When done correctly, the squat is the ultimate exercise to build strength, power, and mobility in the legs.
When done correctly, the squat is the ultimate exercise to build strength, power, and mobility in the legs. (Photo: Drazen_/Getty)

How to Squat Properly

Outdoor athletes suck at squatting. Here's how to fix your form.

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Squats might seem simple, but they’re actually incredibly technical—and easy to mess up. Carolyn Parker, a Gym Jones instructor and the founder of the Ripple Effect Athlete Training Center in Carbondale, Colorado, estimates that 90 percent of the people who walk into her gym, including both recreational athletes and professionals, could use some serious help with their squats.

“Outdoor athletes typically don’t have a gym base and have never been taught how to squat properly,” she says. “They just move their bodies in the mountains in the way that feels easiest.” When we prefer to play outside instead of hit the gym, we typically overdo it and neglect strength, stretching, and mobility work. “That’s where we start to see poor form and injury,” Parker says.

When done correctly, the squat is the ultimate exercise to build strength, power, and mobility in the legs. Across all squat variations, the primary muscles involved are the quadriceps, glutei maximi, and the large hip adductors on the inner thigh. While these are the main movers, other muscle groups engage to act as stabilizers, such as the calveshamstrings, erector spinae (back), core, and obliques, depending on the type of squat and how you’re carrying the weight.

Bret Contreras, a coach, author of The Glute Lab, and a leading expert on glute training, has conducted many experiments to measure muscle activity during exercises and found that all types of squats essentially do the same thing. “Most squat and single-leg variations elicit similar levels of muscle activation, even if they feel different,” he says. The findings reinforce the point that there’s no need to get fancy with complicated squat variations—they only offer subtle differences in the balance of muscle activation. But there is something to be said for starting with the easiest version of a basic squat and gradually ramping up the difficulty. If you’re new to squatting, or working with limited mobility, starting slow will keep you injury-free.

Below, Parker and Contreras walk through the basics of proper squat form through a progression of exercises.

How to Do a Perfect Squat

Stand tall, with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider and your toes facing forward or slightly angled out. A wider stance with angled feet might work better if you lack ankle mobility. The important thing here is to feel stable and comfortable. Stand with your toes on a line to ensure one foot is not in front of the other. Keep your hips level and square.

Hold your chest and head high. Look directly forward, not up or down, to keep your neck in a neutral position. Pull your shoulders back and down, and engage your core muscles. Keep your spine stacked in a neutral position throughout the movement, without leaning forward or rounding your back (although it’s OK to maintain the natural curve in your lower back).

Shift your weight to over your heels. (You should be able to wiggle your toes.) Bend your knees and hinge forward at the hips at the same rate to lower into the squat. Keep your hips square, your torso upright, and your spine neutral throughout the movement. Engage your glutes, and push through your heels to stand up.

When you lower into a squat, your knees should track over your toes but not beyond, and they should not collapse inward at any time, since this motion is associated with knee pain. If you cannot maintain adequate knee control, strengthen your glutei medii (hip abductors) first. Keep your nose, knees, and toes vertically aligned, like there’s an invisible wall in front of you.

Squat depth is achieved through hip flexion and ankle dorsiflexion, Contreras says, not the rounding of the spine. You’ll only be able to go as far as your mobility allows with good form. While some people can drop their butts to their heels in a full squat, that range of motion isn’t usually necessary in outdoor sports. “For mountain athletes, the sweet spot for depth is an inch below having your quads parallel to the floor,” says Parker.

If you attempt to go too low for your mobility, you will likely compensate by rounding your back and compromising lumbar stability. Deep squats, even with excellent form, can also stress the hip joints and lead to hip pain. “There’s no need to risk injury to the knees and other joints,” Parker adds.

Focus on one aspect at a time, to shore up your weakness, and if you have any doubts, work with a coach or a trainer. As you practice, you’ll gradually improve your form, awareness, and range of motion and will ultimately increase your athletic potential. “It’s a lot to focus on at once, and mastery can take a while,” Parker says. “But if you take the time to truly learn the movement, in three to six months you’ll be a different athlete.” The progression below will help you get there.

The Moves: Squat Progression 

Master the first three moves in the order listed before adding weight. Then progress to high reps—around 15—and low weight (you should still have a few reps in the gas tank when you’re done). As your form improves and you get stronger, gradually increase the amount of weight and the number of sets, and lower the number of reps per set. Start with the first three exercises, and only move to the final three once you’ve perfected the easier variations.

Sit to Stand (Box Squat)

What it does: Trains proper stance, spinal stability, and glute activation. Mountain athletes tend to be quad dominant and underutilize their glutes to come up out of a squat, says Parker, so you must learn to engage the glutes to make sure they share the workload.

