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Here’s the Right Way To Do a Squat

Squat smart with proper technique, including a neutral spine, wide knees and an engaged core

Person in a deep squat

Squats might seem like one of the simplest and most straightforward additions to a workout routine — and to some extent, they are. But it’s also critical to learn to do them the right way, both to prevent injuries and to maximize your results.

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“Squats are integral to athletic training programs, enhancing speed, agility, strength and power across various sports disciplines,” says sports and exercise medicine physician Matthew Kampert, DO.

He explains the benefits of standard squats and then walks us through how to do them. Plus, if regular squats aren’t quite within your capacity, he shares modifications that can make them feasible.

The benefits of squats

“Squats primarily target the muscles in the thighs, hips and buttocks, leading to enhanced stability, balance and overall lower body strength,” Dr. Kampert explains. But that’s not all.

Here’s a quick look at the many benefits of squats, also known as bodyweight squats or air squats:

  • Works major muscle groups.
  • Burns calories.
  • Strengthens your core.
  • Improves lower body strength.
  • Enhances stability and balance.
  • Betters your posture.
  • Helps with flexibility and mobility.
  • Promotes healthy bones.
  • Helps prevent injuries.

Let’s delve deeper into each of them.

Works major muscle groups

There’s a reason squats are such a popular exercise … and why doing them can be so exhausting! Squatting engages multiple major muscle groups:

  • Core muscles: These muscles include the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis and obliques; they stabilize your trunk and pelvis as you squat. “A strong core is essential for maintaining proper form and preventing injury,” Dr. Kampert says.
  • Glutes: Your gluteus maximus, which makes up most of your butt muscle, is the largest muscle in your body. “During squats, it’s activated to extend the hips and bring the body back to an upright position,” Dr. Kampert says.
  • Hamstrings: Located at the back of your thighs, your hamstrings work with the glutes to extend your hips during the upward phase of squatting. They also help stabilize your knee joint throughout the movement.
  • Hip flexors: Two of your hip flexor muscles, your iliopsoas and rectus femoris, help you maintain balance and stability while lowering you into squatting position.
  • Quads: Your quadriceps muscles, at the front of your thighs, are responsible for extending your knee joint. When you squat, you engage them in two ways — eccentrically as you lower and concentrically as you stand.
  • Adductors: The descent phase of a squat engages these inner thigh muscles to help stabilize your hips and knees.
  • Calves: Did you know that the so-called calf muscle is two separate muscles? The gastrocnemius and soleus help stabilize your ankle joint as you squat into position and push back up. If these muscles get too tight, they can limit your ability to move your ankle upward (dorsiflexion).
  • Back muscles: Squatting engages a group of back muscles collectively known as the erector spinae, which run along either side of your spinal column. These muscles stabilize your spine and help you maintain your posture as you squat. They also keep you from leaning too far forward or backward.

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Burns calories

Engaging large muscle groups helps burn calories both during and after exercise. One study found that squats burn about 35 calories per minute, aiding in weight management and fat loss.

Need more muscle-related reasons not to skip squats? “Squatting stimulates the release of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone,” Dr. Kampert says, “which are vital for muscle growth, metabolism and overall health.”

Strengthens your core

Proper squatting form requires you to reaaaaally engage your core — the muscles of your stomach, pelvis, hips and lower back. These large muscle groups support every move you make, both large and small, so keeping them strong helps keep you well.

Strong core muscles play a role in:

Improves lower body strength

Squats target and strengthen your thighs, hips and butt. Why does that matter? A strong lower body is important for athletes, yes, but not just for athletes. Your lower body fuels your ability to walk, run, jump … everything, really. It also generates power for upper-body movements and all kinds of other activities.

Enhances stability and balance

Lots of muscles work together to help you squat and return to a standing position, keeping you stable and balanced throughout the move — and beyond.

“Strong glutes, for example, are essential for stability in various movements,” Dr. Kampert points out, “and the hip flexor muscles, calf muscles and adductors all contribute to maintaining balance and stability.”

Improves your postures

Poor posture can cause all kinds of problems, including back pain, neck pain, headaches and an overall lack of flexibility. But working your erector spinae muscles, like through squatting, can help strengthen them and improve your posture.

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Helps with flexibility and mobility

Squatting and other types of physical activity can improve your mobility. But what is mobility anyway? The National Institute on Aging defines it as “the ability to move or walk freely and easily,” calling it the key to preventing disability as you get older.

The good news: There’s a lot you can do to help improve and maintain your mobility.

“Squatting promotes flexibility and mobility in the hips, knees and ankles,” Dr. Kampert says, “which can improve athletic performance, prevent injuries and alleviate joint pain.”

Promotes healthy bones

Squats are a type of high-intensity, high-impact, weight-bearing exercise that may contribute to increased bone density — how strong your bones are. “This helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis and promote long-term bone health,” Dr. Kampert explains.

This is important for everyone, but especially for anyone who’s in or approaching menopause. As much as 20% of bone loss can occur within your first five years of menopause.

But regular physical activity can help protect your bones. Studies show that high-intensity squats are one of a few types of exercises that can even increase bone mineral density in people who already have osteoporosis.

Helps prevent injuries

Stronger muscles, joints and bones all help keep you safe from injury — and not just when you’re working out.

“The action of squatting mimics everyday movements like sitting and standing,” Dr. Kampert points out. “This enhances your ability to efficiently perform these activities and reduces your risk of injury.

