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Squat Master Class

Build bigger, stronger legs with the "King of Exercises" – the barbell squat. This squatting seminar will provide the basis of your lower body training.

squat techniques and tips

Note: The above video was recorded as Facebook Live tutorial in conjunction with the Train With Jim Tabata Builder program.

Squat Key Points

  • The barbell squat is a foundational exercise for maximizing size and strength in the legs and for improving performance in countless sports and athletic endeavors.
  • The key part of the body to focus on when squatting is the butt – you should be pushing it back as you descend into your squat. If you have a hard time doing this in fear that you’ll fall backward, the box squat is a great exercise variation to implement.
  • Different areas of the lower body (quads, glutes, hamstrings) can be targeted by changing the biomechanics of the squat through numerous variations: namely, high bar and low bar squats; wide-stance versus narrow-stance squats; and even light high-rep sets versus heavy low-rep sets.
  • Lack of ankle flexibility can be a limiting factor in squatting range of motion. A simple fix (as you work on increasing flexibility) is to raise your heels while squatting by way of weight plates, wood blocks, or special lifting shoes with raised heels.

In the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding, the squat is arguably the most technical exercise there is, with the largest skill component. But it’s also the best mass-building movement known to man for the lower body, so it’s worth learning how to do it correctly to build size and strength in the safest manner possible.

Squat Step-by-Step Overview

  1. Stand with a barbell resting across your upper traps, holding it with your hands to keep it stable.
  2. Position your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, face forward, and push your chest out slightly so your back arches naturally.
  3. Squat down with the weight as if sitting in a chair, pushing your butt back, keeping your feet in full contact with the floor, and maintaining the arch in your back.
  4. When your thighs reach at least parallel with the floor, push yourself up through your heels, extending your knees and hips, to return to the standing position.

Note: I'll be adding exercise photos to this article in the coming days to illustrate the different variations I cover in this Master Class. Until I get those photos shot, edited, and loaded into the article, reference the above video for images and demonstrations.

Anatomy of the Squat

When we talk about squatting, there’s one bodypart in particular that’s always mentioned first and foremost, and for good reason: the ass.

When doing a squat, at least on the descent, you always want your ass (glutes) moving back. And the reason why has to do with your center of gravity – you want your center of gravity to be as far back as possible. This is challenging, of course, because you have a barbell on your shoulders that wants to push your center of gravity forward, so you’re fighting against that to stay back.

The last thing you want when squatting is for your center of gravity to move too far forward. When it does, you’re going to round your lower back and flex at the spine. Doing this with weight on your back is very dangerous for the health of your spine.

You generally know when your center of gravity is too far forward because your heels come off the floor and your knees move forward and past your toes. This is NOT what you want. The heels should stay on the floor throughout the squat.

One interesting thing about squats is that it’s actually harder to keep your center of gravity back when using very light or basically no weight (like a broomstick or unloaded barbell) versus a loaded barbell. When you have a substantial weight on the bar (even just 135 pounds), it helps keep you back. If you’re an experienced lifter, you know how to use that weight to stay back; novices and beginners are more prone to letting the weight pull them forward, which is why starting off light and honing squatting technique is crucial.

A bodyweight squat is great to use as a warm-up and to practice proper form, but it’s best to counterbalance your weight by putting your arms out in front of you; this will help you stay back on your heels.

Box Squats for Better Center of Gravity and More Power

So, what should you do if you have trouble keeping your center of gravity back when squatting? Try bringing a plyometric box into the exercise and squatting down to it – powerlifters call this specific variation a box squat.

Having the box beneath you gives you something to squat down to. It also stops your momentum. On a normal squat (without a box), you go down and then come right back up. As you lower down, you’re storing energy in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes so that as you come up you get a little snap, just like an elastic band. That little bounce you get out of the hole at the bottom of the squat is the elastic property resulting from the stretch in the muscles right before contracting to stand back up.

With box squats, you’re not going right back up, so you lose some of that elastic energy. Stopping at the box makes the squat a little bit more like a deadlift, because you’re coming out of the hole from a dead stop instead of bouncing back up with the help of the stored energy and the elastic effect. Coming from a dead stop like this is a great way to build power in the lower body.

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