This is part of a continuing series on the best strength-training exercises. This is the third in the series: the squat. The experts are Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., faculty instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and Gregory Florez, exercise physiologist for FitAdvisor.com.
Primary body parts: Glutes, quads, lower back, core.
Secondary body parts: Stabilizers throughout the body, from the ankles to the shoulders.
Why you should do this exercise: Increases functional movement that helps you to bend and lift. This exercise mimics many movements we perform daily, such as rising out of a chair, gardening and picking up children, and it may help improve performance in almost any recreational activity. It is a foundational exercise for almost any individual, with the exception of those whose physicians have advised against this type of movement because of a medical condition.
What you need (equipment): Your body.
How to do it: Start with your body weight. As you become stronger and more balanced you can add dumbbells. You would hold the dumbbells at your sides as you perform the exercise, which would add resistance and difficulty.
Start in a standing position: Perform a “bracing” maneuver to stabilize the spine. (Imagine tightening your core and abdominals as if anticipating a light jab in your belly.) Keep in mind, this works with body-weight squats, but bracing would need to be performed before bending down to pick up dumbbells if using them. Position your feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other or slightly turned out. Tap your toes to shift your weight evenly along the length of your feet and assume a head-up position with your hips under your shoulders.
Downward phase: Begin by pushing your butt backward before lowering your hips and body toward the floor. This creates a pivotlike movement at the knees that helps to engage the glutes and minimize premature forward movement and, therefore, potential harm to the knees. Shoulders and hips drop together.
As you continue to lower your hips and shoulders toward the floor, contract your abs to change the position of your pelvis so that it flattens while maintaining the normal, neutral curvature of the lumbar spine (lower back).
Lowered position: In the lowered position, evaluate your leg alignment, aiming to keep your knees directly over your second toes. Ideally, in this position, your shin bones and torso should be parallel when viewed from the side. It is OK for your knees to be slightly forward of your toes. Head should be aligned with your spine with eyes looking forward. (Head should not be in an extended or excessive head-up position.)
Upward phase: Use your powerful glutes and push through your heels in the head-up position. Your hips and shoulders should rise together to avoid lower-back strain, which may occur with sequential hip-then-shoulder movement.
The key here is to keep your upper body in a good upright position that avoids collapsing too far forward. Keep your eyes straight ahead by picking a spot on the wall in front of you or even standing in front of a mirror. Holding this gaze will remind you to keep the correct posture throughout the movement without leaning forward, which is the most common mistake.
How often should you do it (daily, weekly): As a strengthening exercise, twice per week. Muscles respond to overload by getting stronger. Initially, higher volumes (12 to 20 repetitions) with just your body weight will result in strengthening; once your body adapts to that load, you will have to increase the weight/resistance. The American College of Sports Medicine's position is that a minimum of one set two to three times per week can increase strength, and that you should ideally target four sets of six to 12 repetitions to build muscle.
How do you know you're doing it right: Watch yourself in a mirror or get feedback from a coach or trainer. Try to observe technique, and be aware of your physical sensations. You should feel an equal load or fatigue throughout your entire body, not simply in you lower back or quads, which may indicate improper form.
to do it: Loss of balance, knees falling out of alignment, weight transfer forward, excessive back arching.
do this exercise: People with an acute injury or who are working on healing from injury. Anyone who has a skeletal consideration, such as osteoporosis or spinal stenosis, should consult a physician before attempting this exercise.
This is a very effective total lower-body exercise but can carry some risk if you have any back, hip or knee injuries or issues.
Most common mistakes:
•Leaning forward with the upper body.
•Letting your knees push in front of your feet too early (i.e., before the butt is pushed backward during the descent phase) places more pressure on your knees.
•Not breathing throughout the exercise. Make sure to exhale upon exertion.
•Adding too much resistance (in the form of weights) too quickly.
When in doubt, listen to your body. You will feel some soreness in your hips, thighs, hamstrings, even calf muscles, but this should not persist for more than 48 hours following the exercise. If soreness persists, reduce the number of repetitions or modify the exercise by not squatting down as far. If you feel pain or soreness in your joints, this may not be the best exercise for you.