The squat is the uncrowned queen of exercises. But the execution is tight, and there are an incredible number of ways you can mess up your squat. What follows are fourteen of those ways.
In terms of biomechanics, the squat is arguably the most difficult exercise — perhaps even more difficult than the deadlift. Did you know that strength & conditioning coach Mark Rippetoe spends no less than five hours on theory alone in his seminars? For five hours he talks about anatomy and physical principles such as force and momentum.
Coach Rippetoe is one of the leading advocates of the low-bar or power squat (as opposed to the high-bar or Olympic squat ), arguing that the squat is not — or at least should be — a knee-dominant exercise, but a hip-dominant exercise.
But you don’t have five hours. And we are not Rippetoe. So we don’t explain what you should do, but what you should not do. Noticing and correcting mistakes is a great way to improve your squat technique little by little. At least that’s how we really mastered the squat after years of practice.
We will discuss the fourteen mistakes that you should avoid at all costs.
1. WRONG SETUP
A good start is half the work. The same goes for the squat. Top powerlifters like Ed Coan — the greatest powerlifter of all time — and Kirk Karwoski prepare their squats in exactly the same way, whether they’re warming up with just the bar or going for a personal best. In this way they always provide themselves with the best starting position and each lift is more or less a copy of the previous one. Practice makes perfect .
It makes no sense to approach a light squat differently than a heavy squat. An incorrect starting position cannot be corrected later in the exercise and results in a sub-optimal lift. The key word in the set-up is ‘muscle tension’. For a light effort, put yourself under the same tension as you would for a heavy one. This way, light attempts feel even lighter and you gain confidence as you approach the heavy attempts.
By putting tension we mean: raise your chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together, make a small arch (‘arch’) in your back. Squeeze the bar hard so it can’t move and throw you off balance. Look straight ahead.
2. INCORRECT BAR PLACEMENT
We don’t care how you squat — high-bar or low-bar — it starts with positioning the bar on your back. The position of the bar on your back actually sets off a chain reaction and basically determines which squat you do. Keep in mind that low-bar squats are mainly used by powerlifters, to be able to use the highest possible weight. High-bar squats are recommended if muscle growth is your main goal.
If you place the bar high on your back, on your top traps, you need to keep your torso fairly upright throughout the squat to keep the weight aligned with the center of your foot — the center of gravity. This results in a relatively small knee and large hip angle. This way of squatting is heavily knee-dominant and mainly trains your quadriceps, the muscles at the front of your legs. That’s why this high-bar, or Olympic squat, is also a favorite exercise of weightlifters.
If you place the bar a little lower, at the level of your middle traps, you should tilt your upper body slightly forward to keep the weight in line with the center of your foot. This results in a smaller hip and larger knee angle. The squat remains a knee-dominant exercise, but this way there is more involvement of your hips, with all its strong muscles, allowing you to move a little more weight overall. That’s why powerlifters prefer this low-bar squat, also known as the “power squat.”
So think carefully about where you position the bar; this position basically determines your squat form.
3. WRONG POSITION OF THE FEET
Place and keep your feet flat on the floor. Do not place them too close together, but also not too far apart. As a starting point, take a medium-wide stance, with your heels directly under your shoulders. From there you can easily slide around a bit, because the ideal foot position differs from person to person.
Avoid a very narrow stance: this will not give your stomach enough room to get past your legs.
With a wider stance, a sumo stance so to speak, you shift the training emphasis to adductors and the inner thighs. The sumo squat is therefore simply another exercise, which is not so friendly to your groin. So it’s better to leave that sumo stand out altogether.
Assuming a medium-wide foot stance, turn your feet out about 30 degrees so that your toes are pointing in the same direction as your knees. This is the safest position for your knee joint. In addition, you are stronger and you can squat deeper.
4. INCORRECT LIFTING
You probably don’t have a monolift at home or in the gym. So you will have to lift the weight and walk out.
In fact, the lift out should look like a half quarter squat (‘eighth squat’ sounds so weird). Instead, we see people lifting the barbell in the strangest of ways. Like standing on their toes, essentially doing a calf raise with a particularly heavy weight.
Others pre-empt the run as they lift, lifting the weight in what is essentially a split stance, with one leg in front of the other. The muscles of your front leg then receive the bulk of a weight intended for two legs for their molars. With light weights you can get away with this, but see point 1 above: approach light weights the same as heavy ones!
If the lifting went well, things can still go wrong during the spreading. Don’t take this term too literally. One step back (and pull your other leg in) gives you enough space to the barbell supports or the rack. We often see people taking a few steps back or shuffling backwards. Dangerous and a waste of energy. Also remember that after a hard set you still have to walk forward to put the barbell back on the supports.
5. WRONG BREATHING
Breathing is crucial in all three powerlifts, especially the squat. It is important to take a deep breath before your squat and fill your lungs completely with air so that pressure is applied to your diaphragm (diaphragm). This creates pressure in your abdominal cavity (intra-abdominal pressure), which helps stabilize your spine.
A mistake many people make is exhaling in the bottom position of the squat, which releases the intra-abdominal pressure and causes your lower back to arch. The muscles in your lower back have to compensate for this. With relatively light weights you may still get away with this, but with heavier weights injuries are lurking.
Exhale with the squat only during the upward movement, past your sticking point. That’s the point in the upward movement when you slow down and have the hardest time. Also, don’t exhale all at once, but pretend you’re blowing through a straw.
6. KNEES TOO FAR AHEAD
It’s completely natural that, in a high-bar squat, your knees should extend slightly past your toes. But for some people, the knees come way too far forward, which is at the expense of your range of motion (ROM), or squat depth in this case. If you don’t squat deeply enough (see mistake 8), the exercise is simply ineffective. And in a competition insufficient depth will put you on an invalid lift.
