One of the most primal movements that humans can do is the squat. Any kind of squat progression helps develop your body’s strongest muscles.
Even as babies, just learning to walk, we squat down to pick up our toys. Growing into adulthood, squats become a component of just about every functional movement we do.
Running, walking, and bending down to pick things up can all be traced back to good, healthy squats.
However, as we get older, we get more serious about our health and fitness. When we start hitting the gym, many of us jot down “good squat form” or “increase squat weight” as arbitrary goals.
Great squats perk up your athletic performance. For example, the squat lets athletes develop their legs and gluteal muscles which are considered prime movers for exercises like running and jumping.
Clearly, the squat is an all-powerful move. Yet for some reason, many of us feel intimidated by squatting.
Have you ever walked into the gym and seen someone hovering around the squat rack?
They look like they want to be brave enough to step up to the barbell and try out a heavy squat.
But increasing your squat weight can be super intimidating and feel vulnerable if you’ve never done it before.
Let’s take a look at squat technique and some progressions you can use to work up to squatting with a barbell.
This article will take you from point (A) to point (B)arbell back squat. Let’s lock in and squat it out.
How do Squats Work?
To begin, “squat” refers to any move where you bend your knees to bring your body downwards into a squatting position. All you need to do is lower your hips and stand back up.
It seems simple, but a lot happens in your body during a squat. Your hip and knee joints are flexing (bending to create a smaller ankle), while your ankle goes through dorsiflexion as you squat down.
That means your foot gets closer to your shinbone.
When you stand up, the hips and knees extend (open up to reduce the angle at the joint). Now, your ankle plantarflexes (the foot moves away from the leg).
Squats— Muscles Worked
Squats target the muscles of your legs, like the quadriceps femoris, hamstrings, and calves.
They also work muscles of your butt: your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. You can achieve a great butt shape by doing squats.
This move works into the lower back as well. Your erector spinae (spinal flexor) muscles help you keep your back straight when you load weight onto a squat. All in all, squats are some of the best full-body moves you can perform.
Now, let’s get into a little terminology. When we use the term “squats,” usually in a gym context we are referring to the barbell back squat.
This is a weight-loaded squat where you take a 45 lb barbell loaded with weight plates across your back to increase your load.
Bracing your core and bent arms, you hold your weight up and then descend into the squad using the weight for resistance.
If someone asks you “What’s your squat weight?” they’re typically referring to your one-rep max (the most you can lift with proper technique for a single repetition) of your barbell back squat.
But even if you don’t choose to go heavy, on the dancefloor or at the gym, any movement where you’re bending your knees to drop your body down low is a squat.
Babies can squat, animals can squat. Maybe even your grandma can squat. Even without adding weight, the squat is an important move to master for balance and stability.
Let’s explore a couple of squat variations and progressions. We’ll start from a simple unweighted squad, and work ourselves up into a barbell back squat using weight.
To perform a proper squat you’ll have to get a little technical. Your feet should be planted just wider than hip-width away from each other with your toes slightly turned out. A 30° angle on average is a good amount of turnout for your squat.
Think about making the motion of sitting on a chair when you drop into your squat. Keeping your chest and shoulders upright, sink your hips down and back like you’re coming to sit on a chair.
As you descend, keep your knees tracking in line with your toes. You don’t want them to buckle inwards or flare outward. This will throw off your alignment and put your knees at risk, especially if you’re working under a heavy weight.
Make sure your knees don’t extend past your toes once you’ve come to the bottom of the squat. You want to drop down so your knees are at a 90° angle or slightly lower.
Now here comes the fun part. Driving up and out of your squat is a bit of a complicated process. We’ve all seen the #GymFail compilations.
These are the ones where someone goes for a heavy squat PR and has to bail or gets pulled over backwards. Not only is this embarrassing, it can be dangerous or shake up your confidence.
To avoid going viral for the wrong reasons, A) make sure to secure your weights once you start to use them and B) drive through your heels to push yourself up and out of the bottom of your squat.
Dumbbell Goblet Squat
Goblet squats help you get familiar with working with a load. that being said, using a dumbbell you can go later than you would with a barbell.
In this variation, you’re working with the load in front. So you get more of a counterbalance than you would using a back squat.
To do a dumbbell goblet squat, hold a dumbbell vertically clutched to your chest with both hands.
Keep your elbows tight to your body. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider with your toes slightly turned out. Lower your body by bending your knees and hips. Make sure your back stays straight and your chest up as you drop your body.
Drop down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Push through your heels to return to the starting position, engaging your quads and glutes.
Barbell Back Squat
They don’t call barbell back squats the “king of exercises” for nothing.
To do a proper barbell back squat, place a barbell across your upper back, resting it on your trapezius muscles (across the tops of your shoulders).
With your feet shoulder-width or more apart, and toes slightly turned out, engage your core and chest to drop into your squat. Bend your knees and hips, and drop until your thighs make a 90-degree angle with the ground.
Push through your heels to return to standing. Make sure you keep your knees aligned with your toes and keep tension in your lower body during this move.
Pro tip: Many lifters find the transition from dumbbells to barbells challenging. Find a friend who knows how to properly spot a squat to help you out.
Barbell Front Squat
There’s debate on whether the front squat or the back squat is harder, and hey! That depends on your anatomy. If you have bad shoulder, ankle, and hip mobility, but a relatively strong back, you may prefer the back squat variation.
One isn’t necessarily “harder,” it’s mostly a preference. That being said, shaking things up and trying the other version when you’re not happy with one can help you up your weight.
