Perfecting the squat

By Sarah Tomlins

Thought by many strength and conditioning coaches to be the king of all exercises, the squat should certainly be in your top 10. However, it can only be maximally effective if performed correctly. We aim to get the full picture and perhaps dispel a few myths on the way...

A performance optimiser

As an exercise that primarily focuses on lower body strength (see Figure 1), ithe squat can be used across all sporting populations and manipulated to induce changes in muscle mass, strength and power. This means running faster, jumping higher and throwing further.

Squatting past parallel

A picture-perfect deep squat (Figure 3C) is a good indicator of an individual's overall levels of strength and flexibility - so why are we reluctant to 'sit deep'? Well, some feel that squatting only as far as parallel reduces the injury risk to the knees though research has in fact shown no difference in knee sheer forces (the force pushing the femur forwards, onto the tibia) between squatting to 60, 90 and 110 [1]. However, squatting to full depth has been shown to offer the benefit of double the gluteus maximus contribution, compared with a squat to parallel [2].

Figure 1. Squat technique

A: start position


Grip bar just outside shoulder width. This may have to be wider if you have poor shoulder mobility.

Bar should rest on upper trapezius muscle.

Toes should be slightly turned out and placed just outside shoulder width.

B: descent


Take a deep breath in before starting the rep.

Bend at both the hips and the knees.

Keep the torso as upright as possible and parallel to shins.

C: ascent


Drive up this should be an 'explosive' movement slowed only by the weight of the bar.

Keep the chest out and don't let the upper back round.

Breathe out after passing mid range.

Knee tracking over toes

The notion that knees travelling forwards past the toes is detrimental to the knees first appeared in a study by an American researcher [3]. Although his study observed that knee sheer forces increased when the knees tracked forwards over the toes, it failed to highlight that these sheer forces are well within the structural capacity of the knee. Secondly, people often fail to take into account the demands placed on your body in sport. One only has to watch a football or hockey match to see knees tracking forwards past the toes in various sporting actions; it is a naturally occurring movement pattern.

Common mistakes

Table 1 summarises common mistakes in squat technique. Discussion on how best to address these issues will follow in later issues follow the website for updates.

Rounding of upper back Poor thoracic mobility
Weak spinal extensors
Knees drop inwards on descent Over-active and tight adductors
Weak gluteus muscles
Excessive lean forwards Tight around the hips and/or ankles

Table 1. Squat technique faults and causes

Is there a cut-off?

A common question asked by athletes and public alike is, How much should I be able to squat? My answer invariably is that you can never be too strong. This being said, it should be recognised that certain sports require more of an emphasis on maximal strength than others, as can be seen by comparing the likes of rugby and long-distance running.

Everything's relative

When assessing and comparing the back squat capabilities of different athletes, it is most relevant to performance to look at their relative strength. This takes bodyweight into account and is expressed in the form of total weight lifted in ie, your 1 repetition maximum (1RM), divided by bodyweight. Table 2 gives an insight into what some of our top athletes today are lifting , while the normative data available for different sports can be reviewed in Table 3.

Name Sport Level Age Weight 1RMAX Relative strength
Pete Mitchell Sprint Cycling GB Olympic squad 22 86kg 222.5kg 2.58
Carl Frampton Boxing Commonwealth title 24 58kg 98.5kg 1.69
Martin Bernard High jump European Silver medallist 28 88kg 120kg 1.36
Jenny Meadows 800m World and European Bronze medallist 30 47Kg 120kg 2.55
Dave Millard Rugby London Scottish 24 108kg 205kg 1.90

Table 2. Strength expressed as absolute (1RM) and relative (divided by bodyweight) for some of our 2012 hopefuls.

NCCA Division 1 college football quarterback 172kg
NCCA Division 1 college football linemen 241kg
American college basketball players (men) 140kg
American college basketball players (women) 83kg
Norwegian elite soccer players 150kg
NCAA Division 1 college volleyball (women) 82kg
NCAA 90% rank swimmer (women) 60kg

Table 3. 1RM scores taken from various sports [4,5].


1. Salems G, Powers C. Patellofemoral joint kinetics during squatting in collegiate women athletes. Clin Biomech, 2001, 16, 424430.
2. Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK et al. The effect of back squat depth on EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res, 2002, 16, 428432.
3. Fry AC, Smith JC, Schilling BK. Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. J Strength Cond Res, 2003, 17, 629633.
4. Beache T, Earle R. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (3rd Edition). Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, 2008.
5. Reiman M, Manske R. Functional Testing in Human Performance. Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, 2009.


Sarah Tomlins is a Strength & Conditioning Coach and Rehabilitation Specialist and a visiting lecturer at Middlesex University, UK.

Please contact Sarah with your comments and queries:
Twitter: @sarah400 (sarah tomlins)


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Other articles from this issue of Performance

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Plyometrics: JUMP further, RUN faster...AND save energy?
Hop, skip and jump for a stronger ankle
1...2...3 Nutrition Tips - For the best all-round results
Running shoes: the REAL science
Disability allowance? Keeping tabs on technology...
Is bigger...stronger?
Research Review
Interview with Laurence Halsted, GB Fencer & Rhys Ingram, Strength and Conditioning Coach: English Institute of Sport

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