You’re Doing it Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to the Squat Part 1

athletic young woman performing a squat exercise on a concrete bench near water

This is a guest blog post by Adam Farrah, author of The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Link and Functional Fitness, Kettlebell, Yoga and Meditation coach.

Squatting is arguably the most important functional human movement, and requires flexibility, strength, and balance, but without proper form, it can result in painful knees, pulled backs, and interrupted progress.

A perfect squat takes the trainee through a full range of motion, from standing to squatting down with the head and chest raised, back relatively flat, and thighs parallel to the ground. From this “bottom” position, the glutes and hamstrings are then activated to extend the hips and lift the body back up into a standing position.

Between “squatting down” and “standing up” a lot can go wrong however, so we’re bringing you this Ultimate Guide to show you how to:


Focus on Squatting First

As a coach, the very first thing I do with a new client is fix their squat. Notice that I didn’t say “check.” I said “fix.”

Almost universally, people have squatting problems—even trainees who have worked with other coaches or done various “advanced” classes or programs.

A strong squat is the foundation for virtually everything in functional training. The deadlift requires strong squat mechanics. The kettlebell swing requires strong squat mechanics. And, obviously, squatting with any kind of weight or resistance requires proper squat mechanics. Plus, more advanced barbell movements like the clean, clean and jerk, snatch, thruster, and more also require strong squat mechanics.

“But All This Form Stuff Is Boring…”

Focusing on perfecting squat mechanics is very much a case of “slowing down to go faster.” A little time spent here will pay off big time in terms of injury prevention, achievement of athletic potential, and overall health—particularly when it comes to the knees, hips and spine.

Spending a little time up front on the squat is also a good investment because if great squat mechanics are practiced regularly, they become ingrained patterns of movement. So set up this foundation early on and practice it, and it will become so habitual that you’ll require very little maintenance or instruction to keep it.

Okay. Let’s look at some of the things that can get in the way of great squatting form.

Why Squatting Goes Bad

The major reason squatting goes bad for most people is sedentary, modern living.

Too much sitting results in tight, inactive hip flexors, a weak and overly flexible lower back, a closed chest and hunched upper back, tight hamstrings, and a tendency to lean forward when squatting.

(By the way, if you want to geek out on this sitting stuff and what it does to our bodies, check out Kelly Starrett’s excellent book Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World.)

The short answer to the above problems is simple but difficult in the modern world:

Sit as little as you possibly can, and do daily flexibility drills to offset the damage caused by the sitting you can’t avoid.

Common Squat Problems

1) Initiating with Knees, Hip Flexors Inactive

One of the biggest problems I see in people with sedentary jobs is a strong tendency to initiate a squat by bending the knees. Essentially, their hips are completely switched off from too much sitting, and the only way they know to “squat” is by bending the knees and “scooping” forward.

man squatting with knees collapsing inward

2) Knees Knocking In

A second common problem with the squat is knees that “knock in.” This is caused by poor flexibility in the hip structure, as well as not being able to sit down deep in the bottom position.

Sometimes, basic squat form is OK, but there’s a little “knock” of the knees at the start of the concentric part of the movement. The latter is a minor version of the same problem, and it’s corrected using the same coaching cues and tools.

man squatting with knees collapsing inward

Knees are unstable and knocking in. The outsides of the feet are coming off the floor.

3) Back Rounded

This common fault is caused by both a lack of upper back flexibility and a weak lower back. If the back is rounding during an unweighted squat, back injury is almost guaranteed if the form is left uncorrected and weight is added.

man squatting with rounded back

Back is rounded. Note how the chest is collapsed over onto itself. This is a weak position that will be hard to breathe deeply from.

4) Torso Leaning Too Far Forward

This squat issue is caused by poor hip and hamstring flexibility, as well as a weak lower back and core. If a trainee is leaning forward too much in an air squat, this can acutely or chronically injure the back once weight is added—particularly the lower back.

man squatting with bent over chest

Torso leans too far forward. This is a really unstable squat once weight is added.

Coming up Next

Check out The Ultimate Guide To The Squat, Part 2 where we we’ll show you even more advanced techniques to help you fix your broken squat.


Also published on Medium.