What Is the Proper Squat Form? MTNTOUGH Weighs in

Everyone is built differently and has different needs, but there are some tips that can improve anyone’s squat. Pointing your toes out, pressing your knees apart, and keeping your chest up are some of the essential elements of a proper squat. 

Backcountry athletes who want to get stronger, gain muscle, and be more athletic should squat. It might seem like squats are the answer to all of your problems, but they’re not easy to master. There are many conflicting opinions on the best way to do this exercise, so the goal of this post is to demystify things for you. You’ll learn how to squat safely and maximize the amount of weight you can lift.

While squats aren’t the answer to everything, you should feel comfortable enough to put them in your routine. Take the time to learn proper form, because this isn’t an exercise that comes naturally to everyone. Keep reading to learn how to unlock your best squat.

Squat Anatomy: Understanding Your Muscles

You can call squats a leg exercise but they’re really a full body movement. While your legs do a lot of work, there are definitely other muscle groups involved. For example, your core muscles have to support all of the weight on your back. In fact, many people find that their core muscles are the weak link preventing them from lifting more weight, not their legs.

Think of your muscles as rubber bands. When you go down into the squat they stretch, but that doesn’t make them weaker. In fact, they can store something called elastic energy, which means that they get ready to rebound, shooting you up out of the bottom of the squat.

As you go down into a squat, muscles like the quadriceps and glutes are tightening even as they stretch, which helps you control your descent and gets you ready to stand back up. Your legs and hips do the bulk of the movement, but your core muscles will work very hard to keep your torso from tipping too far forwards.

What Muscles Do Squats Target?

Squats target the big muscles in your legs, including the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. The adductors and abductors are hip muscles that you use to stabilize your legs. On top of that, your lower back muscles and abdominals stabilize your torso and spine.

The quadriceps run down the front of your thigh from hip to knee cap. They play a big role in the squat because they straighten your knee. Your glutes are one of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body, and they power you up from the bottom of the squat. Your hamstrings run down the back of your thigh from hip to knee. They’re used the least out of these three muscles in the squat, since they do the opposite of what your quadriceps do.

Your core muscles, in particular your lower back, keep your spine flat and protect you from injury. That includes the erector spinae, which are like two bands that run down either side of your spine from the neck to lower back. Also included is the multifidus, which is close to your spine and protects it from injury.

How Do Squats Help Backcountry Hunters?"

Building leg strength is important for any backcountry athlete. Unless you’re going on a short trip, you’re going to be carrying a lot of gear. When you’re going uphill or over difficult obstacles, it’s helpful to have strong legs. Squats build that leg strength.

Since the bar rests on your back during a squat, your core muscles and legs get used to supporting heavy weight. That gives you the same feeling as a heavy pack out, preparing you for the rigors of backcountry hunting. 

You know that squats build physical strength, but they also make you mentally tougher. Admittedly they’re a frightening exercise, since you’re holding heavy weight on your back. Fighting through that fear and discomfort will give you more confidence in your body and the ability to fight through tough challenges.

Despite all of their benefits, doing squats poorly can hurt you and derail your progress. Next, you’ll learn the keys to good form so that you can actually reap the rewards of this exercise.

Importance of Proper Form: The Key to Effective Squats

You’re less likely to get hurt if you have proper form on squats, but that’s not the only reason to be strict with your technique. You can lift more weight if you put your body in a better position to produce force. You also get more muscle-building benefits if you do squats properly.

Some areas of your body that can get hurt from improper form include the lower back, knees, and hips. Hurting any of these can set you back weeks in training and make it harder to navigate the backcountry. It’s better to be safe during squats than squeeze out an extra few reps or add on another few pounds to the bar.

Think of the squat not as an exercise but as a skill. You train to shoot a basketball or throw a baseball by learning proper technique. After practicing, you get better and better at them. Squatting is similar in that it takes time to learn how to do it properly, but once you do, it’s an invaluable part of your routine.

Now, it’s time to talk about the keys to a proper squat.

What Are the 4 Keys to Proper Squat Technique?

The four keys to a good squat are: starting with a proper stance, sitting back into the movement, keeping your chest up, and driving the knees out. If you can remember these cues, your squat will look and feel much better. They might not feel natural, so take time to perfect them using light weight.

1. Set Your Stance

Your squat stance is the most important thing to get right. It can throw you off if your feet are too narrow or wide. Start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Turn your toes out slightly because you need to push your knees apart during the squat. Play around with moving your feet further apart and closer together to find what’s most comfortable.

2. Sit Back

A squat looks like you’re sitting down in a chair, and that’s exactly how it should feel. Imagine that you have a chair behind you, and push your hips back as you descend into the squat. This will keep your weight off of your toes and push it back towards your heels, allowing you to take advantage of the powerful glute and hamstring muscles.

