Most people think of Squats as a “leg exercise”. Your hamstrings, quads, glutes and groin are indeed the prime movers when you Squat. But your abs, obliques and lower back muscles work to keep you from collapsing under the bar. Even your arms and shoulders must work to keep the bar in position.
This is why many people call Squats “king of all exercises” – Squatting works your whole body from head to toe. This makes the Squat a crucial exercise for gaining overall strength and muscle. It’s the secret to the effectiveness of StrongLifts 5×5, and why you’re Squatting 3x/week on that program.
Contrary to popular belief, Squats aren’t bad for your knees and lower back. Squats with bad form are. If you Squat with proper form, you’ll strengthen the muscles surrounding your knees and lower back. This will make your knees and lower back stronger and healthier, not weak and injured.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Squat Myths
- 3 Squat Technique
- 4 Equipment
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
- 6 Tip Sheet
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 References
History of Squats
The Squat is a natural movement humans have done since they existed. If you pay attention you’ll notice people all over the world Squat, often unconsciously. Quick examples…
- Babies routinely play while sitting in a Squat position, and will Squat to stand up.1
- Asian people often rest in a Squatting position when eating or waiting for the bus.2
- Squatting was the natural way to defecate before sitting toilets existed
Indian Wrestlers have used unweighted Squats (“Baithak”) for hundreds of years to get stronger.3 The “Great” Gama became a World Champion Wrestler in 1910 using a Squat routine. He did up to 6000 daily Squats and later added weights – Squatting with a 95kg/210lb donut-shaped grindstone.4
In Europe, the German strongman Henry “Milo” Steinborn was first to recognize “deep knee bends” with a heavy barbell were key to getting stronger.5 He discovered increasing his Squat to 250kg/550lb for five reps made his other lifts increase. That’s how he set records in the Snatch and Clean & Jerk.
When Milo moved to the USA in 1921 to pursue a strongman career, the Squat wasn’t popular yet and Power Racks didn’t exist. So Milo did Squats by first tilting the barbell on one end, then leaning under it to get it under this back. This strength feat – the “Steinborn Lift” – blew the Americans away.
After witnessing Milo Steinborn Squat, Mark Berry (the later editor of Strength magazine) emphasized Squats in his training.6 It paid off – Berry went from struggling to build muscle for years to gaining 50lb muscular body-weight in a year and winning the national weightlifting championships in 1925.
So Berry told everyone to Squat – both in his Strength magazine and as head coach of the USA Olympic weightlifting team (1932/1936). His most famous pupils became John Grimek (Mr Universe and 2x Mr America) and Joe Hise who gained 29lb in a single month following Berry’s Squat advice.
Peary Rader, who founded Iron Man magazine in 1936, also followed Mark Berry’s Squat routines. He went from 128lb to 210lb body-weight in one year, and won competitions for seven years thanks to his 450lb Squat. So Rader spent the next decades telling everyone to Squat in Iron Man Magazine.
Fast forward 1954 – Clarence Ross, Mr America, called the Squat “The King of Exercises”.7 Olympic lifters, powerlifters and bodybuilders from all over the world had by now discovered Squats and turned it into the backbone of their strength routines. Examples:
- The Canadian Doug Hepburn Squatted 665lb in 1952, won the world weightlifting championships in 1953 and won the British Empire Games in 1954.
- The American Paul Anderson Squatted 760lb (even more later) and won the world weightlifting championships in 1955 and the Olympic Games in 1956.
- The Brit Reg Park Squatted 600lb and won Mr Universe in 1952, 1958, 1964. He became the 2nd guy to Bench Press 500lb after Doug Hepburn and published the 5×5 routine in 1960.8
They all used home-made Squat Stands to get the bar on their back. But Power Racks became more popular in 1960 when Terry Tedd and Dr Craig Whitehead used them for testing new strength training techniques… and when Peary Rader wrote about Power Racks in Iron Man Magazine.9
In 1961 Dr Karl Klein published a study claiming full Squats are bad for the knees.10 Klein compared the knee laxity of 128 Squatters to 360 people who didn’t and concluded Squatters had loose knees. Studies have since then proven Squats build strong and healthy knees.1112 But the knee myth started.
So outside weight lifting circles, coaches ignored the Squat, considering it dangerous and useless.13 But in 1969 the Olympic Lifter Bill Starr became one of the first strength coaches for football teams. His 5×5 routine consisted of Squats 3x/week for five sets of five reps.14
In 1964 the Squat, Bench and Deadlift became the three contests lifts in the Powerlifting sport. Strength athletes increased their focus on the Squat even more as it was now their primary lift, no longer just a strength builder for Olympic Weightlifting or Bodybuilding.
Today, the Squat remains a hard lift many people try to avoid using various excuses although it remains the best exercise to gain strength and muscle. Nothing I did in the gym worked until I started to Squat. That’s why I’ve been Squatting almost every week, usually several times a week, for 14 years.
Squats Build Strength
The Squat is the best exercise for building overall strength. Here’s why:
- Squats strengthen your largest, longest, most powerful muscles – glutes, sartorius and soleus.15
- Squats strengthen your posterior chain muscles – hamstrings, glutes, lower back, calves, etc
- Squats strengthen your posterior chain through the longest range of motion (half your length)
- Squats require you to balance the weight which works your abs, obliques, shoulders, arms, etc
- Squats work your whole body as one piece (NOT in isolation) like you move outside the gym
- Squats stress your body with the heaviest weights – the more you lift, the stronger you are
No exercise or machine is as effective as the Squat for getting stronger. The Leg Press is inferior because you don’t have to balance the weight. The leg extension is inferior because it only works your quads, with light weights. Deadlift is inferior because the range of motion is smaller. Squats are king, period.
Plus you can easily get stronger at Squats by starting light and adding 2.5kg/5lb each workout. You can’t on a single joint exercise like a leg extension that uses less muscle. Squats are a multi-joint, compound exercise – it works more muscles which allows you to lift more, progress longer and get stronger.
This strength carries-over outside the gym. If you lift a heavy object in real life, no machine balances or supports it for you. You must do it yourself. Squat force you to balance and support the weight yourself which works your body, muscles, bones and joints like you’ll use them in real life.
Squats Build Muscle
Squats are more than just a “leg exercise”. Your hips and knees are bending, but the rest of your body has to support the weight and keep your torso from collapsing. This is how Squats work your whole body, as one piece. Here are just some of the muscles working when you Squat…
- Lower body. Your hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps and groin are the prime movers when you Squat. But Squats also work your calves which have to stabilize your ankles.
- Upper body. To keep the bar positioned on your upper-back, you must squeeze your shoulder-blades and keep your chest up. This works your arms, shoulders, traps, upper-back, etc.
- Core. Your abs, obliques and lower back all have to work hard during Squats to prevent you from collapsing under the weight as you Squat up and down.
Heavy Squats releases more muscle building hormones than any other exercise – 200% more growth hormone and 25% more testosterone than the Leg Press.16 If you want to build muscle quickly and naturally, or you want to prevent muscle loss from aging, Squats are the best exercise.
Squats Burn Fat
Fat is stored energy. Exercise burns energy, thus burns fat. The more muscles you work, the more energy you burn. Squats work more muscles than any other exercise, so they also burn more fat as any other exercise. The more weight you Squat, the higher the intensity, the more fat you’ll burn.
And that’s just what happens in the gym. Outside the gym, your body and muscles must recover from those heavy Squats. Muscle recovery burns calories. As a result, Squats increase your metabolism for up to 24 hours post-workout, helping you burn fat outside the gym.17
Note that Squats aren’t a silver bullet for losing fat. They’ll help you burn fat, get leaner and build six pack abs. But unless you Squat all day long, you won’t burn significant calories to out-train a bad diet. And that’s whether you’re doing Squats or any other exercise. So make sure you eat right too.