To do a barbell front squat, start by placing a barbell across the front of your shoulders. Rest it on your anterior deltoids (the front part of your shoulders).
Cross your arms over the bar to hold it with an overhand grip. Bring your feet shoulder-width apart or a bit wider. Turn your toes out slightly.
Lower your body by bending your knees and hips, keeping your chest up to bring your thighs parallel to the ground. Squat down to 90 degrees or slightly deeper if you can.
To come back up, drive through your heels to come back to the standing. Keep an upright torso and chest throughout your movement.
How to Increase Your Squat Weight?
Start With Squats
This is a simple one, but make squats are the first heavy lifting move you do on your leg day after your warm-up.
When you’re getting into weightlifting a lot of new gymgoers make the mistake of not thinking about the order they’re doing their exercises in.
When it comes to a move like a squat that requires a lot of power, you want your legs to be as fresh as they can be.
Working your muscles once they’ve been freshly warmed up but haven’t gone through enough exercises to be sore yet is the sweet spot you want to hit.
Atomic Habits author James Clear wrote on his blog about how he improved his squat weight from 175 to 350 lb in just 16 weeks. Want to know his method? Making squats the priority. When you focus on one movement as being the goal of your workout, your mind and body both make space to prioritize this.
If you say to yourself, “Squats are my priority and I will devote my energy to improving my squats”, you help to visualize your body increasing your squat weight, improving your technique, and staying focused.
Work on Your Grip Strength
One component of a squat that often goes overlooked is how we grip our barbells.
For barbell back squats, especially, the quality of your grip, and your wrist strength can make a lot of difference in how you grip your bar.
This will affect where the barbell sits on your back and shoulders.
Loose or weak wrists can cause you to hold the barbell too far back pulling your upper torso backward into the squat and sending you off balance (see gym fails above!).
Focus on improving the strength of your wrists and not letting your barbell drag your wrists backward.
Try to keep the wrists tense and cocked forward. This will help you maintain a neutral grip, the barbell will sit at a more comfortable position and your weight drive you down, rather than too far backward into your squat.
Swap Out Your Shoes
Many novice lifters don’t think footwear makes a big deal when it comes to heavy lifting.
But be warned.
Wearing shoes like running shoes that are too cushy, can absorb too much of the shock of your movement in a squat.
Although you may not think to go out and grab a new pair of shoes for the gym, it’s good to work with something that has a flat and stable sole.
You can get weightlifting shoes, which have a ramped sole that helps your body to stay leaning forward and keep your heels elevated in your squat. Some people prefer this for form.
But a good old pair of Converse Chuck Taylors will do in a pinch. Anything flat is good if you prefer a flat surface to a raised heel.
Some even squat barefoot. Although letting your socks slide around on the floor of a gym may feel icky, the technique is very sound, since it keeps your feet flat.
A stable surface is the most conducive to good squats. So make sure that your footwear can properly support your movement.
Work on Your Hip Mobility
Other than lower back pain or weak knees, having tight hip flexors is one of the biggest causes of pain when it comes to squats. If your hips hurt when you squat, you’re not alone.
Most of us as adults have bad hip flexors from too much sitting at sedentary desk jobs. This can add up and lead to poor mobility in your squats.
Working on better hip mobility will help you to really drive those hips back and lower your ass toward the grass.
Focus on warm-up work that opens up your hips before you squat. Leg swings or lying down on your back to make circles with the legs should do the trick nicely. If you want, you can also include a banded squat walk to get the muscles active.
Pro tip: Before you work on a heavy squat set, try to squat just to the bar a few times. If you’re an experienced lifter it may seem light to you. But working with a lighter weight like just the bar helps you to get into your range of motion.
As a goal, focus on really sending your hips backward and dropping your seat here. Aim to drop your hips below 90°. This should help you to envision what your squats should feel like once you eventually add weight onto your barbell.
If you like the resistance bands from your warm-up, you can also choose to do squats and deadlifts with resistance bands.
Each time you lift, go harder to get stronger. Simple, but effective. This principle in strength training is called progressive overload.
Although we usually apply this term to directly increasing the amount of weight you lift, evidence shows that increasing your number of repetitions can be equally effective for seeing muscular adaptations to a strength training program.
Everyone experiences volume load increases or weight increases slightly differently and there has been no conclusive evidence to show that there is a “better” way to progress.
So, getting a better range of motion in your squats can be progressive overload too. If you got an inch lower than you did the last time, you are still making progress.
In conclusion, squats are an ideal movement for all human beings to be doing if they’re capable. This move helps tone up your butt and helps sculpt the legs, back and core.
Progressions you can do to work up to a barbell back squat (you know, the intimidating one those big guys do in the cage-looking thing) include:
- Unweighted squats
- Dumbbell goblet squats
- Barbell front squats.
Although some people consider front squats harder than back squats, working up to one of these two versions is an impressive accomplishment indeed.
To increase your squat weight, try:
- Prioritizing squats at the start of your workout or as a main move
- Improving your grip strength
- Wearing flat shoes
- Improving your hip mobility
- Working towards progressive overload by upping your squat weight each time.
Remember to always follow a safe movement pattern so you don’t lean your upper body too far forward or back. Deep squats at a full range of motion will help you with building strength. This compound exercise can also help the health of your hip joints. It’s a great way to build muscle too!
Stand with your feet hip width apart or wider. Experiment with bodyweight squats, weighted squats or any variation you like. Always squeeze your glutes at the top.
Hopefully, these simple recommendations will have you squatting heavier in no time.
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