How to Squat Correctly

How to Squat Correctly

One of the most basic and essential barbell exercises is the squat. The squat is an exercise that allows an individual to strengthen their legs, back, and trunk and can provide a myriad of strength and athletic benefits depending on how the exercise is performed and programmed. Whether you are a football player looking to improve sports performance or a powerlifter seeking to add pounds to your total, the barbell squat can be programmed to deliver the desired training results. 

The Conjugate Method provides a template allowing the barbell squat to be utilized in many ways. At Westside, we perform squats in one of three ways: during max, dynamic, and repeated effort training. The selected squat exercises can range from a basic barbell or SSB squat to giant cambered bar box squats with forward-pulling bands. A squat variation is a tool, and how we choose to utilize that tool dictates the training outcomes we can expect.

However, to attain expected training results, the athlete must be able to perform a barbell squat proficiently. Failure to execute squat exercises with optimal form leads to reduced training effectiveness, an increased risk of overuse injuries, and an increased risk of catastrophic injury. 

As you can see, the squat is a rewarding exercise when performed correctly, but it can set an athlete back if performed without proper form and intent. At Westside, we have taught and corrected squat techniques for many athletes seeking to improve their lower body strength, explosive power, muscle mass, and endurance. 

The Anatomy of a Squat

The barbell squat is an exercise that involves and challenges many different muscle groups. This is what makes the squat such an effective exercise: the ability to target multiple muscle groups simultaneously while performing a basic barbell movement. Here are the major muscle groups involved in a barbell squat:

Anterior Chain:


Abdominals / Trunk

Hip Flexors

Posterior Chain:




Erector Spinae

As you can see, the squat trains all the essential lower-body muscle groups efficiently and effectively. This simple barbell exercise is an incredibly valuable training tool for all athletes. No matter the sport you’re preparing for, there is no doubt all of these above-listed muscle groups play a significant role in the execution of basic sports movements. 

At Westside, we utilize a variety of specialty barbells and special exercises to target each of the above-listed muscle groups most effectively. These exercises are included to improve the overall technical mastery of the squat while placing specific emphasis on anterior or posterior muscle groups. These exercises enhance squat strength and coordination and help to build a complete athlete. 

Basic Squat Execution

When thinking about squat execution, it is essential to remember that no two athletes will squat or perform any lift the same way. For this reason, effective squat coaching is achieved by providing movement guidelines and parameters instead of strict rules that all athletes must follow without considering biomechanical advantages and disadvantages. 

Barbell lifts are best coached by providing an athlete with basic instructions that can be easily followed while leaving room for the athlete to find their groove and move most efficiently. Remember that no matter how well-educated or capable a coach is, nobody knows how an athlete should move more than the athlete. Proprioception plays a tremendous role in technical mastery; only the athlete knows how they feel under the barbell.  

Here are the basic guidelines we use to coach the barbell squat at Westside Barbell:

First, ensure the rack elevates the barbell to the proper height for a comfortable unrack. For most athletes, this will be the height that places the barbell in the middle of the chest as you walk up to the bar.

Next, set the hands up properly. We recommend that athletes set their hands wide enough for the torso to remain as vertical as possible throughout the movement. The width of the grip will ultimately be determined by the width of the athlete’s back and the shoulder mobility they possess. 

Now that the hands have been properly set, we can bring the torso underneath the barbell and set the barbell on the back. This can be done one of two ways - high bar or low bar. Where you place the barbell will largely depend on your trunk and torso size. Typically, leaner athletes benefit from using the high bar position, considering stability and lack of torso lean associated with high bar squatting. 

Larger athletes can choose to squat high bar or low bar. Large athletes typically benefit from increased trunk and torso size when using a low bar position, allowing for the spinal flexion and torso lean created by the low bar position to be more tolerable. Low bar also gives a large athlete a biomechanical advantage over the barbell, considering the differing hip and knee flexion levels associated with high bar and low bar squatting. 

Once you have determined how to carry the barbell, it is time to unrack it. Unracking the barbell to squat will differ depending on whether you use a typical squat rack or a monolift. 

You must unrack and walk the weight out to complete your set when using a basic squat rack. This means an athlete must stabilize, unrack the barbell, walk the barbell out, restabilize, and complete the movement. To do this most efficiently, we want to unrack the barbell with our torso braced as much as possible. Then, we want to take as few steps as necessary to walk the bar out. Two steps are preferable, but if it takes a few extra steps to get your feet set, so be it. Once the feet are set, the athlete will restabilize as much as possible. 

When using a monolift all we have to worry about is bracing properly and unracking the barbell. With the monolift, there is no need to be concerned about walking out the weight and finding our foot placement, considering we can place our feet properly before standing up with the barbell. 

Now that we have unracked the barbell, it is time to initiate the eccentric portion of the squat. The first move should be a slight sit back of the hips to reduce the amount of forward knee travel as we descend. This is not a significant sitting back of the hips, just a slight movement rearward to give the knee joint and quads a break and maximize the use of the hips, glutes, and hamstrings. 

As we sit the hips back, we will simultaneously break at the knees to lower the barbell. During the descent, maintaining a torso as vertical as possible with the trunk adequately braced is critical. The torso position will ensure we maintain control of the barbell, while the trunk brace will act as the brake pad once we transition to the concentric portion of the squat. 

While lowering the barbell, we want to maintain a vertical shin position by opening the knees up as much as necessary, depending on the width of our stance. This will help ensure efficient lateral and vertical force transfer to the barbell, creating a stronger and more explosive squat movement. 

