There’s no question that the full squat exercise is an essential, Primal movement, and yet many folks in modern, industrialized society are unable to properly perform one. Kids have good squat form (just watch them at play), but their parents are stiff at the hips with rounded backs and tight knee joints.
Many more have been taught – by health experts and personal trainers – that the full squat is dangerous, that it will destroy your knees with wear and tear and render you incapable of normal activity. They say a half-squat is perfectly adequate, or, better yet, get rid of the squat altogether and use the leg extension machine! (Actually, don’t.)
Disregard these “experts.” Squatting is a natural movement that humans are built to do. You don’t need to use a ton of weight (or any!), but you do need to be mobile and flexible enough to reach a full squat below parallel.
What Do Squats Do?
Squats serve a variety of practical purposes: they can help you arrive into a resting position, they’re a proper starting form for lifting, and they work the muscles of the lower body. A proper squat engages and works a host of muscles, like quadriceps, abdominals, glutes, calves, hamstrings, and hip flexors. When done correctly, squatting can build bone density, a key element in aging well.
How to Do a Squat
Stand with a comfortable stance. Most will prefer their feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart with toes turned out at a slight angle. Lower yourself by reaching back with your butt while maintaining a strong lower back. Keep your knees aligned with your toes and your toes on the ground.
Chest up, upper back tight, eyes looking forward and slightly down, head in a neutral position. Maintain a nice cohesive line along your spine. Go just below parallel, so that your butt drops below your knees.Come back up by pushing through the heel.
Proper Air Squat Form
Air squats, also known as body weight squats, can take pressure off of knees and still provide a ton of benefits. Learn, modify, and perfect your air squat over time using three squat progressions. If you’re already familiar with the motion but finding your squats result in knees caving, lower back or hip joints pain, your form might need a further tune up. Follow along with the video or these three progressions to get your squat into shape.
Squat Progression 1: Use an Assist
Find a supportive assist, such as a wall, bar, pole, or the back of a chair – anything that is sturdy and comes to about navel height. Come to a neutral position with feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees and explore your range of motion. Aim to achieve 20-30 of these assisted squats before moving on to Progression 2.
Squat Progression 2: No Assist, with a Spot
Use a box or a bench to act as a ‘spotter’ while working on your full squat form. When in the ‘sitting’ position, pull arms up and out ahead of you. Keep knees in line with toes, and keep feet just over shoulder width apart. At the lowest point in your squat, thighs should go parallel to the floor or the ground.
Squat Progression 3: You’re On Your Own
Take the bench away to move into a full air squat. Go as low as you can, and press upward through heels and not toes. You’ve now achieved air squat form!
Squat Variations & How to Do Squats at Home with No Bar
If you’re at home without a bar, looking to target specific muscles or modifying your squat for injuries or different abilities, consider adopting a few of these squat variations. For more detailed instructions on perfecting these variations, check out this article:
Band Zercher squats
Bulgarian split squats
Resistance band split squats
Walking lunges and Reverse Lunges
Tempo squat jumps
How Many Squats Should I Do?
If you’re an absolute beginner, first be able to nail the form just squatting your bodyweight. Focus on your mechanics for 10-15 reps, with 3 to 4 sets of these at a time. If this starts to feel too easy, rather than just crank out countless, mindless reps bouncing up and down, slow down the tempo and add a pause at the bottom of the squat. Once you get proficient, you can start adding weight.
A good general starting point for any workout is three to four “hard” sets – warmup sets don’t count. A hard set is one or two reps away from not being able to complete another rep with the same consistently good form. Plan for three hard sets, and attempt the fourth.
For rep counts, eight to ten reps is a good range for those looking to build muscle. Three to four reps can be helpful for getting stronger but not necessarily bigger. Split the difference with four to seven for a little bit of both. Find the rep count that works best for you. Expect to be somewhat sore in your legs a few days after the workout. If you’re not sore at all, you probably didn’t do enough to elicit a training response, but if you can’t walk correctly for a week, you probably did too much.
How Much Should I Be Able to Squat?
As a starting goal, everyone should be able to squat their own bodyweight, no matter their age. If you’re not there yet, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. It just means that you haven’t trained that muscle group yet. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you will achieve a bodyweight squat.
Once you start adding weight to the bar, use your own bodyweight to set benchmarks. First, aim to load your own bodyweight on the bar, as a beginner goal. Then go for 1.5 x bodyweight, with 2x bodyweight as a good long term benchmark to strive for.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.