How To Improve Your Squat!

Article by Andy Tsang, Personal Trainer, The Varsity Gym

Ok so following on from the last article I wrote, I am going to elaborate on the squat. I am a firm believer that the squat and its derivatives are fundamental exercises that you have to incorporate into every single programme.  Don’t be mislead though, I’m not saying that every single person has to squat.  Everyone however, should be training the squat pattern since it is a very important movement that the body needs – imagine trying to get on the pan if you couldn’t squat.  Unless you have all sorts of core strength to projectile the faecal matter its probably wise to keep that motion strong!

So why is the squat such an important exercise?  Well one of the reasons is because it’s a compound exercise.  It is such a large movement and it utilizes so many of the body’s joints.  Think about it this way a squat will use -:

Improve Your Squat

Improve Your Squat

  • Ankle
  • Knee
  • Hip
  • Lower back
  • Middle back
  • Upper back
  • Shoulder
  • Cervical

So with all of these major joints in play it is no wonder that the squat creates such a large stimulus for the body and is classed as the king of exercises.  How many muscles cross over each of these joints?  I can tell you that it most definitely not just a couple.  So since the stimulus from the squat can be so significant, in terms of gains and results whether it may be strength, fat loss, balance, co-ordination, agility, speed, muscle mass or just a banging set of pins, it is pretty clear cut that the squat will induce a very high transfer to any of the above mentioned.

Another reason for the squat to be so popular is because the squat and its variations is also one to determine efficiency of movement and is largely used as an assessment tool as well as an exercise.  Let me explain say for example if someone came in and we assessed their bodyweight squat and noticed that they are struggling to get down and the hips are rounding under then it is definitely going to flag up issues to why he/she can’t get down.  So for us as coaches, having this information is good since we can then work towards improving upon her movement quality and can give us information to programme design off of.

I think you get my point.  I reckon I could give a million and one reasons why the squat is pretty damn good but I’d rather not sound like a car salesman and just get to the nitty gritty of it.  The squat and its variations even though its very popular and is known to be one of the best exercises to do, it is also one of the most misunderstood.  There is so much ‘jibberish’ out there nowadays and even some courses advocate certain protocols for squatting, which is downright stupid.  Here are some of the things that I have heard in my time.

  • Squatting is a quad exercise
  • Shouldn’t squat past parallel
  • Shouldn’t lock your knees
  • Knees are not allowed to pass over your toes
  • Have to be upright during the squat

You probably have heard more other crazy things about the squat but these are the ones that tend to stick out in my head.

Every joint has been built to move through its full range of motion and yet when we talk about the squat all sorts of funny sh*t seems to be made up.  Think about it this way, if you were to take you knee joint and put it flexion and take it as far as you can into a quad stretch, how far can you take the joint?  Next, lie down on the floor and bend you knees up to your chest, how far can you take your hips without rounding the lower back?  Goes quite far yeah?  Probably much further than peoples’ idea of a parallel squat. Then I want you to stand up tall and straighten your legs and squeeze your buttocks at the top and lock off your lower body whilst keeping your chest up.  Chances are you can lock off pretty straight yeah? (It is called standing tall).  What seems to be quite funny though is when you put these single joint motions together is when so called experts start talking about all kinds of crazy things like the above mentioned and yet during a single joint motion they think that is fine.  To me that’s silly and I hate to break this to people who have been stuck in their ways for years without looking at the squat from a biomechanical standpoint.   All of the body’s structures were designed to move through a full range of motion and that is why we have that motion.  When we start trying to alter motion by taking it through shorter ranges that is how we develop muscle imbalances/weaknesses.  It is clear then because people have poor motor control, inter-muscular co-ordination and movement and movement patters, which is why people don’t squat well. Would it not make sense to therefore work on the weakness so we can improve upon them?

Squat depth

With regards to squat depth there is also so much information out there nowadays it is really hard to actually know how far do u descend.  Do you go parallel or further down into a full depth position?  My answer to this is simple; you need to take the motion through its full range of motion.  If there are inhibitions stopping you from doing that you need to find them fix it and continue squatting through a full range of motion.

  • Strength
  • Sport specific e.g a powerlifter
  • Improving movement and efficiency
  • Aesthetics e.g bigger legs
  • Improving general strength quality to transfer into sport e.g football?

Here are some of the reasons of why you want to squat.  From this you need to work out where does YOUR weaknesses lie as well so we can paint a more clearer picture of how we train for the squat.  For example lets take bodybuilding.  I have a client who was once a great bodybuilder and his knowledge of training is pretty good I must say.  He always trained based on time under tension and always worked in the hypertrophy range and his legs were pretty good.  One of the things he never did though was he never moved weight based on speed and didn’t have much force development and absolute strength. Nor did he ever go full range, which caused his hips to be tight and also he never ever locked his legs either which meant his joints and the surrounding structures were never conditioned to be strong and powerful.  By the way if he’s reading this, that is why I smoked him on a rack lockout session!  Sorry inside joke.  For the record it is very god damn hard to hyper extend a joint especially in a controlled environment.  Unless someone tried to break that sh*t off or a freak accident you are going to find it pretty hard to do so.  Olympic weightlifters jerk weight overhead, which is considered to be one of the most ballistic movements in ALL sports.  They find it hard to hyperextend their joints and they are lifting some crazy ass weights pretty much all of the time!!  No wait a minute though, quite clearly that doesn’t account for you, oh no, your different with your 10 kg a side, your special.  If you lock off your knees it’s going to cause adhesivecapsulitisinflammationotuspainus joint locking problem……… don’t think so!  Quite a silly statement in itself is it not?