Once we have completed the eccentric phase of the squat, it is time to reverse the weight and complete the concentric phase of the lift. Provided you have followed the above advice, all that should be left to do is apply adequate force and move the barbell back to the starting position. As the exercise is completed, we will maintain our trunk brace and control the barbell as we return it to the rack. 

The Benefits of Squatting

The squat may be the most beneficial movement for all athletes out of the big three barbell lifts. Aside from the deadlift, which can cause issues with fatigue if performed too often, no other barbell lift challenges as many major muscle groups as the squat. Not only does the squat make an athlete bigger and stronger, but it does so rapidly and efficiently. 

When you program a squat or squat variation into your training program, you can guarantee you won’t waste your time. At Westside, we use the squat and its many variations to make athletes bigger, stronger, faster, and better conditioned. When considering the number of squat variations and the ability to adjust volume and intensity to manipulate the training effect further, you can see how the squat is a Swiss Army knife-type exercise. 

The greatest benefit is that squatting will improve lower body absolute strength. As an athlete, it is vital to increase the absolute strength you possess constantly. Absolute strength is the king of all strengths and determines your maximum strength, power, speed, and endurance. This is achieved by regularly including squat variations during max effort lower training. 

The next benefit of squatting is developing lower body explosive power. At Westside, we use the squat and its many variations to perform dynamic effort lower body training. This is done using a three-week wave format, training at specific intensity levels to achieve optimal barbell velocity. 

The final benefit of squatting is developing lower body muscle mass and endurance. At Westside, we use the repeated effort method when performing our accessory work. Often, if an athlete lacks lower body muscle mass or work capacity, we program accessory squat work at moderate to high volume and moderate to low intensity.

The squat is an excellent tool to build muscle and improve conditioning, considering the number of muscle groups involved and the energy required to perform multiple multi-rep sets. 

Common Squat Mistakes

Depending on your level of experience, you can make various mistakes when performing a barbell squat. However, almost every athlete makes a few common mistakes regardless of their level of strength or experience. The effectiveness of your squat training depends on your ability to avoid errors and perform technically proficient repetitions, so it is essential to know what habits to avoid when squatting. 

Here are a few of the most common squat mistakes we have seen athletes make over the years:

Weak Unrack: This occurs when an athlete sets their rack height incorrectly or fails to brace properly before lifting the barbell out of the squat rack. Either way, a weak unrack will cause immediate instability in the squat setup and typically result in poor execution. With the squat, you finish as well as you start, so a poorly managed unrack can lead to disaster. 

Weak Brace: This can occur before or after lifting the barbell from the rack. A weak brace means what it says: your brace is weak or nonexistent. This happens due to improper breathing, with the athlete failing to create adequate intra-abdominal pressure. A weak brace will also lead to our next common squat mistake. 

Excessive Torso Lean: This mistake occurs when an athlete fails to brace correctly or does not have the strength to control the barbell properly. This results in the torso leaning forward, placing significant strain on the lower back. When this happens, the athlete will look like they are performing a good morning instead of a proper barbell squat.

Collapsing Chest: This can occur due to poor bar placement or a weak upper back. A collapsing chest in the squat means the shoulders are rolled forward, placing great strain on the neck and upper back. This results in a loss of control over the eccentric portion of the lift and can lead to thoracic or cervical spine injury. 

Collapsing Knees: This occurs when the knees excessively collapse inward as an athlete applies force out of the hole to complete the concentric phase of the lift. This can occur due to weak hips, a poor trunk brace, or improper squat stance width. When left unchecked, collapsing knees can lead to catastrophic injury. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q: What is the proper way to use air to brace during a squat?

A: We want to breathe in deeply, using the air to expand the diaphragm and create adequate intra-abdominal pressure. When done correctly, your trunk will feel rigid and stable without feeling like you’re holding your breath. When done incorrectly, you will feel the air pressure in the chest and face, with the trunk and torso remaining noticeably unstable. 

Q: Should I wear a belt when squatting?

A: We recommend wearing a belt when performing a standard squat workout. However, if you are completely new to squatting, we do recommend training with lighter weights and no belt to develop fundamental movement skills without the assistance of a belt

Q: Should I wear knee sleeves or wraps when squatting?

A: Knee sleeves can be worn during any squat or lower body exercise. However, we typically save knee wraps for max effort training or if we plan on performing high or ultra-high rep squat sets and need additional assistance and support. 

Q: Box squats or free squats?

A: At Westside, we perform all our dynamic effort squats to a box. With max effort squatting, we will perform a mix of free and box squats. The key is to perform as many free squats during max effort training as necessary to remain proficient in competition-relevant movements. 

Q: What squat exercise variations are most commonly used at Westside Barbell?

A: We most often use the back squat, front squat, box squat, and squat vs. bands using a typical squat bar, safety squat bar, buffalo bar, or giant cambered bar. 

Find Your Form

Finding optimal form is one of the most critical aspects of successful barbell training. An athlete must take the time to practice the different barbell movements and see what setups and techniques work best for them as an individual. The idea that there are one-size-fits-all rules to barbell lifts is nonsense and disregards what we know about human biodiversity and biomechanics. 

No two athletes are the same. It is vital to develop techniques that make the most of all the biomechanical advantages an athlete may have while avoiding techniques that complicate the lift for the athlete. The goal is an efficient and effective movement pattern that provides optimal training while protecting the athlete from injury as much as possible. 

Finding the form and technique that works best for you is integral to your success in the gym. You do not want to waste time using techniques that are either ineffective, place you at a disadvantage, or increase the risk of injury. Don’t fall victim to one-size-fits-all approaches to barbell training form and technique. Do the work, develop your style, and reap the benefits of optimal squat training. 


Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.

Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics

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