3. Keep Your Chest Up

If you puff your chest out while you’re walking around the grocery store you’re going to look ridiculous. If you do it while you squat you might look ridiculous, but at least you’ll have proper technique. If you puff your chest out it means your back will be flat, reducing your risk of a spine injury. It also helps you maintain an upright torso as the weight pushes you down.

4. Drive Your Knees Apart

As you go down or up in the squat, your knees can cave in. This isn’t uncommon, but you should fix it immediately. The problem is that you’re not sufficiently activating your powerful hip muscles if your knees cave in. Plus, it puts pressure on the knee joint. Drive your knees out both as you descend and when you stand up from the bottom of the squat.

Now that you know the key things to look for in the squat, it’s time to go over a full walkthrough of the exercise, from setup to end.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Performing Squats

There are a lot of things to think about when you do squats, making it hard to concentrate on standing up with a weight on your back. If you find that you’re losing focus, take some weight off of the bar and focus on your form.

Over time, the steps you need to follow to squat successfully will be automatic. At that point, you can load more weight onto the bar and focus on getting stronger and building muscle. 

  • Step 1: Grab the bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart
  • Step 2: Duck under and put the bar over the back of your shoulders
  • Step 3: Puff your chest out and plant your feet under your hips
  • Step 4: Stand up to unrack the bar, then take a step back with each foot
  • Step 5: Set your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and point your toes out
  • Step 6: Keeping your chest up, sit back into the squat
  • Step 7: Go down until your femurs, the thigh bone, is parallel to the ground
  • Step 8: Stand back up from the bottom of the movement to complete one rep

As you add more weight you’ll eventually find that one part of the movement is particularly challenging. To get better at squatting, you need to work on that area.

What is the Most Important Part of a Squat?

The most important, or most challenging, part of the squat is the bottom. That’s when you’re at your weakest, and where most people fail. To get better at that part of the movement you can work on exercises like the pause squat, which strengthen your muscles in that position.

You’re weakest at the bottom of the movement because your leg muscles are stretched out and at their weakest. The quadriceps and glutes are elongated and need to quickly switch from controlling your descent to driving you back up from the bottom. 

Just because the bottom of the squat is hard for you doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. On the contrary, it’s very normal. In fact, there are a few other things about squats that you might think are mysterious but have a perfectly reasonable answer.

6 Things You Might Be Wondering About Squats

Nobody wants to be the one to ask a silly question. Something like “how far should I point my toes out” might seem foolish to ask, but that’s a question many people have when they start learning the squat. Here are a few others that you might be wondering:

1. Should Knees Go Over Toes When Squatting?

When you squat your knees will bend and go forwards, and it’s a myth that they shouldn’t move beyond your toes. However, if your knees are going too far forwards, you’re probably not sitting back enough as you go down into the squat. Making this change can reduce pressure on your knee joint.

If you stand on your tippy-toes and squat, you might notice that your knees go very far forwards. You might also notice that you feel off-balance and weaker than if your feet are flat on the ground. The further forwards your knees go in the squat, the more you’re on your toes. That’s less stable and powerful than sitting back.

Sitting back shifts weight from your knee joints into the muscles in your legs. It also helps your glutes and hamstrings get into the movement. Using more muscles will improve your squat strength and prevent injury.

2. How Far Down Should Squat Form Be?

Squat depth is different for each person. You might have a hip or lower back injury that prevents you from going all the way down. On the other hand, some people are flexible and can go down until their butt touches the ground. Generally, try to go low enough that your thighs are parallel to the ground.

If you feel pain in your hips, back, or other areas when you go too low in squats, don’t force your depth. Go down until you feel comfortable, then stand back up. Over time, as you get used to the exercise, you’ll probably be able to go lower. 

The lower you go in the squat the harder the movement becomes. It’s similar to a pull-up, where going all the way down is harder than pausing halfway down. Remember that you shouldn’t force your squat depth, let it happen naturally. When you force it you’re more likely to get injured.

3. What Moves First in a Squat?

The first movement in a squat is a combination of bending your knees and sticking your hips back. These things happen at the same time to make sure the barbell stays over, or close to, your ankles. As you initiate the movement, make sure your knees push out to the sides.

One of the most stressful moments in your set will likely be the first rep, where you’re not used to the movement and can even forget the proper way to initiate. By breaking at the hips and knees at the same time, you’re activating the powerful leg and hip muscles that will ultimately power your squat.

If you start improperly it’s hard to recover as you descend into the squat. That’s because the movement quickly gets more difficult. Starting properly sets you on the correct course, so you can comfortably sink down into the movement. 

4. How Do I Know if I'm Squatting Correctly?

You know you’re squatting correctly when you can do the full movement without pain or discomfort. You should feel confident and strong throughout the movement, generating explosive power to get out of the bottom of the squat. If you don’t feel that way, you should work on technique.

