The squat is a very basic, functional human movement. You essentially “do squats” anytime you get into and out of a chair or couch, for instance. Or you may need to drop to the ground to pick something up, then stand back up again. (if picking up anything heavy at all, you’d want to perform a squat to lift the object, rather than bend over and try lifting with a rounded back). Understandably, we all therefore need to be able to perform this everyday movement properly, which makes this an optimal home exercise.
Lower back and knee pain—two very common complaints related to getting down and back up—are not normal results of exercise or aging, etc. Rather, they are the product of the cumulative effect of various abuses or neglect.
Inevitably, you may use dumbbells, bands or a weight belt (no massive barbell loaded on the fragile spine near the neck), but first we need to develop the most sound, safe and effective form for getting the most out of the squat movement. Because any problems with form done without any resistance/weights is only exacerbated by increasing the load. Let’s head off problems before they start or become worse.
If you’ve barely been moving around, start with some light warm-ups, ensuring your knees and legs overall are ready to do some exercise.
If you haven’t done any actual squats in a long while, start off practicing in and out of a chair first. You’ll be more free to test it, knowing the chair “has your back” in case you lose your balance. As noted, this is an ideal movement for your home workouts.
The first thing you’ll want to ensure is a stable stance to help you descend and come back up properly. Stand with your feet about shoulder width, toes either pointed forward or slightly out. To aid with balance (and keep you less inclined toward falling backward), feel free to point your arms forward. Look roughly straight ahead, not considerably up or down. Your abdominal muscles should be fairly tight and your shoulders back and down, with chest out. This will all help keep you from rounding your back as you reach the bottom of the movement.
The Critical Descent–Knees
Many think about the upward phase almost exclusively, envisioning coming up with the body to a standing position and feeling those quads (front, upper leg muscles) doing their work. But you create the story for your legs (and back) in the downward movement.
To descend, many people want to do so from their knees, but you should think of breaking down instead from the hips and stick the rear back. This automatically lessens the high tension your knees experience when you emphasize your weight upon them. It also ensures that the knees won’t move past your toes, as they should not be any more than the slightest bit beyond them, if at all. If you follow this advice, your knees will appreciate it!
Another cue is the way your feet are feeling. If you notice your heels raising, then you’re likely over-emphasizing your knees in the movement. Your weight should be more toward the heel than the front of the foot. (see pic below for example of knees in poor position with heel raised)
The Critical Descent–Back
Your back should maintain a very natural, slight curve, not a dramatic arch. Ideally, you would descend until your thighs are about parallel to the ground. If you feel your back starting to round a little, that’s alright, but only a small amount. As well respected strength coach Eric Cressey notes, “Flexion is fine (and a normal functional task) when it isn’t accompanied by compressive loading.”
Since we won’t be compressing the spine with heavy barbells, a bit of rounding is actually acceptable if done with focus. Still, to ensure you don’t overdo this, keep your abs engaged (tight) to help your back remain reasonably neutral.
When you’re doing these without a chair to sit in, only go down as far as you comfortably can, where your back isn’t excessively rounding or your knees aren’t buckling just to get the extra depth. It’s always better to guarantee quality and safety over quantity. Instead, you may need to work some on flexibility, though that can at least partly be remedied just with repetition. The more you practice this movement, the more you’ll gradually be able to descend further.
Coming Back Up
As you engage your quads (upper legs) to drive you back up out of your seated position, you want to be sure you are coming up from your hips, just as the hips were your focus in going down. Because if you start your ascent by raising your shoulders, it’s going to create considerable strain on your lower back. The hips and shoulders, instead, should come up at the same rate, as James Wilson of MTB Strength Training Systems aptly emphasizes.
If you focus on intensely driving up from your heels (ensuring you’re warmed up sufficiently), your quad muscles will feel it! This is also where you’ll note safe and effective form, as coming up on the balls of your feet will indicate too much weight distributed toward your knees, so just refocus on the heels and coming back down the next time from your hips, sitting back into the lowered position.
I’ve noticed that if I squeeze the glutes at the top for 1-2 seconds after coming up, it makes dropping down from the hips much smoother! You’ll have to make that determination yourself though. Also note the longer you contract there, the more time you’re not keeping your upper leg muscles under tension. Generally, the less rest between repetitions, the more effective the exercise.
Whether you can only do one, or 100, focus on the form in the manner noted in the article. Details are critical in all exercise movements, and this is no exception. As noted, the focus for this at home workout movement isn’t to lift enormous poundages, but to greatly stimulate your quad muscles while, most importantly, ensuring the safest path to do so.