What’s the Proper Way to Squat – Q&A

Question: What is the proper way to squat? And could you address the issue of butt-winks at the bottom of the squat and how to correct that?

Answer: It depends.  Simply there is no single proper way to squat despite what many will have you believe or vigorously contend.  At the very least most will define three primary ‘types’ of squats which are:

  1. High-bar/Olympic squat
  2. Generic Power Squat
  3. Geared powerlifting squat

And I’d note that that only begins to scratch the surface of the different types of squats which have been done over the years.  But those general categories tend to encapsulate the three ‘primary’ types of back squats that are done by trainees.  I’ll describe each generally and try to look at some of their various pros and cons below.

The high-bar/Olympic squat is done with the bar held high on the traps and the goal is generally to keep the torso as vertical as possible; this is usually facilitated by wearing shoes with a slight ‘heel’ on them as this lets the lifter get the knees further forward.    The focus is generally more on squatting ‘down’ than ‘back’ in this style of squat and it’s critical to push the knees way out and squat ‘between the knees’ (as Dan John puts it so simply).   A slightly narrower stance is also usually used (as this tends to have more carryover to pulling and the jerk in Olympic lifting). 

Olympic lifters use this as a general leg strengthener as well as to strengthen the muscles used in the Olympic lifts.  Generally, lifters using this type of squat aim for maximum depth (often called ass to grass or ATG) although bodybuilders often use a high-bar style but stay above parallel.

YouTube Preview Image

.

The second type of squat is what I call the generic power squat.   In this style of squat, the bar is held a bit lower on the back (but typically not as low as some powerlifters would do it) and the lifter sits more back although there is also a down component.  Generally, there will be more even involvement of the lower body and the low back tends to work harder since the torso will tend to be tipped further forward.  Depth is typically just below parallel and a wider stance is often used; this can be perfectly appropriate for raw powerlifting competition and the following video shows a fairly generic ‘power’ squat.

.

YouTube Preview Image

.

Finally is the geared powerlifting squat.  Frankly, technique here can vary massively depending on the type of gear allowed, whether or not a monolift is being used and how strict the federation is about depth.  You will see anything from a squat that looks almost like a high-bar squat (in IPF competition) to insanely wide stance squats.  The focus is generally more on squatting back than down but, again, there is huge variance here. Unless you’re planning on competing in a geared powerlifting federation, this probably isn’t relevant to you.  You can go Youtube videos and you’ll see all kinds of different techniques, again depending on the gear and federation and what’s being passed as a ‘squat.

And of course, there are endless other details to squatting which is what I suspect you are actually asking.  Debates over head position, how much torso lean, whether you break at the knees or hips first have been going on for years and aren’t going to end soon.  All techniques have their pros and cons and there are always trade-offs in techniques and you will see top competitors doing all kinds of different stuff along with differences in ‘style’ between two people doing the same ‘type’ of squat.  I doubt this really answers your question but short of writing a lot more, that’s the best answer I can give you.

So which is the ‘right’ way to squat?  That’s a question with no answer.  For most, either the high-bar style of squatting or generic power squat is going to be the better choice than the geared power squat (unless they are planning to compete in a geared federation).   

To really do a high-bar squat right usually requires Olympic shoes (especially if the goal is to hit depth without getting up on the toes); if a lifter doesn’t have those I’d tend to teach the generic power squat with the lifter sitting both back and down and aiming to hit parallel if they can do it without tucking their butt.

Which brings me to your second question, about the ‘butt-wink’. This is a term invented by, I believe, Mark Rippetoe, to describe the phenomenon whereby the butt tucks under (and the low back rounds) during a squat.  This video shows a pretty exaggerated version of tucking the butt under.

.

YouTube Preview Image

.

Frankly, this can be related to a lot of different things often various aspects of flexibility or mobility in the lower body.  Tight hamstrings are often a culprit, tight glutes can be a problem too.  Often a lack of ankle mobility sort of ‘moves’ up the chain and causes problems higher up.  Sometimes it’s just an issue of the lifter not consciously trying to keep the back arched. 

I will note that with ATG squats, some amount of butt tucking is almost invariable. What I personally look for is what’s going on at the low back.  If the butt only tucks to the point that the back is flat, it doesn’t concern me; if the back actually rounds (as it does in the above video) then that has the potential to put a lot of stress on the spine due the combination of flexion and compression.

How you go about fixing it depends on the problem and I usually use a combination of static stretching, what’s usually called the squat stretch and focusing on keeping a hard arch.  The squat stretch probably has the most potential to do benefit here, since it’s about as specific as it gets. 

To do it, load up a bar with maybe 50% of your best squat.  Now holding a hard arch in the low back lower yourself to the point in the squat just above where your back would normally start to round.  Now trying to hold that arch (you may need a helper to let you know), let the weight push you down a little bit deeper; this is stretching all of the tissues that might be limiting in as specific a way as possible and over time you should be able to lower your depth without tucking.

If you want to get more information about squatting than you ever hoped for, I’d refer you to Boris Bachmann’s Squat RX blog and video series.  Excellent stuff and he’s got an entire video on correcting low back tuck somewhere on the blog.