Squats Boost Endurance
Every step you take when you run requires an effort. If you double your leg strength by increasing your Squat from 150lb to 300lb, it now requires half the effort to take those steps. The same run becomes easier because it takes longer for your legs to get tired. So you can run faster and longer.
But won’t the muscle gains from Squatting slow you down? No. First, you won’t gain 50lb/25kg of muscle overnight unless you stuff yourself with food or use drugs. I’ve been Squatting for 14 years, Squat over 400lb and weigh 170lb at 5’8″. Despite gaining 43lb muscle over the years, I’m still “normal”.
Two, increasing your Squat is like putting a bigger engine in your car. You might gain 25lb/10kg in six months by doubling your Squat to 300lb/140kg. But that’s not enough to slow down. Your stronger legs will make you run faster, just like a car with a bigger engine is faster.
If you’re still not convinced Squats will boost your endurance – stronger legs have improved the 5k running economy and race times in trained endurance athletes, even without changes in VO2 max.18 They’ve also improved run times by helping maintain stride length and race pace longer.19
Squats Increase Explosiveness for Sports
Squats won’t make you slow for sports – that’s a myth. They’ll make you faster because Squats build stronger legs. If your legs are stronger, you can do more work in the same amount of time. If you can do more work in the same time, you have more power.20 So you’re more explosive and faster – not slower.
On top of that, Squats will also make you dominate at sports by increasing your vertical jump,21 boosting endurance, increasing fitness, strengthening your whole body, improving balance and coordination, protecting your knees/back against injury, etc. If you want to competitive, you must Squat.
Squats Strengthen Your Bones
When you Squat gravity pulls the weight on your back down. This compresses everything under the bar. Your spine and bones are living tissues which respond to this compression force by getting stronger. A study from Karlsson et al showed weightlifters have 10% more bone density.22
Denser bones are better than weak ones because they’re harder to break. Denser bones also prevent osteoporosis.23 If you already have osteoporosis, Squats will prevent age-related strength and muscle loss. This improves balance and coordination, protecting you from falls that could be fatal.
No exercise is effective as Squats for building stronger bones. Squats combine bearing heavy weights with a long range of motion (half your height). You can lift more weight on a Deadlift, but over a smaller rom. Bench/Press involve lighter weights. Running or cycling involve no weights at all.
How to Squat
If you’ve never Squatted before, or you want to make sure you’re using correct technique so you get stronger without getting hurt, here’s a quick overview on how to Squat with proper form…
- Grab the bar with a medium grip. Put your feet directly under the bar, get under it and put it between your traps and rear shoulder muscles (“low bar”). Chest up, upper-back tight.
- Unrack the bar by Squatting up. Take one step back with one leg, one with your other leg. Stand straight with your knees and hips locked for maximum stability. Keep your upper-back tight.
- Take a big breath, hold it and Squat. Do this by pushing your knees to the side and your hips back and down. Squat until you break parallel – your hip crease must go below the top of your knee.
- Hold your breath at the bottom. Don’t stop but quickly reverse the movement by driving your hips straight up. Keep your knees out, your chest up and your upper-back tight.
- Lock your hips and knees at the top. Exhale and rest a second. Then take a big breath, hold it and Squat your next rep. After your fifth rep, rack the weight by stepping forward.
Easy. The key is patience – the more you Squat, and the more you focus on Squatting with proper form, the better your technique will be. This requires conscious effort at first. But if you stick with it, Squatting with good technique will eventually become automatic and natural.
If you’d like a print version of these tips to take with you to the gym, download my Squat Tip Sheet.
Squat Form 101
Your optimal Squat technique will depend on your build. So it’s a bad idea to mimic my Squat form – I have long legs/short torso/narrow frame, if you have short legs/long torso/wide frame, your best form will be different. Start with these Squat form guidelines, individualize as you go…
- Bar path: when looking from the side – straight line up and down over your mid-foot
- Stance: shoulder-width apart from heel to heel (not toes to toes, wider!)
- Feet: turned out about 30°, feet flat on the floor
- Knees: pointing in the same direction as your feet
- Grip: medium width, with your back supporting the weight, not your hands
- Bar: between your traps and rear shoulder muscles, centered on your back
- Chest: up, shoulder-blades squeezed together, stay tight from start to finish
- Head: inline with the rest of your spine, don’t look up, don’t look at your feet
- Unracking: feet under the bar, unrack by squatting up, then step back not forward
- Breathing: big breath at top, hold it on way down, hold it at bottom, exhale at the top
- Squatting down: push your knees out and hips back, keep your lower back neutral
- Squatting up: push your hips straight up and your knees out, keep your chest up
- Depth: hip crease must go below the top of your knees, thighs parallel isn’t deep enough
- Between reps: keep your hips and knees locked, keep your upper-back tight, breathe
- Racking: step forward to rack the weight, aim for the verticals not the uprights
Here’s a video of myself Squatting 170kg/374lb for five reps. Notice I’m breaking parallel on each rep – my hip joints are going lower than the top of my knees. Notice also I’m using a low bar position, with a more horizontal torso position, because that’s how you Squat most weight and get strongest.
A lot of people don’t Squat this low. They only go half the way down and do quarter/half Squats. Here’s another Squat video in which I explain the importance of breaking parallel (hips lower than knees) when you Squat. Watch it if your goal is to get stronger and build muscle without getting hurt.
The current IPF raw world record Squat is 412.5kg/909lb by Ray Williams from USA. This record was set on June 8th 2014 at the IPF World Championships in South-Africa. Here’s a video of this Squat record:
People have Squatted heavier weights wearing supportive multi-ply suits. But since everybody doing StrongLifts 5×5 Squats raw, not with gear, only raw Squat records are relevant to us.
Myth: Squats Are Bad For Your Knees
Squats with bad form are indeed bad for your knees. If you do half/quarter Squats, put all the weight on your knees instead of using your hip muscles, or let your knees cave in, you’ll hurt your knees. But if you Squat with good form by breaking parallel, your knees will be safe and you’ll build stronger knees.
The myth that Squats are bad from the knees comes from two places:
- In 1961, Dr. Karl Klein compared the knee laxity of 128 Squatters to 360 people who didn’t Squat. He concluded Squats create loose knees.24 But the study was flawed.25 Other studies have since then proven Squatters have stronger knees than non-Squatters.26
- Misinformed people hurt their knees Squatting with bad form (half reps, knees cave in, no hips, etc). They visit the doctor who hears for the 27th time “I hurt my knees doing Squats”. Doctors mix causation and correlation, and conclude Squats are the problem, not the bad form.
Meanwhile millions of babies play each day in a squatting position.27 Millions of grown ups, especially in Asia, rest each day in a Squat position instead of standing/sitting.28 Millions of people Squat each day to poop or urinate on “Squat Toilets”. If Squats were bad for the knees, they’d all get knee pain.
“But they’re not adding weight!” you might be thinking. Well, Squatting with weight on your upper-back strengthens your whole body, including the muscles around your knees and your knees joints. This creates stronger knees and explains why Squatters have stronger knees than non-Squatters.29
The irony is that the same people who are afraid to Squat parallel out of fear to hurt their knees, are the same ones who end up hurting their knees. Half/quarter Squats where you’re only going half the way down are not better or safer for your knees. They’re WORSE for your knees. Here’s why:
- Quarter Squats cause imbalances. Your quadriceps gets stronger but your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, etc) gets little work. Yet strong hamstrings are crucial for knee safety.
