At some point, all weight lifters must bend the knee to serve the king of exercises – the squat. The question then is, how to best serve?
First, this guide isn’t for Olympic lifters. If you’re an Olympic lifter, your only goal is to squat as similarly to the recovery phase of the clean or snatch as possible. This means your form doesn’t have much leeway – your stance should be the same as your catch stance, you should squat as deep as you physically can, and your trunk must stay completely vertical.
If you’re not an Olympic lifter, then this guide can help you. This isn’t a guide on what good form is, but rather a guide on how to find a form that works for you. It requires experimentation aka working out. To do so, you should adopt a program that switches the main squat exercise every 3-4 weeks so you can try out many different things. A very simple way to do this would be to pyramid up over the 3-4 weeks. Start with higher reps like sets of 8-10, then next week add weight and go to 6-8 reps, then 4-6 reps, then 1-3 reps. After you work up to this last week of heavy weight, change your squat form slightly and start back over.
If you’re just learning to squat, you’ll need feedback to know when you should adjust things. This can be a friend who watches you from the side so they can tell you how you look. Or you can film yourself from the side. One of the best systems that will give you feedback in real time is using a phone and a tablet at the same time. Set your phone up to view you from the side and put the tablet in front of you so you can see it while you squat. Then you’ll use your phone to make a video call to the tablet. This way, you’ll be looking at the tablet which will be showing the footage of yourself squatting from the side. This will let you know if you’re squatting deep enough, how your bar path looks, and other form details.
This will be defined as when the hip crease is below the top of the knee. This is a standard definition.
Grab the bar in the widest position possible. Notice the amount of upper back tension you have. Now slide both your hands in as far as you can and reassess your back tension. A lot more with them in, right? You want as much tension as you can. Most people will be limited by shoulder mobility. Get under a bar and pull into the bar like you’re trying to bend it and wrap it around your body. Gradually work your hands in. Experiment between as wide as you can grip it and as narrow as your shoulder mobility allows. Somewhere in there you’ll find a range that maximizes both your upper back tension and your pulling tension. Leave your hands here and step back from the bar. Take a note of where your hands are relative to the knurling.
There are 2 things to account for with choosing how wide your stance is. Both of them occur in the bottom position of the squat. You want to pick a stance that is as wide as comfortably possible and that allows you to reach proper depth without your low back rounding. Proper depth and keeping the back in neutral are both important. You might be able to take a wider stance and reach depth but not keep your back in neutral. This isn’t good and you should narrow your stance slightly. Most people will end up with a stance that is 1.25x-1.5x shoulder width. The stance should also be relatively comfortable – if it feels like your hips are under too much strain in the bottom position, narrow your stance because there’s likely too much shear force on your hips.
The bar path is determined by how you squat. There are 2 extremes: as deep as possible with trunk more vertical and as shallow as possible (while still reaching depth) with the trunk more horizontal. The more shallow squat will look like a box squat with the knees not moving forward much at all. While the shallow squat requires moving the weight the least distance, many lifters just aren’t built for this style in it’s most extreme form. Therefore, you should start with this style and then gradually experiment by letting the knees come forward a bit. Do a few cycles where you change this a little bit more each time. You’ll either find that with slightly more knee bend you can squat more or there’s a drop off in strength.
An important cue with bar path is keeping the bar directly over the middle of your foot. Often lifters will lean over too much which results in the bar being too far forward which is very disadvantageous. A good visual cue is to tie a rope to the collar of the barbell and let it hang down to the floor. It should touch the ground right at the middle of the foot.
Many people try to push their knees out when they squat, often to prevent them from collapsing inward. This cue is fine, though often the real problem is they either are folding too far over or the weight is too heavy. First, make sure that you’re keeping the bar directly over the middle of your foot while squatting. This often means being slightly more upright that you might realize. If that doesn’t work, then there’s an easy fix: decrease the weight.
The other question is should the toes point forward or out? Pointing the toes forward improves the rebound out of the bottom of the squat because of a greater hamstring stretch, but adds more torque to the knee. So this is a matter of personal comfort with how much torque you’re willing to place on the knee. If you don’t want to do that, then most will agree that pointing the toes about 10 degrees outward puts the knee in a comfortable position.
Find the grip width that maximizes tension within your available shoulder mobility.
Find the widest stance width that you can comfortably achieve proper depth with a neutral low back.
Experiment with different squat styles, ranging from box squat style (knees don’t move forward, trunk more folded over) to a hybrid squat style (knees do move forward some distance, trunk more upright). Find the style that you’re strongest with.