When was the last time you did a leg workout without at least one squat variation? Maybe never. Chances are, this lower-body exercise is a central part of your workout routine, especially if you're a fan of strength training.
But if you're doing them with improper form, you may be wasting your time or — even worse — putting yourself at risk of injury. Brush up on your squat form, keeping an eye out for any of these five common mistakes during your next leg day.
How to Perform a Squat With Good Form
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Turn your feet to point out to the side just slightly.
- Hinge at your hips and bend your knees (as if you were going to sit in a chair) while keeping your chest up.
- Either raise your arms out in front of you at shoulder height for balance or bring your hands up to your chest.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor, and don't arch your lower back.
- Now check your knees: They should be pointing in the direction of your toes (not collapsing in or bowing out) and shouldn't extend past your toes.
- Once you've lowered as far as your hip flexibility will allow, squeeze your glutes and stand back up.
1. Arching or Rounding Your Back
If you're arching or rounding your back at any point of your squat, you'll want to stop and reassess your form ASAP. This mistake most commonly occurs as you stand up from your squat, says Cameron Yuen, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York.
One major culprit: lifting a weight that's too heavy, especially if you're performing barbell back squats, Yuen says. You may also be lacking the mobility and/or core strength required for this exercise.
Start by lowering the amount of weight you're lifting, Yuen says. "Your spinal muscles might not be strong enough to support the weight, causing a rounded posture."
Also, focus on keeping your chest up throughout the entire movement. This will activate the muscles of the entire back to help you keep your spine long.
2. Letting Your Knees Collapse Inward or Track Outward
Ideally, your knees should point in the same direction (forward) during the entire movement, Yuen says. But if you do your squats in front of a mirror, you may notice your knees starting to cave inward or bow outward, particularly at the bottom of the motion.
Often, this is a sign of a muscle imbalance — most commonly either weak hips or glutes. Over time, this misalignment can cause strain on the ligaments in your knee, which can lead to pain or injury. So it's important that you correct this mistake before you start loading your squats.
Also, take a look at your foot placement. Although, technically, your feet should be at about hip-width apart, choose a foot placement that's comfortable for you while maintaining proper exercise form, recommends the American Council on Exercise.
Start by practicing your squats with a resistance band around your knees. This will force you to keep your knees in place.
"This won't necessarily make you stronger, but it will help with the coordination so that when you do go back to squatting with weights, your knees will track your toes," Yuen says.
3. Raising Your Heels
If you feel like you can easily come up onto your toes at any point during your squat, your foot placement likely needs some adjustment. When you squat, your entire foot should stay planted on the ground to help your balance, Yuen says. If it's not, a lack of ankle mobility may be to blame.
"It can be difficult to recruit your hamstrings and glutes if you're pushing off your toes," Yuen says. Plus, keeping your feet rooted into the ground also helps with muscle activation, which is why you may see some people at the gym squatting with flat shoes or in their socks.
Focus on keeping your entire foot flat during your squats — you might not even realize you haven't been. If you can't keep your whole foot on the ground, you may have tight calves or stiff ankles. Stretching your calves before you train or squatting with your heels elevated can help fix this issue.
4. Shifting Your Hips to One Side
It's normal to have a stronger side (and thus, a weaker side). If you're right-handed, it's pretty common to have a stronger right arm or leg.
Your dominant side can affect your squats, causing your hips to shift to the right or left at any point during the exercise. However, you should try your best to keep your weight evenly distributed over both of your feet during your squat, Yuen says.
"Due to muscle imbalances or flexibility limitations, you might sit more to one side," he says. "Training this way will increase asymmetries further, potentially causing overtraining pains on your dominant side."
Add more single-leg exercises into your training program, like split squats, single-leg knee extensions or single-leg deadlifts. If you're right-side dominant, you may struggle on the last few reps on your left side, but get through each set as evenly as possible. This can help restore your leg strength symmetry over time, Yuen says.
5. Sitting Too Far Back
If you're new to squatting, you may be concerned with keeping your knees behind your toes, causing you to overcompensate by sitting too far back, Yuen says. This shifts more of the work to your lower back, rather than your legs. But it can lead to lower back pain or stiffness.
One good way to check: If your toes come up at the bottom of your squat, you may be sitting too far back in the motion.
When you squat, don't just push your hips back; think about pushing your knees forward. If you do both of these simultaneously, you'll have a more balanced squat where all the muscles of your legs and trunk are engaged.
"This will lead to better muscular development and increased safety, and it will also allow you to lift more weight," Yuen says.
6. Lifting Too Heavy
Stacking a bunch of plates on your barbell before you squat is certainly a satisfying feeling. But if you can't squat all that weight with good form, you'll want to leave a few plates behind for the safety of your back, according to New York-based certified personal trainer Carolina Araujo, CPT.
"Sacrificing the safety of your back during any exercise can be extremely harmful and dangerous, especially when it comes to squats," Araujo says. "Because it's an exercise that applies compression to the spine, you want to make sure you're doing the movement properly to allow the muscles to properly engage and keep your back safe."
Increase the weight of your squats slowly in 5-pound increments, Araujo says. If you can do all your reps comfortably with with added weight, you can go up a little more.
"Don't do too much at once because that's an easy way to get injured," Araujo says. "Take your time with your squats — easy does it."