Squats are great exercises that have a lot of benefits. They are one of the great compound exercises that boost testosterone and other muscle building hormones. They are also rated the as one the top two muscle building exercises ever, next to the dead lift. Some say the dead lift comes first, while others say the squat does. They are basically tied as the best exercise for bodybuilders, power lifters and strength athletes.
When I first started weight training in 2010, I got a personalized workout program from my gym, based on my goals and available exercise times. Like a good little boy I did the exercises exactly the way the program told me to - down to the exercise and reps per set. After the first time I did squats on the leg day, my back ached a little. It wasn't too much of an issue in my mind at the time because my whole body was aching. I couldn't tell the difference between injury and muscle soreness. My other muscles got better but my lower back didn't. I figured that it needed more time than the other muscles. It went away in time for my next leg day and came back an hour or so after the workout. This time, the pain was a little worse. As time went by, the back pain got worse while other muscles got better. It took a lot of research for me to find out that I was damaging my back by doing squats the wrong way. Improper form was hurting my body instead of strengthening it.
I had to stop squats for quite a few weeks (about 2 months) and limit the other exercises that involved using my lower back muscles. I started squatting again when I believed that my back had totally recovered. I probably took longer than I should have, because I was scared of causing more damage. Reading the extreme stories online had me running for the hills. I used an empty bar and practiced the right form until I felt that I was ready to start going hard again. I slowly increased the weight and made sure that my form was perfect all the time.
I am pretty sure that I dodged a silver bullet. If I pushed through the pain, I could have sustained a serious injury that might have impacted my lifting career for the rest of my life or even might have ended up needing surgery. So many people that do squats improperly end up too far down this miserable road.
Don't be like me. Make sure that you do squats the right way. Learn to do them right - from the start. If you are not sure whether you are using the right form, stop doing them immediately. Learn the right way to do them before making them the integral part of your workout routine that they deserve to be. You will be better off without this power move than if you're doing it wrong.
The right form for squats
This guide on squats from Strong Lifts was a life saver for me. It has all the information you need to make sure that you squat properly and avoid injury.
The tips you need to make sure that you squat properly
- Take the bar off the rack by straightening your legs. Do NOT bend your back to pick up or put down the weight. Don't your back upwards from a downward position. Your back should always be in a straight, upright position when the weight is on your shoulders.
- Don't inhale when you come up. This opens up your core muscles when they need to be tight. Protect your core from the pressure that heavy squats place on it. Exhale instead and focus on squeezing your core muscles towards your spine. Exhaling while limiting the amount of air coming out your mouth can help you to do this. Your core is under a lot of tension with this exercise and needs to stay strong. It is the connection between your legs and your upper body holding the weight. This is called the Valsalva maneuver. Failing to do this is one of the main reasons why people get dizzy after squats and dead lifts. If you get dizzy, read about the possible causes and solutions here.
- Go down to the point where your upper legs are just below parallel to the ground. Going down further will limit the weight you can do and doing less is not completing the full range of motion. You are basically doing a half set of you don't go low enough. At your lowest point, your hips should be slightly lower than your knees.
- Your knees should be shoulder width (or slightly wider) apart and your heels should be in line with your shoulders (or slightly wider).
- Point your feet out slightly. This creates a more natural move that your joints are comfortable with.
- Don't lift your heels or toes during the entire movement. Work on this if you need to. Lifting your toes throws your body off balance and you need your heels on the ground because that is where the force of the weight is supposed to meet the ground. Power should come from your heels. I had a problem with my heels lifting, so I stretched my calves out every day until they could stay comfortably on the ground. Stability is important.
- Keep your back straight and neutral. It should not arch or bend in any direction. For me, I focused on sticking my bum out at the bottom of the lift to help me keep my back straight.
- Balance the bar between your traps and shoulders. Don't rest it on your neck.
- Keep your chest up. I imagined slightly puffing it up. Always face forward, head-on. Don't bow. If I couldn't look at the mirror in front of me without tilting my head up, I knew that I was leaning forward and putting too much pressure on my back.
- Keep your head and neck straight, aligned with the rest of your back. Imagine your neck and back vertebrae as being a straight stick that will break if it bends.
- The bar should move in a vertical line, going straight down and up. The bar should not gravitate towards you are away from you. It should be in line with the middle of your feet throughout the entire movement.
This is quite an extensive list of things to follow, and these are just the most important points. Practice with a small weight until you get all of the above rules right, or you will risk injuring yourself in the future. If you need pictures and more detailed explanations, click on the Strong Lifts link at the top of the paragraph to find a more in-depth guide.
Squat right or suffer the consequences!
I hope this prevents a lot of injuries for aspiring bodybuilders, power lifters and alike. STAY STRONG!