low step up demo. You can increase the height as you get better at it.

Key is to send the knee over the toes and force the weight into the front leg.