Squat Safety Tips – Stronger Legs Without the Pain

Updated November 5, 2023

Squatting is one of the best exercises you can do to build stronger legs and a more powerful lower body. However, squatting does come with risks if not performed correctly. By following some essential safety tips, you can reap the benefits of squats without the danger of injury. 

In this post, we’ll cover the important do’s and don’ts of safe squatting, common mistakes to avoid, additional tips for safer technique, and recommended equipment to support your squat training. 

Maintain a Neutral Spine

The most important rule for safe squatting is to keep your spine in a neutral alignment. Do not round your lower back at the bottom of the squat. This can put a strain on your back and compress spinal discs. 

To maintain a neutral spine:

  • Engage your core muscles. Pull your belly button in towards your spine.
  • Keep your chest up. Do not let your torso drop forward. 
  • Do not lock out your lower back. Maintain a slight arch in your lower back.

If you have trouble keeping your lower back in a neutral position, you may need to improve your hip and ankle mobility before progressing to deep squats. You can also try squatting without weight first to focus on your form.

Distribute Your Weight Evenly

Do not rock forward onto your toes at the bottom of the squat. Keep your weight evenly distributed across your whole foot. Shifting your weight onto your toes can strain your knees and cause you to lose balance. 

To maintain an even weight distribution:

  • Push through your heels and the balls of your feet. Do not come up onto your toes.
  • Keep your shins as vertical as possible. Do not let your knees move forward past your ankles.
  • Sit back into your hips. Think about pushing your butt backward rather than just bending your knees.

If you struggle to keep your weight back on your heels, you may need to improve your ankle mobility. You can also try squatting with a slight heel lift under your heels or do heel-elevated squats until your mobility improves. 

Go Low Enough

For the best results, you need to squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. A shallow squat will not provide the same benefits as a deep squat. Go as low as possible while maintaining a neutral spine and even weight distribution. 

To squat deep enough: 

  • Aim for your thighs to be parallel to the floor or slightly below parallel if your mobility allows.
  • Push your hips back and bend your knees to descend into a squat. Go as low as you can while keeping your heels on the floor.
  • Use a mirror or video yourself from the side to check that your thighs reach parallel at the bottom of your squat.
  • If your mobility is limited, hold onto a barbell, dumbbells, or doorframe for balance and support as you squat.

Squatting to parallel or below is ideal, but go only as low as you can while maintaining good form. It is better to squat a bit higher than to compromise your technique. Over time, your mobility and range of motion will improve, allowing you to squat progressively lower.

Woman performing a heavy back squat

Push Through Your Hips

Do not initiate the squat by bending your knees. Start the movement at your hips instead. Keep your shins as vertical as possible throughout the exercise. Bending your knees first can put extra stress on them and cause injury over time. 

To squat through your hips:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and push your hips back like you’re sitting into a chair.
  • Keep your chest up and back straight as you move your hips back.
  • Bend your knees only slightly as you descend into the squat. Your shins should remain nearly vertical.
  • Make sure your knees stay aligned over your ankles and do not cave inwards.
  • Push through your heels and midfoot to rise back up to the starting position by driving your hips forward.

Focus on initiating the movement at your hips, not your knees. Your knees will bend, but only as a consequence of pushing your hips back. Cue yourself to sit back into your hips to help reinforce this pattern. With regular practice, the proper hip-dominant technique will become second nature. 

Keep Your Knees Aligned

Do not allow your knees to drift inward at the bottom of the squat. Your knees should track over your ankles and remain aligned with your hips and feet throughout the exercise. Letting your knees cave in can increase the risk of injury to your knees, hips, and lower back.

To keep your knees aligned:

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and toes pointed slightly outwards.
  • Push your knees out as you descend into the squat. Do not let them drift inwards.
  • Focus on keeping your knees in line with your ankles as you squat down and back up.
  • If needed, wrap resistance bands just above your knees to provide feedback if they start to cave in.
  • Build up the weight and depth of your squats gradually. Only squat as low as you can while maintaining proper knee alignment.

Knee alignment is vital to squatting safely and avoiding injury. Be aware of your knee position throughout the exercise and only progress to heavier weights once you have mastered the proper technique. With regular practice of these alignment cues, squatting with aligned knees will become second nature. 

Additional Tips for Safer Squats

Here are a few more tips to keep in mind for safe and effective squatting:

Start with a Lighter Weight

When you’re first learning to squat, start with just bodyweight or a lighter dumbbell or barbell. Focus on nailing your form before progressing to heavier weights. Build the weight gradually – no more than 10% at a time. 

Wear a Weight Belt

A weight belt can help support your core and lower back, especially when squatting heavy weights. The belt increases intra-abdominal pressure, providing more stability to your spine. 

Take a Deep Breath and Hold

Before descending into a squat, take a deep breath and hold it. This helps engage your core muscles and stabilize your spine. Exhale as you rise back to the starting position. 

Pull the Barbell Down

If squatting with a barbell, pull the bar down into your traps as you squat. This creates tension in your upper back, which helps support the weight. Do not let the bar roll forward. 

Use Safety Equipment

Use mobility bands, knee sleeves or wraps, and a barbell pad. Mobility bands help improve the range of motion. Knee sleeves provide warmth and support. A barbell pad protects your neck from the bar. 

By following these additional tips, you’ll be well on your way to safer and more effective squatting. Be patient and consistent, focus on good form, do not rush progression, and keep safety in mind on every rep. 

Having the right equipment can help make squatting safer and more comfortable. Here are a few recommendations:

Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are great for improving hip and ankle mobility before squatting. Tight hips and ankles can limit your range of motion and make it difficult to squat with good form. Loop a resistance band around your thighs just above your knees and step side to side. You can also loop a band around your ankles and walk forward with your knees straight to open up your ankles. 

Knee Sleeves or Wraps 

Knee sleeves or wraps provide joint warmth, compression, and support. They are helpful when squatting heavy weights. Knee sleeves slide on over your knees, while knee wraps need to be wrapped around your knees. Either can help reduce pain and prevent injury. Look for neoprene sleeves or wraps that provide moderate compression and support. 

Barbell Pad

A barbell pad protects your neck from the weight of the barbell. Without a pad, the bar can dig uncomfortably into your neck and upper back. A barbell pad slides onto the bar and provides dense foam cushioning. 

Weight Belt

A weight belt is helpful when squatting heavy loads. The belt provides support for your core and lower back. It works by increasing intra-abdominal pressure, which helps stabilize your spine under heavy loads. 

Look for a belt that is 4 to 6 inches wide and provides medium to firm support. Only wear a belt when squatting near maximal weights. For lighter squats, it is best to squat without a belt so you can focus on bracing your core muscles. 

Using the proper safety equipment and taking the time to improve your mobility will allow you to squat more comfortably and with better form. 

Invest in high-quality gear that provides the proper level of support for the amount of weight you are squatting. Be sure to follow the recommendations for properly using each piece of equipment for the safest and most effective squat training.

In conclusion, squatting is one of the most effective exercises you can do for building strong and powerful legs. However, it does come with risks if not performed properly. 

By following the safety tips in this post, you can reap the benefits of squats without fear of injury. Focus on maintaining a neutral spine, distributing your weight evenly, going low enough, pushing through your hips, and keeping your knees aligned. 

Start light, use a belt and other safety equipment when necessary, and take your time progressing to heavier weights. With regular practice, these techniques will become second nature and you’ll be squatting safely in no time. Strong, mobile legs await you – get squatting!

Our Squat series continues with: The Mighty Air Squat and Back Squats

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