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The King of exercises: the Squat

Danny O'Dell provides an in-depth guide to the correct set-up and execution of the Squat exercise

Walk into the many commercial gyms located throughout the nation and you will no doubt see a multitude of mirrors and machines spread throughout the facility. Now glance around and take note of all the patrons working out on the 'abdominal' machines' or doing twists on the rotation devices to 'spot' reduce. You no doubt will also see men and women wearing weight belts as they do endless sets of lightweight barbell or dumbbell curls, with an actual bar in hand, but more than likely seated in a machine.

What do all of these observations have in common with one another?

These well-meaning but ill-informed people are exercising in a fashion that will not and does not contribute a great deal to the improvement in the fitness, strength, or power levels of the human body. In many instances, they are enhancing their 'mirror' muscles and not developing the vital structural and muscular changes that will sustain them, as they grow older. Look carefully and you may see a squat rack tucked away in the corner, but you will not see anyone using it. This is the fate of the power rack in the majority of the largest commercial gyms, it is there but not used very often. Why? Because of the gym owner's fear of someone getting hurt, doing squats. Or using so much weight that it 'scares other members away' or even worse yelling and using chalk to help keep the bar on the shoulders during a heavy lift intimidates other members.

Just what are all of these people trying to accomplish?

Is it to forge the 'Perfect body'? They are trying to lose a bit of weight for the upcoming holiday or tone up their body or to improve their level of fitness. So, you ask yourself just what this has to do with the king of exercises. It has everything to do with the squat but in a slightly roundabout way. A well-toned body, which may eventually lead to the perfect body (whatever that may mean) on the way to increased physical fitness and better health all begins with added muscle mass. Added muscle mass increases the basic metabolism rate of the body. This, in turn, helps to burn a higher percentage of calories throughout the day and into the night. Therefore, even as you sleep, your muscles are helping to keep you trim and slim. The lower body has massive amounts of metabolism increasing potential. The best and most efficient way to tap into this is by doing heavy legwork. Not machine leg curls or leg presses but with squats. Bar on the back, sweat producing, breathtaking and heart-pounding squats.

Naming the squat, the king of all exercises is not without foundation; just look at a few of the benefits of this powerful activity.

  • Lean muscle mass is increased
  • Basic metabolism is faster
  • Your general physical fitness and work capacity are positively improved
  • Mental and physical energy levels are amplified
  • You will sleep better
  • Body fat will be lowered
  • Endorphins, the body's natural painkillers are released into your body
  • The heavy load on your shoulders, back, and legs help to make your bones stronger by increasing their mineral density
  • The connective tissues of your body adapt to the load and in turn, become stronger and better able to tolerate the additional stress of the weight

Squats have been blamed for nearly everybody's ailment in the book due to misinformation and incorrect squatting style. As in all new exercises, if you have not been squatting consistently in the past now is the time to talk to your doctor and get their opinion as to whether or not squatting will benefit you, considering your current health situation. As a lifter, you need to know the correct technique to do any exercise. Some are more tolerant of movement breakdowns than others-the squat is not as forgiving of mistakes in form. Therefore, the following is a mini-guide to a successful squat. Each one of the following is a contributor to a successful and correct squat.

Before you begin, make certain you have good spotters assisting.

They can help you move backward out of the rack or squat stands by gently guiding you back into your setup position. Each spotter needs to know how many repetitions you are going to do or attempt to do before the set begins. You and they must be talking so each one knows the part of the other. The amount of spotting on hand will be determined by your ability to lift the load, the spotter's ability to spot, and the combined experience and strength of everyone involved in this endeavour. The power rack is an essential part of the weight room gym and it is the most used piece of equipment in the facility.

The power rack if you are unfamiliar with what they look like is a full cage built to protect the lifter during maximum attempts. The 'J' hooks hold the bar in place until the lifter removes it and backs out into the setup. Position these hooks just below the point where your clavicle hooks into your sternum as you face the bar. Placing them at this height allows the bar to be returned even after it has slipped a bit on your back or after you have slumped over during the lift. Always face the bar as you squat so you can be facing the hooks upon a successful lift. In other words, do not back into the 'J' hooks at the end of your lift. It is too easy to miss them and lose the weight causing injury to yourself. The power rack has safety pins that are heavy enough to catch the bar if the lift is missed. Correctly setting these pins is an important step to safe squatting. The pins need to be low enough, so the lift can go full depth but high enough to allow the lifter to settle down and rest the bar on them if the weight overcomes the lifter.

Hand positioning on the bar needs to be even from side to side yet still allow for total control during the entire lift. Looking at the bar you will see a series of knurling and grooves machined into it. All Olympic bars are grooved the same way and the current major brands of squat bars all have a heavy and deep groove pattern directly in the centre of the bar. This is to help hold the bar on your back, so it will not slip off so readily as would be the case with a smooth centre.

As you grasp the bar, notice where you have placed your hands to the grooves. Each of your hands will determine the final balance position of the bar on your back. The bar can be gripped in two ways; one is with a closed grip with the thumb and fingers encircling the bar. This is the recommended way and the safest way to hold the bar. The second manner of holding onto the bar is with the open grip, i.e. the thumbs are not circled around the bar. A lack of wrist and shoulder flexibility will predetermine the grip in most cases. Once your hands are in position it is time to get under the bar.