- Quarter Squats stress the knees. Most people will let their knees travel all the way forward instead of shifting the load to their stronger hip muscles. This put stress on your knees.30
But if you Squat with proper form – knees out, hips back, parallel – you’ll strengthen your glutes and hamstrings which protects your knees. And when your hips move the weight there’s no knee or ACL stress.31 This is why Squats are effective for ACL rehabilitation.32
In fact, my little brother tore his ACL while skiing in his early teens. Last year he achieved a 300lb/140kg Squat in seven months without any knee issues. Many StrongLifts Members have told me their knees feel better now that they Squat. Just start light, use proper form, and add weight each workout.
Myth: Squats Are Bad For Your Lower Back
Any exercise is bad for your back if you do it wrong. Pickup a box at work with a round lower back and you’ll hurt it too. Same on Squats. If you use bad form by rounding or over-arching your back, you’ll hurt it. But if you use good form, keep your back neutral, Squats will strengthen your lower back.
Here’s how: when you Squat, gravity pulls the bar on your back down. The muscles around your spine (“your core muscles”) must resist this force otherwise you collapse under the weight. Resisting this forces requires effort which strengthens your “core muscles” – erectors, obliques and abs.
So the more you Squat, the stronger your abs and obliques will be. Many people struggling with lower back pain – including me years ago – think they have a “weak lower back”. Usually they just have weak abs. Heavy Squats strengthens the muscles around your spine which adds lower back support.
A study from Stone (1990) showed 31% of men have back pain but only 23% of weight lifters.33 Squatters have stronger muscles around their spine to protect it. And their stronger legs makes it easier to Squat to pick up something. This is safer for your spine than bending over with straight legs and a round back.
- Compression is NOT an issue. Your body will respond to vertical compression when you Squat by building denser bones and stronger muscles around your spine. This will make it more resistant to compression and fracture. Sitting slouched is worse for your back than Squats.34
- Shear is NOT an issue. There’s no shear force when you Squat low bar with your torso more incline as I do. Even if your trunk muscles can’t maintain proper position – your lower back will simply round, no sliding of your vertebra will occur. So no need to Squat more upright.
Some people avoid “stressing” their lower back at all costs. Yet lack of stress is what keeps their lower back weak. Exposing yourself to controlled, gradual stress will make your lower back stronger. Squats strengthen the muscles around your spine which protects it from back injury.
The key is to start light, add a little weight each workout, and use proper form: no lower back rounding. No hyper-extension of the lower back either. Just a neutral lower back with the natural arch. This way there’s no squeezing of your spinal discs when you Squat, no risk of herniated discs.
You can wear a belt to add lower back support and Squat bigger weights. Just keep in mind belts won’t prevent injury from Squatting with bad form. Worse, they can create a false sense of security. So make sure you Squat with proper form – knees out, hips back, parallel, neutral back.
Myth: Squats Widen The Hips
This myth goes back to June 1952 when bodybuilder Irvin Johnson wrote in Iron Man magazine…35
Squats, especially with heavy weights, produce big fannies. Broaden the hips and develop and upper thigh like that of a woman.
Bodybuilder Vince Gironda joined Jonson’s anti-Squat crusade the same year. He wrote in Iron Man magazine that Squats overdevelop the glutes, widen the hips and prevent the “v-shape”.
Yet here’s the truth:
- Your gluteus maximus (one of your butt muscles) is the largest one in your body
- That means your gluteus maximus is also the largest muscle of your hips
- Squats works your glute muscles, so they grow bigger from Squatting
- But none of your glute attachments are on the outside of your hips
- So if your glutes grow, they grow BACK – not to the side
The only part of your glutes that grows on the side of your hips are your Tensor Fascae Latae. But this is the smallest of your four gluteal muscles, with therefore the least potential for growth. The majority of your glutes will grow back and thus cannot increase the width of your hips
Hip width is mostly a genetic factor – you’re born with large hip bones or you aren’t. If you are, the only way to reduce the size of your hips is by sawing a part of your pelvis off. Or you can make them look narrower by increasing the size of your shoulders and thighs (the latter is what Squats do).
If Squatting did increase the width of your hips, then Olympic Lifters who Squat heavy multiple times a week would all have broad hips. Yet this isn’t the case because your glutes muscles will always grow back, not to the side, regardless of how heavy or often you Squat.
Myth: Squats Make Your Butt Huge
This myth has the same origins as “Squat Widen The Hips“. Bodybuilders Irvin Johnson and Vince Gironda went on anti-Squat crusades in 1952, spreading the myth that Squats widen the hips, cause overdeveloped glutes and make it impossible to achieve the “v-shape”.
Yes, Squats work your glutes so it will develop the muscles of your butt. But you won’t get a big butt like Kim Kardashian, Jenifer Lopez or Nicki Minaj unless you have the genetics for it. And if you have the genetics for it, then your butt was already big before you did Squats.
Whatever the case, muscle tissue is denser than fat tissue. A “fat butt” from sitting on it all day, eating junk food and not Squatting will always be bigger than a “muscular butt” from doing Squats and eating right. That means you’re better off Squatting. Here’s what you can expect:
- If you have a big butt… Squats will improve the shape of your butt and make it firmer. If you have excess butt fat to lose, Squats will help reduce it since it burns calories. But you’ll get the best results if you eat right on top of doing your Squats.
- If you have no butt… Squats works your glute muscles, so they develop your butt so it has more curve and shape. However if you were flat like a pancake before, don’t expect to wake up like Kim Kardashian or Jenifer Lopez just from doing Squats three times a week.
I was born with “skinny calves” genetics, others are born with “big butt” genetics. There’s little you can do about it except accept your body as it is. Which isn’t an excuse to do nothing and stay fat, weak and out-of-shape. Get off your butt, eat better, start Squatting. Then stop worrying about your butt :)
Myth: Squats Increase Waist Size
The second origin of this Squat myth is people mixing causation with correlation. Some Squatters do have big bellies, but not because of the Squats they do. Examples:
- Strength Athletes. Some heavy weight powerlifters, olympic lifters and strongman have big bellies. Usually it’s because they eat tons of food to get bigger and lift more. The excess calories are stored as fat, causing a big belly. Squats have nothing to do with it.
- Pro-bodybuilders. Some pro-bodybuilders almost look pregnant on stage. It’s not the Squats but the drug abuse. High dose insulin use increases visceral fat deposits around their organs. Add 10,000 calorie diets which make their intestines grow bigger and push their stomach out.
So unless you abuse drugs or eat tons of food, Squats won’t get you a big belly. Your abs are a thin sheet of muscle. They’ll grow if you Squat, turning into “six pack abs” if you eat right so you see them. But you won’t jump waist size overnight because your abs are thin and have thus little growth potential.
Most people doing StrongLifts 5×5 find their waist size DECREASES from Squatting. Remember Squats build muscle, including ab muscles, and muscle is denser than fat. I’ve been Squatting for 14 years and must wear a belt in all my jeans because I have no belly despite Squatting 180kg/400lb.
Myth: Squats Decrease Flexibility
Squats will indeed decrease your flexibility if you do half reps by barely bending through your hips and knees. These “Quarter Squats” don’t work your hips through a full range of motion, don’t require much hip flexibility as a result, and thus won’t increase or maintain hip flexibility.
Different story if you Squat until your hips go below the top of your knees. “Breaking parallel” moves your body through a long range of motion – half your height. This requires hip/ankle flexibility to hit proper depth as well as shoulder flexibility to get the bar in proper position on your upper-back.
If you haven’t never Squatted in months, try it today and you might realize you ARE inflexible. Which is normal – people used to get daily hip flexibility work by pooping on “Squat toilets”. Now we sit on toilets, sit at work, sit in the car. So we since we barely ever Squat, we lose the flexibility to Squat.
