At the very core of any good workout routine, you’ll find one move: squats. They’re such a natural part of having a fit, strong bod, in fact, that you’ve been doing them since birth.
“Even before babies can walk, they can squat—and squat with perfect form,” says trainer and physical therapist Laura Miranda, DPT, CSCS, founder of PURSUIT.
Though squats are known as primarily a lower-body exercise, they fire up pretty much every major muscle you have—including your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and the entire core—and also help you stay strong as you age. (Want to be able to get up out of a chair no-problem when you’re 80? Yeah, squats.)
Another serious perk of the movement: Once you know how to do basic squats properly, you can mix them up with all sorts of squat variations—and level up the difficulty with weights (which increases the lower-body and upper-body burn, score!).
Whether you want to lift a super heavy barbell, check your form, or mix up your leg-day routine, consider this your A-to-Z guide to all things squats—from why the move is so fab, to how to squat with correct form, and more
The benefits of squats are legit.
If your current workout routine doesn’t involve regularly dropping it low, these pretty darn impressive squat benefits will convince you to change that, stat.
1. Squats help you build stronger glutes. Your glutes do a lot of the work during squats, so the move is a must for strengthening them, says Miranda. Yes, having strong glutes means you will definitely be checking yourself out in your yoga pants, but it also helps protect your lower back, which overcompensates when your glutes are weak (often leading to tightness and pain)
2. Squats also double as a core workout. When you squat, your core turns on to keep you balanced and stable, so you work your entire midsection with every rep, says trainer Alena Luciani, CSCS, founder of Training2x.
“A strong core is so important for maintaining our posture, keeping us steady, and our ability to age gracefully,” Luciani says. (Also, abs.)
3. Squats can make you a better runner. Since squatting equals stronger glutes and stronger glutes equals faster running, squats are an absolute must for anyone who pounds the pavement regularly. “There’s no doubt that squatting will make you a faster, better runner,” says Luciani.
4. Squats help rev your metabolism. Since squats engage some of the biggest muscles in your body (and so many muscles), they’re an incredibly effective move for building lean muscle, Luciani says. Since muscle burns more calories than fat (even when you’re mid-Netflix binge), having more muscle on your bod means you’ll have a higher metabolic rate and burn more calories every single day. Over time, Luciani explains, this can help you lose body fat and feel more toned.
Doing a squat with proper form isn’t as intuitive as it may seem.
Whether you plan on sticking to bodyweight squats or adding resistance into the mix, you have to squat properly to reap the benefits.
How to: Start standing with feet shoulder-width distance apart, toes facing forward (or slightly outward), and arms at sides. On an inhale, engage core and push hips back as if lowering into a chair, while simultaneously reaching arms forward until clasped at chest height. Keep torso upright and spine straight, press knees outward, and distribute weight evenly between both feet.
Continue lowering until thighs are at least parallel with the floor (or as far as possible before your lower back rounds, your chest drops, your knees cave inward, or either your heels or toes peel off ground). Then, on an exhale, press through heels to reverse the movement and return to standing.
Wondering what happens if you squat improperly?
Not only does using improper squat form mean you’ll miss out on the move’s biggest benefits, but it’s also a first-class ticket to Injury City. “Moving with good form is an essential component of staying injury free and having a sustainable training routine as you age,” Luciani says.
Before you start getting fancy with squat variations or loading on weights, make sure your bodyweight squat form is pristine.
Watch out for these common squat mistakes.
There are four major mistakes people often make when squatting, according to Miranda and Luciani. Luckily, they’re all pretty easy to fix.
1. You don’t drop low enough. If you can continue to squat lower once your thighs are parallel with the floor, keep going, says Luciani. “Reducing the range of motion reduces the movements’ muscle-strengthening benefits,” says Luciani. As long as your torso stays upright, you can press your knees outward, and your feet stay flat on the ground, you’re clear to keep dropping your squat.
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If you can’t squat past parallel, try loosening up with five minutes of foam rolling your hipsand lower body per day, says Miranda—and consider seeing a PT to address any ankle mobility issues, which often hold squats back.
2. You bounce out of the bottom of your squat. To benefit from squats, you need to stay in control throughout the entire movement. “Often, people use momentum to return to standing,” says Luciani. Trouble is, this bounce means you’re not in control, and, “if you lose control at any point during a squat, you greatly increase your risk of injury,” she explains.
If you bounce out of the bottom of bodyweight squats, incorporate box squats—which involve squatting down onto a box or chair and coming to a complete stop before rising back up—to build strength, Luciani suggests. (Isometric squats help, too.) If you bounce up out of weighted squats, lighten up your load.
3. Your knees collapse inward. Friendly reminder: At no point during a squat should you look like you’re doing the stanky leg. However, if your glutes don’t fire up properly, you’ll have a hard time keeping your knees pressing outward, Miranda says.
Before you squat, warm up with a few sets of 12 to 20 glute bridges to “wake up” your glutes, suggests Miranda.
4. Your chest drops forward. Throughout a squat, you want to keep your chest as upright and proud as possible.“Whenthe chest starts to dump forward, it puts your lower-back in a not-so-good position,” says Miranda.
Often, this whole chest-drop situation occurs when you try to squat lower than your mobility allows, she explains. Either give yourself permission to keep your squats a little shallower, or talk to a PT about your mobility.
Think you’re ready to level up your squat game? These more difficult squat variations are for you.
Once you know your bodyweight squat form is a 10 (check with a trainer, if you can) and you can churn out more than a few reps before starting to fatigue, you’re ready to up the challenge, says Luciani.
“Advance the movement when you feel incredibly powerful and capable doing regular squats,” she adds. Have a kettlebell on-hand? Try goblet squats. Want to work on your single-leg strength? Go for modified pistol squats.
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