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.

60 thoughts on “All About Squats

  • By Dragonmamma/Naomi - Reply

    One issue you didn't talk about: Foot placement. Feet together or feet apart? Toes facing forward or flaring out?

    Women's hips are not the same as men's hips, especially after childbirth. It seems that most women are more comfortable with the feet shoulder width apart and the toes flaring out a bit.

  • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

    Good question, Naomi. As with most things, I think there is some room for personal choice with foot placement, and mixing it up is usually a good thing. Depending on what type of squat you're doing, wider foot placements with turned-out toes can be more effective (like in the overhead squat) while in other situations (jump squat), a narrow stance with feet facing forward works more effectively. I'll probably need to do another post about squats soon, as there are a lot of stones left unturned here.

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  • By Saludaslug - Reply

    What are your thoughts on unilateral squats? I do not have a power rack and train at home alone and do not want to get under a lot of weight. Therefore I do Goblets, Bulgarian split squats, step ups and front foot elevated split squats. Also I do overhead squats (to your point as a guy my shoulder mobility stinks and I can’t do much weight). I have read on other blogs where unilateral work is more dangerous to the spine but right now I just don’t buy it. Your thoughts please. Thanks.

  • By typedeaF - Reply

    I am about 6’5″ and my legs are proportionally long and thin. I am not sure if its my height, thin legs, or genetics, but on squats and leg presses and such, my knees tend to buckle inwards. Any experience with this? Do I need to do knee stability exercises first, then get back to squats? Also, I love this site and plan on recommending it to anyone interested in getting “fit”.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Thanks for the kind words! As far as your squats go, make sure to get the hang of them with just your bodyweight or light weights before going heavy. Usually buckling knees means too much weight, but it’s hard to assess these things over the net.

      • By typedeaF - Reply

        Hey Al. Today was leg day, and I opted to instead work on my leg movements form. Something you said in a video or article said “lead with the hips”.. or maybe it was deadlift video. Anyway, I tried a few prisoner squats and my knees kept going far out. Then I decided to really concentrate on my hips, so I imagined (and this sounds really stupid) just sticking my butt out as far as I could behind me… not squatting, but having to squat to get my butt further back. Suddenly my knees were lined up perfectly. Maybe this will help someone. Thanks and Cheers!

        • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

          Sounds like you’re getting the hang of it! Glad I could help – keep up the good work!

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  • By How to Build Muscle - Reply

    I love squats and I have to say I’ve never heard of the Dorsi Flexion. Will definitely have to add that to my routine.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Glad I could help expand your knowledge of how the body works.  :)

  • By Blair Norwood - Reply

    Amazing form in the first picture. When I get past parallel my back starts to round, any suggestions on getting my back to stay straight? Would prisoner squats be good to work with? I feel my back tighten up when I do them, not painful though, so I though they might be a way to stretch my back out a bit and work with better form.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Thanks, Blair.  I think the prisoner squat is a nice variation to help you stay mindful of your posture.  Flexibility plays a big role in performing deep squats with proper form.

  • By Blair Norwood - Reply

    Just thinking, it could also be due to my short hamstrings.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply


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  • By Marie Shipp - Reply

    Hi, I’m female and have been working regular weighted back squats for several months now, last week I went up to #120, and I felt a pain running up the back of my neck on one side, then developed a headache and later on in the day realized I’d burst a blood vessel in my eye on that side…  So that all went away, a few days later I tried it again at 120, probably stupid I know, but leg-wise I had no problem with the weight, but after the 2nd set that pain started again.  Is that form related?  Anything I can do to prevent it?  I’ve been doing 5×5 sets with a few warmups at around 70-80%.  

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey Marie – Sorry to hear of your ailment.  Unfortunately, I cannot offer you specific advice on your situation without an in person meeting.  If you are in the NYC area perhaps we can set up a session, otherwise your best bet is to find a qualified trainer in your area.

      • By Marie Shipp - Reply

        Unfortunately, I’m no where near NYC, and I have serious doubts about the trainers at my gym… I’m the only person I’ve ever seen there doing either squats or deadlifts, pretty darn sad.  I guess I’ll just try to figure it out on my own.

