We can all agree that the Squat is a foundational movement. It can be used to develop strength, power and muscle mass. Being able to Squat without pain can also help keep you healthy over the long haul.
However, many people struggle to find a Squat they can perform comfortably and consistently. Staying healthy is one of the biggest keys to continual development in not only the Squat, but also in the overall development of your sport and life activities. The person that stays healthy will be the one who can train longer and harder.
So, how do you go about finding the perfect Squat for your body type and skill level? Using several different movements, we can identify what parts of your Squat need additional work and find the absolute best Squat exercise for your current state. Use these insights to find your perfect Squat and you’ll be on your way to becoming stronger and healthier than ever before.
Find Your Squat Foot and Leg Placement
When it comes to figuring out the optimal foot and leg placement for a Squat, I like to use a quick test called the Squeeze and Waddle:
The test can be broken down into a few key steps:
- Stand with feet together
- Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can
- Rock your weight side to side as shown above
- Let your feet turn out as they naturally want to and your legs go where they desire
- Make note of where your feet are now pointing. This is likely your optimal foot and hip placement for the Squat
From there, squat down. This should feel like a nice comfortable squat. If not, play around with your leg width. Try a little wider or closer in. Once you find your preferred foot and hip placement as well as leg width, make a mental note of it. This will likely be your most comfortable squatting position.
Find Your Squat Depth
Being able to squat hips to heels is not a requirement for squatting. Rather, being able to squat so your hips are slightly below your knees is a good sign of sufficient mobility.
The first thing you will do is perform a regular Bodyweight Squat. If you can easily get to just below parallel with no heels lifting off the ground or knees caving in towards the middle, then you can move right on to progressions. However, if you find yourself experiencing any of the following issues during a bodyweight Squat, you’ll need to do some more work:
- Not being able to get to a depth where your thighs are parallel to the ground
- Heels coming up off the ground as you squat
- Knees caving in as you squat
- Discomfort in the movement
Let’s troubleshoot what might be causing some of these Squat issues.
First, let’s check your mobility. You may simply not have the mobility to get to the Squat depth that we desire. The first test to check for this is a Door Knob Squat. This will show us how deep we can get in a Squat passively, meaning using some assistance to get the required range of motion.
If you can get to the desired depth with a Door Knob Squat, your issue is most likely stability, not mobility. Also, make note of how far you can get down before your hips tuck under yourself. That will be your max Squat depth.
Now that you know your Squat depth max, let’s see why you might not be able to get there without assistance. Ankle mobility is a common limitation, so let’s look there first. The Squat with Heel Lift can help us identify if the ankles are indeed the issue:
The heel lift creates an artificial range of motion in the ankles. If this cleans up your Squat, you should continue squatting in this fashion while also adding some ankle mobility drills to your routine. Kneeling Ankle Rocks are a great drill for increasing ankle mobility:
If you can get to a good depth in the Squat with Heel Lift but still see your knees caving in or feel your hips moving a lot, you may have some stability issues that need addressing.
Stability is the ability to maintain a stable joint movement through coordination of the surrounding muscles at the right time. With the Squat, stability problems will typically manifest up in two areas: the core and the hips.
Lack of hip stability will show itself as wobbly knees and knees caving in during the Squat. A lack of core stability will show in a lack of depth during the Squat.
Anteriorly loading the Squat, such as is done during a Goblet Squat, can help increase your core engagement during the Squat movement.
If adding a weight to the front side of your body, anteriorly, helps get you deeper into your squat, then you should stick with variations like the the Goblet Squat, Kettlebell Front Squat, Sandbag Bear Squat, and Barbell Front Squat until your core stability significantly increases.
If loading the squat anteriorly helps but there is still some unwanted knee movement or a lack of depth, then we’ll look at the hips as possible point of weakness.
Simply adding a light resistance band around your knees during the Squat will force your glutes to turn on, which greatly aids in hip function during the movement.
If adding a band to your Squat helps you get more depth or you just feel more stable in the hips, then you need to work more on glute strength and engagement. Doing exercises like Squats with a Band, Glute Bridges and Clam Shells can help with this.
At this point, you should have a good idea of what your ideal foot position is and what assistance, if any, you will need during your Squat.
Find The Best Way to Load Your Squat
There are two primary ways to load the Squat—anteriorly (Front Squat and Goblet Squat) and posteriorly (Back Squat). If you have a lower-back problem or have insufficient external rotation of the shoulders, back squatting will not be your best choice.
Since the Back Squat directly loads the spine, this can put excessive stress on the low back. If you have low-back problems, you’ll likely find find the Front Squat and Goblet Squat variations to be the superior choice.
As for shoulder mobility, if you’re not able to get your elbows tucked down so they’re pointing to the ground, then you will not be able to safely place a bar on your back without flaring the elbows (pointing them toward the wall behind you). This will either put stress on the front of the shoulder joint or force you to artificially gain range of motion by excessively arching your lower back. Excessive arching of the back will lead to possible low back pain down the road, so neither of those outcomes are desirable.
You can use Lying Shoulder Slides to test if you have the needed shoulder mobility for Back Squats:
If you are able to keep your elbows and wrists on the ground throughout the movement and your lower back flat against the ground, then you should be fine to Back Squat.
If you can’t keep your elbows and wrists on the ground, here are some drill to help you get that shoulder mobility back.
The Right Way to Progress Your Squat
The previous tests should be enough to help you find the right Squat for you today. But as your strength, mobility and stability increase, you’ll be able to progress to more demanding variations. Below is a recommended order of progression for different Squat movements. You can add different assistance as needed for each stage, such as a Kettlebell Front Squat to Box or a Barbell Front Squat with a Band around the knees.
The general Squat progression, from least to most demanding:
- Goblet Squat
- Sandbag Bear Hug Squat
- Kettlebell Front Squat
- Barbell Front Squat
- Barbell Back Squat
When it comes to finding your perfect Squat, it all starts with finding the right base for you. From there, you have to pick the right variation of the Squat for you. That will be the variation that you can do safely and effectively. Whether or not you decide to progress from there depends on what your goals and desires are.