Are you ready to step up your squat game?
Squats are one of the most notoriously challenging and complex exercises out there. On the other hand though, they’re a completely natural movement that we all do routinely throughout our days without even thinking about it. This makes squats not only an important exercise for building a strong lower body, but a highly functional movement as well!
When it comes to squats there are a number of normal variations on form that are A-ok so long as the movement feels comfortable and pain-free. Your unique anatomy and flexibility will dictate which type of squat feels best for you, but don’t be afraid to play around with some other variations to build a well-rounded lower body. The first time I tried narrow-stance box squats (video below!) they almost brought a tear to my eye. The emphasis on my quads was so unexpected I didnt even realize how little was using those muscles in my regular squatting routine!
As always, start at the fitness level you’re at, not the level you WANT to be at! This means if you’re a squat newbie, or have injures or pain, start at level one and slowly progress to the more advanced levels. Always listen to your body and consult an exercise professional if you aren’t sure to get your form assessed.
Level 1: Beginner Sit/Stand Squats
Choose a chair or stable surface that you can use for this exercise. If you have a history of knee injuries or are concerned about balance, master this level first before moving on. You can even slowly decrease the height of the surface you use to make it a little more challenging as you get stronger.
The Form: Make sure to engage your abdominal/core muscles and slightly bend forward as you push your hips out back behind you and bend your knees to sit. Push through your heels as you stand to avoid putting too much of your weight onto your knee joints.
How to know when you’re ready to move on: You should be able to complete a set of at least 10 reps, with a box at your knee height or lower with minimal discomfort. If your knees or hips hurt while doing these, you’re not ready to advance just yet.
Level 2: Body Weight Freestanding Squats
If you have no history of knee or hip issues, and have done squats before feel free to start here at level 2!
The Form: Stand with your feet just a little wider than your hips. Make sure your knees and toes are facing the same direction (scroll down for some common BAD squat form mistakes I often see!) Don’t be afraid to bend forward a little (or a lot!) to keep your body weight even and balanced. Engage your core and push your hips backward as you bend your knees into your squat. Keep your weight on your heels as you return to standing to avoid throwing yourself off balance or putting excessive weight into the knees. Your knees might wander a little past your toes, but as long as your body weight is resting on your heels you should not feel any discomfort.
How to know when you’re ready to move on: Once you can complete at least 10 reps of body weight squats fairly easily and with no hip or knee pain you’re ready to progress to level 3!
How low can you go?
When it comes to squats you only need to go as low as you need.
This means that for most of us, being able to get out of a chair, or sit and stand from the toilet is really the biggest range of motion we need. That being said though, if your joints and flexibility allow, why not take some reps through a more full range of motion? Use it or lose it is what I always say! Just keep safety in mind and only push your depth with body weight squats or a very light weight you can easily complete. Too heavy a load on top of trying to squat too far down can equal injuries.
Level 3: Weighted Squats
In my demonstration here I’ve used a kettlebell, but anything with a little weight will do. Dumbbells, weight plates, medicine balls, they all do the trick just fine! Grab a kid or pet if you happen to have one handy.
The Form: Holding your weight slightly in front of your body really helps to make you feel more balanced. Otherwise, keep your form the same as the previous two levels, only playing with a deeper range of motion if you are 100% sure the weight you are using is not too heavy. Whether you’re completing this exercise with a weight in front of your body, or with a barbell on your shoulders, the form should look almost the same.
How to know you’re ready to move on: The awesome thing about weighted squats is that you’re able to progress your strength simply by increasing the weight you use! My rule of thumb is to only add 5-10lbs at a time to my client’s squat load. If you can complete at set of 15 reps or more with a given weight (with proper form and no joint pain!) you’re ready to try something a little heavier.
You can also check out the next section of this article for some different squat variations that will keep your muscles guessing and help you get even stronger!
Get fancy with these interesting squat variations to keep challenging your fitness!
1. Narrow Stance Box Squats
These are the squats that almost made me cry the first time I tried them! Changing your foot placement (wide vs narrow) makes a huge difference in the specific muscles that are doing most of the work on your squat. Box squats are great for helping you develop more power in your squats, and by adjusting the box height can also help make your entire squat pattern stronger. These are now a routine part of every lower body workout I do!
The Form: Place your feet no wider than your hips apart. Make sure your knees are following the same line as your toes. Weight should always be pushing through your heels. Start with a weight you know you can easily manage to get comfortable with the form before loading up your barbell! These can easily be done with dumbbells as well (hold one in each hand by your side).
2. Weighted Plie Squats
These squats essentially emphasize the opposite of the narrow-stance ones. They turn up the heat on your outer and inner thighs, and engage the glutes significantly more than a narrow-stance squat does. Try them both and feel the difference!
The Form: Place your feet a few inches wider than your hips (or as wide as you can tolerate). Turn your feet and knees outward as far as you’re comfortable. As you squat, make sure your knees remain facing outward and don’t cave in toward the front! Your personal flexibility will dictate your range of motion on this one. If you can only squat a few inches at first, that’s ok! As you practice you should be able to drop lower.
3: Single Leg Pistol Squats
Of course what good is doing anything if you can’t do it on one foot? Pistol squats are fantastic for bringing an element of balance to your squats. Balance is an incredibly important but often overlooked aspect of fitness that is key for injury prevention.
The Form: If you’re new to this exercise, choose a box or surface that is at thigh-height for you. Sit onto the box while standing on one foot, and stand up using both feet. As you get stronger you can play around with decreasing your box height and doing both parts of the movement on one foot like I’m demonstrating in the clip. Remember, this is an advanced exercise so if you’re a beginner (especially with a history of injuries!) do not attempt these until you’ve worked your way through the other levels!
If you’re an expert-level squatter, you can try removing the box altogether and completing your pistol squats freestanding. Good luck!
Need more balance exercises in your life? Check out my other article: Is bad balance hurting your workouts?
A few notes on some common squat mistakes…
1. Weight shifted forward onto toes, heels lifting off the ground
Bad for balance, bad for knees, bad for lower back and how are you gonna hold a weight if you look like you’re ready to fall on your face?
2. Ramrod-straight posture
Many people I see squatting thinking that a flat back and straight up posture are the same thing. Nope! Trying too hard to stay perfectly upright means you’re going to feel off-balance and unable to squat very low. Don’t be afraid to send your upper body forward to counter-balance your hips going backward to get a nice deep, balanced squat. Keeping your core engaged and your butt sticking out behind you will guarantee a nice flat back and safe form.
3. Knees caving in
If you’re new to squatting, try it a few time in front of a mirror to make sure you aren’t doing this! Strong hip and glute muscles will also help make it easier to stop your knees from wanting to cave in towards each other. Remember: practice makes perfect!
Thanks for reading and watching! I hope you enjoyed this step by step guide to stepping up your squat game. Be sure to subscribe to my blog so you can receive all of my articles, recipes, and workout tips right to your inbox! Simply sign up with your email address!