How to Squat Without Pain
This article focus on the back squat and front squat as well and how to best perform those movements while minimizing possible issues. Just like in our How to Bench article, I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up the body. If you’ve got any questions, please reach out to us!
Foot Position and Shoes
Let’s start with where your feet should be. Usually, around hip-width or a little wider is comfortable for most people. Feet should be flat - meaning toes, middle of your feet, and heels should all be in contact with the ground. This doesn’t mean you need to collapse your arch, though. In fact, if you’re flat-footed, trying to keep an “active arch” might be something you should try.
As far as the angle of your feet pointing out - well, that depends on your personal comfort and hip anatomy. Somewhere between pointing straight ahead (0 degrees) and pointing out 45 degrees is the “good range”. I can’t say it would be very efficient to go any wider than that, but there is always an outlier. From there, picking your shoes gets a little easier. If you find that when in flat shoes or barefoot your depth is a little short, a heeled lifting shoe is often a good way to improve your ROM. The heel on the shoe allows you to make up for a decrease in ankle dorsiflexion (bending your foot up) and get a little deeper in the squat - this is commonly seen by people who cannot keep their heels down in the squat. If you’ve got plenty of ankle range of motion then maybe a flat shoe or barefoot is a better option for you - just be aware of the surface and make sure you have plenty of traction.
Knees and Accessories
I’m going to get this out of the way first: It’s ok if your knees go in front of your toes. Your heels don’t get to come up though. At some point or another, someone decided this was bad. But if you watch elite level lifters, especially Olympic Lifters, their knees go over their toes. No knee explosions. The knee position is secondary to your foot position, shoe wear, hip action, and anatomy. So, as long as you hit the depth you need and your feet stay in contact with the floor, we can follow a few simple guidelines. In general, when looking from the front or back, we want the knee to stay on top of the foot. I’ve heard knee over the instep and over the outside of the foot. Both are fine.
The extremes of either in or out are most likely not optimal. If you enjoy watching Olympic Weightlifting, often you will see after the catch in the clean as the athlete is standing back up there will be some inward movement of the knees. In theory, this allows the glute muscles to stretch, increasing tension and allowing the athlete to produce more force to stand up. I wouldn’t teach this to a novice, but this may be applicable to someone with years of experience. The same goes for knees WAY outside the knees. At some point, we’ve gone a bit too far with the “knees out” cue. A note I like to give people is “use enough force in your hips to not let your knees come in.” This helps us regulate force and possibly decrease some irritation in people ho have outer hip or knee pain when squatting.
When looking from the side, the forward and back position of the knee will be determined by a few things. First, your anatomy - if you have longer legs, often you’ll see the knees pushed forward a bit more than someone with shorter legs. Also, when squatting with a more upright torso (like front squat vs low-bar squat) this pushes the knee a bit further forward as the depth increases.
Wrapping your knees or using knee sleeves is a popular option seen across many recreational and competitive lifters. While it’s not necessary, there are some reported benefits. First, if you are competing, be sure to check the rules of your meet/federation to see what they allow - often the thickness and style of knee supports are outlined. Usually, people report increased comfort in the knees when squatting - this is likely linked to the light compression offered and keeping the knees “warm”. Now, with heavier wraps, the added compression can aid in extending the knees (think from the bottom of your squat to the top of your squat) and has some performance benefits - and this is why in many competitions, they aren’t allowed. Frequently, people who have “achy” or “creaky” knees have some discomfort when beginning to squat. A light knee sleeve or wrap like an ACE bandage can help with this as you begin.
Hips and Low Back
The main thing we’ll want to focus on here is just keeping the low back in the neutral range with a slight bias toward extension at the top of the squat. If we start at the top of the movement in either a front or back squat, the low back muscles we’ll definitely be active - resisting the force of the barbell trying to pull your shoulders forward. We don’t want to overextend though as that may produce some irritation in your low back over time.
As you lower into the bottom of the squat, it is normal to have a small amount of low back flexion relative to the starting position of slight extension. What is less than optimal, however, is full flexion and “rounding” of the low back in the bottom of the squat.
If you do notice that your low back is rounding a bit more than you would like, usually taking a slightly wider stance or turning your feet out slightly will help that issue. However, if you start to feel some pinching in the outside of your hips in the bottom position, you’ve probably turned your feet out or stood too wide.
Just like in the bench press, torque is a subject worth mentioning. Torque comes from the hips and this is what causes the knees to be “pushed out”. The two main ways to think about hip torque is either “Spread the floor apart” or “Screw your feet into the ground”. Both are similar to the shoulders in the bench press and either one will work - you’ll just have to find the one that applies to you or the person you are coaching.
Upper Back, Shoulders, and Head Position
Let’s start with the back squat. The upper back should be “tight” to support the bar and to resist getting folded forward. The amount of tension or pressure you use should be relative to the weight - that means don’t go all out on your lighter weight. Your tension should mirror the task at hand (I’m not sure if that is a famous quote but it sounds like it should be). Your shoulders will be pulled back to create a “shelf” to rest the bar on. Where exactly you place to bar on your back depends on your goals. The two options are “High-Bar” and “Low-Bar” and the reference point is usually where the bar sits in relation to the spine of the scapula (the bony ridge on your shoulder blade). The high bar squat will allow you to keep your torso a bit more upright when compared to the low bar position and is usually a bit easier to perform. In many cases, competitive powerlifters favor the low bar position as most find it is easier for them to lift the most weight in that position. Otherwise, I’d suggest just picking what you are most comfortable with for bar position.
I think the head position is one area that is overly debated on. Overall, I don’t think it really matters a ton as your head isn’t lifting the weight. Just keep your head and neck in a “neutral range” and go from there. Let’s keep it simple.
Hand position in the back squat honestly just depends on how flexible or not flexible you are, arm length, and what’s comfortable for you. For one, the hands have to be outside shoulder width or they’d get crushed between the bar and your shoulder. From there, sliding your hands out is fine as long as you can keep the bar on your back and keep the tension needed. Some wider-shouldered athletes will have their hands at the edge of the collars even. I suggest people trying thumb around bar grip first but the thumb over bar grip works as well - especially for low bar position as it will allow you to pinch the bar into your back a bit better. (see high bar/low bar pic above)
For the front squat, the bar will rest across your upper chest, anterior deltoid muscles, and clavicles (collar bones). You’ll need some upper back tension to counter the bar wanting to pull you forward as well. In most cases, we’ll want your elbows bent with hands under the bar - this is called the “Front Rack” position. For some people, this won’t be a position they can get in or is uncomfortable, so the “Crossed-Arm” position will be more comfortable. As long as you have a rack to lift the barbell out of, either will work.
Putting It All Together
Set your grip width
Get under the bar and tense your upper back
Place the bar across your back (high or low bar)
Keeping your torso braced, lift the bar up off the rack
Take a step back and get your stance width set (with experience this will come more naturally
Take a breath in and start lowering down
Once you reach your bottom position stand back up
Repeat, get stronger