Squat mechanics: basics and controversies

I'll be frank: squat mechanics are a contentious topic. There are different schools of thought on proper squat technique, proper cueing, and optimal programming. So I'm going to preface this article with the caveat that what I'm about to say is not infallible. I recognize that other trainers out there might disagree with me on many of the issues I'm about to discuss, and that's okay. However, it's always my intent to give an evidence-based analysis of any exercise, particularly the squat. The way I squat, and the way I teach the squat, is the product of many years of study, practice, and trial and error. It is not the One Right Way, but it works.  

If after reading this article you decide that you'd rather squat some other way, I hope it's because you were convinced by a similarly thorough analysis — not because you saw some athlete doing it this way or that way, or some "coach" said he or she has always done it this way or that way and that's just the way it should be. 

For example, many very strong bodybuilders can be seen doing back squats with a tremendous amount of weight using a shallow-depth, chest-upright technique that, in my view, is sub-optimal. Not necessarily wrong, but simply not optimal. If you're already thinking, Who is this guy saying that world-class athletes could be using better technique?, stop. That's the wrong mindset to have here. The methods I'm about to describe are not my own — they come from an extensive reading of strength coaches, physical therapists, and exercise scientists. And I've only settled on these methods after extensive practical application both within my own training and with my clients. My approach works, and it works really well. If you're open to understanding my approach and trying it, then your mind is in the right place.

Know your purpose

Before we talk about squat technique, it's important to talk about what kind of squat we're doing. I'll go with four variants:

  • Body weight squat
  • Back squat
  • Front squat
  • Overhead squat

All of these variants require slightly different mechanics. A back squat, for example, is going to require a fair bit of forward lean (roughly 45°), while an overhead squat requires the torso to be nearly upright. 

It's also important to remember that regardless of the type of squat being done, everyone's squats will look a little bit different. That's because of leverages. Someone with short femurs relative to their tibias will have a significantly different-looking squat than someone with long femurs. Leverages affect the precise angle of the torso, the degree to which the knees move forward over and past the toes, optimal stance width, and optimal external rotation. 

For that reason, I like to stick with general principles and guidelines of an optimal squat rather than fuss over minutiae, like whether your feet should be turned out 10°, 30°, or not at all. A huge part of becoming a skilled squatter simply means practicing with different techniques and finding what feels best for you. 

The Proper Squat

For instructional purposes, a bodyweight squat is ideal to start with. It's simple enough to make slight variances to accommodate for a load in front, in back, or overhead. 

  • Stand erect with the feet at roughly shoulder width.
  • Turn the toes outward about 30°. You may experiment with different degrees of external rotation.
  • The spine should be neutral. Don't exaggerate the arch or hunch over. 
  • Weight should be evenly distributed over the foot.
  • Initiate the squat by sitting back with the hips and slowly bending the knees until the tops of your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
  • This movement will cause your torso to lean forward a bit. That's okay! Roughly 45° is normal. Just don't hunch over and round your spine, and don't arch your spine backward in an effort to keep your chest upright. Remember: neutral spine.
  • Your knees should track in line with your feet. Don't let your knees cave inward, and don't push them out so far that you look bow-legged.
  • Depending on your leverages, your knees may go past your toes in the bottom of the squat. This is fine. Next time someone tells you that your knees shouldn't go past your toes, tell them to Google "Olympic lifter". As a rule of thumb, the more upright your torso is, the farther forward your knees will need to travel over the toes. 
  • Push with your glutes and quadriceps to drive your heels into the floor, and return to the standing position. I find it helpful to visualize a straight 45° line that the hips will travel from top to bottom and back to top (it's likely not actually 45° in most people, but that's not the point — it's just a cue). 

That's it. Pretty simple, right? Before we go into tweaks for various loading positions, let's cover some troubleshooting.

Problem #1: You can't get into a full squat (just below parallel)
Solution: Work on your hip flexion by stretching your glutes. 

Problem #2: Buttwink (your tailbone rounds underneath you in the bottom position)
Solution: Stretch your Achilles tendons. You can stretch them pretty hard.

Problem #3: Excessive bowing or rounding of the upper back
Solution: Believe it or not, improving Achilles mobility usually corrects excessive forward lean, but sometimes you may need to work on cueing thoracic extension. Goblet squats are a great tool for this.  

Adjusting for load position

This isn't as complicated as it might sound. If the load is in front of the body, as in a barbell front squat or goblet squat, the torso will be a bit more erect to counterbalance the weight. Proper depth and the ability to maintain an upright posture become dependent on dorsiflexion and quadriceps strength. In other words: if you can get below parallel, it's likely because your Achilles are inflexible. If you bow forward on the ascent, your quadriceps are not strong enough — lighten the load as much as necessary to maintain perfect form. 

If the bar is overhead, the torso must be very nearly upright. Dorsiflexion, quadriceps strength, and core stability are the weak links. A slightly more externally rotated foot position and a slightly wider stance may be employed to compensate a bit for a lack of mobility. 

The back squat, and the bar position controversy

And now we come to the granddaddy of them all: the back squat. At Styrka, we aren't partial to either low-bar or high-bar squats. Many lifters find that the high bar position can be employed successfully, and find it to allow for a more natural squat than the low-bar position. There are lifters who can push an insane amount of weight using both positions, and while some coaches (such as Mark Rippetoe and Kelly Starrett) are advocates of the low-bar position, I think that the right position simply depends on 1) your leverages, and 2) what you want to get out of the squat.

A low-bar position, particularly with a wide stance, allows for more weight to be lifted because it shortens the levers, prevents a deep-squat position, and involves much more glute activation. If your goal is to use as much leverage as possible to lift the most amount of weight, the low-bar position may be ideal for you (powerlifters, for example). But I've found that for most lifters, a mid-bar position (just above the spine of the scapulae) works very well for achieving good depth, preventing excessive bow, and better stimulating the quadriceps.

The basic techniques for the back squat are the same as the bodyweight squat, except the torso will lean forward a bit more. The bar should be placed just below the spine of the scapulae in a low-bar squat, and just above in a high-bar squat. Either way, the bar is supported by the rear deltoids and, in the high bar, the traps — accomplished in both cases by raising the elbows up and back. The stance should still be at about shoulder-width, but can be adjusted according to leverage. 

Tops of the thighs are parallel to the floor, spine is neutral (including the cervical spine — do not look up!), and torso is leaning forward slightly. Weight is evenly distributed over the feet — excessive bowing will result in the weight shifting forward toward the balls of the feet; if you feel this happening, lighten the weight and practice pause reps until you can do it correctly. 

Closing thoughts

There's a lot I didn't touch on here, but this has been intended to be an overview of the way I teach squat technique. At Styrka we conduct regular educational workshops in which we dive more deeply into the mechanics of individual lifts, such as the barbell front squat or overhead squat. But the important takeaway is that a squat is a squat; the basic mechanics are always the same. You have to use your hips. You have to remain balanced on your feet. You have to preserve a neutral spine. You have to keep your knees in line with your toes. The exact position of the torso and the corresponding orientation of knee-over-toes changes with the leverage, but the basic mechanics are the same. Practice them, master them, and get stronger.