        • By Marqcoig - Reply

          Marie’s post was four months ago and i’m curious if she’s had any success on the her squat. if not the back squat, have you tried switching to a front squat or even a goblet squat? you won’t be able to go as heavy doing these, but they are great excercises to try.

  • By Michelvandenhoek - Reply

     Hi, I’ve been practising squats for a while now and stumbled on some difficulties.

    1. At first I had trouble with my ankle flexibility but thats fine now.
    2. My plan was to just do back squats. But as I don’t have a rack, that’s a problem.
    3. Then I figured I could teach myself to clean and jerk and then front squat.
    4. Problem is I don’t have the wrist flexibility for front squats. (My wrists still hurt from doing them!)
    5. I think I”ll just have to teach myself pistol squats. But damn they are hard! They require a lot of strength and even more balance to do!

    What do you think is the best way to squat?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      There is no “best way” to do anything – everything has its pros and cons.  It sounds like you’re doing great, though.  Keep training hard and let your body be your teacher.

  • By Cyx - Reply

    I have read a lot about squatting, seeking to learn prefect form so as to not damage my knees(or anything else, for that matter), and everything I’ve read thus far states that your knees should not go further forward than just above your toes.  You seem to contradict this in your posts, and I’m wondering if you could explain why you teach them this way.  (Is it maybe, for example, since I was looking up barbell squats, and the added weight would put too much strain on your knees if you allowed full dorsiflexion?)

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      As long as your heels stay flat, you’re all good.  Besides, if you look at the photo above you’ll see my knees are only slightly in front of my toes.  I thought I explained myself pretty clearly in this article – perhaps you should re-read it. 

    • By matthew - Reply

      cyx, check out stronglifts articles on squats. al is right, as long as your heels are flat on the ground and your knees are in line with your toes, your fine. who cares if they go over some? in my opinion, thats the king of all basic barbell lifting information. 
      good article, al.

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  • By Rushil - Reply

    Hey Al, I have a bit of a problem. You see, my weight is on the heels, I keep my knees behind the toes most of the time (I let them out front occasionally), I use my glutes (well, hips) to initiate the movement and I feel my hamstrings more than my quads while I perform the squats.

    I have tried everything you have mentioned in this article (doing the squats like you have shown in the pic above) and the other one ,”Performing perfect squats” … but I still feel some lower back pain. It’s not in the bone, it’s just some muscular pain.

    It surprises me because I have been sitting in the squatting position since I was a kid (I’m 21 now) so I can go all the way down and get back up.

    What do you think the problem is and how can I fix it?

    P.S – loved your work in CC2 and Raising The Bar!

    Thank you

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Thanks, Rushil!  Unfortunately, I can’t really give you any specific advice without a face to face training session.  One thing to remember though, you have muscles in your lower back that get worked when you squat, so the “pain” you describe might just be muscle fatigue.

      • By Rushil - Reply

         Ah, then I should keep my abs tight too, huh?
        Makes sense, my back muscles are kind of neglected. I suppose bridges would fix that.

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  • By CObeast - Reply

    Al, you’re the man!  Both books have been amazingly helpful to my personal training regimen!  I love your insight into pistol/shrimp squats, but was wondering if you could do a post or offer some of that insight on the hamstrings or more posterior chain stuff in general?  It would be invaluable!  You’re the man!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Thanks, CObeast!  Pistols and shrimps do in fact work the hamstrings.  And as I mentioned to the commenter above, back bridges and levers are a fantastic way to work the posterior chain.

  • By Kiran - Reply

    Hey Al,
    Just wondering if there is any calisthenic substitute for the deadlift?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Not exactly, but you can work your posterior chain very thoroughly with back bridges and levers.

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  • By matthew - Reply

    what do you back squat, al?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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.

  • By kOrsanX - Reply

    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 :)

    • By kOrsanX - Reply

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

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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.

  • By sandy - Reply

    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!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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.

  • By Champ - Reply

    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?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

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

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