The good news is you can regain that lost flexibility by Squatting several times a week. This moves your hip muscles through a full range of motion and stretches your upper-body. Once your flexibility is back, keep Squatting to maintain it. This prevents back injuries, arthritis and improves your posture.
Remember the Volvo ad with Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a full split.36 Van Damme has lifted weights for years here in Brussels, not so far from where I live. And yet he has done full splits in all his movies. If lifting weights and Squats decreased flexibility, he wouldn’t be able to do this. And it’s not faked.
Myth: Squats Make You Slow For Sports
The origin of this myth comes from people believing Squats will make them bulky. The naive thinking is that your legs will become so huge and muscular from doing Squats, they’ll slow you down for sports because you have to carry more weight. Add the myth that Squatting makes you inflexible…
Yet nobody ever became bulky overnight from Squatting. I’ve been doing Squats for 14 years, almost every week, usually several times a week, once 100 days in a row. But I’m not bulky because that requires eating tons of food or using drugs. You won’t wake up like Ronnie Coleman from just Squatting.
But let’s say you Squat three times a week on StrongLifts 5×5, double your Squat to 140kg/300lb over the next six months and gain 10kg/25lb body-weight in the process. Will that 10kg/25lb of extra body-weight make you slower considering your leg strength is double what it was before?
The answer is no. Here’s why:
- To be fast, you must be explosive. You need power.
- Power – remember physics classes – is work/time.37
- Work is your ability to move an object. This requires strength.
- Squats increase leg strength, resulting in more work in the same time.
- If you can do more work in the same amount of time, you have more power.
- If you’ve gained power, you are faster and more explosive than before.
- Doubling your Squat thus makes you faster, not slower.
Elite soccer player with bigger Squats sprint faster and jump higher.38 Top Crossfiters like Rich Froning, Jason Khalipa and Ben Smith Squat over 400lb yet aren’t slow.394041 Gaining strength from Squats is like putting a bigger engine in your car – you can go faster because you have more leg power.
Myth: Squats Stunt Growth
The world champion weight lifter Naim Süleymanoglu is one of the strongest and smallest man that ever existed.42 At 1m47/4’10”, he could Squat over 200kg and clean & jerked 190kg at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. This triple body-weight strength feat earned him to the nickname “Pocket Hercules”.
But it also spread the myth that Squats stunt your growth. Naive people saw Süleymanoglu lift insane weights overhead and concluded this caused his small stature: repetitive compression forces on his spine, bones and joints, trapped between the weight and floor, from years of heavy lifting.
And yet plenty of Squatters are tall despite starting at an early age and exposing their body to huge compression forces through heavy Squats. Examples:
- Many professional bodybuilders started Squatting in their early teens but became over 1m82/6’2″ tall. The best known are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno and Dave Draper.
- Many strongman athletes are over 1m82/6’2″ – Žydrūnas Savickas, Phil Pfister, Brian Shaw, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (Gregor Clegane “The Mountain” in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), etc
Clearly, the compression forces during Squats can’t stunt growth or every strong Squatter would be a dwarf. Not only that, compression forces when you run or jump are up to 5x greater than when you Squat, so every kid on earth who runs or jumps would turn into a dwarf. Yet that’s not the case.
The only way Squats can stunt a child’s growth is if he drops the bar on his bones. This would damage his growth plate and result in unequal bone length. But Squats are a controlled movement so this is unlikely. The child has a bigger chance to break a bone getting hit while playing soccer.
And this is the best reason to make a child Squat: the compression forces during Squats increase bone density. Stronger bones are harder to break. So the child Squatting with proper form under supervision is less likely to damage his growth plate playing soccer or other sports.
Outside growth plate injuries, the only thing that can stunt your growth is malnutrition, lack of exercise and bad genetics. My parents aren’t tall so I didn’t get tall. I’m only 1m73/5’8″ and often joke that’s why I started to lift weights – since I couldn’t get taller, I figured I’d try to get wider!
But Squats won’t stunt your growth. And the existence of a small lifter like Naim Süleymanoglu doesn’t make it true. He was small before he started to Squat and would have stayed small even if he never did Squats. It’s called genetics. Claiming he’s short because he Squats is like saying…
- “Gymnasts are short, so gymnastics makes you short”
- “Basketball players are tall, so playing basketball makes you tall”
- “Victoria Secret models are tall, so modelling makes you tall”
This is winner-take-all-effect: Naim’s short forearms were an advantage and made him rise to the top. Smaller gymnasts weigh less which makes body-weight exercises easier. Tall basketball players have a greater armspan which is better. Long legs are hot. But correlation does not imply causation.
Most people will Squat with a too narrow stance. I made this mistake during my first years doing Squats because the bodybuilders in my gym Squatted narrow to “emphasize their quads”. The problem: your belly gets in the way of your legs on the way down which makes hitting parallel hard.
Then there are powerlifters who Squat wide, with their feet almost touching the Squat Rack. I hurt my left groin years ago doing this. You need a lot of hip flexibility to Squat parallel with a sumo stance. And the powerlifters who Squat this way often wear specialized Squat suits that protect their groin. We Squat raw.
So your Squat stance shouldn’t be too narrow otherwise you’ll struggle to hit parallel which is bad for your knees. But your stance can’t be too wide either or you risk hurting your groin and will struggle to keep your knees out (which is crucial for knee safety). Rule of thumb:
- Stand shoulder-width apart from heel to heel. If you draw a straight vertical line from your shoulder joint to the floor, the width of your shoulders should match your your stance.
- From the heels, not toes! Your toes will be out. That makes the distance heel-to-heel narrower than toe-to-toe. Stand shoulder-width apart from your heels, not your toes.
Beyond this, your optimal Squat stance will depend on your build. If you have long legs with a short torso like me, Squatting with a stance slightly wider than shoulder-width apart will feel better. But avoid super wide or too narrow – shoulder-width apart from heel to heel is the safest and best for most people.
The safest way to Squat is with your feet and knees pointing in the same direction. This prevents twisting of your knee ligaments because your thighs and feet are aligned. Now since you should Squat with your knees out, your toes should point slightly out as well. Rule of thumb:
- Toes out 30°. And if you Squat with a stance slightly wider or narrower than shoulder-width apart (distance between heels not toes), point your toes out slightly more or less.
- Heels on the floor. Your whole foot, including your heels, must stay in contact with the floor during every Squat rep. This is the most stable position and prevents knee stress.
If your heels come off the floor, don’t put a wooden block or small plates under your heels. It’s unstable and will stress your knees. Fix your Squat form instead: shoulder-width stance, knees out. Curling your toes can help but they should stay on the floor with the weight over your mid-foot.
The most common mistake is to Squat with your knees pointing straight forward. Many people Squat this way because they think of it as a “quad exercise”. Yet this form is inefficient for getting stronger at Squats and will hurt you. Here’s why Squatting with knees forward is wrong:
- You’ll struggle to hit parallel because your belly gets in the way of your legs on the way down
- You’ll get front hip pain because your thigh bone (femur) will impinge your hip (the ilium).43
- Your lower back will round at the bottom because your hip can’t drop between your thighs
- You’ll Squat less because you’re not engaging your groin – less muscles working is less weight
Even worse is to let your knees cave in when you Squat. If your knees drop inwards and end in a “valgus” position, you get all the above problems PLUS twisting of your knee ligaments. This can result in knee injuries like ACL tears, especially if you do it during heavy Squats.
- Push Your Knees Out. Squat down by pushing your knees to the side. Keep pushing your knees to the walls aside of you on the way up. If you feel it more in your groin, you’re doing it right.
- Turn Your Feet Out. Your thighs must match the direction of your feet so there’s no twisting of your knee ligaments. So stand shoulder-width apart (heel to heel) with your toes out 30°.
