Build muscle and torch fat by perfecting your squats
The barbell back squat is rightly known as the king of the lower-body lifts and the move – along with its key variations – should be a major fixture in any smart weight-training programme.
What makes squats so important, whether your fitness goal is to lose fat or burn muscle, is that they work every major muscle in your lower body – the quads, hamstrings and glutes – and all the small but significant stabilising muscles too. And once the weight on the bar starts stacking up, the benefits rack up too, because your heart and lungs must work overtime to pump blood and oxygen to your legs and glutes, while other muscles, including your core, lower back and lats also fire up to keep your torso in the perfect position to squat safely.
So the sooner you get better at squatting, the quicker you’ll get leaner, bigger and stronger. Here’s how to master the movement to maximise your physique and performance gains.
Don’t drop your chin
Once you have the bar on your back pick a point on the wall in front of you and focus on it. Keep looking at that point as you squat down and then drive back up. Having a focus point will prevent you from dropping your chin down towards your chest, which has a chain reaction effect of moving your upper spine so you hunch forwards. This makes it far more difficult to complete the lift once you get to the most difficult reps at the end of the set. You might also want to avoid staring at yourself in the mirror because that can be distracting, can’t it, you handsome devil?
Keep your elbows down
Push your elbows forwards so they point straight down to the floor before you start the first rep. It might feel slightly uncomfortable at first but it will allow you to maintain a stronger body position when you squat, because when your elbows point back behind you – as opposed to down towards the ground – it forces your shoulders to internally rotate, which makes it harder to keep your spine upright and neutral. Pushing your elbows forwards will also help you to engage your big and powerful lat back muscles, which will further stabilise your upper body.
Align your knees and toes
Plant your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly: imagine a clock face with your left foot pointing to ten and your right foot pointing to two. Simultaneously bend at the knees and hips to lower your backside towards the ground and as you squat down keep your knees in line with your toes. It doesn’t matter if the knees go over the front of your toes but avoid your knees turning or rolling inwards. You can spread your knees slightly at the bottom of the squat to open your hips and sit lower then squeeze them back in to initiate the upwards movement.
Keep your heels down
Your weight should be on your heels and mid-foot throughout the lift. If you go onto the balls of your feet you’re putting yourself into a weaker position and piling pressure on your knees. One reason people struggle to keep their heels down is because of tight hamstrings so stretch them out by squatting with your back against a wall and hugging your knees in to your chest. It doesn’t matter if your spine curves because, in this drill, you’re not carrying external load and the aim is to achieve the deepest possible squat.
Keep your chest up
If you want to lift as much weight as possible without increasing your risk of injury then keep your chest up throughout the move. When your chest drops down your spine will flex (bend forwards), and that’s the last thing you want when you’ve got a heavy bar on your back. Maintain an upright chest by taking a deep breath before you lift and holding the air in your lungs as you squat down. Once you begin to rise up from the bottom position exhale forcefully through pursed lips as you return to the start position.
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