The squat is one of the body’s most fundamental movement patterns. In fact, it’s quite possibly the most important exercise you can do.
After all, you squat whenever you sit down and stand up. Getting into a car requires both a squat and a twist. Read on for even more benefits of squats you may not have known about – and how to do them correctly.
Squats build stronger joints
Squatting opens and closes the joints of the ankles, knees, hips, and lower back, lubricating and bringing in important nutrients. Squats inherently strengthen the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments that comprise these key joints. This in turn improves knee and hip stability, which can help remedy many issues associated with common muscle imbalances we all experience from sedentary modern life.
And because squats are a weight-bearing exercise, they help increase bone density, especially in the large bones of the legs and pelvis.
Squats burn fat
The more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn throughout the day. Since the squat strengthens multiple large muscle groups at once and requires a lot of energy to execute properly, you’ll increase the number of calories you burn during a set of squats compared to, for example, leg extensions. Read: The Great Debate: Cardio vs. Weights
Here are all the muscles used in squatting:
Squats improve core strength and posture
Your “core” is more than just your abdominals – it’s pretty much your whole torso, front and back. When you hold a weight and perform a squat, your entire core must work to keep you stable and not fall over. This includes the muscles of the lower back, the inner spinal stabilizers, the mid-back, and the side and front abdominals.
When your core/torso strength improves, so does your posture. Posture is affected by both anterior (front) and posterior (back) muscles, as well as excessive internal shoulder rotation (a rounded upper back) – a common issue with typing at a computer for hours at a time.
Basic squat form
The safest and most functional way to perform squats, for most people, is by using dumbbells or any type of weight that can be held in the hands, such as a medicine ball, kettlebell, or even a bag of dog food (or kitty litter) in a pinch. If you’re just starting out, performing squats with only your body weight is a great option that will help you develop proper form for when you’re ready to step up to added resistance.
- Feet are hip width apart, or slightly wider if more comfortable
- Toes are pointing straight ahead
- Abdominals are braced
- Shoulders are back and down
- Arms are at sides, or out in front for added balance if needed
Initiating the movement:
- Begin by pressing the hips backwards
- Keep the weight in the heels and outside edges of the feet
- Bend the knees and lower down, keeping the knees tracking over the toes – don’t allow the knees to bow out or turn inward
- Lift the chest, press the shoulders back and down, and look straight ahead
Completing the movement:
- Continue pressing into the heels
- Lower down as far as possible, with a goal of getting the thighs parallel to the floor
- Keep pressing the hips back so the shins will be as close as possible to vertical (i.e. perpendicular to the floor)
- Squeeze the glutes and press through the heels to rise back up to the starting position
A few more pointers:
Shallow squats, where your thighs are not parallel to the floor (or nearly there) will mostly target the quadriceps muscles (fronts of the thighs) as these are the primary muscles involved in holding the body in position as you lower down. To engage the glutes requires going deeper into the squat.
That said, if you experience any pain in the knees, hips or lower back by going deeper, try the squat variation using a stability ball against the wall as demonstrated in the video below.
There are many different ways to perform a squat that allow specific muscles to be targeted, or to help improve basic squat form. Here’s a video with some great options!