The next big mistake is to let your knees travel too far forward as you Squat down. This will stress your knees and kill strength. The right way to Squat is to engage your stronger hip muscles so they carry the weight and take load of your knees. How? Squat down by pushing your knees out and hips back.
“Don’t let your knees travel over your toes” is a myth. If you have long thighs like me (or clown feet) your knees will come over your toes. The point is to engage your hips. Squat down by pushing your knees out and hips back. Your knees will come forward the first half of the movement, then no more.
Your upper-back supports the weight when you Squat. Not your hands. If you try to carry the weight with your hands anyway, you’ll get wrist/elbow pain once you Squat with 3/4 plates on each side of the bar. Your hands are too small for so much weight. So support the weight with your upper-back.
- Squeeze Your Upper-back. The bar will dig into your spine, move around and stress your wrists if you Squat with a loose upper-back. So pinch your shoulder-blades together before you unrack the barbell. Your back muscles will be between your skin and bar, and support the weight.
- Use a Medium Grip. The narrower your grip, the harder you can squeeze your upper-back. Most people lack the shoulder flexibility for a too narrow Squat grip though. So use a medium grip, with your pinky on top of the mark on the bar for bench press (I go slightly narrower).
- Do Shoulder Dislocations. If the medium grip hurts due to tight shoulders, Squat with a wider grip. Then do daily shoulder dislocations to improve flexibility so you can move to the medium grip after a few weeks. Remember: a wide grip is less effective for tightening your upper-back.
Your optimal Squat grip will depend on your build, just like your optimal Squat stance does. I’m a small guy with a narrow build – if you’re a big guy with wide shoulders, you’ll have to grip the bar wider than me. The goal is to grip the bar in such a way you can squeeze your upper-back maximally.
Squat Bar Position
When I started to Squat 14 years ago here in Belgium, my neck hurt so much I put a foam pad on the bar. Then I moved to wrapping a towel around the bar because those pads kept splitting in two. Silly looking back – I’ve since then Squatted over 400lb wearing just a t-shirt and without neck pain.
The trick is to Squat with the bar positioned correctly on your back. Put it too high and it will hurt your neck and pull you forward. Put it too low, it will slide off your back and hurt your wrists and elbows. But put it correctly as I do and you’ll Squat more weight without getting hurt.
- Below Your Traps. On your traps is for a high bar Squat with more vertical torso. I do low bar Squats because you can use more muscles, lift more weight and get stronger with that Squat form. So put the bar below your traps, not on top of it.
- Above Your Rear Shoulder Muscles. If you put the bar lower than this, it will slide off your back on each rep, which will stress your wrists and elbows and result in pain. So put the bar between your traps and rear shoulders muscles, but not lower where it would slide off your back.
Once the bar rests between your traps and rear shoulder muscles, lock it into position by squeezing your upper-back. Do this by pinching your shoulder-blades together using a medium grip BEFORE you unrack the weight. Then keep your upper-back tight and chest up so the bar can’t move around.
Make sure the bar is centered on your upper-back. If it sits more to the right or left, you’ll get hip, knee or lower back pain because one side is working harder. Center the bar so both sides lift equal amount of weights. I always have to pay attention to this because one of my shoulders is tighter.
And don’t use a bar pad, manta ray or wrap a towel around the bar. People have Squatted over 400kg wearing just a t-shirt. If they can do it, so can you. Just put the bar in proper position and then squeeze your upper-back before you unrack the weight. This way the bar can’t dig in your spine.
Many people will look up when they Squat. I made this mistake my first years because I was Squatting in front of a mirror. It seemed natural to use it to check my Squat form by looking up. But this eventually hurt my neck. So I stopped looking up and moved to Squatting with my head neutral.
You wouldn’t Squat with your lower back hyper-extended because that stresses your lumbar discs and can result in herniation. Same reason why you shouldn’t look up when you Squat: it hyper-extends your neck which can result in spinal disk injury. Squat with your head neutral and you’ll be safe.
- Head Neutral. Video record yourself from the side – you should see a straight line from the top of your head to your lower back. Do this by fixing a point in front of you during your whole Squat set. If you face a mirror, ignore it by looking *though* it, not at it. This keeps your neck safe.
- Don’t Look At Your Feet. If you do, you’ll lose upper-back tightness. The point is to keep your head neutral, not look at your feet. Fix a point in front of you during the whole Squat set so you achieve a straight line from the top of your head to your lower back.
If you’ve been looking up while Squatting so far, switching to neutral head position will feel weird. You might also struggle to keep your neutral. I remember my head shooting up whenever I approached my max weight. Be persistent and patient, you’ll get used to the new form as I did, and won’t go back.
Many people overlook the unrack process – getting the bar out of the uprights. Yet everything you do before you Squat is as important as the actual Squat. If you unrack the weight the wrong way, you’ll waste energy and tire your muscles before you start to Squat. That means less weight lifted.
The most important thing you must do before unracking the weight is getting tight. You must raise your chest and tighten your back before you unrack the weight or the bar will dig into your spine. And you must save your legs and lower back because you’ll need them during your Squats.
- Put The Bar Mid-Chest Level. If the bar is too high, you’ll have to get on your toes to unrack the weigh. This is unstable and and thus both unsafe and ineffective for unracking and racking heavy Squats. Lower the upright so the bar is at mid-chest level when you face it.
- Put Both Feet Under The Bar. If your feet are behind the bar, you’ll have to goodmorning the weight to unrack it. This is stressful on your lower back, will tire it and is unsafe. One foot behind, lunge-style, is also unsafe because it puts uneven stress on your hips. Put both feet under.
- Set Your Lower Back Neutral. I was guilty of this one for years. Do not hyper-extend your lower back when you’re getting under the bar, ready to unrack it. Doing so will stress your discs and is thus unsafe. Keep your lower back neutral, with a natural arch, but not over-arching.
- Squeeze Your Upper-back. The bar will dig into your spine, move around and hurt your wrists without a tight upper-back. But you can’t get tight after unracking the weight because it will crush you. So raise your chest and pinch your shoulder-blades BEFORE you unrack the bar.
If you unrack the weight correctly, it will look like the top part of a Squat. Both feet under the bar, lower back neutral, head neutral, chest up, shoulder-blades pinched, everything tight. Take the bar out of the uprights using a quarter Squat movement, then walk it out.
Before you walk back with the weight, take it out of the uprights by doing a quarter Squat. The bar will go in a straight line up when you unrack this way. Then it will go back in a straight horizontal line as you walk it out. This method wastes least energy and is more stable for Squatting heavy.
- Walk Back, Not Forward. It matters once your Squat set is over: you can’t see the uprights if you rack the weight by walking it back. You could miss them, drop the bar and get hurt. Better is to rack the weight by walking forward, but that requires you to unrack by walking back first.
- Take One Step Back Max. Taking several steps wastes energy. It also makes the walk back after your set is over longer. So just take one step back with each leg, done.
- Keep Your Legs Straight. You don’t need to bend your back leg when you walk out. Keep it straight and locked, it’s more stable. Move from your hips, not your knees.
Once you’ve walked the weight out, you’re ready to Squat. You should still have that tightness in your upper-back that you created before you unracked the weight. Lock your hips and knees while you’re standing with the weight ready to Squat, it’s less tiring and more stable.
The wrong way to Squat is in a straight line down, with your knees travelling all the way forward while your torso stays upright. This stresses your knees, doesn’t engage your stronger hip muscles and is ineffective for Squatting heavy. Remember: Squats are more than just a quad exercise.
So instead of just bending through your knees, Squat down by moving your hips back – like sitting on a toilet. This will stretch your hamstrings and glutes on the way down and engage them more. If your hip muscles work more and harder, you can Squat heavier, without knee stress.
