If you’re a gym rat, chances are the squat is a part of your regular routine. Not only does this powerful exercise build muscle in your lower body, it strengthens your upper half as well. Have you noticed that you’re squatting the same weight for a while now though? If you want to up your load, here are seven ways to improve your squat.
1. Start Off on the Right Foot
Many people play around with their foot position during the squat. Some experts will tell you that pointing your toes outward is best, while others say to do what feels natural. The truth is though, there’s only one correct foot position for the squat. Your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder width apart, with your toes pointed out about 10 degrees, says Andrew Sakhrani, CSCS, a Montreal-based strength coach. “It is important to [have your feet] a little further than shoulder-width apart so that the groin muscle is involved as well,” Sakhrani says. This position allows you to effectively activate the proper muscles by putting pressure on the outsides of your feet.
2. Tighten Your Buns: Barbell Hip Thrust
One of the most common issues people have with squatting is known as valgus collapse, or the knees collapsing inwards during the “up” phase of the exercise. This is caused by weak glutes. “Without sufficient strength in the glutes, muscles may fail and other muscles will try to overcompensate, leading to imbalance and possible injury,” says Sakhrani. To strengthen your glutes, try barbell hip thrusts.
How to: Sit on the ground with your shoulder blades up against the side of a bench. Place a loaded barbell across your hips with a pad in between you and the barbell. Slide your feet in so they are flat on the ground and your heels are under your knees (a). Lift your hips off the ground, so your butt is about three inches from the floor. Thrust hips up by squeezing glutes until your body is a straight line from shoulders to knees (b). Slowly lower yourself back to the start position.
Sets:4, Reps: 5-8, Rest: 3 minutes
3. Strengthen Your Back: Prone Back Extensions
Experts agree that squats place a large load on the spine and that this can be dangerous if done improperly. But there are ways to greatly reduce the risk of injury, such as improving lower back strength. Simple prone back extensions will increase strength in your lower back, allowing the body to better manage heavy loads. And most trainers will agree that more stimulus (heavier weight) means faster improvement.
How to: Lie face down on the ground with hands at your sides. Squeeze your glutes and lift your torso and legs off the ground, simultaneously trying to touch your hands behind your back (a). Slowly return to the start position (b). Sakhrani tells us to “Breathe normally and take time with it. When at the contraction phase of the exercise, it’s important to hold for 2-3 seconds to effectively work the muscle.”
Sets: 3, Reps: 20, Rest: 90 seconds
4. Improve Imbalances in Legs: Single-Leg Pressing Exercises
Everyone has muscle imbalances; they’re unavoidable. These imbalances hinder your improvement in bilateral (two sided) exercises, such as the bench press, squat and deadlift. To correct imbalances, single-side exercises are a commonly used and effective. For example, on a day that you would do squats, try substituting a Bulgarian split squat. Make sure to take your time to do them correctly. “It’s important to make sure that the front heel is staying grounded,” says Sakhrani. “If it doesn’t, you need to stand further away from the box.”
How to: Stand a few feet away from a bench or box, holding dumbbells at your sides. Raise one foot and place it on the bench or box behind you. This is the start position (a). Keeping your torso upright and weight in the heel of the grounded foot, slowly lower your body down until you feel a deep stretch in the hip flexor of the raised leg (b). Press your heel into the floor to return to the start position (c).
Sets: 4, Reps: 8-12 on each leg, Rest: 2 minutes
5. Work on Your Quads: Front Squats
Although it’s generally rare, there are some people who have weak quads (as compared to weak glutes, a much more common problem). To correct this while continuing to do squats, shift the load a bit to put the emphasis on your quads by doing a front squat.
How to: Set up in a squat rack and place the loaded barbell just below shoulder height. Hold the bar with an overhand grip and walk under it, allowing your elbows to come in front of your body to about your shoulder height. The bar should rest across your collarbone and shoulder muscles, pressing against the neck, says Sakhrani, to relieve some of the collarbone pressure. Un-rack the bar and take a couple of steps back. This is the start position (a). Keeping your elbows high, push your hips back and sink your weight into your heels, slowly bringing your butt towards the ground until the top of your thigh is parallel to the floor (b). Without letting your knees collapse inward, drive your heels into the floor to return to the start position (c).
Sets: 4, Reps: 5-8, Rest: 3 minutes
6. Use Your Hammies: Hamstring Curls on a Physio Ball
In addition to needing strong glutes to really improve your squat, hamstring strength needs to be up to par, too. These muscles are powerful hip extensors when they work in conjunction with the glutes, and hip extension is an integral part of the squat. A great way to increase strength in the hamstrings is by using a move that creates high muscular tension, such as Physio Ball Hamstring Curls. “Super setting stability ball leg curls with squats is effective because no muscles will be neglected and neither exercise will affect performance in the other one,” says Sakhrani.
How to: Lie flat on your back with feet and calves on a physio ball. Lift hips off the ground so that your body forms a straight line from shoulders to ankles. This is the start position (a). Digging your heels into the ball, draw your feet in towards your body, rolling the ball towards your butt, while simultaneously lifting your hips to maintain that straight line from shoulders to knees (b). Slowly return to the start position. Trainer tip: You can superset these with squats, but do them after squats to get maximum benefit from squats.
Sets: 4, Reps: 8-12, Rest: 3 minutes
7. Loosen Your Lats: Overhead Squats
You aren’t alone if you have tight lats and spinal erectors. However, when performing a squat, this will cause the lower back to round before getting to full depth, therefore causing back pain. To avoid this and loosen up those big, fan-shaped back muscles, use the overhead squat.
How to: Take a barbell or weighted bar and hold it at shoulder height, hands at twice shoulder width apart. Keeping you feet just wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly out, press the bar overhead. This is the start position (a). Push your hips back as you lower your butt as far down towards your heels as possible (you will feel a tightness in your back — if so, stop) (b). Return to the start position. Sakhrani suggests doing this after foam rolling, because “A foam roller is a useful tool for increasing mobility when used prior to exercise.” Trainer tip: If you cannot bend your knees more than 90 degrees, place a slightly elevated object under the heels of your feet (weight plates can do the trick). This will allow you to gradually work up your mobility to a point where you won’t need the objects under your heels. You can do these before your standard squat as part of a warm-up.
Sets: 3, Reps: 6, Rest: 1 minute
For best results, substitute the pressing exercises (lunges, front squats, overhead squats) in place of the regular back squat in your regular routine. Then, add in one or two of the other moves as assistance exercises either before or after your squat or variant.