How to Squat Properly: A Quick Primer on Perfecting Your Form

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Training

squats If you want big legs you have to squat.

For the first few years of your training you should squat, squat and squat some more.

A good goal is to squat double bodyweight.

I’m talking about real, full squats, at least to parallel.

Read on and you’ll learn exactly how to squat properly.

Before we get into technique I have to tell that the one thing I recommend to 99% of people out there is a good pair of high quality squat shoes.

These will make a TREMENDOUS difference in your form and keep you safer. Guys usually benefit more from these than females do but anyone with a minor tuck can usually eliminate it instantly with a pair of these.

On with the squatting lesson…

The Set Up

Grab the bar with an even grip, wider than shoulder width and be sure to squeeze it as hard as you can. You should be making white knuckled fists and the tension should radiate from your forearms to your upper arms and all across your back.

Everything must be drum tight.

Duck under the bar and jam your shoulder blades as far back as you can. This should be uncomfortable.

The bar should sit on your traps, not the top of your spine or your neck.

By keeping your hands in a little closer you can create a bigger shelf for the bar to sit on.

By close I mean 6-10 inches wider than shoulder width. If you have shoulder problems, this is not an option and you will need to grab the bar wider.

Never grab the bar with an extremely close grip or extremely wide grip if you can help it. Moderate grip width is best. Try to get your elbows under the bar as much as possible. This will help keep you in a more upright position and prevent the lift from turning into a good morning. How far under the bar you can get your elbows will be determined by your shoulder mobility. Do the best you can without putting any excess stress on your shoulders.

Now, to engage your lats, pull down on the bar just a bit. You should feel your lats flare out to the side.

With your head straight, chest up and back arched, take a deep breath and hold it then unrack the weight and take two steps back.

Your feet should be a bit wider than shoulder width apart and rotated out about thirty degrees. Think of an athletic stance.

For example- the stance you would play linebacker in, or wait for a serve in beach volleyball or guard someone in basketball. That’s usually about the exact width you want your stance to be.

The Descent

Before beginning your descent take a huge breath and fill your belly with air.

Hold the air in your abdomen, not your chest. Basically you want to push your abs out as far as you can while also bracing them like you’re going to take a punch.

If you wear a belt simply drive your abs out into the belt.

With your chest up and back arched, you are now going to push out on the sides of your feet like you are trying to spread the floor. This doesn’t have to be dramatic; just enough to engage the hips and glutes.

To begin your descent, break at the hips by pushing your glutes back and then squatting down as low as you can go without allowing your lower back to round or butt to tuck under.

If your butt tucks under and you go into spinal flexion the injury risk increases dramatically and you lose a lot of strength. You need to maintain a neutral spine throughout.

If you can’t you need to seriously work on your flexibility and mobility.

The goal is to be able to break parallel while maintaining a neutral spine.

One thing you need to remember is to keep your knees tracking your toes.

So on the way down you need to consciously drive your knees out. Probably the best coaching cue I have heard that makes this easy to remember and grasp is that squatting takes place BETWEEN the legs, not above them. So really open up the knees as much as you can. Doing this makes it easier to maintain a neutral spine in the bottom.

arnold knew how to squat properly

Getting Out of the Hole

When you can get to parallel without spinal flexion the fun is just beginning. Now you have to get back up.

When coming out of the hole be sure to lead with your head, driving backward into the bar but NOT looking up.

In other words you drive straight back into the bar but keep staring straight ahead. Don’t cock your neck back.

This will make you weaker and throw off your form.

The chest should be high and you should drive your elbows forward and under the bar and push your hips forward while consciously engaging the glutes.

On the way up you need to keep that deep breath held until you are at least half way up. At that point you can start hissing the air out as if you’re blowing it through a straw.

Never let your air out before that or let all of it out before reaching the top position.

Pause at the top, let all your air out, gather yourself, go through the checklist, take another huge breath and do your next rep.

Do not do piston style pump reps when squatting unless you’re very experienced and are doing a light, higher rep back-off set.

Now you know how to squat properly.

Good luck.

Squat big.

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Leave a Reply

28 Responses to How to Squat Properly: A Quick Primer on Perfecting Your Form

  1. pax March 30, 2010 at 10:48 am #

    how can i improve my front squat and my overhead squat

    • Chris August 19, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

      same idea with “chest up” this sets yourself for good posture and as you look forward and lower your hips keeping your weight on your heels, then from those heels use your butt and hamstrings to lift the weight up. get after it my friend!

  2. joe March 3, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    good article, except i have noticed some people including me cannot keep there spine in the correct position without looking up, not straight up but at a 45 degree angle. mainly just so I’m not staring at the mirror in front of me. although i know i could just turn around but then i would have to watch the fat ass on the stair climber. But what i was wondering is how much should your knees open up during a squat? i have noticed some really good squatters doing it both ways. so does it matter?

  3. Jonny March 4, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    Awesome article Jason, straight to the point, easy to read. in short, simple!
    When you say a neutral spine, do you mean a natural curve or flat spine, basically not spinal flexion? I can squat to parallel with an arch in my lower spine, but never go lower as I lose that and go into a flat/neutral spine. Am I cutting myself short?

  4. Jason Ferruggia March 4, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    @joe- Cocking your head back is not the answer. That actually leads to more problems and doesn’t help maintain a neutral spine as much as you may think. You need to really open up the knees and have them tracking the toes. Squat between your knees; not above them.

    @Jonny- Thanks. Right, you want to avoid spinal flexion. What you’re doing is exactly right.

  5. Jonny March 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Cheers Jason, appreciate the info and the feedback. have an awesome weekend

  6. Jim March 4, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    What do you recommend for people with short torso and extremely long legs? Smith Squat, Leg Press? I try squating on 5 or 10lb plates to increase range of motion, but that’s almost a dangerous circus act trying to balance and get into position.

