Squats are the bread-and-butter of most bodyweight workouts, and for good reason. Squat exercises not only build muscle, but promote stronger legs, hips, knees, and glutes. However, it’s all too easy to perform an incorrect squat, and even small squat mistakes may put you on the fast-track to injury. So, to keep your form on point and your glutes in tact, we talked to experts about eight common squat errors, how they might impact your body, and what you should do instead.
Mistake #1: Your knees rotate in or out
“When your knees internally or externally rotate, it puts increased stress on your knee joint and ligaments due to potential weakness in your quad muscles,” explains Aaptiv trainer Jennifer Giamo, owner of Trainers in Transit. “That increased knee joint stress, combined with improper hip alignment, can lead to back injuries.”
Instead, to minimize lower back, hip, and knee problems, keep your hips stacked over heels and knees stacked over ankles. A shoulder-wide stance may help, but depending on hip mobility and your individual body type, you may need to go a little wider or narrower.
“When your toes turn out, you’re putting pressure on your IT band as well as other muscles on the outside of the leg, and you’re not engaging your glutes properly,” says Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham. “Focusing on strengthening hip abductors and keeping toes forward are the best ways to prevent this.”
Mistake #2: Your knees push past your toes
If your knees move beyond your toes at the bottom of your squat, you may experience knee pain or injury.
“Leading with your knees causes quad dominance,” states Cunningham. “That’s not to say your quads shouldn’t be used, but squats should primarily engage your glutes. Hips go back, and then you should get a full extension at the top of the movement to re-engage your glutes before lowering again.”
According to Giamo, this increased knee angle puts even more stress on the joints and forces your quad muscles to work harder. Knees may go forward unintentionally due to tight hips, adds Cunningham.
For a quick check of proper knee placement, look down during a squat to see if the tips of your toes are visible—if so, you’re probably good, and if not, you need to sit back a little bit more.
Mistake #3: You squat too low
Certain studies indicate squatting low is actually good for your body, but Giamo recommends only lowering to 90 degrees. Going past this point puts too much stress on knees and quad muscles, and doesn’t provide enough leverage to push from your glutes as you stand up, she explains. It also may increase potential for lower back injury.
The opposite, a shallow squat, won’t usually lead to injury, but you may not see the results you want in terms of strength build. So, we’ll count it among our other common squat mistakes.
“For beginners, using a stability ball behind your back and up against a wall can help you perform the squat movement with the support of the ball to maintain proper alignment,” says Giamo.
Mistake #4: You lift onto your toes
The power behind a squat comes from pushing through your heels. So, when you shift more weight to your toes, it leans you forward. The result? A higher potential for knee injury and overstressed ankles. This position also doesn’t give you the leverage you need in your hips or glutes, adds Giamo.
“When you go forward on your toes in a squat, it puts all your body weight on your knees and quads, which deters from glute function,” shares Cunningham. “This leads to imbalances and overdominance of quadriceps. Instead, press through your heels. Then, you can sit back and drive through your squat while firing your glutes.”
Mistake #5: You ignore your core
“When you squat, your core should be engaged,” notes Cunningham. “As you stand, you should not only drive through your heels and glutes but also through your abdominals.”
By stabilizing your inner core muscles and keeping a more rounded lower back and pelvis, you can maintain a neutral spine. This will help avoid unnecessary pressure off your back, says Cunningham, thus correcting some of your squat mistakes. This also allows you to focus on utilizing the right muscles during each squat.
“It is significantly important to keep your spine in a neutral posture throughout the squat pattern,” indicates Dr. Chris LoRang of Capital Chiropractic & Rehabilitation Center. “In order to stabilize your lumbar spine, you must be able to engage your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). IAP functions like an anchor, providing stability for global movements, like a squat. To do this, think about your abdomen like a balloon. Expand your balloon in order to stabilize your lumbar spine, he says. Basically, breathe deeply into your stomach to support your back while you squat.
Mistake #6: Your drop your chest
Good posture can make or break a squat. Looking upward curves your cervical spine and puts you at risk for disc injury. Alternatively, leaning too forward, overly rounds the back and stresses the spin. Too many squat mistakes occur simply due to poor posture.
Of course, it’s normal to lean forward slightly as you sit back and down into your squat. Use a mirror. If you can see yourself with your head positioned straight and chest lifted, you’re on the right track.
Mistake #7: You squat too fast
Don’t rush! Speedy squats maximize your chances of injury due to carelessness. So, control yourself and be sure to rest in between squat sets. This allows for ample recovery—by resting, you’ll be able to get the best out of every squat.
Mistake #8: You forget to breathe
Don’t hold your breath. During a squat, it’s critical to breathe into your belly (rather than your chest) to help stabilize your core. Inhale gradually, with control, as you squat. Then, exhale slowly as you press your heels into the ground and rise up.
Want to practice your perfect squats? Try “All the Planks, All the Squats,” “Lunge City,” or “Squat On, Squat Off”!