Back on track, so remember previously I said that in order to progress you have to constantly train based upon what the weakness of the body is, well for him he had to work on the things he didn’t do.  Create hip mobility strengthening up his core muscles working on developing rate coding yada yada yada.  After a short while he was getting all sorts of muscle gains, which he hasn’t had in ages, plus the fact that his movement quality was improving as well as athleticsm and he was squatting ass to grass.  Pretty cool eh?

Remember guys everybody can move through full range of motion and its only because you have a weakness, instability or mobility issue that doesn’t allow that movement pattern to occur.  Here is something that might interest you.  In 1957, Karl Klein of the University of Texas was at Austin addressed the 4th annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine on the dangers of squatting.  When he published his research in 1961, the alleged dangers of the squat gained many supporters over years and have done so to this day which is why so many people are still harping on about things like squat depth and has plagued our industry for years. Much like the long distance running for fat loss myth that people still are going on about but that is for another day.  Many of today’s modern scientists have proved this theory to be wrong and yet us the general public, we are like sheep, so now we are still stuck on that bandwagon and probably will be for the next millennia.

As for any dangers of the squat can cause are due to faulty technique and movement rather than the exercise itself such as:

  • Bouncing passively or relaxing in the lowest position
  • Rotating or tilting the knees inwards
  • Descending to rapidly and stopping very suddenly
  • Relaxing or flexing (and rotating) the lumbar spine
  • Squatting unevenly with more force on one leg that the other
  • Squatting with unstable shoes or on a soft or slipper surface.

Here is something that I wrote previously before on the squat-:

For the majority of squatters, they will probably more than likely have some sort of tightness in the hips and a common theme that we will see is depth related issues. Having tightness will basically not let the hips move efficiently and squat deep. If you do try to, the lumbar spine will round to create extra motion in order to compensate for the hips lack of mobility. This rounding of the lumbar spine will therefore not let the gluteus maximus (the main hip extensor) to contract properly. Usually, if the main hip extensor does not contract properly the hamstrings (the secondary hip extensor) will have to make up for it. What we are then left with is partial squats and sore backs. In addition to this, during hip extension the inner hamstrings and adductors are also involved significantly. These muscles are also the antagonists to glutes medius, which in motion should provide stability and abduction to the hip so you can hold the knees in traction. Now over time chances are you will become tighter in the inner hamstrings and adductors, which technically will set you up for glute medius inhibition. So hence why people should focus on the hips and base training around activating the outer hip and the glutes. On top of this, if you are crashing your knees in due to a weakness in stabilising the hips or inability to squat depth, the knees main stabilising muscle known as the VMO will have an inability to contract and stabilise the patella within the patella grove to track and allow optimal movement.

So if we know that majority exercise should be based around strengthening up the core to protect the spine, developing glute activation, the outer gluteal muscles, hip mobility and VMO strengthening, we can then also choose exercises that will do this job as well as work on mobilizing and stretching the tight muscles out.  This will therefore lead to a better squat and help achieve the gains you desire.

“Ok I get your point what kind of squat should I do then?”

Ok many people will have different leverages goals strengths weaknesses etc so my type of squat and your type of squat will be different.  Generally speaking though, the longer the legs the wider the stance will be.  Also you are going to select a squat variation based on what you need to work on.  If you are unsure you can hire me as a trainer to sort it ;).  Also remember guys to always go full range of motion.   As for type of squat, front or back?  Overhead squat or zercher squat?  Box squat or Anderson squat?  I don’t know.  Sorry but unfortunately I don’t have the power to magically find that out without adequate screening and finding out what your goals are.  You have to work out things like what would you benefit more from, what your body needs, what you want etc and if I did write it out on this article it could end up like a book.  What I will say is you try and work out what is most beneficial to yourself and also change up your squat variations often.  For people that are still working on their squat technique, they don’t have to change it up as often since they will benefit more from drilling that motion into them for a longer period of time.

“My back is rounding at the bottom of the squat, isn’t that bad?”
Yes it is but it also means your core is weak, your backs weak, posterior chains weak, and your hip mobility is sh*t.  So then for you to progress you need work on that then.

“I think I push off one leg more that the other”
Incorporate more single-leg work then to offset any imbalances then.

Starting to understand it more?  Hopefully this can help you to improve your squat patterns and techniques and benefit from the results that it can give you like so many athletes and gym warriors alike have done so in the past and get a massive set of legs to stop you looking like a chicken as well.  Here is a sample workout for you to try out for improving the squat.

Squat technique work 85% of 1rm in sets of 1-3 for 5-8 sets
Good mornings 3 sets of 6-8
Weighted Hip thrust 6-8 sets of 6-8
Weighted back raises 6-8 sets of 6-8
Glute ham raise 5 sets of 8-10
Ab Wheel roll outs 6 sets of 8-10


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