“Simply by keeping my torso upright and knees wide like you recommended, I can now squat 325 at a bodyweight of 175. I can also pretty easily dunk a basketball. I’m 16 btw.
Thanks a lot!”

There are a million different sources of information on how to squat; search around and you can find numerous articles, instructional videos, pictures, and animations. Unfortunately these sources of information often advocate very different techniques, leaving readers confused. I want to shed some light on the topic by examining the raw geometry of a squat position and the different styles of squat used by successful lifters. This is an extremely important topic, because just mastering the squat can transform an athlete.

First, let’s look at geometry. Consider a squat in which the thighs point straight forward from the hips. In a parallel position, the thighs cover distance in the sagittal (front-to-back) plane. That distance is equal to the distance the knees move forward from above the ankles plus the distance the hips move backward from above the ankles (see picture). The less the knees move forward, the more the hips move back. The more the hips move back, the more the torso must lean forward to keep the body’s center of mass above the feet.

A critical component of successful squatting is keeping the torso upright enough to allow a heavy load to be safely carried on the shoulders. If the torso is bent over too far, the torque on the spine becomes too great. One cannot expect to reach high levels of strength squatting with his or her chest facing the floor. A good recommendation is to keep the back at a 45-degree angle with the floor or higher at all points of the squat movement. To achieve this, it is necessary to keep the hips from moving too far behind the ankles. That requires allowing forward knee movement. However, an extreme knees forward squat is also problematic, not to mention impossible for most people. The end result is a weak, awkward position that typically involves the lifter’s center of mass moving too far forward. So too much backward hip movement is no good, and too much forward knee movement is also no good. The logical conclusion then is to find a balance between the two. However, with the femurs positioned straight forward in the sagittal plane, trying to find that balance is a hopeless pursuit for most people. Looking at a continuum from an extreme hips back squat to an extreme knees forward squat, there is no quality squat position at any point. There simply is not an effective way to squat with the femurs pointed straight forward. They cover too much front to back distance. To fix this problem, the femurs must be angled out to reduce that distance. The picture below shows that effect with a top down view of the pelvis and femurs in a parallel squat position.

click for clear view

This allows the lifter to use as much or as little forward knee movement as is desired and still keep the hips from pushing too far behind the ankles. This is a necessity for effective squatting. The thighs must be angled out from the hips. The generic squat form is “shoulder width stance, feet straight forward, knees move straight forward over the feet.” People like to keep everything straight for simplicity or to be in an athletic position or for whatever reason, but it simply does not work. The thighs must be wide.

The next important thing to understand is that there are multiple effective styles of squat. The criteria for a good squat are: the lifter’s weight stays on the heels or midfoot, the back stays straight and at 45 degrees or above, and the thighs reach a parallel position with the floor. Those requirements do not change, but there is more than one way to achieve them. In the world of elite lifters there are two styles of squats, the Olympic lifting and the powerlifting styles. Olympic lifters train for maximal weight in the clean and snatch exercises. A proper starting position for pulling the bar off the floor in these exercises features an upright torso. Also the clean uses a deep front squat catch, and the snatch uses a deep overhead squat catch, both of which require an upright torso. Thus an olympic squat style uses an upright torso and the deepest range of motion possible. To achieve this, the hips drop straight down toward the ankles, and the knees are allowed to move as far forward as is necessary to let the hamstrings rest on the calves.

Olympic Squat

Olympic Squat

Olympic lifters squat this low, because they need to be able to drop as far down as anatomically possible to get under the bar during cleans and snatches. Some other features of an Olympic squat are a high bar placement on the shoulders and sometimes an arched upper back.

On the other end of the spectrum are powerlifters. Their goal is simply to squat the most weight. The requirement for a legal squat in competition is the thighs reaching parallel. A good powerlifting squat allows that to occur while moving the bar the shortest possible distance and utilizing the strongest possible biomechanical positions (minimizing knee and hip flexion). To achieve this the hips are pushed back, and the knees are kept directly above the ankles. In a shoulder width stance, this would require significant forward lean in the torso which places excessive load on the spine and lowers the bar a greater distance. To combat this, powerlifters use a wide stance and angle their thighs out as far as their hip mobility will allow. This limits backward hip movement and allows the torso to stay upright enough to bear heavy weight. The knees can stay above the ankle, and the chest can stay up. It’s the best of both worlds. The distance the bar has to move is reduced, the knees only flex to about 90 degrees, and hip flexion may be reduced too, depending on the lifter.

Powerlifting Squat

Powerlifting Squat

This manipulation of the squat movement allows the most weight to be lifted. An extreme powerlifting stance is so wide that the torso can remain upright like in an olympic squat. This option is typically reserved for females; male lifters’ hips do not allow the necessary range of motion. They must use a more conservative wide stance. In this case, the hips have to move back further, the torso has to bend over more, and a low bar placement (below the spines of the scapulae) may be used to reduce the load on the spine along with an arched lower back to help account for that load.