How to properly do a squat

Ready to start squatting? First, an important reminder: “Keep your head facing forward, your chest up and your core engaged throughout the movement,” Dr. Kampert instructs.

He walks you through the steps of doing a basic squat:

  • Get in position by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly outward.
  • Hinge at the hips and push your buttocks back, like you're sitting back into a chair. “This movement engages your glutes and hamstrings and helps maintain balance,” Dr. Kampert explains.
  • Keep your knees wide and don’t let them collapse inward (known as knee valgus) as you squat.
  • Lower your body by bending your knees, making sure to keep your chest up and your back straight. Aim to lower your hips until your thighs are parallel to the ground or slightly below, keeping your knees in line with your toes. “If you have the ankle mobility for it, it’s OK for your knees to extend beyond your toes,” Dr. Kampert says. Keep your weight on your heels and midfoot, not your toes.
  • Maintain a neutral spine to prevent strain on your lower back. “Don’t excessively round or arch your back, and engage your core muscles to stabilize your spine,” Dr. Kampert says.
  • Squat as low as your flexibility allows without compromising your form. Once you've reached your desired depth...
  • Return to the starting position by pushing through your heels to drive your body back up. “Press the floor away from you and engage your glutes and quadriceps to extend your hips and knees simultaneously,” Dr. Kampert says.
  • Get ready for your next repetition by resetting your posture and alignment.
  • Don’t forget to breathe! Inhale as you lower, and exhale as you push back up. This breathing pattern helps stabilize your core and carry oxygen to your muscles.
  • Finish your set with consistent form and technique.

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Tips for proper squatting form

To avoid hurting yourself, it’s important to maintain your form. Dr. Kampert explains some of the biggest mistakes people make during squats and how you can avoid them.

  • Start with bodyweight squats. There are lots of variations on squats, but if you’re new to them, start with the standard kind. Work your way toward others as your strength and technique improve.
  • Don’t go too deep. “If you can’t get parallel to the ground because of mobility issues, work within your range of motion,” Dr. Kampert advises. “As your strength and mobility improve over time, it’s safe to squat deeper and go below parallel.”
  • Watch your knees. Some athletes squat with a band around the upper thigh, which cues them to keep their thighs properly placed and to avoid knee valgus. This also helps further develop the glutes.
  • Control your movement. At the bottom of your squat, engage your muscles to lift yourself back up. “Avoid bouncing or relying on momentum to lift you back up,” Dr. Kampert cautions.
  • Work on your mobility. Squats can improve your mobility, but improving your mobility can improve your squats. “Optimize your squat technique and reduce your risk of injury by improving flexibility and mobility in your ankles, hips and thoracic spine,” Dr. Kampert advises. Foam rolling and static stretching can help relieve tightness in these areas.
  • If it hurts, stop! Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. If you experience sharp or persistent pain, consult a healthcare provider.

Limited mobility? Try these squat modifications

If standard bodyweight squats aren’t within your range of motion — whether because of mobility issues, an injury or general discomfort — there are modifications that can help make them more accessible to you.

“Incorporating modifications will let you reap the benefits of squatting while ensuring safety and effectiveness,” Dr. Kampert says.

Remember: You’re not competing with anyone. Meet your body where you’re at right now and celebrate your progress along the way. Dr. Kampert reiterates that it’s critical to listen to your body and only choose modifications that are comfortable and manageable for your fitness and mobility levels.

Squat modifications can all help you squat smarter — whether you stick with them forever or graduate to more complex versions as you gain additional mobility.

Dr. Kampert shares some modifications that can help.

Partial squats

A partial squat is exactly what it sounds like: Part of a squat.

“Instead of going all the way down into a deep squat, you lower yourself only to a depth that is comfortable to you,” Dr. Kampert says.

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The more mobility and strength you gain, the deeper you can go — and in the meantime, you reduce your risk of discomfort and injury.

Assisted squats

Need some extra support while you squat? Hold on to a sturdy chair, railing or suspension trainer for added balance and stability.

“This can also alleviate some of the load on the lower body, making it easier to perform the movement,” Dr. Kampert says.

Box squats

When you’re new to squats, it can be difficult to tell how deep you’re supposed to go, which puts you at risk of hurting yourself. Box squats provide a physical target to help you gauge your depth — without sacrificing your form.

To do box squats, start by standing in front of a sturdy box or bench. Squat only until your buttocks lightly touch the object; then, return to your starting position.

Wall squats

To help you stay properly aligned and keep you from leaning too far in either direction, try doing your squats with your back against a wall.

“This variation can also help you improve your squat technique and promote better posture,” Dr. Kampert offers.

Elevated heel squats

To do elevated heel squats, place a small, elevated object, like a weight plate or a wedge, beneath your heels.

“This can help people with limited ankle mobility perform squats more comfortably,” Dr. Kampert explains. It also allows for better alignment and reduces strain on your knees or ankles.

How to get better at squats

As with any exercise, squats take practice. The more you do them, the better you’ll get. As your strength, flexibility and mobility improve, so, too, will your squatting abilities. In time, you’ll find yourself able to squat deeper and maybe even add a few variations to the mix, like:

  • Barbell squats.
  • Bulgarian split squats.
  • Goblet squats.
  • Jump squats.

To make sure your form is correct and you’re not risking injury, it’s best to consult with a fitness professional, like a coach, trainer or physical therapist.

“They’ll be able to provide personalized guidance and recommendations based on your individual goals and fitness level,” Dr. Kampert reassures.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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