6 principles of a good squat

How to squat – Part 2: 6 principles of a good squat

That’s the last drop! Having seen another personal trainer in a commercial gym performing and teaching the squat with such poor form that my knees almost pop just thinking about it, here comes 6 principles of a good squat.  A humble contribution to stopping the madness and hopefully save a few aspiring squatters from knee and back pain in the process.

I was a gym rat throughout my twenties but I didn’t squat. I started squatting late, around age 35, and learning to squat after 10 years in the office chair with all the hip mobility issues that entails is not easy. Therefore I have worked hard to develop my squat and I’ve been very careful to develop a squat that allows me to move some decent weight but never at the expense of my health. Actually, it took me 6 months of daily mobility exercises to develop decent squat form and I keep doing mobility exercises to further develop my squat.

Let me run through the basic principles of good squatting technique. In the coming articles I’ll walk you through each of my three favorite squat variations in detail. We’ll also cover other squat variations and aspects of squatting so you can orient yourself and educate others in the next squat conversation you will have. Because we all talk squat don’t we?

6 principles of a good squat
First, don’t squat in typical running shoes. No kidding. As you may know we’re not fans of the Nike-type of cushioned shoes with a fat wedge at all but are advocates of natural running. So when we say typical running shoes we mean Nike-style running shoes. You can get away with body weight squats in running shoes if that the only type of squat you’ll ever do but NEVER EVER squat with weights with typical running shoes. Just in case that’s not clear – NEVER EVER! Make sure you wear stable, flat shoes so you have good solid connection to the ground. My personal favorites are either my Chucks or my Inov-8 F195.

Starting from a neutral stance, feet approximately shoulder width apart and toes angled around 15 degrees outward from the center line.

  1. Stabilize your core
  2. Weight through the center of your feet
  3. Sit back
  4. Knees track over your feet
  5. Knee caps never move beyond your toes
  6. Hip drive

1. Stabilize your core
Make sure your back is flat and tighten your abs and back muscles before you start squatting. Not during the squat.  Look at the horizon throughout the squat to help keeping a straight back. When your eyes and head drop towards the floor it’s easy that your chest follows and then you lose your straight stable core. When you go heavy, with a barbell, you also want to fill your lungs with air before the squat to create internal pressure to protect your spine.

2. Weight through the centre of your feet
A common mistake, often as a result of sitting down instead of sitting back, is to keep the weight to much forward on the foot so that the heel release from the ground. Imagine a straight vertical line from your center of mass (somewhere inside your chest if doing bodyweight squats) to the ground. That line should go through the center of your feet at all times throughout the squat. Test yourself by trying to load the heel and ball of the foot equally and then wiggle your toes. Actually, you should be able to wiggle your toes at any stage of any squat.

3. Sit back, not down 
This is the most common mistake and I guess it’s because people trying to learn the squat by looking at others performing the squat (maybe with bad form) but not understanding important subtleties that makes up a technically correct squat. It may look as if the squat is an up and down movement along a vertical line but it’s not! The squat is a diagonal movement and you lead that movement with your butt (hip) – both up and down. Imagine that you have you a chair one foot behind you and start the squat movement by sending your butt backward reaching for the chair.

4. Knees track over your feet
Typically caused by too high load, another common mistake is that you let your knees wander inwards, also called cave in. This results in loading the knee-joint at an angle where you get uneven stress on the medial ligaments and thereby destabilizing the knee-joint and inviting pain. Make sure that your thigh and foot point in the same direction throughout the movement.

5. Knee caps never move beyond your toes
The further your toes travel past your knees the less the angle between the shin and the thigh becomes and the less angle the more the shearing forces inside the knee increase. That’s bad. Therefore, keep your skins as vertical as possible as you sit back into the squat. Stop the squat when your hip creese is in line with your knee caps or just below to not let the angle drop lower than around 40 degrees. With healthy knees you should practice a bottom position where your hamstrings (back of upper leg) touch your calves, under the condition that you stick to the 6 principles, as it develops mobility. The most common myth of squatting – that deep squats are bad for your knees is nothing but a myth – it’s actually the opposite, deep squats improve knee health. More on that in a later article.

6. Hip drive
Moving from the bottom of the squat back up to standing you need to focus on hip extension. If your focus in this phase is on extending the legs there’s a tendency to let your torso fall forward and with that you move the center of gravity away from the centre line putting unnecessary strain on your lower back trying to keep your balance. Focus on driving your hip upward-forward towards full extension with your chest high (remember point 1).

No one size fits all
Let’s defuse the bomb before it explodes in my face. There’s not only one way of performing the squat and the reason is very simple – God created us as unique individuals and we have all gone about life differently leaving us with individual limitations.

The 6 principles of a good squat as presented here is a starting point for the journey of discovering your squat, and for most this is also the destination. In other words, stick to these principles and you will be squatting safely and enjoying the benefits of squatting for the rest of your life – in many aspects of life. Some of you may say that you’ve squatted with knee caps beyond your toes all life and it’s fine and to those I say: Good for you! But there’s no doubt that it puts more stress on your knees, ceteris paribus, so I will not teach that. If you choose to squat like that after having learned the 6 principles of a good squat and tested how your body handles it with thousands of squats that’s fine – good luck. But if you move away from the 6 principles because of your own limitations, that often being limited flexibility, then please STOP! and take the time it takes to develop the flexibility it takes to squat safely before you squat at all.

Some will argue that since we’re all unique one should not force the body into the mould of a supposedly perfect squat. To those I say – you are right BUT before you start making individual adjustments you must internalize the base line. Maybe you can squat more if your stance is asymmetrical but you need to discover that from a starting point of a basic, technically sound, symmetrical squat. Learn to crawl, then walk, then run – don’t experiment with running backwards and sideways before you can walk.

Squat progression
I hope I have shed some light on the benefits of the squat and basic principles of a good squat. In the next article we’ll walk you through the first bodyweight squat, the air squat, the starting point for all squatting. Spending the time to get the air squat right before going to weighted squats will not only be safer but you’ll make progress quicker when you have greased the groove with correct technique. We’ll then continue with my favorite weighted squat before going on to our second bodyweight squat.

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