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How to improve your squat

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Nov 15, 2015 3:49:21 AM

How to improve your squat

How to improve your squat

The squat is one of the most challenging and rewarding movements you can do in the gym. Here are two years of my experience gathered in the gym and watching several YouTube videos on how to improve on your squat. My biggest weakness at time of writing is ankle mobility and the resulting instability around my heels and feet. Still all of these clues helped a great deal to move my squat from 120kg to 142.5kg in roughly half a year. 

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Take care of your setup

I see a lot of poeple not adjusting the setup of their power rack, picking the right bar for them or not taking care of their setup. Some wear a random belt that is provided by the local gym and a different one on different days depending on availability. Others just leave the J cups and safety pins at the same height as the guy before them, even though they are clearly smaller / bigger than the other person.

For me personally my squats get better the more confident I am. The less confidence there is the less likely it will be that I lift a very heavy weight based on my capabilities. Therefore you want to make sure that your environment is ideally tuned to your personal needs when you lift.
First experiment with different barbells, racks and safety pin adjustments in your local gym. If you spend half an hour thinking about these things you will quickly determine what the best setup for yourself is in terms of safety pin and J Cup height, which power rack has the right adjustments for you and which barbell has the best knurling for you to use. (as unfortunately, the usual gym I have been to rarely has barbells with the same knurling on all of the bars)
Move away any obstacles which are in the bar path or that would be a distraction for you. Find a fix point to look at while you squat. All of these little things will help for your max effort attempts as they take out risk of being distracted and help being fully focused.

Have a tight grip

When the setup is done it is time to start squatting. For that purpose you first have to grip the bar with your hands. Make sure you have a tight grip on both hands. Also take care that both of your hands are rotated in the same way. Otherwise it will be hard to keep your elbows at the same angle. Use the white knuckling technique, which basically means squeeze the bar so hard that your knuckles turn white. 

Attack the bar

While your knuckles are turning white get yourself below the barbell in an agressive manner. You really want to attack that barbell and own it. Find the shelf on your back where you feel most comfortable and strong. For beginners, who have not developed a lot of muscles on their back, this might feel uncomfortable when you start, but you will get used to it. Usually there are two shelves on your back where the bar can rest, one in high and one in low bar position. I personally do not bother with that too much. I pick the spot where the bar feels most secure and "sucked into" my back and go squat. If you want to have a laugh about bar positioning in squats, this might brighten up your day.

Keep your upper back tight

You want tension in your upper back through the entire lift. Squeeze your back while getting into position and attacking the bar. Do not leave any wiggle room for the barbell.

Position your elbows at same angle

Ideally your elbows are parellel to each other before you unrack the bar. This provides the most stability and helps you to develop strength out of your core for the entire lift. 

Unrack from the hips

Once you are under the barbell get your feet paralell below the bar. Unracking the weight is done by bringing your hips forward while having your feet securely planted to the ground in parallel position. This ensures the least amount of effort required to unrack. If you already have to do a quarter or half squat to get the weight unracked, you have to go back to your setup. If the barbell is so high that you stand beneath it without being able to pop the hips forward same applies. Layne Nortons squat tutorial is great regarding this point.

Walk three Steps out

The three step walk out is the most efficient walk out in all scenarios without a monolift station. Some people use a two step walk out, but this can lead to problems depending on the rack you use, as you can bounce off it. The three step walk out is efficient and quick. Go one step back to get distance between you and the rack position, so that you have enough space to squat. Second step already plants the first foot for the squat. Third step brings the second foot into final position.

This is a part of the squat that will improve a lot over time. The first few times you will have to think about where to put your feet, but the more you squat, the less thinking will be required for the walk out. 

Planting your feet

When your feet are in position think about them like they are the claws of an eagle. Try to grip the floor with them to get maximum stability during your squat. Thinking about it this way will also help to activate the muscles in your entire legs early in the process rather than half way in the squat.

Keep your head up

Search for a point roughly half a meter in front of you and stare at it during the lift. You want to ensure that your head creates a straight line with your spine during the lift. So keep your head of your chest and away from looking at the ceiling.

Keep your chest big

Think like you are spreading your wings so that your chest is as big as possible when starting the lift. This avoids folding over in the lower positions of the squat which is bad for your back.

Breathe Horizontally

Breathing is very important for the squat. Breathe out through your mouth until there is no air left in your body. When your body shrinks, at the lowest point, pull the bar into your back again to ensure maximum upper back tightness. For me, it then works best to breathe in through the nose. For this breath think like you are breathing horizontally into your stomach, so that your chest does not go up, but your rip cage does. In the end you want to have all of the air sitting just right under your chest with maximum rigidity in your core. The best squat workshop on breathing I have seen so far was held by Chris Duffin on the supertraining 06 Youtube channel. See here:

Hold your breath for 1 - 5 repetitions depending on the load you have picked and take another breath in the same way. At first this will be hard, but it will help you to work on bar speed, velocity and explosiveness when you progress, when you have the ability to do multiple repetitions under one breath.(don't go crazy with this, start slow, there is nothing worse than having to breath mid squat. ) This is a tip I took from Jim Wendler 5/3/1 books.

Keep your core tight

When you took your breath, flex your core and make it as tight as possible before you initiate the descend of the squat. The tighter and stronger your core is, the easier it will become to get up from the lowest point. This is very important as I neglected this and hurt my lower abdominals earlier in my squatting career and hit a plateau at 140kg squat. You see what this did to me in this video, so please take me up on this advise.

Fortunately it blew over and with tweaking technique on this point I fixed it. Still you do not want a burning pain in your stomach ever when you squat, so keep your core tight and do not go up with your weights too quick.

Breaking at the knees 

To initiate the descend break at the knees, not at the hips, for optimum results. Think of it like as if you were sitting down on a chair that is behind you while keeping your upper body upright. 

Controlled descent

You want to stay agressive and controlled at the same time during the descent and the lift. Avoid to "bomb" the squat which means falling down into the lowest point of the squat without any tension and then propel it back up. This is only for the most advanced lifters and highly risky. Stay in full control of the entire motion, even if it means that your descend will be at slower and you have to stay under tension for longer.

Go below paralell

Going below paralell means that you squat with your back lower than your knees. This is how you train the most muscles and get the most out of each repetition. If you do not go below paralell you will leave out vital mjuscle groups in your training.

Keep your back straight

Once you are in the lowest position kepp your back straight and do not fold over. This avoids rounding and damaging your back in the long run, as we want to squat for a couple of years and not only months to become a beast.

Keep knees outside feet

While you are travelling through the squat make sure that your knees are not inside of your feet. Your knees should stay outside of your feet at all times to prevent risk of injury in that area.

Drive up

Once you are in the lowest position explode up and rive the bar in the same direction. Think of it as pushing the ground away from you as hard as you can while you have the weight on your shoulders. 

Squeeze your glutes

Always remember to squeeze your glutes to activate the biggest muscle groups of your body even more to finish the lift. This will help you for the final few centimeters to et back to starting position.

Tread warm up sets like max sets

The last advice i would give you is to tread all of your sets like you are trying to break a world record. The more often you repeat the movement pattern in the right mind set the more likely it will become that you will achieve your goals with the squat.


All of these steps took me two years to discover and implement and I am still not erfect. Take your time and do not try to do everything at once. The most important bits are breathing & core tightness, the three step walk out and keeping your back straight. Everything else will come with time and work on it in a coherent manner rather than wanting to do everything at once.

Further reading


Topics: Lift stronger, Squat, Powerlifting