WORKOUT: Squat for Strength

Few lifts are as gratifying to watch grow as is the squat. When executed with good form, the barbell squat is an iconic exercise that belongs in almost everybody’s workout regimen.

Building up squat strength can take time, because it is a “skill” lift – by nature of being a compound lift, many moving parts demand practice and control. Once you have developed a clean, well-formed squat, however, you can start building big all-body strength. Below are a few key squat pointers, followed by a workout you can execute twice a week to start increasing the load you can hoist on this classic lift.

Squat Keys

1. Plant the heels. Many amateur squatters experience knee problems from squats, not because the movement is inherently unsafe, but because of this common form mistake. When you shift your weight to the balls of your feet instead of your heels, you immediately put more stress on the knees and allow them to track forward over your toes. When you first unrack the weight, try a brief moment of popping up onto your toes (as if you were doing a calf raise), then lower yourself and dig in with your heels. Your choice of shoe matters for squats too – either go barefoot, or use a hard, flat sole.

2. Chest up; head neutral. Focus on a point on the wall at standing eye level in front of you, and keep your chest elevated with your shoulder blades pulled back together. This position ensures that your shoulders won’t round forward during the squat, which again can bring the weight forward, creating a dangerous position for your lower back and knees.

3. Refer to your joints. Meaning: Your ankles, hips and knees should all be indicators of your form. At the bottom of the squat, your hip joint should be parallel to your knees; the bar and your shoulders should be over your ankles. Get a spotter or use the timed camera on your phone to check your form and make any adjustments you notice.

The Workout

Walking Lunges: 2×20 per leg. Lunge forward with your right leg, hands on your hips and torso erect, and land on your right heel. Your back knee should drop low but not hit the floor; before it does, begin the next step quickly.

Squat: 10 (warm-up set), 10, 5×3, 3×3, 1×3

This pattern will get you stronger. By working up to a heavier load gradually, you spend more time under heavy weight while still getting the requisite reps for muscle growth. If you have a squat belt and/or knee wraps, consider using them on your sets of 3 and 1.

Foam Roller/Hamstring Stretches: 5 minutes. Do a variety of leg stretches to increase blood flow and help reduce soreness. Focus on the calves, hamstrings and quads (note – foam rollers on the quads may be uncomfortable).

Suspension or Swiss ball hamstring curls: 3×12. Lying on your back with your feet in suspension cables or heels on a Swiss ball, keep your arms flat at your sides and lift your hips off the ground. Now, curl the ball toward your butt using your hamstrings, and roll it back out until your legs are fully extended again. That’s one rep.