- Push Your Knees Out. Your knees won’t go too far forward if you push them to the side. You’ll also engage your groin muscles more, break parallel more easily and avoid any knee twisting. So push your knees out as you Squat down. Heels shoulder-width apart and toes out 30°.
- Move Your Hips Back. Again, think of sitting on a toilet. But make sure the bar remain over your foot and your lower back must stays neutral while you sit back. If you feeling a big stretch in your hamstrings or wake up with sore hamstrings the day after, you’re doing it right.
- Check Your Bar Path. Tape yourself from the side. If the bar doesn’t go down in a vertical line over your mid-foot, your Squat technique is off. Check if the bar moves forward, over your toes. If so: check your bar position/stance, push your knees out harder and move your hips back.
Note that you must Squat down by moving your hips back and knees out at the same time. Otherwise your hips will do all the work. Note also that it’s okay for your knees to come forward the first half of the Squat movement. But then they should stay there while your hips go back and down.
It’s harder to maintain proper form, and thus easier to get injured, if you Squat down fast. This doesn’t mean you should Squat down slow – that will make you lose strength. But you should control the weight on the way down to maintain proper Squat form. Leave Squatting down fast for later.
Squatting up should be a mirror of the way down. The bar stays above your balance point (your mid-foot) the whole time. Your knees stay out because that engages your groin and is safer. And your chest stays up while your hips are going straight up out of the bottom.
- Drive Your Hips Up. If your hips move back, you’ll end in a goodmorning with your hips doing all the work. If your hips move forward, so will your knees – this shortens your hamstrings and kills power out of the bottom. So move your hips straight up as you Squat up.
- Keep Your Chest Up. You’ll end in a goodmorning position, with your hips high and doing all the work, if your chest doesn’t stay up. So pinch your-shoulder-blades hard with your chest up so the bar can’t move around. It must stay over your balance point (your mid-foot).
- Push Your Knees Out. If your knees cave in, you’ll get twisting of your knee ligaments which can result in knee injury. So keep your knees out, inline with your toes. Your knees shouldn’t move back or forward while you Squat out of the bottom position.
Do not pause at the bottom of your Squat unless you want to make it harder on purpose. Reverse the movement quickly out of the bottom by bouncing off your stretched hamstrings and glutes. This uses the stretch reflex (the energy stored in these muscles on the way up) and makes the lift easier.
Once you’re at the top, lock your knees. Don’t try to “increase tension” by leaving your knees unlocked. Locked joints are more stable than unlocked ones – especially with a heavy weight on your back, tired from doing reps. Let your skeleton carry the weight by locking your knees and hips – it’s safer.
Quarter Squats are bad for your knees because they mostly work your quadriceps. This causes weak, imbalanced glutes and hamstrings muscles, which can result in knee injuries. Add the stress on your knees from letting them travel all the way forward when you do Quarter Squats.
So you should Squat deeper. The International Powerlifting Federation defines legal Squat depth as your hip crease going below the top of your knees.44 This is how I’ve been Squatting for the past 14 years, breaking parallel on every single rep, and it turns out to be totally safe for your knees.
- Break Parallel. Thighs parallel with the floor isn’t deep enough. You must Squat down until your hip crease is lower than the top of your knees when looking from the side. If you can’t, widen your heel stance to shoulder-width apart, with your toes out 30°, and push your knees out harder.
- Don’t Go “ATG”. Few people have the flexibility to Squat all the way down until their butt touches their ankles. Your lower back will probably round at the bottom which is bad for your spine. The point isn’t to show off how deep you can go anyway but to get stronger. Break parallel and stop.
To make sure you hit parallel, tape yourself from the side and watch that video between your sets. Use your smartphone with a gorilla stand. Or ask somebody to check your depth. But don’t Squat on a box to gauge your depth – you will remember the proper position through repetition.
Squats are not the same as running. You don’t inhale as you go down or exhale on the way up because that’s how people hurt their lower back. The correct and natural way is to hold your breath while you Squat. This increases pressure in your abdomen which keeps your lower back safe.45
That’s why nobody ever Squatted heavy weights by inhaling on the way down or exhaling on the way up. Everybody holds his breath when Squatting heavy, I’ve done so for the past 14 years. Look at the video of the current world record Squat, he doesn’t inhale on the way down but holds his breath.
If you’re thinking – but my blood pressure will increase if I hold my breath!!! Yes it will. But it will also go back to normal once you’ve finished your Squat set. Better: your blood pressure will decrease as you get stronger at Squats because the stronger muscles put less demand on your heart.46
- Breathe In BEFORE Squatting Down. Do not breathe in while Squatting down, it’s unsafe for your lower back. Take a big breath at the top while you’re standing with the weight – after you’ve walked the weight out and between your reps. Hold that breath, then Squat down.
- Hold Your Breath At The Bottom. Exhaling at the bottom of Squats is like deflating a balloon – you lose all tension in your abdomen because the air is gone. This puts your lower back at risk of injury and kills strength. The right and safe way is to hold your breath at the bottom.
- Breathe At The Top. Breathe as much as you want between your Squat reps, while standing with the weight at the top. I’ll sometimes take several breaths to recover between a heavy set of five. Just make sure you take a big breath and hold it before Squatting your next rep.
You won’t be able to hold your breath on the way up of a hard, slow Squat rep (a “grinder”). The rep will last too long and build up too much pressure. In this case, you can slowly exhale as you go up. Or grunt by exhaling against your closed glotis. Or yell to increase pressure at your “sticky point”.
Finish your Squat rep before racking the weight. Don’t try to take the bar from a half Squat position into the uprights. One, you didn’t finish your rep. Two, you could miss the uprights and get hurt. Stand with the weight on your back and your hips and knees locked. Then rack it by walking forward.
- Walk Forward, Not Back. You can’t see the uprights if you have to rack it by walking back. And if you can’t see them, you can miss them, drop the bar and get hurt. So unrack the weight by walking back with the bar so you can rack once your set is over by walking forward.
- Walk Forward Until You Hit The Rack. Don’t aim for the uprights – you could miss them and drop the bar. Instead walk forward until your bar touches the vertical part of your Power Rack. When it does, bend through your legs to drop the bar back in the uprights.
If you rack the weight correctly, it will be a mirror of how you unracked the weight and walked it out.
The Power Rack or Squat Rack is your most important equipment for the Squat. You can’t Squat heavy and safely without rack – especially if you’re Squatting alone as I am. A Power Rack has four vertical posts with uprights and horizontal safety pins that serve two purposes:
- Get The Bar On Your Back. Without Power Rack, the only way to get the bar on your back for Squats is using the Steinborn Lift – tilt the bar on one side, lean under it, then drop the bar on your back. This isn’t ideal though as it pre-exhausts your legs and can hurt your lower back.
- Get The Bar Off Your Back. The only way to get the bar off your back without Power Rack is by throwing it on the floor or doing a reverse steinborn lift. The former is an advanced technique that requires more expensive bumper plates. The latter is risky for your back at heavy weights.
- Miss Reps Without Getting Hurt. If you get stuck mid-rep without Power Rack or spotter, the bar will crush you and get you injured. If you manage to throw it off your back or jump under it, you’ll break your bar/plates unless you have more expensive bumper plates.
You need a Power Rack to Squat, period. Put the barbell in the uprights positioned at mid-chest level. Then get under the bar, unrack it and rack it back in when you’re done Squatting. This wastes less energy than the Steinborn Lift or cleaning the bar overhead. It’s also a lot safer.
A Power Rack also has two horizontal safety pins to catch the weight if you get stuck in the middle of a Squat rep. Set these pins slightly below your bottom Squat position. You don’t want to hit them during a good rep as this would throw you off balance for your next rep.
