Updated: Jul 20, 2019
Everyone seems to be squatting at the gym – and who can blame them? It’s a perfect compound exercise that works many muscles all at once – including your glutes, quads and core. But so many people do it wrong, activating the wrong muscles and leaving themselves prone to injury. British Military Fitness recently reported that one in five men perform exercises wrong after learning bad habits from copying others working out – something many of us do. So to nip bad form in the bud, we enlisted a top personal trainer at London fitness studio SIX3NINE to talk us through how to perform the perfect squat. Squatting is a fundamental multi-joint movement and takes coordination and focus to do correctly and safely. In a squat, we use the knees, hips, ankles and, in some versions, even the wrists. It places a tremendous amount of stress on your muscles, including your core, connective tissues and joints, as they work to stabilise you. Why we should squat? Most people head to the gym to get fitter and lose fat. Squats essentially tick all the boxes and are one of the fastest ways to get you there, as long as you are eating according to your goals and tracking macros. This super-effective exercise also reduces the chance of injury in everyday life and in the gym. Completed in higher rep ranges a squat will leave you just as breathless as doing cardio – it works your heart a lot. You can also incorporate it into different styles of training to make it more aerobic. Why most fail to squat correctly Most people think that they know how to squat. Is it easy right? Just push your hips back and down you go to the floor. However, for the average person who works 45 hours a week and is sat down for the majority of the time, many environmental factors mean they may struggle. Ask them to try and nine times out of 10 they will bend their knees first, putting them under extreme pressure. They will then automatically lift their heels, therefore their hips will move backwards to get some sort of balance. This is a disaster and isn’t safe. We unlearn the squat as we age. Everyone can squat; take a look at a baby who can sit with their bum to the floor, knees over their toes with a straight back. This could be considered the perfect squat. But then we grow up and start working, and the majority of jobs involve sitting at a desk. If we don’t use our muscles, they weaken and they have no need to stay strong because we don’t use them. We stiffen up in the hips, hamstrings, quads and our upper back begins to round. This all stops us doing this simple movement we all did as babies. How to relearn the squat To get around this problem we have to get more flexible – start stretching, foam rolling and waking up all of these lazy muscles. Take time out in the day or before bed and do several stretches on the floor. You’ll be surprised how much this will help not only your squats but also how much it will help in day-to-day general life and as a way of correcting your posture. Back, shoulder and neck pain will be a thing of the past. Speedflex trainer Andy Hedley adds: ‘When learning to squat it can be helpful to put your hands on the back of your head and keep your elbows pinned back, in doing so you support the spine from top to bottom and it helps you to realise if or when you start to lean forward so you can self-correct your form. If you lean too far forward or push off your toes, your lower back and knees end up taking most of the weight. This puts you at risk of injury, muscular imbalance and overloading muscles which may not be able to handle the weight or intensity of the exercise.’ Let’s break it down and learn how to master this great exercise. Squats have many different versions: barbell, kettle bell, dumb bell and more. Then depending on the kit that you choose, you can delve into variations of these. We’ll keep it simple and run through how to do the basic movement. Once mastered, it’s down to you whether you use some kit to challenge you further. • Firstly, stand in a position where your feet are shoulder width apart. Tweak it slightly to find what’s comfortable. • Point your feet out slightly by 10-15 degrees. Stand upright with your hips forward and squeeze your glutes. • Keep your head forward and find a point of reference to keep balanced. • Next, take both hands over your head with your elbows pointing out wide. • Keep your chest up and weight back on your heels. • Once here bend your knees and hips simultaneously and sit down in between your hips. • As you descend, keep your knees out over your feet and resist the urge to let them buckle inwards. • When you hit full depth, ascend by pushing through your heels, squeezing your glutes and quads, exploding back up. • As you ascend, think about pushing your hips forward to lock them out, returning you to the start position. Imagine the feet are spreading out on the floor (left foot to the left, right foot to the right) without actually moving the feet. • Help yourself by taking a huge belly-breath before beginning each rep [repetition] and hold it tight through your core until you’ve completed the rep. How doing it wrong can harm you If you’re performing a squat incorrectly and just using your own body weight, you can probably get away with it (though it won’t be effective). But by adding a barbell with weights, incorrect movements can cause serious injury. Most typical incorrect squats include the knees knocking inwards, heels lifting, back rounding too much and my biggest pet peeve – half squats. Stopping at parallel can make your knees worse if you already suffer from knee pain. Squatting all the way to the floor will build strength and control in the hips, as well as developing the glutes, quads and hamstrings. It is beneficial for females to squat as low as possible. You can and should squat all the way down. If you can’t, then start stretching. Try to get more flexible in your hips, calves and hamstrings, and practice body weight squats until you can hit the bottom with decent form. It doesn’t matter if you are new to the gym or a more regular goer – once you nail this exercise, you’ll see remarkable results. Whether your goal is to increase the power and strength you need for sport, build impressive legs for a fitness competition or rehab from an injury, the squat will suit your regime and help you attain your goal.