The problem is that many people take knee bending too literally. It’s a good idea to initiate the squat by flexing your hips first (break at the hips) and sitting back, rather than focusing on bending your knees, which will more or less follow naturally.
7. LOWERING TOO FAST
The squat is not an exercise that you want to do super slow, but it is not the intention to let you ‘fall’ either:
For optimal muscle growth, do the eccentric phase in any case controlled, so in one to two seconds:
8. NOT SQUATTING DEEP ENOUGH
We could argue for hours about your range of motion (ROM) on the squat. Should you ass to the grass, or squat your ass to the ground or not? To avoid endless discussion: you should at least squat parallel. That is, until your thighs are parallel to the floor and your hips and knees are aligned.
By the way, in any powerlifting contest — regardless of which federation is hosting the contest — you’ll get two or three red lights if you don’t squat at least in parallel, which equates to an invalid attempt.
Can you squat deeper? Fine. Squat as far as your flexibility and mobility allow. This way you also benefit from the stretch reflex when you get up again. In addition, deep squats appear to stimulate the glutes extra, thanks to their large ROM. So basically the lesson is: squat as deep as you can. That should at least be parallel. If not, you need to work on your flexibility.
We simply see too many people doing half or even quarter quats in the gym. That’s a great overload technique if your full squat has hit a dead end, but it shouldn’t be a raunchy excuse to use more weight.
9. LEANING TOO MUCH FORWARD
If your upper body leans too much forward, it will be at the expense of ROM. In addition, you put much more pressure on your lower back, making it the limiting factor and not the target muscle, your quadriceps. Finally, you risk a round lower back faster this way (see mistake 12). Leaning forward too much happens especially in people with long thighs and short torsos.
To avoid this mistake, let go of the idea that your knees shouldn’t extend past your toes. You can and it shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you start your squat by moving your hips back (and not by lowering your knees — see error 6).
If you have trouble staying vertical, you can also try a slightly wider foot position so that the knees point a little more out. Don’t overdo it, though — don’t turn it into a sumo squat, assuming you’re mainly targeting your quadriceps, not your glutes and abductors (see also mistake 3).
10. ‘COLLAPSING’ KNEES
It’s painful to watch: knees tipping inward while squatting, something that usually happens during the concentric or upward part of the movement. It usually happens with heavier squats and is also a typical beginner’s mistake, for the simple reason that practically any weight is heavy for beginners.
In fact, we should not speak of ‘wrong’. It’s actually a symptom of the novice squatter and can have several causes. A lack of strength is the most prominent, but it can also be due to your mobility, stability, coordination or a combination of these factors.
The remedy for the beginner is simply a lot of squats with manageable weights and a lot of attention to technique. The irony is that with advanced powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, a “knock” of the knees inward is acceptable again, because it provides the hips with a stronger position for a fraction of a second.
But if you’re not a beginner or advanced strength athlete, there’s probably another cause. Ruling out anatomical abnormalities like overpronation, one likely cause remains: the muscles that rotate your leg inward (adductors) are stronger than the muscles that rotate your leg outward (abductors).
To fix this, simply push your knees out slightly while squatting, leaning more on the outside of the foot. Practicing with power bands around your thighs can also help.
11. YOUR HEELS ARE OFF THE GROUND
Whether you’re doing the high-bar or low-bar squat, the bar is always right above the center of your foot. When your heels lift off the floor when squatting, the bar is in front of the center of gravity, at the level of your midfoot.
The difference between these typical squat shapes is in the knee and hip angle, and therefore in the back angle.
In a low-bar squat, the back angle is about 45 degrees, while a high-bar squat has your torso approaching the vertical position of the front squat. The fact is that most people have too weak a core, i.e. lower back muscles and abs, to maintain that upright position. With the bar high on their backs, they tilt forward slightly, causing them to lose balance and often have to take a step forward during the push to avoid falling forward.
The solution is aimed at training your core and practicing the low-bar squat for a while.
12. ROUND BACK
Another common mistake is to round your lower back, as in the example below:
On the other hand, what you also don’t want to do is overextend your spine, creating a hollow lower back.
As with the deadlift, for example, your lower back should be nearly straight during the squat. If your lower back ‘bolts’ while squatting, your back extensor, or erector spinae, may not be strong enough. The solution for this are hyperextensions and good-mornings.
However, you may also not know how to create intra-abdominal pressure. You basically do that by taking a deep breath, putting pressure on your diaphragm (diaphragm), and contracting and pushing out your abs. To practice the latter, you can use a weight lifting belt.
Also, your posture should be in order: start your squat upright with your chest out and hold that position for the entire rep. So:
13. LOOKING UP
Many people look up at the upward movement of the squat. Several coaches and personal trainers even advise that. However, looking up too much can throw you off balance, just like looking all the way down. It is better to look straight ahead or slightly down to a point on the floor about two meters in front of you.
14. USING TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE WEIGHT
If muscle growth is your main goal, you should do at least five repetitions per set to get enough training volume. If you do fewer reps, you should do more sets. However, singles, doubles and triples are better left to the powerlifter, who simply has a different training goal, namely to use as much weight as possible.
However, don’t go above fifteen reps with your barbell squat either. Doing so many reps for such a strenuous exercise means you’re creating a disproportionate amount of central and cardiovascular fatigue, at the expense of local fatigue, which is in the muscle. In other words, your quadriceps are no longer the limiting factor.
So do your squats within the spectrum of five to fifteen repetitions per set.
The squat is a basic exercise, but also a complex exercise that is difficult to master. It takes years to perfect your technique. Above all, it is an exercise that has no equal and for which there is no alternative. It should therefore not be missing in your training arsenal. And if you’re going to do the exercise anyway, you’d better make sure you’re doing it right.