Once you’ve set the pins of your Power Rack, they’ll catch the weight if you get stuck. This is how I’ve missed Squats many times in my home gym without spotter or hurting my back. Here’s an example video where I get stuck. Notice the pins catch the weight and I get away safely…
Unlike a smith machine, the barbell is NOT attached to rails on a Power Rack. So it won’t force you to Squat using a fixed, unnatural movement that could hurt you – you can move freely. And since you have to balance the weight yourself, you’ll get stronger than on the smith machine.
Aside from the Squat, you’ll also need a Power Rack to Bench Press heavy and safely alone. A good Power Rack will last years – I bought mine in 2004 and still Squat inside every week today. Here are several quality Power Racks I recommend for Squatting heavy and safely…
- Atlas Power Rack. Good: cheap. Bad: no free shipping. Rated 4.8 stars on Amazon.
- PowerLine PPR200X Power Rack. Good: handles 600lb, outside uprights, safety pins, pullup bar, cheap. Bad: too short to Overhead Press inside. 4.6 stars rating on Amazon. Free shipping.
- Body-solid Pro Power Rack. Good: handle s1000lb, chinup bar. Bad: more expensive than the PowerLine PPR200X Power Rack. This rack is similar to what I have.
- Titan Power Rack. Handles 700lb, 28 holes, chin-up bar, less than $300.
- Rogue R3 Power Rack. Good: pullup bar, high quality. Bad: must bolt it down, more expensive.
- Short Power Rack. If you have a low ceiling, this shorter Power Rack will fit under a 6″ ceiling.
If you lack the space for a Power Rack, the best alternative is to get a pair of Squat Stands.
Squat Stands are a pair of two vertical poles with uprights often used by Olympic Weight lifters. Unlike Power Racks, the poles are rarely connected. So you can easily move the stands around when you’re not Squatting to save space. Squat Stands are also cheaper than Power Racks.
The drawback of Squat Stands is that they don’t come with safety pins. They’re designed for weight lifters using bumper plates who throw the bar overhead on the floor if they get miss reps. Or who jump away from the bar. Techniques for experienced lifters that will break bars loaded with iron plates.
Some people doing StrongLifts 5×5 have told me they used Squat Stands with a pair of Saw Horses to catch the weight if they got stuck on Squats. I’m sure you get used to it, but I still think a Power Rack is safer because the safety pins are adjustable and the bar can’t roll off the pins.
Also, you might not be able to put the uprights of your Squat Stands low enough to use it for the Bench Press. So you’ll still need extra equipment to help you get the bar in your hands when you Bench. But if you decide to go with Squat Stands anyway, here’s what I recommend…
- Valor BD-9 Power Squat Stand. Good: rated 600lb, stable, works for Squat, Bench, Oh Press. Bad: the quality comes at a higher price. 4.6 stars on Amazon, free shipping.
Watch out with cheaper Squat Stands models. The less they cost, the less sturdy they usually also are. Which means they could tip over, break your bar and break your floor (or worse).
The Olympic Barbell is your most important equipment for Squats after the Power Rack. When you’re doing StrongLifts 5×5, you’re Squatting three times a week to gain strength and muscle fast. So you need a good quality Olympic Barbell because you’re using it every workout to Squat.
An Olympic Barbell is 2m20/7′ long, 20kg/45lb heavy and 28mm thick. The sleeves to load the plates on are 50mm thick. The rest of the bar has knurling to provide solid grip. This includes center knurling for your upper-back so the bar can’t move up or down when you Squat heavy.
Many gyms have shorter, lighter and cheaper barbells. These usually weigh 7 to 15kg, don’t handle heavy weights and bend if you load them with 2-3 plates on each side. They also often lack center knurling which causes the barbell to move around your back during Squats.
These cheap bars are the worst when their sleeves are fixed. You’ll get elbow and wrist pain because the outside part of the bar can’t spin with the plates. Olympic Barbells on the other hand have revolving sleeves which spin independently from the center bar. This is safer for your wrists and elbows.
So you need an Olympic Barbell, and the best one for Squats are Power Bars. These are stiffer than weight lifting bars and won’t bounce with the weight as you Squat. Power Bars also have center knurling for your upper-back weight lifting bars lack. Get a Power Bar, it’s better for Squats.
A good quality bar will cost around $300. Yes, that is a lot for a barbell. However a good bar will last a lifetime, so you’re only buying this once. Here are several Olympic Barbells which I recommend:
- Rogue Power Bar. High quality, best of the best.
- Troy Texas Power Bar. Handled 1500lb, center knurling.
- Cap Barbell OB-86PB. Tested at 1500lb, black, but not center knurling.
- Body-solid Olympic bar. If you want cheap, I wouldn’t buy it.
Think also of getting some spring clips or collars so the plates can’t move around. This way the plates can’t slide off your bar if you miss a rep or similar, and tip the whole bar over.
- Spring clips. Put this on your bar so your plates can’t move around.
- Lock-jaw collars. Some people find this easier to than spring clips.
And then there’s what you do NOT need for Squats. I’m guilty of Squatting with a bar pad and wrapping a towel around the bar during my early training years. Don’t make the Squat mistakes I made.
- NO Bar Pad. It won’t protect your neck when you Squat heavy. The weight will crush it, split it in two and you’ll have to buy a new bar pad every few weeks. If your neck hurts from Squats, the bar is too high. Lower it so it rests between your traps and rear shoulders muscles.
- NO Manta Ray. This plastic tool will dig into your collarbone if it doesn’t fit. And it will put the bar higher up on your spine, increase the distance to your hip joint, and stress your lower back more. So it trades neck pain for back pain. Just get rid of it and position the bar right.
- NO Wrapped Towel. Pain in your spine means you’re not supporting the bar with your upper-back muscles. Pinch your shoulder-blades BEFORE unracking the weight, then stay tight. This puts your muscles between the bar and your skin so it can’t dig into it.
Pain means you’re not Squatting with proper form. Don’t try to mask it with band-aid solutions like a bar pad or manta ray. Put the bar correctly on your back. I’ve Squatted 400lb wearing just a t-shirt, many people have Squatted even more in a t-shirt. You can do it too by putting the bar right first.
Your shoes are the only thing between your feet and the floor when you Squat. The heavy weight of the bar compresses everything below the bar down to the floor, including your shoes. That means any shoe with a squishy sole will compress under the weight and behave unpredictably.
Remember proper Squat form is moving the bar in straight vertical line. This requires you to control the bar. It requires you to put something behaving consistently on every rep between your feet and the floor. Something that won’t squish, slip or mess with your balance.
- No Running Shoes. Their gel/air filling will compress under the weight. This makes your bar path unpredictable and will mess up your form. Bad form leads to less weight and knee pain. So don’t wear shock-absorbers – you’re Squatting heavy, not running on asphalt.
- No Barefoot. It beats running shoes because your feet are in contact with the floor and won’t squish under the weight. So you can predict where the bar goes. But barefoot provides zero traction, especially if you wear socks. Your feet will slip unlike when you wear shoes.
The best shoes for Squats have hard soles that don’t compress under the weight so you control where the bar goes. They provide good traction so your feet don’t move around. They help you achieve better form so you Squat more without getting hurt. Here’s some shoes I recommend for Squats…
- Chuck Taylor All Stars. I Squatted in these for 10 years after reading powerlifters rave about them. Hit all my major PRs in chuck’s. Good: hard sole, flat, cheap. Bad: narrow for some feet. Get the high top model, with a snug fit so your foot doesn’t move around. 4.5 stars on Amazon.
- Reebok Lite Tr. These are like a better version of Chuck Taylor’s, designed specifically for Squats with powerlifter Mark Bell. Good: wider than chuck’s, better ankle support, looks better. Bad: they’ve got Crossfit written on it (just kiddin’ :)) I ditched my chuck’s for these in 2014.