Backcountry athletes need to be mentally tough to overcome difficult situations. While you should use your mental toughness during a squat workout to fight through fatigue, you should stop if you feel pain. There’s a difference between the pain from injury or improper movement and pain from muscle fatigue.

You shouldn’t feel pain in your joints when squatting. In fact, you’re less likely to get hurt from heavy squats than the bench press. If you feel pain, you know something is going wrong. The squat should be one smooth movement from top to bottom.

5. Should Your Thumb Be Over or Under Squats?

When you place your hands on the bar to squat there are two positions your thumbs can be in: under the bar and wrapped around or over the bar, on the same side as your fingers. This is a matter of preference, but some people like the feeling of their thumbs over the bar.

It might feel unnatural to grip the barbell without curling your thumb under, but it shouldn’t make any difference in terms of how easy it is to hold the bar during squats. You should be holding the bar on your upper back, your arms shouldn’t be doing much work to prevent it from rolling back.

Play around with each thumb grip. Some people prefer the thumb tucked and some like it over. It might depend on how tight your wrists and shoulders are, since it might be less tight to put your thumb over the bar.

Those are five common things you might be wondering or have wanted to ask. There’s another question, which is less common, that some people ask because they’ve seen it on the internet or in their gym. Keep reading to see what it is.

6. Why Do People Put Plates Under Their Feet When Squatting?

Putting plates under your heels shifts your weight forward onto your toes, lifting your heels up. That helps you get lower in the squat by decreasing tightness in your legs, hips, and ankles. You’ll be able to shift your weight back, bend your knees more, and stay upright with your torso. 

Putting plates under your heels helps correct tightness and forces you to sit back into the movement, but it’s not necessarily correcting any mistakes in your squat. There are a few common mistakes that have easy fixes, if you know what to look for.

Why Can't I Do Squats Correctly?

Your squats might feel or look bad because you’re doing them incorrectly, but there are other reasons. Some people fight their anatomy and try to force one style of squats, such as using a wide stance, on their body. Learning how your body likes to squat is the key to doing them correctly.

There are some general mistakes that people make that hurt their squat. In that sense, there are correct and incorrect ways to do the movement. However, there’s a lot of gray area that you might be missing.

Everyone has slightly different anatomy. Your legs might be longer or shorter than someone else, or your hips might be tighter. Whatever the difference is, understand that the form that works for one person might not work for you.

Mistake #1 - Setting Your Feet Incorrectly

The placement of your feet is one of the most important aspects of the squat. Once you start the movement you can’t move your feet, so spend some time trying out different stance widths to figure out what’s best.

If your feet are too close, you can lose power and might feel off balance as you go down into the squat. If your feet are too wide it might make your hips feel tight and prevent you from going all the way down into the squat.

Trying different stances will give you an idea of where your stance should be. Don’t force yourself to do one type of stance just because you’ve heard someone say it’s the best, take the time to figure out what works for you.

Mistake #2 - Breathing At the Wrong Time

Breathing improperly during a squat can make you lose a lot of tightness in your core that will prevent rounding of the spine. You might be breathing at the wrong time or taking a shallow breath, making it harder to stabilize your torso.

Before you go down into the squat, take a sharp breath in through your nose or mouth to fill your stomach with air. Then, go down into the squat and hold your breath until you start to come back up. At the top you can fully exhale and inhale again.

Doing this actually gives you more power and helps you stand up faster out of the bottom of the squat. Don’t miss out on the extra bit of strength you can gain from simply breathing properly.

Mistake #3 - Going Too Slow

As mentioned earlier in this article, your muscles act like rubber bands during the squat. You go down into the movement and stretch your muscles, building up energy for the moment when you reverse directions and stand back up.

If you go too slow on the way down you might make the movement harder for yourself, expending too much energy by controlling the squat. Instead, drop down faster while maintaining good technique.

Dropping down a little faster will help you bounce out of the bottom of the squat, which is the hardest part of the movement to overcome. If you’re worried that the weight feels too heavy to go down quickly, drop the weight and focus on speed for a few weeks.

Squat Techniques: Modifications and Variations

If you’ve been trying to change your squat for a while and nothing seems to be working, it might be time to modify the exercise or try something slightly different. Squats are great for backcountry athletes but there are other ways to do them and different exercises that give you similar results.

Top Three Alternatives to the Traditional Squat

Sometimes there are small problems that hold you back from squatting to your full potential, such as tight shoulders or hips. If you’ve tried everything and can’t seem to get the squat to feel smooth, it’s better to switch things up than continue trying something that doesn’t work.

Often, you’ll find that the traditional squat is easier once you master one of the following alternatives. They can improve flexibility and technique in the squat, all while working the same muscles.

