Secrets to Mastering the Squat: Part 1


In the fitness jungle, squats are king. Photo credit: Ken Hicks

{ADDENDUM: Psssst…! Here’s a link to Part 2 and Part 3 of this series! Enjoy!}
Squats have been called “The King of Exercises,” and with good reason. There are very few exercises out there that have the potential to increase strength, change your body composition, and make you feel like the ultimate bad-ass in the gym quite like the squat.
(Oh, and if you want to snag the ultimate strength training program to tell you step-by-step exactly what to do to achieve those goals, check out The Modern Woman’s Guide To Strength Training here!)
The problem is, most people don’t perform squats correctly, and that’s totally understandable. Squats are a very complex exercise and there are a lot of moving parts, and things to remember.
In an effort to help you start mastering the squat, my business partner Jim Laird and I shot a video where we explain and demonstrate some of the main mistakes we see in women when they are squatting, and how to correct them.
Check it out:

1. Check your stance!  Most average women (i.e. women who aren’t powerlifters wearing gear) don’t need to be squatting much wider than just beyond shoulder width, with their toes pointed out between ~15-30 degrees. Squatting very wide is harder on the hips, and once you get extremely wide, it can be even harder to drive your knees out, which, as you’ll see below, is very important.
2. Brace your core!  Again, most women don’t know how to brace their core effectively. Even if you think your abs are strong, you might not be bracing correctly. You actually have to learn how to create pressure in your low back when you squat, not just in your anterior core (i.e. abs).  Here is a fantastic video that teaches you how to breathe, and create pressure in your core.
3. Keep a neutral head!  It’s really popular in the powerlifting world to throw your head back when you squat. This is completely understandable as it can help you “drive out of the hole” (i.e. stand up from the bottom of a squat) and it’s common knowledge in the training world that the body will go where the eyes go.
That can be fine for competitive powerlifters, but most since women are lifting simply because they want to look good and feel good, they need to keep a neutral head.  Throwing your head back causes you to go into lumbar hyperextension, effectively putting all of the pressure on your lower back, and not allowing you to use your entire core, or your glutes, as effectively as you could. Think neutral head, eyes up.

Baby Squatting

This little cutie has the right idea when it comes to keeping her head neutral!

4. Use your hips!  As you’ll see in the video, it’s very common for women to use their spine to “catapult” themselves off of the box, instead of using their hips and their entire core.  Once you learn how to effectively brace your core, you will allow your hips and your entire core to start taking the load, and you’ll get much stronger, and stay much safer.
5. Drive your knees out!  Using your glutes to drive your knees out, allows you to open up your hips so you can sink down into the proper squat position.  If you don’t drive your knees out, you’ll not only run into your hips, but you won’t have a comfortable (or safe) hip, knee, and ankle angle.  This also ties into tip number 1.  If your stance is too wide, you often won’t be able to drive your knees out effectively, so bring your stance in, and think about driving your knees OUT to open up your hips.  Using a light mini-band right below the knees here as a reminder to drive them out, can be very helpful.
6. Sit back!  Women tend to be very quad dominant creatures, and we typically either want to shoot our knees forward on a squat, or almost “plié” down into the squat.  Neither of these are correct when you’re trying to do a true squat.  This is why we have women learn how to squat onto a box first.  It teaches them to sit back into their hips safely, and allows them to learn this pattern without feeling like they are going to fall backward.

This is not the position you want to be in when you're trying to squat real weight!

This is not the position you want to be in when you’re trying to squat real weight!

7. Use an appropriate range of motion!  When first learning to squat, many women won’t be able to hit depth, which is typically defined as parallel or slightly below parallel.  If they can hit depth, they often can’t control their pelvis in that position, and they will experience “butt wink” where their butt tucks under at the bottom.  Only squat as low as you can maintain good form, and over time, with practice and the correct mobility and stability work, most women should be able to squat to depth.
If you are squatting onto a bench or box, and can’t control your squat, throw a plate or two onto the box until you get strong in the range of motion, and then slowly but surely increase your range of motion by removing plates until you can squat the your desired depth.
Well, there you have it!  7 awesome secrets to help you master the squat.  Keep your eyes peeled, because we will be back with several more parts to this series, including learning how to squat with a kettlebell, and a barbell.
P.S.  And if you are looking for a program that will show you exactly how to utilize squats (and many other awesome exercises) to help you get stronger, leaner, and get the best version of your body, check out The Modern Woman’s Guide To Strength Training here!)

About the Author: Molly Galbraith

Molly is a certified strength and conditioning specialist from Lexington, Kentucky, and co-founder and owner of Girls Gone Strong. She recently stepped away as co-owner of her gym to focus more on GGS and her own website and you can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.