  7. Jonathan March 4, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    Thanks Jason… thanks! Another great article

    Oh, also thanks for the link to the Jessica Biel article…double thanks

  8. Clement March 5, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    hey jason, you didn’t talk about feet width. I normally squat with my feet at shoulder-width, as I learned how to squat from Mark Rippletoe’s Starting Strength DVD, although I know that neither powerlifters and olympic lifters squat like that.

  9. Vaclav Gregor March 6, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Jason could you share a video on this one?

    • Tony March 24, 2011 at 11:51 am #

      @Vaclav Gregor: Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore’s lifting bible “Starting Strength” devotes something like 50 pages just to the squat. There is a companion DVD available on if you are interested.

  10. joe March 11, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    got it. thanks

  11. AJ March 24, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    Thanks, I like the post. Do you recommend Chucks for the squat shoes? I use nike free’s but i like to try to squat barefoot sometimes. When I squat barefoot, i feel like my body is better aligned. I’d enjoy your thoughts.

  12. Marliene March 24, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    Jason, thanks for explaining this so well, love to learn….which shoes do you recommend?

  13. Wayne from ectomorph workout March 28, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    Hi Jason, yup agree with the previous poster, could you share a video on the different kinds of squats? I have seen a few variations of squats but I don’t really know which is more effective. Thanks.

  14. Jason Ferruggia March 28, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Jim- That could be tough. Not everyone is built to squat. I recommend trying out these squat shoes-

    Another option would be to try box squatting.

    Clement- Thanks for pointing out that over sight. I will fix that. Slightly wider than shoulder width, although it will vary from person to person.

    AJ- I prefer the Rogue Do Wins-

  15. Niko August 26, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    Jason – Do you recommend going past parallel? I always squat to parallel, but I won’t go past that. My reasoning is my physio told me that at parallel it is my quads, hams, glutes are the brakes stopping me, past parallel he believes that your knees are the brakes that stop you, are brakes wear out. What are your thoughts?

  16. K.Gopal Rao August 30, 2011 at 4:38 am #

    Jason, or anyone else, can u tell me what exactly is meant by :
    “…keep your knees tracking your toes. So on the way down you need to consciously drive your knees out. Probably the best coaching cue I have heard that makes this easy to remember and grasp is that squatting takes place BETWEEN the legs, not above them.”

    Does it mean the knees should NOT move beyond the toes, or they should?

    And what’s meant by “…squatting takes place BETWEEN the legs…”? A beginner like me can’t understand that without elaboration.

  17. Brian March 4, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    I have a question regarding squat shoes. I have very, very flat feet…no arch whatsoever. I need a lot of foot support when walking, working out, etc. Do shoes like this offer that kind of support? I’m thinking they probably don’t. What do you think?

  18. Izaak April 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Squats are king but does it matter what type of squat I.e. front squats, back squats or all versions of it are king? Can I alternate front squats and back squats every other workout or week? Currently on Renegade basics version 2 in the minimalist training ebook. Thanks!

  19. Brett May 22, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Great info, straight to the point and concise! A “how to” video would be great for those of us that learn by seeing.

  20. Brian Ur Brother June 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Its always good to be reminded of the basics and more importantly proper technique.
    Thanks Bro

  21. james barlow August 10, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    Jason, do you have any good mental cues you like to use to make sure a lifter is pushing back against the bar. I’ve been struggling with this for some time now. While I have never actually fallen over I think I will fall backwards and start to lean forward, my hips come up and I do more of a good morning than squat.

    I’ve been going back more on deadlifts but I can just drop the weight if I go to far. I seem to have a real mental block about it on squats so any advice or tips you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

  22. Richard August 20, 2012 at 10:25 am #


    What’s the best way to improve mobility and flexibility to prevent the ass from tucking prior to getting parallel?


  23. Dominik August 21, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    Hi Jason, this one is just great, straight to the point!

    are you planning to do the same for the deadlift? that would be awsome!

  24. Raza April 11, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    Thank you Jason, this is exactly what I needed. It’s better than Medhi’s articles and videos on squatting (and those are damn good) and better then the Bodybuilding [dot]com video on squatting too. For example, I wasn’t positioning my elbows directly below the bar, wasn’t focused on white knuckling, wasn’t focused on squeezing my shoulder blades close enough, etc.

    I love squatting, and I squat everytime I’m in the gym (I’m following a variation of the Stronglifts 5×5 workout). I weigh 165 and am squatting 190lbs now. I’m adding 5lbs to the bar every workout, so I’ve been on the hunt for a perfect squatting tutorial.

    I’m hyper obsessed with my form now. I noticed my right knee quivering a bit when I come back up, indicating it’s not strong enough and/or I’m not pushing my knees out far enough (i.e. not squatting between them)

    Anyways, I’m glad I’m on your list because I would have missed this post. I actually almost deleted the email, but I always like reading what you have to say, so I opened the email; when I saw it was about squatting, I’m glad I did!


  25. Sujith May 7, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Good article Jason! Thanks for the valuable information. I’m 155 lbs and squats 135 lbs (4 x 6) – trying to increase every month. I have started 4 months back and does it once a week. Every week, 24 hours after the squat I feel the muscle soreness in the leg muscles and glutes which lasts for a couple of days. Is this normal? I’m not sure when I can get over this. I am trying to lose fat and eating below my maintenance budget.


  26. Brad June 20, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    Funny bio. And good article. So many squat articles are garbage. I mimicked (did) this article while reading it and it feels good – reminds me what to do. Going to take this one and read it prior to my next squat. Thanks man.