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how to do a squat

Most strength-training routines, especially those designed for runners, will include squats and variations of the squat. It’s one of our main movement patterns as humans—one we perform every time we sit down and get up from a chair.

Squats are a functional exercise that benefit your joint and muscle health, as well as your posture—all of which are important for improving your running form and speed, explains Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., CEO and founder of TS Fitness in New York City.

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The squat also happens to build muscles you need for a strong, powerful stride, including the quadsgluteshamstrings, and your core. So it’s smart to incorporate this move into your workout schedule to help round out your training. The most important thing, though, is learning how to do squats properly.

Here, your guide to mastering a squat, including common mistakes, and variations that add a new challenge to your workouts.

How To Do Squats Properly

Ian Finestein, certified weightlifting coach and owner of CrossFit AR Strength in Allentown, Pennsylvania demonstrates how to do squats in the video above. Here’s what to keep in mind as you do this move:

The Set-Up:

Stance will vary slightly from person to person, Tamir explains, but your feet should be between hip- and shoulder-width distance apart, with your toes slightly turned out (between 5 and 15 degrees). Your spine should be neutral, shoulders back and down, chest open and tall. Make sure you keep your heels down and planted throughout the entire move. You can clasp hands in front of chest for balance.

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The Squat:

Initiate the movement by sending the hips back as if you’re sitting back into an invisible chair. Bend knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted in a controlled movement. Keep lower back neutral. Press through heels to stand back up to the starting position. Repeat.

Aim to get thighs at least parallel to the floor. To do this, squat down so your thighs are even with your knees. If mobility allows, lower further. As you come back up, make sure hips are set right under your ribs—you don’t want your hips to pull too far back, Tamir says.

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Common Mistakes People Make When Doing Squats

Sacrificing form can lead to injury and will make the move ineffective. Common mistakes Tamir and Finestein see include:

  • heels lifting off the ground, shifting the weight onto the toes—this often happens if you start the moves by bending the knees, rather than sending the hips back
  • allowing the chest to fall forward
  • curving the upper body and spine, creating a hunchback
  • losing the neutral spine position in the lower back, particularly at the bottom of the exercise if you’re going low (often called the “butt wink”)
  • standing with feet too wide or too narrow
  • not controlling the movement or rushing through reps
  • allowing the knees to cave in instead of keeping them tracking over toes
  • not going deep enough by stopping with knees at a 90-degree bend

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What are the benefits of squats?

“Squatting is one of the most functional movements you can do,” Tamir says. “It’s great for the health of joints, creating strength, improving posture, and requires a lot of core work.” A bodyweight squat engages your core, mobilizes your hips, knees, and ankles, and builds strength in your glutesquads, and hamstrings. Plus, you can do a bodyweight squat anywhere.

Another great perk to squats: There are tons of variations you can add to your routine so you don’t get sick of doing them.

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How often should you do squats?

It depends on what your goal is, Tamir says. If you’re looking to build endurance, you should do 3 to 4 sets of at least 12 reps. You’ll want to adjust your reps per set if you want to build muscle—aim for 8 to 12 reps with weight. And if you’re looking to build maximum strength, do no more than 6 reps with a heavy weight.

The same goes for frequency: If you’re building endurance with bodyweight squats or lighter weights, you can perform the move more frequently as it’s not as taxing on muscles and you don’t need as much recovery. You can do bodyweight squats 3 to 4 times a week. even more if you want.

If you’re focusing on strength-building, using heavy weights will put more strain on your muscles. So, if you’re incorporating weighted squats, this can vary between 2 to 3 times a week. You’ll want ample recovery time, so you don’t cause injury from overtraining, Tamir says.


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7 Squat Variations to Add to Your Workouts

Once you learn how to do squats properly, there are tons of variations to try, Tamir says. You can add these variations to your workout or sub one in your circuit in place of a regular squat. Finestein shows you how to do each variation.

Dumbbell Squat

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Why it works: Adding resistance in the form of weights will increase your strength and power.

How to do it
: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells at shoulders, with abs engaged. Send hips back and down, bending knees to lower into a squat. Press feet into ground to stand back up. Repeat.


Jump Squat

Why it works: Adding a plyometric element to the squat—a quick jump—increases your heart rate, making this a cardio-strength combo move that will boost endurance and reaction time.

How to do it: Stand with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out. Send hips back and down, bending at knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted. You can swing arms back for momentum. Press through feet to explode up, jumping vertically in the air. Land softly and immediately send hips back down into a squat. Repeat.


Goblet Squat

Why it works: Add another level of difficulty to a regular squat by holding the weight in front of the chest. This will force you to further engage your core to keep the chest lifted, as well as increase your grip strength. This can help you build up to heavier weights or barbell back squats.

How to do it: Hold a kettlebell by the horns or a single heavy dumbbell vertically in front of your chest. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out. Send hips back and down, bending knees to lower into a squat. Keep chest lifted. Drive feet into ground to stand back up. Repeat.

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Sumo Squat Pull to Press

Why it works: sumo squat requires your feet to be even wider, forcing you to further engage your inner thighs (adductors), and the adjusted position may challenge your balance. Make it a combination movement by holding a kettlebell and adding a pull and a press at the top.

How to do it: Stand with feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out about 45 degrees, holding a kettlebell down in front of you with both hands. Squat down and tap the kettlebell on the floor between feet. Drive through feet to stand up and lift the weight to chest height with elbows out wide. Flip grip to grab the sides of the handles and then push the kettlebell straight up overhead. Lower it to chest. Then lower kettlebell back down in front of you. Repeat.


Bulgarian Split Squat

Why it works: While this looks a lot like a lunge, your feet stay stationary in this move, so it qualifies as a split squat. Running is a unilateral sport, so you’ll benefit from performing unilateral (or one-sided) exercises like this one, which can help identify muscle weaknesses and eliminate imbalances.

How to do it: Hold a weight in each hand and take a small step away from a bench, box, or step, facing away from it. Reach right foot back and rest it on the bench, laces down. Bend left knee to lower as far as possible with control into a lunge position. Push through left foot to stand. Repeat.

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Pistol Squat

Why it works: This is an advanced move that puts a lot of pressure on your knee. Before progressing to this version, try a single-leg squat sitting back into a chair to build your strength and balance. Once you master that, move to a bodyweight pistol squat (use a wall for balance if you need it) before adding weight.

How to do it: Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Pull shoulders back and keep back straight. Extend right leg and arms out in front of you. Slowly send hips back and bend left knee to squat toward the floor, keeping heel grounded. Get as low into the squat as possible without losing your balance. Drive back up slowly. Repeat. Then switch sides.


Shrimp Squat

Why it works: A variation of the pistol squat, this one allows you a little extra support, but still turns up the challenge in your single-leg squat.

How to do it: Start standing on right leg, bending left knee so foot reaching behind you. Reach arms out and up to shoulder height as you send hips down and back, bending right knee and lowering into a lunge-like position. Aim for left knee to lightly tap the floor. Then drive through right foot to stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.

JORDAN SMITH Digital EditorJORDAN SMITH IS A WRITER AND EDITOR WITH OVER 5 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE REPORTING ON HEALTH AND FITNESS NEWS AND TRENDS.

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