Weightlifting shoes have become popular. I have a pair of Rogue Do-Wins – more stable than Chuck’s and their heel makes it easier to hit parallel on Front/High Bar Squats. But I prefer a flat sole for low bar Squats. If you get a pair anyway, 0.5″ max for the heel. Higher doesn’t work for low bar.
Do NOT put a block or plates under your heels. It’s unstable and will put stress on your knees by pushing them more forward. If you can’t hit parallel, widen your stance to shoulder-width apart from the heels, toes out 30°, knees out. If your heels come off the floor: do the same. But no block or plates.
Knee sleeves can prevent injuries by increasing the temperature of your knee joints. Your knees will get extremely warm when you Squat in knee sleeves, and the neoprene will trap that warmth. This lubricates your joints, better than warming up with the bar does, which reduces the risk of knee injury.
Knee sleeves also add support which can help you gain confidence to Squat. Many people who had non-lifting related knee injuries in the past (acl, meniscus, etc) told me Squatting in knee sleeves helped them overcome psychological limitations. Turns out their knees could take it, they just didn’t believe it.
But knee sleeves won’t prevent injuries from Squatting with bad form. If you do Quarter Squats, go down in a straight line with your knees travelling all the way forward or let your knees cave in on the way up – you’ll hurt your knees with or without the knee sleeves. So always Squat with proper form.
- Rehband Sleeves. Powerlifting and strongman competitors often Squat in blue knee sleeves. Those are Rehband’s, considered the best. 4.8 stars on Amazon.
- Tommy Kono TK Knee Bands. Usually recommended as alternative to the Rehband’s knee sleeves. Slightly cheaper but don’t seem to last as long. 3.9 stars on Amazon.
Knee sleeves aren’t the same as knee wraps. Knee wraps help you Squat more but are not considered raw lifting. Knee sleeves keep your joints warm, prevent injury and are easier to put on.
You can Squat more weight if you wear a belt. Your abs will contract harder because they have something to push against. This increases abdominal pressure, gives your lower back support and thus protects against lower back injury. And since your abs contract harder, they don’t stay weak but get stronger.
But a belt won’t prevent injury from Squatting with bad form. If your lower back rounds at the bottom, Squats will hurt your back regardless of the belt. The injury can actually be greater because of the false sense of security the belt can create, and the heavier weight you Squatted thanks to the belt.
That means practice proper Squat form for a few weeks before adding a belt. 12 weeks of StrongLifts 5×5 minimum. You’ll be Squatting around 100kg/220lb after that. Wear the belt on your last warmup sets and your 5×5 sets. Not your whole Squat workout, this way your abs also get beltless training.
Since a belt works by giving your abs something to push against, get one that is 4″ all around. Not narrow in the front. Single prong is easier to put on than double. Prong doesn’t require a screwdriver if you put the belt tighter for other lifts. 10mm is best unless you weigh +250lb.
- Ader Powerlifting belt
- Bestbelts – high quality, custom made, pre-broken in.
- Rogue Ohio Belt
- Inzer Forever Belt
Once you’ve got the belt, wear it on top of your belly button for Squats. If you wear it lower, the belt won’t work because your abs can’t push against it. Also, this isn’t a corset – no need to hollow your stomach. But no need to push your abs out either. Just squeeze your abs and get the belt tight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about the Squat exercise…
- Can I Front Squat instead of Back Squat?
- Can I Box Squat instead of doing regular Squats?
- How deep should I Squat? What’s the proper Squat depth?
- How do I stop leaning forward on Squats?
- How do I keep my heels down when I Squat?
- Why does my lower back hurt when I Squat?
I’ve put together a Squat Tip Sheet covering the most important tips to Squat with proper form. Just print this pdf (it’s only one page) and take it to the gym. Check the tip sheet between sets so you get stronger on Squats without getting hurt. To download the pdf, click the link below…
Some books on how to Squat, why Squat, the history of Squats, the anatomy, mechanics, etc
- Epstein, D. (2014). The Sports Gene. Current Trade.
- Norman, R. (2012). Monster Squats. Joseph R Norman.
- Kilgore, L. (2010). Anatomy Without a Scalpel. Killustrated.
- Kilgore, L. (2011). Fit. Killustrated.
- McCallum, J (1993). The Complete Keys To Progress. Ironmind.
- Park, R. (1960). Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters & Bodybuilders
- Perryman, M. (2013). Squat Every Day. Myosynthesis.
- Rippetoe, M. (2011). Starting Strength. Aasgard Company.
- Roach, R. (2008). Muscle, Smokes & Mirrors. AuthorHouse.
- Starr, B. (1976). The Strongest Shall Survive.
- Starret, K. (2013). Becoming a Supple Leopard. Victory Belt Publishing.
- Strossen, R. (1989). Super Squats. Ironmind Enterprises.
- Yarnell, D. (2010). King Squat: Rise To Power. Createspace.
- Ross, C. (1954). There’s More to Squats Than Just Bending the Knees. ↩
- Park, R. (1960). Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters & Bodybuilders. ↩
- Rader, P. (1964). Power Rack Training for Maximum Muscular Development. Iron Man Vol. 23, No. 6, p. 22–27, 46. ↩
- Klein, K. (1961). The Deep Squat Exercise as Utilized in Weight Training for Athletics and its Effect on the Ligaments of the Knee. Journal of the Association of Physical and Mental Rehabilitation Vol. 15, No. 10 ↩
- Chandler, T., et al. (1989). The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc.. ↩
- Panariello, R., et al. (1994). The effect of squat on anterior-posterior knee translation in professional football players. Am J Sports Med. ↩
- Starr, B. (1976) The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football. ↩
- Shaner, A., et al. (2014) The Acute Hormonal Response to Free Weight and Machine Weight Resistance Exercise. J Strength Cond Res. ↩
- Elliot, DL; Goldberg, L; Kuehl, KS. Effect of resistance training on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, No. 6, p. 77-81, 1992. ↩
- Paavolainen, L., et al. (1999). Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol. ↩
- Esteve-Lanao, J., et al. (2008). A Running-Specific, Periodized Strength Training Attenuates Loss of Stride Length During Intense Endurance Running. J Strength Cond Res. ↩
- Adams, K., O’Shea, J., O’Shea, K., Climstein, M. (1992). The Effect of Six Weeks of Squat, Plyometric and Squat-Plyometric Training on Power Production. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, Volume 6, No. 1, p. 36-41. ↩
- Klein, K. (1961). The Deep Squat Exercise as Utilized in Weight Training for Athletics and its Effect on the Ligaments of the Knee. Journal of the Association of Physical and Mental Rehabilitation Vol. 15, No. 10 ↩
- Chandler, T., et al. (1989). The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc. ↩
- Chandler, T., et al. (1989). The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc. ↩
- Schoenfeld, B. (2010). Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and their Application to Exercise Performance. J Strength Cond Res. ↩
- Escamilla, R.F., et al. (2011). Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press. Med Sci Sports Exer. ↩
- Nachemson, A. & Elfström, G. (1970). Intravital dynamic pressure measurements in lumbar discs. A study of common movements, maneuvers and exercises. Scand J Rehabil Med Suppl. ↩
- Jonson, I. (1952, June). How James Park Won The Mr. Chicago Title. Iron Man. ↩
- Wisløff, U., et al. (2004). Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players. Br J Sports Med. ↩
- Schoenfeld, B. (2010). Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and their Application to Exercise Performance. J Strength Cond Res. ↩
- O’Connor, A. (2009). The Claim: Weight Training Is Bad for Blood Pressure. The New York Times. ↩