How to Squat

Confession: During my personal trainer certification course back in 2007, I took a pass on squatting 135 lbs.

I wasn’t sure I could manage that kind of weight, so claimed a knee injury and ducked out of the session.

But here’s the weird thing.

Did I tell myself that I really should be strong enough to squat 135?

Nope. 

I simply convinced myself that squats were overrated and I didn’t need to do them.

Fortunately, these days I know a lot better, and a 135-lb squat now feels about as heavy as the empty bar.

That’s the power of incremental progress, where each little success gets stacked on top of the one before it.

And the great news is we can all take advantage of that at pretty much any age.

So even if you’re in your 50s or 60s, you can still squat more than most guys in their 20s.

Not that we’re in competition with anyone else – it’s just awesome to know that we still have that untapped potential.

But let’s start by backing up a little and figuring out why we should be squatting in the first place.

Why Squat?

The squat may just be the perfect trainable exercise.

If strength is the fountain of youth, then squatting with progressively heavier weights is right there at the source.

Here’s why.

1. The squat is a full-body movement that uses multiple joints and a lot of muscle mass over a long range of motion

In general, the greater the muscle mass involved and the longer the effective range of motion used, the more useful the exercise is for building strength.

That’s why it’s possible to steadily increase the weight you can squat for many months and years.

It’s also the reason why you can’t do that with exercises like leg extensions or dumbell curls.

2. The load is applied directly to the back, so the skeleton is exposed to heavy weights that couldn’t otherwise be used

That’s really important as we get older as weak muscles, poor balance, and weak bones go hand in hand.

That’s why older folks tend to fall over in the first place, and hurt themselves badly when they do.

Squatting acts like medicine for strength, muscle mass, balance, bone health, and so much more.

3. The squat uses a barbell, so the load can be scaled precisely to the ability of the individual

Whether you’re young and fit, or older and out of shape, there’s always some weight you can squat.

Then, over subsequent workouts, that weight can be incrementally increased by as little as ½ lb each time.

Always keep in mind that we don’t get stronger in huge jumps, we get stronger just a few pounds at a time.

In my friend Simon’s comeback after a horrifying skiing accident, what was the go-to exercise we used to rehab his injured leg?

You’ve got it – squats.

4. All that “squats are bad for you” stuff simply isn’t true

Naturally, it’s convenient to believe this whenever we want a good excuse to avoid doing something hard.

But a 2013 study destroyed the claim that squats are bad for the back and knees.

It concluded:

Contrary to commonly voiced concern, deep squats do not contribute increased risk of injury to passive tissues

(Passive tissues being a science-y word for things like joints, ligaments and other stuff that’s not muscle)

And,

…the deep squat presents an effective training exercise for protection against injuries and strengthening of the lower extremity

Bottom line, the correctly performed squat is safe and unlocks our latent potential to become whole-body strong.

So we’d better figure out how to do it.

How to Squat

We’ll be learning the high-bar squat.

This is the easiest of the barbell squat variants, so it’s the ideal place to start.

In contrast, the low-bar squat (as I’m doing here), is a lot more technical, and most folks will need to be coached in person to do it correctly.

So, we’ll stick with the high-bar squat.

Here are the main points.

1. Set the barbell in a power rack/squat rack at around mid-sternum height

2. Grasp the bar with both hands, using as narrow a grip width as you comfortably can

3. Dip your head under the bar so that the bar lies evenly across the top of your shoulders

4. Adjust your feet so that they and your hips are directly underneath the bar

5. Stand up to unrack the bar, and take a step back (about 12-18 inches)

6. Feet should be flat on the floor, heels about shoulder width apart, with toes pointed out around 30 degrees

7. Take a big breath, squeeze your back flat, and squat down until your hip joint is lower than the top of the kneecap

8. Keeping the breath held, immediately drive back up strongly to the start position

9. Exhale, take another deep breath, squeeze your back flat, and squat down and up again

Here’s what that looks like (the video also includes many of the above cues).

That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Key Points

• The bar travels in a vertical path directly over the mid-foot

• Shove your knees out hard so they track in a parallel line with the toes

• Keep your back flat and your neck in its normal anatomical position

• Always squat inside a correctly set up squat rack/power rack with the safety bars (safeties) at the right height

That means not too high as you’ll bang into them at the bottom of the squat, and not too low as that defeats the purpose of having them.

Power rack safeties - annotated

I know, I know – I’m not using safeties in the How to Squat video.

But 135 lbs feels light enough that it represented a pretty negligible risk.

If you watched the low-bar squat video (where I’m using 300 lbs), I had the safeties in place.

How Much Weight is Enough?

Always start with the empty bar for 2 or 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

Then, the very first time you squat, progressively add weight in increments of around 20 lbs for sets of 8 repetitions.

Continue to do this until you feel the movement begin to slow noticeably.

Here’s what that may look like:

Bar (45 lbs) x 8 x 2-3 (2 or 3 sets of 8 reps with the 45-lb Olympic bar)

65 x 8

85 x 8

105 x 8

(Movement slowed markedly on the 8th repetition – adding more weight would lead to a breakdown in form)

So 105 lbs is your work-set weight for the first day.

Then rest a couple of minutes or so before performing another 1-2 sets of 8 repetitions with 105 lbs.

Now, “105 lbs” is just an example, some folks may feel 85 lbs is enough weight the first day, others 145 lbs or more.

That isn’t so important – what really matters is that you got started and you’re headed in the right direction.

And if you’re going to perform squats in your next quick and awesome whole-body workout, make sure you add a little more weight to the bar, even if it’s only 5 lbs.

Whether we’re talking surefire fat loss or strength gain, those small increments of progress accumulate to give big results.

Personal Equipment

The great thing about getting strong is that you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment.

Clothing-wise, a plain cotton t-shirt, sweats or above the knee stretchy shorts fit the bill just fine.

Shoes are the one thing worth spending money on, and while a decent pair of lifting shoes isn’t cheap, they’re worth every penny.

Nike’s Romaleos 2 is an awesome shoe and it’s available in a range of different colors.

If you watched the low-bar squat video, I’m wearing the Romaleos 2 Volt.

Subtle, they ain’t.

Romaleos 2 retail at just under $200 and I purchased mine from Rogue Fitness in the US.

Now if buying lifting shoes isn’t an option at this stage, use whatever shoes you can get hold of with:

• A low effective heel height (0.5-0.75″ difference between the heel and forefoot)

• An incompressible sole

But do yourself a favor and invest in some proper lifting shoes – they make a world of difference.

Just Do It!

Some folks are intimidated by the squat, but there’s really nothing to fear: if you can sit in a chair and stand back up, you can squat.

Follow the step-by-step guide in this article, keep adding small increments of weight, and you’ll build incredible whole-body strength, fast.

Take it from someone that was too scared to squat 135 lbs just a few years back.

Only let’s just keep that between us, OK?

– Tim

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Images: Bigstock

Reference: Sports Med. 2013 Oct;43(10):993-1008

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