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The Safest Way to Do a Squat
Squats are an effective exercise for the lower body. According to the American Council on Exercise, ACE, squats also improve the glutes, abdominals and the muscles along the spine. With all of these benefits, squats often receive negative attention and blame for knee injuries. However, when proper form is used, squats are a safe exercise.
Warming before your squats will increase the safety of the exercise. Use large body movements such as marching, stair climbing, walking, or cycling to warm your leg muscles. The warm-up will increase blood flow to the working muscles, which increases muscle and joint range of motion. During your squats, this warmth will protect your joints.
Squats are performed with or without equipment. A bodyweight squat is the safest variation as you lift solely the weight of your body. As your strength improves, additional weight in the form of dumbbells or a barbell is necessary to challenge the muscles. The only other equipment required is a supportive pair of shoes. Sturdy shoes will provide a solid base from which to execute the movement and will help keep your legs aligned.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association, NSCA, recommends safety guidelines when performing a squat. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart, but not wider than the width of your shoulders. Face your knees and toes in the same direction. ACE recommends tightening your stomach by pulling your navel toward your spine. Stand tall with your chin parallel to the floor. Inhale as you bend your knees and lower your hips. Keep your weight back in your heels with your feet flat on the floor. Lower your hips until your thighs are approximately parallel with the floor. Aim to keep your knees from moving forward over your toes. Exhale and straighten your legs to start position.
A safe squat requires proper form and proper frequency. Use your bodyweight, or select a weight that causes fatigue after ten to twelve repetitions. Begin with one set and gradually increase to three sets of squats during your workout session. Muscles require a day of rest in between workouts, so allow this recovery time before completing your next round of squat exercises.
An unsafe squat results in knee and back problems. When correct form is not used, the knee is placed in a harmful position; working beyond fatigue places stress on the joints of the lower body. Your spine is aggravated when weights are placed across the shoulders during a squat. The excess weight compresses the spine. An preferable option is to hold dumbbells in your hands.
- American Council on Exercise
- Sands WA, Wurth JJ, Hewitt JK MD. National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) Basics of Strength and Conditioning Manual. National Strength and Conditioning Association. 2012.
- Lorenzetti S, Ostermann M, Zeidler F, et al. How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2018;10:14. doi:10.1186/s13102-018-0103-7
- Myer GD, Kushner AM, Brent JL, et al. The back squat: A proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength Cond J. 2014;36(6):4-27. doi:10.1519/SSC.0000000000000103
- Schoenfeld B. Squatting kinematics and kinetics. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 2010; 24(12):3497-2506.
- Barbell back squat. Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association. 2016.
- Conceição F, Fernandes J, Lewis M, Gonzaléz-badillo JJ, Jimenéz-reyes P. Movement velocity as a measure of exercise intensity in three lower limb exercises. J Sports Sci. 2016;34(12):1099-106. doi:10.1080/02640414.2015.1090010
- Rhea MR, Kenn JG, et al. Joint-angle specific strength adaptations influence improvements in power in highly trained athletes. Human Movement. 2017;17(1):43-49.
A mother of two and passionate fitness presenter, Lisa M. Wolfe had her first fitness article published in 2001. She is the author of six fitness books and holds an Associate of Arts in exercise science from Oakland Community College. When not writing, Wolfe is hula-hooping, kayaking, walking or cycling.