Squats are one of the simplest and most common lower body exercises—trainers love ’em, and for good reason—but they also happen to be one of the easiest to mess up. Leaning too far forward, dipping your butt too low (or not low enough), and failing to engage your core can all quickly mess with your form and keep you from reaping the full benefits of the move. Easy as these may seem, there’s a lot to think about—and when you mess up any single element, the integrity of the entire exercise starts to fall apart.
“When you’re doing a squat, you’re obviously bending at your knees and lowering your body, but some things start to happen during that lowering process,” says Peter Tucci, Obé fitness trainer. “Your back will start to arch because your body is trying to help you out, and then your chest will curl over.” Not only can this prevent you from reaping the full benefits of the move, but not utilizing proper squat form also puts you at a higher risk of injury.
To help you lift and lower safely and successfully, Tucci put together a three-part checklist that you can mentally run through every time you assume the position. His move mantra? “Lift, tuck, lower.” Read on for why each element is critically important, and why these simplified steps are all you’ll need to get the perfect squat form down pat once and for all.
Follow this 3-part squat form
1. Tuck: No matter how seasoned a squatter you are, your body is always going to try and fight against the move by arching your back—so it’s up to you to tune in and correct it. “You need to get that butt underneath you,” says Tucci. “Don’t tuck to an extreme, but before you lower make sure there isn’t an arch in your back.” Try to think about keeping a straight line from the top of your head to your butt and hold that line at every point as you lower towards the ground.
2. Lift: When you’re squatting, it’s important to keep your chest held proud and avoid slumping your body forward (which is what it’s going to try and do on its own). Focus on keeping your head up and shoulders back, and engage your core to provide the central strength you need to make it possible. “Think about keeping your belly button in tight, as if there’s a magnet between it and your spine,” says Tucci. “As you lower, this will help keep your butt underneath you and your chest open.”
3. Lower: Finally, when it comes time to dip down to the floor, you want to make sure your weight is back in your heels, which will help to balance your body’s center of gravity and keep you from falling forward. Keep your knees behind your ankles, and try to get your butt as close to parallel with your knees as possible—but don’t drop it down any further (at that point, you’re putting your joints in danger and aren’t really targeting your muscles anymore). Hold for a beat, then drive through your heels to push back up to stand.
Throughout the entire process, it’s important to stay in tune with even the smallest details of how your body is moving. “Whenever you feel any sort of buckling sensation like if your knees are going in or out or your back is arching, it’s time to stop and make sure your chest is proud, your [glutes are] frozen in the right spot, and your knees are over your ankles,” says Tucci. And pretty soon, you won’t have to think about it—every squat you do really will be as easy as it looks.
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