The barbell back squat is arguably the most important tool in strength training for building a large and powerful physique. Squats recruit virtually all of your muscles and require true full-body strength and mobility. However, the weighted back squat can be dangerous if performed incorrectly or without proper safety equipment, so correct form must be second nature before you add weight. Practice bodyweight squats at home to become comfortable with the mechanics of the lift before you ever step foot into the rack at the gym.
Understanding the Bodyweight Squat
Bodyweight squats let you test your mobility and mechanics before getting under the bar. When performing any squat, imagine what your body would look like viewed in profile. Picture three rigid lines: ankles to knees, knees to hips, and hips through your neck and head. Keep these lines straight and tight, with the only movement occurring at the joints.
Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart and your toes angled slightly out. Your weight should be on the heels and balls of your feet – the toes should be free to wiggle. Place your hands behind your head and look straight ahead. Keep your eyes forward to help maintain proper spine alignment and a gentle protective arch in your lower back.
Brace your midsection by taking a deep breath, pushing your belly out as it fills with air. Forcefully exhale as if through a straw, and tighten your core muscles to squeeze all of the air out. Maintain this tightness and breathe in again as if through a straw, pushing down into your diaphragm under your braced abs, and holding the breath.
Begin your descent by bending at the knees, and then quickly hinging at the hip and sitting back. Keep chest and shoulders up to maintain an upright torso. Focus on pushing the knees out as you lower into the hole – knees should track over your toes. Continue to drop as deep as you comfortably can into the squat, and then reverse the movement at the bottom by driving the ground away from you as you forcefully exhale, again as if through a straw. Engage your hip drive for a strong lock out. If you can, keep your core tight as you exhale in preparation for another deep inhale and squat.
Aim to drop your quads past parallel before taking advantage of your stretch reflex to launch yourself back up. Parallel in this instance refers to the angel of the femur, or thigh bone, to the ground. You will get maximum benefits and the least shear stress if you are able to get your hips below your knees when you squat, and practice makes permanent – so aim past parallel every single time.
Bodyweight Squat Fixes
If you find your torso tipping over your knees at the bottom of your squat, use wall-facing squats to drive in upright form. Stand in front of a wall, starting with your toes approximately 5 inches away from the wall. Put your hands down and out to the side, palms facing in towards the wall. Perform a bodyweight squat, remaining mindful of the way your knees track over your toes and the alignment of your shoulders with your ankles. At the bottom of your squat, it should be possible to draw a vertical line through your shoulders, mid thigh, and ankles.
Wall-facing squats help train you to sit back into the squat and track your shoulders (which will eventually hold a barbell) over the ankles rather than the knees for maximum stability. As it becomes easier to perform wall squats, inch your toes closer and closer to the wall as an effective way to train mobility.
Weak hip flexors can cause difficulty balancing while descending, and using a counter weight can help you train form while you train stability. Hold a weight out in front of you to give your body a little resistance to make sitting back into the squat more comfortable. Progressively lessen the weight as you become more confident maintaining posture all the way down into the hole.
A bit of knee travel past the toes is safe and natural, but if your heels come up from the ground or your knees hurt when you squat, the knees are working too hard and some load should be shifted to the larger muscle groups of your hips. Box squats at or slightly below parallel can help regroove your form. Find a suitable box (or chair) that can hold your weight and allows you to sit down with your legs at a 90 degree angle or less with your shins vertical.
To perform a box squat, stand facing away with your heels a few inches from from the box. Perform a bodyweight squat and slowly lower yourself down until you just touch the box, then drive back up. Do not plop down on the box or rest on the box, simply touch and go. The goal of the box squat is not to perform a negative squat from the bottom up, but to rework your squat form entirely as a single movement.
Practice your bodyweight squat every day, any chance you get. Squat until it is the most natural thing in the world to drop down into the hole and hang out there. There is really no such thing as overtraining the bodyweight squat. The more comfortable you are with the movement, the faster you’ll be squatting those big plates.