The extreme Olympic and powerlifting squats represent opposite ends of a spectrum. A lifter does not have to choose one or the other. Refer back to the top down view of the hips and femurs. In a powerlifting squat the heels would be placed directly under the front of the femurs. In an Olympic squat the heels would be under the hips. But an effective squat position could also be achieved with the heels anywhere along the line between those two points. There’s a whole range of acceptable squat styles. The key is to combine the right characteristics to keep the weight back on the heels and torso upright. First things first, the femurs always need to be angled out. The more the hips are pushed back, the wider that angle must be, along with the stance. When the hips are dropped rather than pushed back and a more narrow stance is used, the thighs only need to be wide enough to allow the torso to stay at 45 degrees. Going wider makes things easier than necessary on the back and begins putting the hips in a weaker position. The last rule is the heels need to be located directly under some part of the femur at the bottom of the squat. This ensures that the hip, knee, and ankle stay aligned in a vertical plane.

What does not work is combining pushing the hips back with a narrow stance. The result is a torso closer to horizontal than vertical. One cannot expect to reach elite levels of strength putting that much load on the spine. It just does not work. I have to confess that this is the style of squat I was originally taught, and I taught it to others. It took me years to realize it was faulty and another year after that to perfect a new technique. I lost a lot of time because of that. Do yourself a favor and become proficient in an effective squat style as soon as possible.

Olympic lifters and powerlifters have their styles of squatting which best meet the demands of their sport, but what about the vast majority of athletes who don’t compete in lifting? What about those who lift to enhance athletic abilities like agility, speed, and the vertical jump? The primary purpose of lifting weights for most athletes is not to get the highest possible weight or to mimic any particular movement; the purpose is to strengthen muscles and neural drive for use in athletic movements. With that in mind, squatting for athleticism should feature perfect mechanics, full range of motion, and development of knee and hip extension strength.

Let me be clear. A deep olympic squat is without a doubt the best style of squat for developing strength and athleticism. It does not have to be an extreme olympic squat, but you definitely want to be on that side of the spectrum. Wide stance squats do not load the knees enough and do not use enough range of motion to get the best possible results. There are a lot of theoretical arguments we could have on this topic, but experience has the final say. Time and time again, good deep squatting changes athletes for the better and does so more than any other way of squatting. Even a small adjustment from a decent parallel-ish squat, to a solid deep squat makes a significant difference.

Athlete Squat

Athlete Squat

To find a good athlete squat position…
1. Use a stance with the heels between hip and shoulder width. Your feet may be able to stay straight if you have great ankle mobility, but most people will have to turn out to some degree.
2. Drop the hips down rather than pushing them back. Go down til your calves and hamstrings are pressed together.
3. Push your knees out wide. They should be over the middle or outside of your feet.
4. Keep your chest up (torso upright).
Different body proportions and other structural differences produce somewhat different squat positions. Not everyone’s squat can look exactly the same. Some people will have to do sort of a midway squat between the two ends of the spectrum (something like #3 in the video above). Other people, like myself, may be able to squat with a variety of styles. Again, you want to be on the olympic side of the spectrum. Your squat should allow you to use full range of motion.

Mastering the squat is a process. First you have to be flexible. Squatting properly requires large range of motion. The ankles and especially the hips are where people usually need the most work. Second you have to know an effective squat position for your body. Figure out how wide your knees need to go, where your stance should be, etc. The info in this article should help you do that. Lastly you just need to practice the movement. The coordination of muscle contraction used to produce human movement is overwhelmingly complex. Repetition is required to allow the brain to learn a movement precisely and establish the motor pattern. Muscle weakness or imbalance may also need to be worked out. Now let’s be clear. The repetition has to be good repetition. Trying over and over to squat heavy weight and struggling to maintain form will not correct technique issues. The reps have to be light enough to be perfect. Daily body squats or squats with just the bar are recommended. Squat workouts should include a lot of light sets building up to heavier weights. As you continue to practice the movement, the threshold at which your form begins to break down will get heavier and heavier. The process of perfecting the squat requires that you leave your ego behind and take several steps back in order to make a giant leap forward. Having patience and persistence and taking the time to do things right is well worth it. Perfecting the squat allows much more strength to be developed than persisting with a style or technique that is less than perfect. It also corrects biomechanical problems and establishes proficient motor patterns that show up not only in lifting but in athletic movements as well. Take my story as an example. I did not learn how to squat properly for a long time. For several years my squat was stuck. I jumped 38 inches on a good day, had moderate to severe knee pain, and had little hope of ever increasing my vertical beyond short-term fluctuations. Once I figured out how to squat correctly it took me several months to get good at it. By the time I fixed my squat I had also corrected my knee valgus, completely eliminated my knee pain, hit a personal record max squat by 30 pounds, jumped 44 inches, and given myself hope of squatting twice my body weight and jumping 50 inches. Simply mastering the squat movement transformed me as an athlete. It can do the same for you too.