How to Do Squats

Tamsen Butler
Contributor Rachel Hanson
Anatomically Correct Squats

Squats are a very powerful type of strength exercise because they allow one to target many muscle groups at once; knowing how to do squats the right way will increase their effect and reduce the chance of injury. One of the best things about squats is they can be done without any weights whatsoever, making them a simple at-home exercise with a very effective result.

Basic Squat Form

Squats are fairly simple exercises, yet many people do them incorrectly. Incorrect form can lead to pain or injury, or may make the move far less effective. It's helpful to do squats in front of a mirror so you can check your form throughout the movement and adjust as needed.

  1. Place your feet shoulder-width apart; this is a good starting stance until you discover your preferred squat zone for your foot placement.
  2. Roll your shoulders back and keep your chest up and proud.
  3. While focusing the weight of your body into your heels, bend your knees to drop down and push the hips back as though you're readying to sit in a chair.
  4. Don't allow your knees to bow out or in.
  5. Your chest should stay up and your gaze should stay ahead of you, but not so much to where you're straining your neck.
  6. Hands can be clasped in front of you, or if you're a more advanced exerciser, you can reach them overhead or out in front of you.
  7. If you're new to squats, strive to reach a point where your thighs are parallel to the ground. More advanced exercisers can strive for a deeper squat.
  8. Throughout the movement, focus on pushing your hips back instead of focusing on pushing your knees forward.
  9. Squeeze at the bottom of the movement and then push back up through your heels.
  10. Return to a standing position.

Timing Variations

Varying the speed of your squat helps train both slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles, both of which are important for overall fitness and functionality. The basic timing of a squat (weighted or not) should be a three count descent, a one count squeeze at the bottom, and a three count ascent back to upright. But these variations can change the effort and intensity of a squat:

  • Squat pulses, held at the top, bottom, or middle of the move, involve tiny bounces/pulses while holding the squat in place.
  • Squat hold, also held at any point, involves an isometric hold that challenges balance and stability.
  • Slow squats, which are for an extended count (such as four down, one hold, four up or even eight down, two hold, eight up) are excellent for building strength.
  • A slow descent followed by a quick ascent (or the opposite) can be a challenging squat timing variation.

Squat Variations

Squats are an excellent lower-body exercise, but doing the same exercise the same way for long periods won't challenge you or increase your fitness abilities. Try some of these variations, keeping in mind these are for exercisers who can execute proper form on a basic squat - don't try these variations before first practicing with basic squats and learning safe, proper form.

Weighted Squat

Squats are body weight exercises, and are challenging all on their own, but adding some weight to the squat recruits additional muscles and increases the intensity of the exercise. Perform the basic squat form as described above, but hold hand weights up at your chest, to your sides, or up on your shoulders - wherever it feels most comfortable. Holding weights up above your head with straight, extended arms is an advanced variation that is quite challenging, as is holding a kettlebell overhead in one hand.

Woman performing dumbbell weighted squats
  • Adding a barbell clean or a dumbbell clean to your squat makes the squat a full-body move.
  • A front squat targets the quads and posterior muscles more than a basic squat does by holding the barbell up on your chest instead of on your shoulders.
  • A squat curl press is a progressive, compound exercise that combines upper body weight work with a squat.

Sumo Squats

Weighted or not, sumo squats help additionally strengthen the adductors of the inner thighs beyond the other benefits of basic squats.

Woman performing sumo squat
  1. Stand with your feet wide apart and toes pointed outward.
  2. Align your body so your hips, knees, and toes are all pointing in the same direction on each side.
  3. Keep your chest up, your shoulders relaxed, and your spine neutral.
  4. Bending the knees, drop down to where your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  5. Your upper body should stay upright, as if you are stuck between two walls.
  6. Straighten your legs to return to your original position.

Prisoner Squats

It's easy to increase the effort of your basic squat by a change in hand/arm positioning. Most people don't realize how much help they receive from their arms when completing a squat - take that assistance away and a squat becomes more challenging.

woman performing prisoner squat
  1. Perform a basic squat, but place your hands behind your ears with elbows extended out.
  2. Do not grasp at your head or pull on it - your hands are there to keep your arms from assisting the squat.
  3. Your arms stay in this position for the duration of the squat - both down and up.

Pistol Squats

This is an advanced move that is not suitable for beginners or people with knee issues. This one-legged squat requires great strength, balance, and stability.

  1. Stand on one foot. After establishing your balance, extend the other leg in front of you.
  2. Bend the knee of the leg you're standing on, which puts you into a decent to the ground. The leg in front of you should extend straight ahead of you as you descend, reaching a position that's parallel to the ground at the bottom of the movement.
  3. Extend both arms in front of you as you descend.
  4. Aim for your rear end to nearly touch the ground while the extended leg stays extended out in front of you.
  5. Push through your heel and straighten your bent leg to ascend back to your beginning position. Draw your arms back down to your side while you ascend.

A Versatile Exercise

Different squats are better for different types of exercisers. Squats are versatile because there's a type of squat good for every level of physical fitness. In general, it's a good idea to start out with the basic 'chair squat' if you are new to squats - one where you squat into a chair for support to become accustomed to the movement involved. As your abilities evolve and increase, you can try squat variations to increase the intensity of your squats.

How to Do Squats