All About Squats

Dorsi Flexion, Baby!

The squat is the king of all lower body exercises. Squats work every muscle in your legs as well as your abs and lower back. Since your legs are such large muscles, they require lots of blood and oxygen to perform squats. This makes squatting a great way to give your heart and lungs a workout too.

Don’t Know Squat
A lot of personal trainers, myself included, might tell you that proper squatting form requires you to keep your knees behind your toes. However, this is not always the case. Telling a client to keep their knees behind their toes during squats is a cue to help them understand the mechanics of moving from the hips. It isn’t necessarily the literal truth for everyone.

Dorsi Flexion
The term “dorsi flexion” refers to the movement that occurs at the ankle joint during a squat. People with more ankle mobility can keep their heels flat and put their knees in front of their toes at the same time because of dorsi flexion. As long as you initiate your squat from the hips, keep your heels down and retract your shoulder blades, you’re good to go.

How Low Can You Go?
Another common cue for squatters (no, not the punks living in the abandoned warehouse) is to lower down until you’ve reached 90 degrees of flexion at the knees. This is another generalized cue that is great for most, but not ideal for all.

First off, newcomers and people with limited mobility might not be able to get that deep without sacrificing proper squatting form. Second, many able-bodied fitness nuts will be able to squat much deeper than thighs parallel to the ground. One way to test your range of motion is to place your hands behind your head and squat as low as you can without coming off your heels (this is sometimes called a “prisoner squat”). If you can maintain a straight back (having your hands behind your head should help facilitate that), then feel free to go ass to the grass.

Advanced Squat Techniques

Front Squats
You might be surprised how much harder it can be to hold a weight in front of you when squatting as opposed to resting it on your back. Aside from the added challenge of supporting the weight on your shoulders, the balance changes when you have a weight in front, increasing the emphasis on your quads.

There are two basic ways to hold a barbell for front squats. One method is to bend your wrists back under the bar, the other involves crossing your arms in front as the bar rests on your shoulders. You can also perform a front squat with a kettlebell(s). For more information check out Stronglifts’ article on front squats.

Box Squats
At first glance, a box squat doesn’t look much different from any other squat except that you have a box underneath you. Once you attempt this exercise, you’ll see the challenge of the box squat is to initiate the movement from a seated position without any downward momentum to assist you. Beginning a weighted squat from a seated position is surprisingly difficult. This concept is similar to what I call phase one of pistol squats.

Overhead Squats
An overhead squat is another variation that adds a great degree of difficulty to an already challenging exercise. Overhead squats require tons of core strength and lots of shoulder mobility. I have difficulty performing this exercise properly with any significant weight due to my tight upper back and shoulders. This is going to be the case for most men when starting out with overhead squats. If that is the case for you then go light and focus on proper form. Check out Dave Draper’s article on overhead squats for more information.

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  • matthew

    what do you back squat, al?

  • kOrsanX

    Hey Al, something has been bugging me and you’re pretty much my last hope. When I squat down lower than parallel, I get this faint popping/crackling in my knees. It only happens under pressure though, not if I just bend my legs standing up. I have done some googling, and found that many other people seem to have the same problem, but sadly no one seems to know what it is, or whether it’s bad or not. One particular user on a bodybuilding forum wrote that he had the same sounds coming from his knees, and also pains from squatting for years, and that it is just part of working out and people shouldn’t be worried. A sad attitude to say the least, so I’m definitely taking any advice from some random website. I thought perhaps you have experienced this, or maybe known someone who has. You have more body wisdom than anyone else I could ask :) Any ideas Al? If you do know what I am talking about, do you know of anyone who has just worked with it and experienced bad or good results? Obviously I really want to be able to squat beyond parallel, in order to work my way to doing pistol squats one day. I don’t feel any kind of pain.. it’s just really discouraging to hear that crackling every time my ass goes low you know, I definitely don’t want to be fooled by my eagerness and do my knees some sort of harm.. So for now I’m sadly stuck with going only down to parallel until I find out more.

    And your new article on hand strength is of course great as always Al, thanks for sharing your experience with us :)

  • kOrsanX

    *so I’m definitely NOT taking any advice from some random website.
    Damn brain farts, sorry.

  • Al Kavadlo

    My PR is 300 at a bodyweight of 175 (ass to ankles). Last time I squatted heavy I managed a few reps with 235 but I weigh 160 now. And I don’t do back squats with much regularity these days.

  • Al Kavadlo

    My general understanding is that a little creaking and crackling is no big deal as long as there is no pain associated with it. As I often point out however, I cannot give anyone specific advice on a personal situation without a face to face meeting.

  • sandy

    hi Al sir,
    I am from India. Here the Hindu squats are quite popular. You haven’t mentioned about them in your video. Are they not correct as far as posture is concerned. Coz you say that the heels should not lift but in Hindu squat we are lifting the heels. Does it put more strain on knees? I am a beginner and want to do the correct way now itself than repent afterwards!

  • Al Kavadlo

    Hey Sandy – Part of what makes the hindu squat unique is that you use your arms for momentum, which takes a bit of the stress off of your knees. It’s not one of my favorite variations, but they aren’t necessarily bad. Folks with knee problems and/or tight hips should probably steer clear though.

  • Champ

    At the bottom of the squat, should you push your heels into the floor to raise yourself up?

    And does your back need to stay straight through out the movement?

  • Al Kavadlo

    Yes and yes, though some rounding of the back is not a huge deal if you’re doing bodyweight squats.

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