Goblet Squats

This is the best squat variation if you’re struggling with form. It’ll teach you how to sit back properly and make it easier to get lower. This is perfect for people who feel tight in the bottom of their squat.

You can use a kettlebell or dumbbell to do goblet squats. The only problem is that you’re more limited in how much weight you can hold because your arms do most of the work. Over time goblet squats will make you better at squatting with a bar on your back because they teach you proper squat mechanics. Learn how to goblet squat here.

DB Front Squats

One of the problems with goblet squats is that it’s hard to hold a lot of weight. Dumbbell front squats make it easier because you’re holding dumbbells on your shoulders. Otherwise, the two movements are very similar.

One of the problems with having a barbell on your back is that the weight pushes your torso forwards. Holding weights in front of your body forces you to lean back and keep your torso upright. Front squats force you to use your core and arms more than a traditional squat, making them equally challenging. Learn how to do the DB front squat. 

Bulgarian Squats

This movement doesn’t look like a back squat, but it works the same muscles. In fact, it puts more emphasis on strengthening your legs. That’s because you’re working one leg at a time, which means you don’t need to use as much weight.

Since you don’t have a lot of weight on your back, you don’t need to worry about protecting your spine. All you have to think about is maintaining balance and working your legs. This exercise is perfect for anyone who has back or hip pain while squatting. Learn how to do Bulgarian squats.

If you still want to do traditional squats and aren’t ready to switch to a different exercise, another option is to modify the squat slightly

Making Squats Work for You

There’s no need to be stubborn if you’re having trouble with an exercise. There are so many variations of each movement and similar exercises that you can replace it with that you shouldn’t feel pressured to master one exercise.

With squats, you can continue doing the traditional back squat but add modifications that make it easier. Or, if you’re bored with doing the same movement, there are ways to make it harder. One of the best things about the back squat is that it’s a versatile movement.

Make Squats More Accessible

You don’t need to abandon the back squat if you’re having trouble with it. There’s a simple modification you can make to reinforce proper technique. Box squats are perfect for beginners or anyone who wants to work on their form without sacrificing the benefits of the squat.

Simply place a box behind you, usually around or above knee height, and sit back to the box as you squat. Once you make contact with the box, stand back up. This modification helps you learn how low you’re supposed to go and what it’s like to sit back. Plus, it can make you more confident by breaking your fall.

Making Squats More Difficult

If you’re ready for a new challenge, you don’t have to look for a different movement. You can simply add a pause to the bottom of the squat to make it much more challenging. This modification also makes the regular squat feel easy.

To do a paused squat, sink down into the bottom of the movement and stop. Hold your body in place for at least a second, making sure that you can’t use the natural rebound effect to bounce out of the bottom. Then, stand back up. This will give you more strength and confidence at the bottom of the squat.

These modifications help you get more out of this versatile movement. You’ll become a better backcountry athlete by giving your body new ways to adapt and build strength. Remember that if an exercise doesn’t feel good or challenge you properly, you’re not making progress. Use modifications to keep improving so that you can be stronger and faster on your next outing.

Integrating Squats into Your Workout Routine

Now that you know how to squat, it’s time to weave this awesome exercise into your training program. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since it’s one of the most taxing movements. You have to plan carefully, or it’ll take away a lot of energy from your other workouts.

If you’re using squats to build strength, do them after a thorough warm-up but before any type of HIIT training. For example, if you’re going to be hitting the treadmill or rower on the same day, save the cardio for after. You want your legs to be fresh so that you can lift as much weight as possible.

However, you can also use squats as a HIIT exercise by keeping the weight light and increasing reps. You can put squats into upper or lower body workouts, but do them before any other leg exercises. It’s also best to avoid deadlifts before or after squats, since they use similar muscles.

You can put squats anywhere in your backcountry hunting training calendar. If you’re struggling with setting up your program, try the 14-day free MTNTOUGH trial. It includes exercises like the squat that prepare you for peak performance in the backcountry. All of the programs are created by experts and are tailored to build you up for hunting season.

The Benefits of Squats: More Than Just Strength

There’s no better feeling than surviving a tough workout. It gives you confidence that your body can do what it needs to when you’re out in the backcountry. Squats build leg and core strength that prepares you for carrying heavy things into and out of the wilderness.

Squats also make you more athletic, improving your balance and functional strength in hunting. You’ll be better at climbing and scrambling over deadfall because your legs are stronger and more powerful.

Don’t miss out on this exercise because you’ve hit a roadblock with your technique. Use modifications and fix the common mistakes discussed above to master the squat. Once you’re more comfortable, you can reap the benefits of this classic strength exercise.

Join MTNTOUGH for more instructional videos and carefully planned programs. Let our experienced coaches focus on the coaching so that you can focus on hunting.