There’s no question that the full squat exercise is an essential Primal movement, yet many folks in modern, industrialized society are unable to squat with perform form. Kids have good squat form. Just watch them at play. They squat with knees fully bent and feet flat to manipulate toys on the floor, pick up a rock or shell, examine a bug crawling on the ground, or get eye level with the family pet.
Adults should be able to do the same. A deep squat is one of the archetypal resting positions, meaning that we should all be able to hang out in a squat comfortably, chatting or doing small tasks. Unfortunately, though, most adults (and probably most older kids and teens) can barely get into a high squat with thighs parallel to the ground, much less a full “ass-to-grass” squat.
Worse, many folks 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. (Don’t!)
Disregard these “experts.” Squatting is a safe and natural human movement that offers a bunch of benefits for overall fitness and daily mobility—provided you use proper form, which is what we’re discussing today. You don’t need to use a ton of weight, but you do need to be mobile and flexible enough to reach a full squat below parallel.
Proper Squat Form
Proper form is more or less the same whether you’re doing an unweighted “air squat” (aka a bodyweight squat) or a weighted squat with a barbell or other equipment. It’s important to nail the basic form and become competent with the air squat before moving on to weighted versions.
Stand up—yes, right now—and try doing an air squat using the following cues for correct form:
1. Assume the starting position
Feet about shoulder-width apart. The best way to find the natural, comfortable distance for you is to jump straight up in the air a couple times with both feet, landing with knees soft. Stop and look down at your feet. How far apart are they? That’s a good place to start.
Toes flaring out about 5 to 20 degrees. Only turn your toes out as much as you need to feel comfortable. The more forward-facing, the better. (For squat variations with a wider stance, like sumo squats, toes will turn out more.)
“Screw” your feet into the ground. Imagine screwing your right foot clockwise and your left foot counterclockwise into the ground. Another good cue is “press the lateral heel,” meaning feel and focus on the outer half of your heel pressing into the ground.
Core tight. Brace before you squat and stay tight throughout the entire movement.
Neutral head position. The neck is part of the spine. Keep your eyes looking forward and slightly down to keep the head stacked on the spine.
2. Initiate the squat
Hips back. Imagine there’s a chair behind you, and you’re reaching back with your butt to find it. That’s how a squat should feel.
Knees lined up with feet. Keep your knees tracking towards your toes, making sure they don’t cave inward, known as “valgus.” (Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is ok if your knees extend slightly past your toes as long as you keep your hips back.)
Chest up, spine neutral. Keeping your chest up with a neutral spine (neither rounding forward nor arching back) will “aim” you in the right direction as you rise from the squat. This becomes especially important when you have weight on your shoulders.
3. Go as deep as you can without form breakdown
Some people will get all the way ass to grass (knees fully bent). Others will barely get their thighs parallel to the ground before their back starts rounding or all their weight goes into the balls of the feet.
Go as low as feels safe.
4. Return to standing
Press through your heels and reverse the move in one fluid motion, pressing your hips forward to return to a normal standing position.
Common Squat Mistakes to Avoid
How did that go? Try a few reps, making sure to avoid these common squat mistakes.
Breaking at the knees first. The squat starts by pushing your hips back, not bending the knees.
Letting your knees cave in. Valgus knee during a bodyweight squat might not be catastrophic, but with added weight or at high speed, knee valgus is a great way to tear a meniscus. To avoid knee valgus, think of the cue “knees out.”
Coming up on your toes. This can place a ton of undue pressure on the knee joint, especially if you’re squatting under a load, and you’ll have a hard time keeping an upright torso posture. Some “lean” is normal and expected, but if your heels have to lift off the ground, that indicates that you have tight calves and poor mobility in your ankles. Fix your calves before you do any serious squatting, and work on your ankle mobility.
Rising with hips first. I see this a lot. Rather than rise up from the squat in a single cohesive motion, people will raise the hips while keeping the chest close to the ground, so they end up bending forward instead of keeping the chest up. This turns the squat into more of a deadlift or good morning, taking the legs out of the equation and placing a ton of stress on the lower back. Think “chest up” as you rise.
Not breaking parallel. Research indicates that the greatest compressive and shear forces acting on a knee during a squat occur at 90 degrees, or when your thighs are parallel to the ground. Beyond 90 degrees (a deeper dquat), the compressive and shearing forces actually get smaller. It’s probably safer to stop short of parallel than it is to stop at parallel if you can’t get lower yet.
Collapsing or “dropping” into the bottom. Control the descent. If you’re dropping or collapsing into the bottom of a squat, you are more likely to get injured, get slack, and get sloppy. Think slower down, faster up.
Squat Progressions to Develop Good Squatting Technique
Squat progression 1: Use an assist
Find a supportive assist, such as a wall, bar, pole, or the back of a chair—anything sturdy. Hold on to it as you squat, exploring your range of motion. Aim to achieve 20 to 30 of these assisted squats with good form 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. Stand in front of the bench and reach back with your hips as if you’re going to sit down, keeping your arms in front of you for balance. When your butt or thighs just touch the bench, stand up.
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, not toes. You’ve now achieved air squat form!
Practice, Practice, Practice
To squat is to be human. It is to explore and inhabit the full range of our bodies’ motion. It is to remain mobile, agile, and effectively young. If you can achieve and sit in a full squat at age 70, you’ll be in the 99th percentile and, hopefully, avoid most of the physical ravages and functional degenerations associated with aging.
Take your time and ease into it. Thanks to the modern “conveniences” of chairs, sofas, and cars, most everyone has tight hips, quads, and Achilles and little experience in the proper squatting position. Achieving this stance right out of the gate may prove challenging. There is no rush here, no need to force anything. Avoiding injury is the utmost priority. This can mean taking baby steps over days, weeks, even months before you reach your goal. (Keep this in mind for all fitness goals.)
Once you achieve competency with the air squat technique, you can move on to weighted squats with a loaded bar across your back or another squat alternative (there are many to explore). Even if you’re hitting the squat rack at the gym and squatting twice your body weight, though, it’s still a good idea to do air squats throughout the day, or sit in a deep squat for a minute or two. Especially if you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair, these air squat microworkouts will reinforce and maintain mobility.
About the Author
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.