How to do it: Sit on the edge of a box or a bench (ideally one that comes to just below your knees in height so that your thighs are parallel to the floor when you sit). Place your hands on your hips, square your feet in front of you, and engage your glute muscles—as in, actively squeeze your butt—then stand until your knees are fully extended. Reverse the movement to sit again, and repeat. Focus on proper squat form and glute activation.

If you’re struggling to maintain good form, try a variation: start standing, squat to sit on the box, then stand up again. While it’s often used as a teaching tool, powerlifters will occasionally bring back the box for loaded squats to improve performance. Keep the box in mind as you progress.

Volume: Two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps

(Hayden Carpenter)

Wall Squat

What it does: Trains a correct nose-knees-toes alignment, using the wall as a barrier to enforce upright form, and improves hip and ankle mobility.

How to do it: Stand facing a wall, with your feet hip-width apart or slightly wider and your toes a few inches away. Hold your chest and head high, pull your shoulders back and down, and keep your spine in a neutral position. Shift your weight to your heels, place your hands on your hips, then gently guide them backward as you bend your knees to lower into a squat. Focus on working the hips backward while maintaining a neutral spine. Lower until your thighs are an inch or two below parallel to the floor, or as far as your mobility will allow without breaking form, then press through the heels to stand up. Move slowly and in control. For this exercise, depth is less important than form.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps


Squat to Box

What it does: Strengthens the squatting muscles while practicing proper form. “The box ensures you’re going to the same depth every rep, instead of progressively skimping on range of motion as you fatigue,” says Contreras.

How to do it: Perform this exercise as you would for box squats, but instead of sitting on the box every repetition, squat until you lightly tap the box with your butt, without fully sitting down, then stand up again, and repeat.

Like with the box squat, start with a taller box if you lack the ankle and hip mobility. As your mobility and strength improve, gradually decrease the box height until you can perform the exercise with good form on a box that’s just below knee level in height.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps

Goblet Squat

What it does: Strengthens the main squatting muscles—the quads, glutes, and adductors—and also activates the back and core muscles as stabilizers. The kettlebell acts as a counterweight, which can help you stay upright and achieve greater depth with good form.

How to do it: Perform squats as described above while holding a kettlebell or a dumbbell with both hands at chest level. Remember to keep your feet and hips square, your spine neutral, and your knees tracking over your second toes—but not beyond. Keep your weight over your heels, and lower only as far as you can with good form, then push through the heels to stand up. 

Volume: Three to four sets of eight to ten reps

Front Squat

What it does: Strengthens the main squatting muscles. These place more load on the anterior chain (front of the body) and put more emphasis on the quads as opposed to the glutes. The bar allows you to increase the load of the goblet squat, which is limited to the weights of kettlebells. As with the goblet squat, holding the load in front of your body can help with muscle activation and to stay upright, so most people find it easier than a back squat. 

How to do it: With an overhand grip, grab a barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, then clean it (lift the bar into a rack position), so it rests on the front of your shoulders with your elbows parallel and high. Perform squats as described above.

Volume: Three to four sets of eight to ten reps


Back Squat

What it does: Strengthens the main squatting muscles. These place more load on the posterior chain (back of the body) and put more emphasis on the glutes as opposed to the quads.

How to do it: Stand beneath the barbell in a rack, position it on the back of your shoulders, and grasp the handle with a wide, comfortable grip. Keep your elbows back and your shoulder blades engaged. Stand up to remove the barbell from the rack, and perform squats as described above.

Volume: Three to four sets of eight to ten reps

(Hayden Carpenter)

Overhead Squat

What it does: Works the typical squat muscles, with the addition of the deltoids (shoulders) and trapezii (upper-back muscles) to lift and stabilize the barbell overhead.

How to do it: No matter how good you think you are at front and back squats, the overhead squat is a different game. “I have very few of my athletes do these,” says Parker. “It’s a complex movement, and most people do not have the combined hip and shoulder mobility to do it safely.” Try these only once you have mastered squat technique and have adequate hip and shoulder mobility.

Start with a piece of PVC pipe to focus on technique before adding weight, and return to the wall. Hold the pipe with a wide overhand grip, then snatch it overhead. Keep your elbows fully extended with the bar in the air, slightly behind your head. Step up to face the wall, a few inches away, and perform squats as described above.

Once you have the overhead wall squat nailed, move away from the wall and practice it with a barbell only, then gradually add weight. 

Volume: Three to four sets of six to eight reps

Lead Photo: Drazen_/Getty

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