Squats are one of the most difficult movements to master in weight lifting. They engage numerous muscles from all over the body, and they require ample practice to be performed correctly. A slight mistake, imbalance, or loss of concentration can mean disaster, particularly for your back, your knees, and your hips. Conversely, squats are the ultimate leg workout: no other movement builds strong thighs, glutes, and hamstrings quite like a full motion squat. No bodybuilder in history has risen to the top by avoiding squats.
What is the best path for mastering this movement so that you can maximize performance and avoid injury? The following five tips are designed to point you in the right direction.
Master the movement, then add the weight.
Barbel squats are not an intuitive movement for the human body. Particularly in regards to weighted squats, form is of the utmost importance to master before attempting to add more and more weight. With this in mind, anyone who has not yet fully mastered the squat (and that’s going to be most of you out there) needs to practice with little or no weight until their form is near perfect. Mastery requires repetition, and mastering the squat will require many, many reps.
When I began my fitness journey, I was recovering from a lower back injury that severely limited my ability to do squats and deadlifts. My lower back could not hold any weight, and seized when I attempted weighted squats. Over the years I accepted that I needed to go back to basics. A few years ago, I began retraining my body using only the olympic bar. My workouts were short and to the point: I did 500 squats in sets of 50. Boy, did my legs SCREAM! What I learned during these workouts is that my lower back was failing me because I wasn’t properly engaging my core during the lift. I also had tight hamstrings, which I quickly remedied with near-daily stretching.
It took months for me to get it just right to where my back felt stable with weight. Eventually, squats became second nature and it was then, and only then, that I began adding any significant weight.
If in doubt about your form, never fear asking for some guidance from a personal trainer or other qualified professional at your gym. You should also check out my Viking Berserker Training program which is designed to force you to do high volume training to develop better mind-muscle connection.
Always warm up before squats.
The absolute worst thing you can do when it comes to squats is thinking you can warm up with the weights. Your legs were built by nature for running, not squatting. They are endurance machines, and the quadriceps are the most energy-intensive muscle group in the human body. These muscles require ample warming up to stay healthy and avoid injury.
For my warm ups, as an example, I do 30 minutes of hard cardio on the elliptical machine to get things moving. This type warmup helps more than just the legs: it promotes blood flow to your upper body as well, which you do use in a squat. If you’re worried about tiring yourself out on cardio, thereby potentially diminishing your squat performance, fret not. As I said, your legs are endurance machines and will not be heavily impacted by 30 minutes of cardio.
Don’t Be a Fool, Wrap Your…Knees.
Once you have your form down, and you have a good warm up routine in place, the next step is to incrementally increase the amount of weight you squat. How you do this is really up to you. You can increase by 5lbs each session, or do more volume over time and make larger leaps in weight. We are all different, so listen to your body.
It is important to keep in mind that weighted squats are not particularly natural. Therefore, as you move up in weight, you need to be mindful of gradual wear and tear on your joints, particularly your knees and hips. My rule is to wrap my knees for any weight over my own bodyweight. That means, generally speaking, I wrap my knees for anything over 250lbs. Considering my working weight is 405lbs (working weight means the weight at which I do eight or more reps), I wrap my knees every workout.
For most men, wrapping your knees is essential beginning at about 225lbs, and for women at 175lbs. This, of course, is a generalization, and you need to pay attention to your own body to make sure you’re not hurting your knees.
There is also a persistent myth in the fitness industry that wrapping your knees prevents proper lower quadriceps development. This is not true. Wraps do not interfere with your muscular contraction, they simply help to stabilize the joint at the bottom of the movement where the greatest risk for injury exists.
I also recommend wearing a weight belt for any weight over your own bodyweight. Again, it will not make you lesser of a weight lifter to wear a belt. Belts prevent the risk of a hernia, which occurs from a congenital (meaning you’re born with it) weakness in the tissue surrounding your organs that is exacerbated by heavy lifting. You cannot know if you are one of those people who is at risk, and so it is simply prudent to wear a belt when performing squats.
Strengthen Your Upper Back.
Squats are a leg workout. But what many people fail to understand is that squats also involve a great deal of upper body work, especially in the heavier weight zones. It takes tremendous upper body strength just to hold a barbel loaded with 400lbs, let alone keep your upper body stable as you lower into a squat. Therefore, one of the most important things you can do to both increase your performance and to reduce the risk of back injury is to strengthen that area.
The best exercise to strengthen your back overall to help with squats is the deadlift. Deadlifts help to solidify the lower back at the beginning of the movement, and to develop the upper back at the top of the movement. But be warned: deadlifts are also a complex movement, and must be learned with proper form, just as I discussed with you in my first tip. Be sure to work patiently to master the movement before moving up in weight.
Ass-to-Grass is Bullshit.
There’s a subculture within the weight lifting community who say real squats should be ass-to-grass, meaning squatting down until your bum nearly touches the floor. This subculture is virulent in their shaming of squatters who don’t squat so low. The problem with this line of thinking is the assumption that everyone is the same and is physiologically built to be able to squat lower than 90 degrees. In truth, most people are not built that way, and squatting below 90 degrees puts unnecessary stress on the knee joint.
That’s not to say that some people will not benefit from ass-to-grass squatting. There are those whose physiology allows them to squat lower more comfortably, and indeed many of these people benefit from them. But it’s a mistake to think that squatting that low, comfortably, is a skill. It’s actually a talent, and one most people will never be able to emulate. Therefore, for most of you, stick to squatting to 90 degrees.