Look directly at the centre of the bar, dip under it with your head and rise on the other side while still keeping your hands on the bar. Positioning the bar on your back is a matter of preference towards either the high bar or low bar style of lifting. In the high bar method, the bar will be resting on top of the posterior deltoids right at the base of the neck. This tends to irritate just under the bar. It is used with a wider than shoulder hand grip and tends to cause a straighter style of lifting. The low bar, on the other hand, has the bar placement resting on the lower part of the shoulders. This is a point where the deltoids and traps come together. It is a shelf for the bar and is very comfortable but technically harder to master for an inexperienced lifter. This position of the bar makes for a shorter moment arm of the lift and contributes to a higher load capaacity. It is well worth learning from a knowledgeable coach.

The use of a lifting belt is controversial. My position is it is NOT NECESSARY unless you are nearing peak weight. Up until then it is an unnecessary crutch and should be avoided. Relying on the belt will not build up the supporting structures of the body. The synergism of muscular action is the key to heavy lifting and a lifting belt takes away this coordinated muscle effect. Strength adaptation takes place under properly designed programs. It does not need artificial assistance at the beginning of a career. Lifting within your capacities and building up your strength will serve you well in the end. Leave the belt off.

Should you look up or down?

The head should be neutral or extended ten to twenty degrees with an eye on the horizon for maintenance of balance. If your head drops it carries the back with it and the back soon flexes forward. Once the back flexes tremendous compressive and shear forces result in the lower back regions. Correct form and correct technique should always precede any weight increases on the bar.

Back position

The back has to be held in a neutral to slightly arched position or injury will result. Bracing your abdominals adds additional support to the centre of the body to assist the lower back muscles in carrying the load. If you are unable to lift the weight, then re-rack it or lower it to the safety pins and remove some of the load. If your back rounds off, consider the many excellent back exercises to increase strength in this critical area of your body. It takes only a moment of foolishness or inattentiveness to seriously injure your back.

The initial steps back

With your hands and back set up, it is time to move the weight out of the rack. Start by lifting the weight with your legs and not your back. Now move it off the 'J' hooks. Take a small step backward, followed by a second small step with the other foot. Move them into the set-up position as you are stepping backward. Make certain they are both aligned evenly and are a little wider than shoulder-width apart at the end. The wide stance may be uncomfortable at first but as you become accustomed to it, you will find it produces the most powerful lift style of all.

Controlling your breathing

While under the heavy bar it is easy to get into the habit of holding your breath during the execution of the lift. Holding your breath does help in moving the heavy iron as it stabilizes your core, but it comes with a cost to your overall health. And that cost is a tremendous increase in your blood pressure. High blood pressure has been known to directly cause damage to your body by raising the risk of having a stroke, causing a heart attack, damaging your kidneys, and increasing the risk of blood vessel aneurism. Any of which will cause a quick cessation of your lifting for the day.

Descending with the bar

Now that your feet are in position, take a nice deep breath and get ready to give the weight a ride. The downward portion of the lift always begins with your hips moving backward first. Bending the knees first sets you up for problems in the middle and end of the lift by causing you to have to adjust for the flexed knees. Moving your hips and buttocks to the rear will set the squat up perfectly. Visualize trying to touch the wall with your buttocks as you move backward with the hips. Beginning with the hips allows the body to drop into a picture-perfect squat with the lower legs perpendicular to the floor and the back straight and solid. The hip flexors and extensors, two of the most powerful muscle groups in the body will be at their maximum potential in this position.

If you have ever seen a small child of one to two years old squat you will have witnessed a perfect squat. Their little bottoms are nearly resting on the floor, their little lower legs are perpendicular to the floor and their backs are ramrod straight. Here is an excellent exercise to begin learning how to squat if you are unfamiliar with this technique. Stand next to an open doorway, and hold onto the doorjamb with both hands held about mid-chest height. Place your feet one foot away from the wall and lean back onto your heels. Now drop down to the floor. Do not let loose of the doorjamb or you will fall backward. Notice where your lower legs are, straight up and down, aren't they? This is the ideal squat position and except for many elite lifters one that is rarely achieved in the amateur ranks.

The bottom position

Once you have arrived at the bottom of the lift the easy part is over because now you have to get back up again. A successful rise separates the 'wannabes' from the 'doers'. The start back up begins with a hard push on the bar with both hands and a sharp rise of the chest and shoulders. This starts the body and bar back up again by counteracting the downward movement of the weight. If you have not kept tight you will have flexed a small amount and this action nullifies this tendency. Try to wiggle your toes at the bottom, if you are unable to do so then you are already tipping forward. Flexing leaves you in a negative part of the power curve to get back up as it turns the early part of the lift into a good morning exercise and not a squat. You will unconsciously realize this just as your spotters consciously see it when your buttocks rise before your head and chest start coming back up. This is a Dangerous Situation that must be controlled immediately, or a severe injury is looming around the bend.

Getting back up

Now that the weight is moving back up again, it is time to push harder and accelerate the bar. Keep the weight centred on your shoulders and back as you push upward. Maintain total control of the bar at all times during the lift.

Replacing the bar into the rack

As you approach the end of your set the spotters should be closing in to assist the re-rack process. Make certain you are in the 'J' hooks before releasing your grip. Each of your spotters will, or should, be paying attention to this placement and should have their hands on the bar helping to guide it back into place on the pins. The squat done correctly is truly poetry in motion and a beautiful thing to see. So, start 'squatting'.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • O'DELL, D. (2005) The King of exercises: the Squat. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 21 / April), p. 1-3

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • O'DELL, D. (2005) The King of exercises: the Squat [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Danny O`Dell is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning coach from the USA. He is the author of several training manuals including The Ultimate Bench Press Manual, Wilderness Basics, Strength training Secrets, Composite training, and Power up your Driving Muscles. Danny has published articles in national and international magazines describing the benefits of living a healthy fitness lifestyle.