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How to Squat Safely: Correct Form for Maximum Effectiveness

Jul 09, 2019
Teenage girls squatting with barbell

One of the most effective exercises is the squat, but when done incorrectly squatting can lead to many issues inside and outside of the weight room. Squatting puts direct load on the spine, hips, knees and ankles and when placing loads on multiple joints, it is important for the muscles involved to be strong prior to execution of the movement. 

A basic progression of different squats is important to do before adding any weight. It wouldn’t be ideal to add a barbell to a workout without first making sure you have the basics down. The most effective way to ensure correct form is by performing an air squat, using only body weight.

Correct Squat Form

All athletes are built differently so there is no single, correct stance, but feet should be around hip/shoulder width apart. In this stance you will be able to adjust foot placement, which is best with the toes pointed slightly outward. 

When performing an air squat, examine each of the joints involved. The heels should stay in contact with the ground throughout the movement and the knees should track outward, never inward. Squat through the heels and stay off of toes, as well as the balls of the feet. Excess, avoidable stress to the tendons in the knee occurs when it extends too far in front of the feet.

It is important to bend at the hips, pushing them backward, before allowing the knees to bend. Imagine a chair is placed behind you and you’re are trying to reach your hips towards the chair. This will help keep weight in the heels and be in more of a natural seated position. The torso should remain as close to neutral through the movement, with the chest facing forward, not downward. A downward facing chest causes a bend, or “collapse,” overstressing the athlete’s lower back. To protect, and avoid this, the core should always be engaged.

Once an air squat has been executed correctly, it’s safe to progress. An effective way of doing this is to introduce different squat variations, without loading the spine. This can be done by utilizing dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells and not placing weight on back performing exercises, such as goblet squats or single leg squats. Once acclimated, and leg strength has been built up, barbell squats can be performed – the main difference being the location of the bar on the upper back.

Barbell Squats

Hands should be lined up on the smooth rings of the barbell, or slightly inward from that.  It is important to place the bar on the thickest portion of the upper back, the trapezius muscles and not on the neck, to protect it from injury or compression of vertebrae.

It is important to get used to the bar on this portion of the back and not allow use of a pad to cushion the bar. This will build the athlete’s muscles and allow a more natural squat. Make sure the head and neck are neutral, looking directly forward.

By correctly executing the squat, athletes can become stronger in the weight room, and on the field.

For more information about Sports Performance Services at Nationwide Children's Hospital, click here.

Featured Expert

Caleb Mosley
Caleb Mosley
Sports Medicine

Caleb is a sports performance specialist for Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Performance at Watkins Memorial High School. Caleb graduated from Capital University with a bachelor's in exercise science after attending Columbus State Community College, where he received an associate's of applied science in athletic performance.

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