- Courtesy of Niko Algieri; Samantha Lee/INSIDER
- Squats are compound movements that feature heavily in many people’s workout routines.
- However, according to one top personal trainer, most of us are performing the move incorrectly.
- Niko Algieri, whose clientèle includes Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, and Nicole Scherzinger, told INSIDER that we should actually start with our feet wider than hip-width apart and focus on turning our knees out as we go down.
- This ensures the glutes are engaged, which is the main point of a squat.
- Read on for tips on how to perform a perfect squat, and how to take it to the next level by adding weights.
Deadlifts, squats, lunges – when it comes to fitness, there are certain staple exercises everybody should be able to perform.
However, even though they may seem simple, sometimes the most basic movements are actually the trickiest to execute with perfect technique.
One such move is the squat: from the outside, it looks so easy, but performing a squat correctly, ensuring you’re engaging the right muscles and moving your body as you should, is in fact very complex.
And, it turns out, most of us are squatting incorrectly.
Niko Algieri is the director and cofounder of Equilibrium, which has just opened a brand new fitness studio in King’s Cross, London, and he’s also personal trainer to Ellie Goulding, having previously trained Rita Ora, Nicole Scherzinger, as well as leading athletes and footballers.
One of Algieri’s ultimate pet peeves is people squatting incorrectly.
“I could go on for days on the mistakes people and trainers are making in their squats and squat coaching,” he told INSIDER.
But first, let’s go back to basics.
Why it’s important to know how to squat
“The squat is the most functional movement we have available to our existence,” said Algieri, who is a Level 3 qualified personal trainer and also has a Level 1 CrossFit Certification, TRX Suspension training qualification, and kettlebell qualification.
And according to Tim Hayes, founder of personal trainer-booking app Peach and internationally acclaimed personal trainer himself, the first think to think about is why you’re squatting in the first place.
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“Your goals, physiology, and track record of injuries and pain should all be taken into account, and it’s best to consult a qualified fitness practitioner before embarking on an exercise programme,” he told INSIDER.
“If your focus is on building your glutes, then pay attention to the physical sensation you get when you squat – does it burn in your bum or your quads?” said Hayes, who has a diploma in Sports Science and specialist credentials in Corrective Exercise, Core Conditioning, and functional biomechanics.
A squat is a compound move, meaning it works multiple body parts at once. It’s great for building strength in your glutes, core, and legs, and once you’ve mastered the basic technique you can add weights to challenge your body further and see even more impressive results.
Most people are squatting incorrectly
Algieri claims most people have been taught how to squat wrong, and many of us make the same mistakes.
“In my opinion, the bad technique stems from the 80’s exercise videos telling people to squat with their feet hip-width apart, not to bend the knees over the toes, and hope to hell you have hip mobility,” he said.
“This is just wrong. Think of babies waddling around with their feet turned out. When they squat the knees spread outwards because that’s what the hips are designed for, that range of motion.”
According to Algieri, not turning your knees out is the main mistake we’re making. However, other common errors include:
- Leaning forward with too much hip hinge – bending at the hips.
- Letting the knees collapse inwards or keeping knees in line with toes, which deactivates the glutes and damages the knees.
- Raising shoulders to ears, which results in a loss of core activation and a rounded back.
- Shifting the weight into the toes, which makes the movement quad-dominant.
- Letting the ankles flex so much that the knees go way past the toes – again, this makes the move quad-dominant with almost zero activation of the glutes.
- Not squatting low enough due to a lack of mobility in the hip flexors.
How we should be squatting
To perform a perfect squat, there are many factors to consider. Algieri’s instructions are as follows:
- Stand with your feet just past hip-width apart.
- Keep your shoulders down and back, arms by your side, eyes forward.
- Keep your spine neutral with no rib flare – rib cage puffed out – which increases core engagement.
- Bend simultaneously at the hips, knees, and ankles – “The squat is one movement, it’s not the hips going first,” said Algieri.
- With the weight spread across the whole foot, not just the heels, spread your knees outside the middle toe to activate the glutes – “Often people are told to put their weight in their heels which becomes a fault in itself as you lose your equilibrium,” Algieri explained.
- Sit low enough so the hip crease dips below the knee, which gives you maximum engagement.
- At the same time, raise the arms to shoulder height in front of you which should help with your balance.
- Keep looking forward and don’t allow the pelvis to tilt backwards, tucking the bum underneath you – this can lead to lower back injuries.
- Drive up and squeeze the glutes at the top, keeping the core engaged.
The main way Algieri’s technique differs from what most of us are taught is his insistence on starting with the feet wider than hip-width apart and turning the knees outwards as you go down.
It’s not uncommon for trainers to recommend standing with your feet slightly closer together, and keeping your knees and toes in line as you perform the move, but Algieri believes this is incorrect.
How to squat with weights
Once you’ve mastered the bodyweight squat, take things up a notch by adding weights – you can simply hold a kettlebell or dumbbell, but most people prefer to use a barbell, holding it either across the back of your shoulders (a back squat) or in front of your collarbone (a front squat).
Human movement and elite performance specialist Luke Worthington, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Integrative Corrective Exercise Specialist, and Master of Science in Biomechanics, explained to INSIDER what you need to think about when squatting with weight.
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Squat depth ? . The subject of oh so many internet debate… . Is there such a thing as a ‘correct’ squat depth ? . In my opinion no, pelvic anatomy, relative limb length and injury history are just three of the many factors that determine the depth to which an individual can squat (or squat safely!). . There are many benefits in both hypertrophy and athletic performance that can be gained from partial range squats, so if that’s the range to which you or your client can operate with control – then there is no reason to discard the movement, or even worse to force range at the expense of alignment or pain. . . A comparison between an active range and passive range assessment will give you an indication of the depth to which an individual can safely move. If a range can not be handled under control, then we have no business forcing a client or athlete to go there, let alone going there under load. . If you’re not assessing you’re just guessing. . . #bulletproofyourbody
Like Algieri, Worthington advocates starting with your feet wider than hip-width apart, and he also says you should “generate some tension through the floor by driving outwards through the feet – imagine you are trying to stretch the piece of floor between your feet.”
“If the weight is on your back then pull the bar onto your body as hard as you can to generate tension in the lats, therefore stabilising the spine along its entire length,” Worthington said.
“If the weight is in front of you, ensure it’s not resting on your chest, holding it slightly off your body will ensure the anterior core is engaged.
“Make a double chin (not the most glamorous cue, but it works) and maintain that throughout the movement.”
You then perform the squat just as you would without a weight, but Worthington has some extra tips:
- Rather than collapsing beneath the weight think about actively pulling yourself down.
- Think about squatting your bum and hips between your feet, rather than behind – “This helps keep the chest up and ensures your torso and shins continually move in parallel throughout,” he said.
- In the “finish” position, the glutes and abs should be firmly engaged and you should still feel as though you are working hard and maintaining full body tension.
Do different bodies require different squat techniques?
Hayes, however, is of the opinion that a squat technique that’s perfect for one person won’t necessarily be the same for someone else, as all our bodies are different.
“Don’t be afraid to play around with small adjustments to your positioning – how far apart your legs are, feet turned in or out, degree of hip flexion, until you find a method that works for you.
“Just as every golfer has a slightly different swing, the perfect squat might not be perfect for everyone.”
You should be able to tell whether what you can feel when you squat is the desired burn from the engagement of your muscles, or potentially harmful strain on your joints. If it’s the latter, don’t be afraid to try modifying your movement.
But if you haven’t already, it may be worth trying some squats with your knees turned out next time you hit the gym.