How can an exercise be considered “the best” movement for fat loss and muscle gain, and also be avoided by many of the world’s smartest trainers?
That’s the case with the traditional back squat. One of the most well-known and timeless exercises, and also one of the most controversial.
No matter how you view the back squat, squatting is an essential movement, regardless of whether you perform it with weight on your back.
Most of the disagreements focus on the safety of the movement. Some people believe that it’s too easy to get hurt doing squats. And, if you’re avoiding them, odds are you’re either worried about the same outcome or already have experienced some injury or pain while performing them.
If you’re not doing some variation of the squat, you’re training plan is most likely flawed.
We like to look at things a different way: if you can’t sit down (which is what squatting is) without hurting yourself, then the worst thing you can do is avoid the movement entirely.
Whether you want to squat with a weight on your back is up to you, but don’t let that stop you from cleaning up little mistakes that are causing pain or limiting your workouts.
If you want to move better, and see better results from your workouts, here are simple ways to ensure you don’t get hurt while doing one of the most fundamental human movements.
Why Do Squats Hurts?
Part of what makes squats great is also what connects them to injuries. Squats are a compound exercise, meaning that many muscles are involved in the movement. Everything from your quads, hamstrings, glutes, back, and even your abs light up when you squat.
While those muscles are all involved, you don’t necessarily want them doing the heavy lifting. And, that’s why a great movement for your lower body can easily turn into something like back pain.
If you want to move pain-free and keep tension on the muscles designed for the movement, you simply need to recognize where you feel “off.”
And, it’s important to recognize that the way you squat is dependent on your body. As we’ve broken down in detail, there’s not even one squat depth that’s universally correct—how low you should go depends on who you are. (Remember, personalization is a vital part of exercising.)
Instead, we’ll help you address any issues you feel when you squat, make it easy to identify why you struggle, and then make the necessary adjustments.
Whether you back squat, front squat, goblet squat, or perform single-leg variations, these tips and cues will ultimately make you better at squatting, identify weaknesses, and help prevent injury and pain.
The Problem: Weak Grip
When I watch someone squat, the first place I look tends to surprise people. I like to watch the grip and upper back.
Why? Because most people barely take hold of the bar and activate the muscles that are designed to keep your body safe.
Most people, especially when they have a bar on their back, try to spend a lot of time finding a comfortable spot on their upper back. In doing so, they miss a key first step.
The Squat Fix: When you set up for a squat, you want to grip the bar as hard as possible and try to pull your elbows under the bar. If you just drop into a squat, you’ll feel unstable during the movement.
More tension in your hands and upper back create full-body tension. This tension will help you squat down with greater control and protect your spine and lower back. Not to mention, the activation of these muscles will also help you produce more force and lift more weight without getting injured.
The Problem: Leaning Forward
A popular squat cue is to keep your chest up and for a good reason. If you’re bending too much at your hips, it’s very hard to keep tension on the muscle in your lower body.
Falling forward transfers the weight away from your quads and shifts more to your glutes and hamstrings or potentially your lower back.
The Squat Fix: We could say this about every exercise, but start by dropping the weight and ensuring that your body can handle what you’re lifting. With squats especially, your body sends you lots of signals that scream, “This is too much!” Folding in half as you lower and sit down is one of those signs.
Then, work on keeping your elbows pulled down (facing the ground) and your chest up. This will ensure that the torso remains more upright throughout the lift.
You’ll also want to focus on your flexibility and mobility (more on this soon). Tight ankles, hips, and upper back will prevent you from hitting a good squat pattern. And, this will only get worse as the weight increases.
The issue could also be linked to weak core muscles (your abs) or weak quads. Instead of putting a bar on your back, strengthen your knee extension and stability with exercises like step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, and lunges.
The Problem: Poor Ankle Mobility
Ankle mobility is an issue for most because, well, most people don’t work on it. And, our reliance on stabile footwear makes your feet feel comfortable while compensating for the ability to build stronger, more durable, and more mobile ankles.
Losing mobility in your ankles means your shins don’t move forward naturally when you squat. If your shins aren’t moving forward, your movement pattern is altered and it can create unnecessary stress on your knees.
For years, fit pros have loved sharing pics of babies and toddlers squatting to prove how natural it is for humans to squat deep. Instead of focusing on the depth, look at the angle formed by their shins, which is enabled by better ankle mobility.
The Squat Fix: If you’re looking for more depth, a simple fix is placing a 5- or 10-pound plate under your heels and then squatting. The little change will help you sink into your heels when you sit down and achieve a deeper squat. By putting the plate under your heels, you compensate for a lack of ankle mobility.
If you want to fix the problem (which we recommend), try adding ankle mobility drills, which help restore normal ankle movement and improve squat form.
One popular drill requires you to face a wall in a staggered stance with your forward foot about 1-foot away from the wall. Then, try to drive your front knee forward towards the wall as far as you can.
Another simple exercise is to trace the “ABC’s” with your big toe on each foot. Try to “draw” each letter as a way to challenge your ankles with movement in each direction.
The Problem: Collapsing Knees
Next time you squat when holding a weight, have someone take a video or watch your knees in the mirror. How much are your knees (or one knee) caving inwards? A little bit of movement can be OK. But, if one knee looks like it wants to kiss the other (or both knees are making the move), it’s time to fix the issue and prevent a serious injury before it happens.
The Squat Fix: The caving knees (AKA “valgus collapse) could be a technique flaw, mobility issue, or weakness.
The wall squat is a simple way to test if this is an issue (without needing weight). Stand facing a wall with your feet about 6 inches away. Squat as far as you can. You will immediately see if your hips, ankles, and upper back have any mobility issues and you’ll notice how your knees track.
If this is a problem, shift to Goblet squats, making sure you go as deep as possible, while keeping your lats and core braced and forcing your knees out. This will provide dynamic mobilization of your hips.
Warning: this probably won’t be enough to fix the issue. Strengthening your glutes will help you keep your knees out during squats. Glute bridges and barbell hip thrusts will be your primary focus for your glutes, which are your primary hip abductors and will reduce the weakness causing the collapse.
The Problem: Incorrect Breathing
If you are not inhaling (deep breath in) as you move down into the squat and exhaling as you drive up and out of the hole, you’re not taking advantage of intra-abdominal pressure (IUP). This, along with the bracing of your torso, is your natural lifting belt.
The Squat Fix: Before each rep, take a big breath and brace your torso. Then, squat down, pause, and as you come up, exhale forcibly through pursed lips at the most challenging portion of the lift. This tension and bracing will help keep you safe and injury-free.
The Problem: Using a Belt on All Sets
Belts (much like lifting straps) are not a bad thing. But, you need to know how to use them appropriately. They should be there for assistance and not reliance. When squatting, there are a lot of lifters who wear a belt for all their sets. This much dependency on a belt will not help you develop a strong, functional core.
Squat Like a Pro: By putting off wearing a belt until the heavier sets, you’ll be increasing your overall full-body strength and potential for remaining injury-free. As a rule of thumb, you should work up to the point where you don’t put on a belt until you are around 70 percent of your one-rep max (1RM).
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.