The squat is arguably one of the most beneficial lifts you can do to increase overall strength and muscular development. Like any exercise, learning the basic setup and pattern is critical to preventing injury.
While not everyone’s squat will look the same, there are some rookie moves you should avoid to keep yourself safe and actually make progress.
Mistake 1: Bad Setup or Walkout
A good squat starts with a good setup. Some of the most common mistakes include:
Setting the J-hooks so high that you have to get on your toes to un-rack the bar.
Not bracing your core or tightening your lats before lifting the bar off the hooks.
Having your feet too wide when you lift the bar off the hooks. This leads to a really awkward walkout.
Taking too many steps back to get yourself into position.
Set the J-hooks so the bar is at your mid-chest. As you progressively squat heavier weight, your spine will compress making you temporarily shorter in stature. This makes it necessary to set the bar slightly lower so that you don’t have to get on your toes to get yourself over the hooks.
Take a deep breath, brace your core, and pull down on the bar to engage your lats before you lift the bar off the hooks. Doing this will make it feel lighter and will reduce the amount of compressive force placed on your spine.
Start with your feet at hip-width before standing up with the bar. As you walk out, widen your feet to your normal squat stance. For most people, this should be slightly wider than shoulder-width with your toes slightly pointed outward.
As you walk back take approximately three to four steps. Doing a happy dance with your feet trying to find your position is energy wasted that could’ve gone towards your lift.
Mistake 2: Squatting Into Your Knees or Looking Straight Up
When you begin the eccentric or lowering portion of your squat, start by sitting your hips back. How far? It will be different for people with different leverages. It’ll also be different for the style of squat you’re doing: front squat, high-bar back squat, or low-bar back squat.
Regardless of leverages or squat style, your hips still need to be pushed back in order to have a controlled decent. One of the biggest technique errors that causes people to squat into their knees? Looking up too much.
Here’s what this looks like:
While having your eyes up, or even your head slightly lifted, can be beneficial for some lifters (especially during a front squat), excessively cranking your head back to the point where you’re looking at the ceiling causes you to shift your weight to the front of your feet. This does a couple harmful things:
It places more shear stress across the patellar tendons, increasing the likelihood that you’ll feel a shooting pain through your knees down the road.
It can cause your weight to shift to the front of your feet making your heels lift off the ground. This leads to a very unbalanced squat. Ideally, you want the weight distributed evenly between the base of your big toe, the base of your pinky toe, and heel.
Looking straight up might cause an excessive arch of the lower back. This leads to more stress across the spinal erectors.
It can take away from your strength by minimizing the amount of hip drive you get out of your squat.
It makes it increasingly difficult to hit your desired depth, especially if you’re attempting to get below parallel.
The fix for squatting into the knees can be as simple as practicing pushing your butt back slightly before you flex the knees. If you look up towards the ceiling when back squatting, try maintaining a neutral head position and focus on a spot on the floor approximately 5 or 6 feet in front of you.
This will allow you to get more hip drive out of your squat, create better balance, and will spare your knees and lower back from a lot of wear and tear.
Mistake 3: Chest and Hips Rising at Different Times
During the concentric or lifting phase of the squat, the hips and chest should rise at the same time. If your hips and chest rise simultaneously it’s a sign you’re bracing your core appropriately, using a manageable weight, and avoiding harmful stress placed on your spine.
If the hips and chest don’t rise simultaneously, you generally get the classic “good morning squat.” Here’s what this looks like:
This ugly squat happens when the hips rise faster than the chest. This could happen due to a technique error, but the most likely culprits are too much weight on the bar, inadequate tightness through the torso, and lack of quad drive when standing up out of the hole.
This form deviation isn’t just a move rookies make; it’ll happen to almost everyone at some point if they’re pushing themselves on the weight.
Having this happen every once in a while, as in the last rep of your last heavy set, is acceptable. But if your first rep on your first set looks like this, and you continue to increase the weight from there, you’re ego lifting.
That is definitely a rookie move, and it will spell disaster for your spine later on.
Increase core rigidity and quad strength, and practice great technique with submaximal loads.
To increase core rigidity and your ability to brace, do plenty of “anti movements” such as Pallof presses, suitcase carries, stir the pots (shown below), and front rack carries.
To increase quad drive, do the leg press using a lower and narrower foot placement for quad emphasis at the end of your squat workout.
Rippetoe, M., & Bradford, S. E. (2017). In Starting strength: basic barbell training (pp. 28-32). Essay, Aasgaard Company.