Squats are a functional exercise that benefit your joint and muscle health, as well as your posture—all of which are important for improving your running form and speed, explains Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., CEO and founder of TS Fitness in New York City.
But there are a few things about how to do a squat you need to know before quickly banging out reps on your next strength-training day.
Sacrificing form can lead to injury and will make the move ineffective. Common mistakes Tamir sees include:
- heels lifting off the ground, shifting the weight onto the toes
- not going deep enough, stopping with knees at 90 degrees
- allowing the chest to fall forward
- curving the upper body and spine, creating a hunchback
- losing the neutral spine position in the lower back (less frequently)
- standing with feet too wide or too narrow
- not controlling the movement, rushing through reps
- allowing the knees to cave in
To avoid these mistakes, here’s everything you need to know about how to do squats the right way. And, once you’ve mastered a squat, try one of the progressions below.
How To Do a Proper Squat:
Stance will vary slightly from person to person, Tamir explains, but your feet should be between hip- and shoulder-width distance apart, with your toes slightly turned out (between 5 and 15 degrees). Your spine should be neutral, shoulders back, chest open. Make sure you keep your heels down and keep them planted throughout the move. You can clasp hands in front of chest for balance.
Initiate the movement by sending the hips back as if you’re sitting back into an invisible chair. Bend knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted in a controlled movement. Keep lower back neutral. Press through heels to stand back up to starting position. Repeat.
Aim to get thighs at least parallel to the floor. To do this, squat down so your thighs are even with your knees. If mobility allows, lower further. As you come back up, make sure hips are set right under your ribs— you don’t want your hips to pull too far back, Tamir says.
What are the benefits of squats?
“Squatting is one of the most functional movements you can do,” Tamir says. “ It’s great for the health of joints, creating strength, improving posture, and requires a lot of core work.” A bodyweight squat engages your core, mobilizes your hips, knees, and ankles, and builds strength in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Plus, you can do a bodyweight squat anywhere.
How often should you do squats?
It depends on what your goal is, Tamir says. If you’re looking to build endurance, you should do 3 to 4 sets of at least 12 reps. You’ll want to adjust your reps per set if you want to build muscle definition, aim for 8 to 15 reps with weight, and if you’re looking to build maximum strength, do no more than 6 reps with a heavy weight.
The same goes for frequency: if you’re building endurance with bodyweight squats or lighter weights, you can perform the move more frequently as it’s not as taxing on muscles, you don’t need as much recovery. You can do bodyweight squats 3 to 4 times a week.
If you’re focusing on strength-building, using heavy weights will put more strain on your muscles. So, if you’re incorporating weighted squats, this can vary between 2 to 3 times a week. You’ll want ample recovery time, so you don’t cause injury from overtraining, Tamir says.
What squat variations can you do?
Once you master proper squat form, there are tons of variations you can do, Tamir says. You can add these variations to your workout or sub one in your circuit in place of a regular squat.
Why: Adding resistance in the form of weights will increase your strength and power.
How: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells at shoulders, with abs tight. Send hips back and bend knees to lower until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, ideally lower. Push back up to the starting position. Repeat.
Adding a plyometric element to the squat—a quick jump—increases your heart rate, making this a cardio-strength combo move that will boost endurance and reaction time.
Stand with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, clasp hands at chest for balance. Send hips back and bend at knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted. You can swing your arms back for momentum. Press through heels back up to explode up, jumping vertically in the air. Land softly and immediately send hips back down into a squat. Repeat.
Add another level of difficulty to a regular squat by holding the weight in front of the chest. This will force you to further engage your core to keep the chest lifted, as well as increase your grip strength. This can help you build up to heavier weights or barbell back squats.
Hold a kettlebell by the horns or a single heavy dumbbell vertically in front of your chest. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out. Send hips back to squat down until thighs are at least parallel to the floor while keeping chest lifted. Stand back up to start and repeat.
If you have limited ankle mobility, you may want to try this variation. Stand with feet much wider than a regular air squat with toes turned slightly out, clasp hands at chest for balance. Send hips back and bend at knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted. You may find that you can lower very low with feet wider. Press through heels to stand back up to starting position. Repeat. For an added challenge, hold a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell, and squat down deep enough to touch the weight on the ground.
Sumo Squat Pull to Press
A sumo squat requires your feet to be even wider, forcing you to further engage your inner thighs (adductors), and the adjusted position may challenge your balance. Make it a combination movement by holding a kettlebell and adding a press at the top.
Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out about 45 degrees, holding a kettlebell with both hands. Squat down and tap the kettlebell on the floor between your feet. Stand up and lift the weight to chest height with elbows out wide. Flip your grip to grab the sides of the handle and push the kettlebell straight up overhead. Lower it to chest and assume the original grip before placing the kettlebell on the floor and return to the starting position.
Bulgarian Split Squat
While this looks a lot like a lunge, your feet stay stationary in this move, so it qualifies as a split squat. Running is a unilateral sport, so you’ll benefit from performing unilateral exercises like this one, which can help identify muscle weaknesses and eliminate imbalances.
Hold a weight in each hand and take a small step away from a bench, box, or step. Reach right foot back and rest it on the bench laces down. Bend left knee to lower as far as possible with control into a lunge. Push through left foot to stand. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg.
This is an advanced move that puts a lot of pressure on your knee. Before progressing to this version, try a single-leg squat sitting back into a chair first to build your strength and balance. Once you master that, move to a bodyweight pistol squat before adding weight.
Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Beginners should do this next to a wall in case it’s necessary to reach out for balance. Pull shoulders back and keep back straight. Extend right leg and arms out in front of you. Slowly send hips back and bend left knee to squat toward the floor, keeping your heel grounded. Get as low into the squat as possible without losing your balance. Drive back up slowly. Exhale as you rise. Repeat on other side.