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Mastering the Basic Fitness Moves - Part One - Squats

When I begin training a new client, one of the first things I teach them is how to perform the basic movements of exercise with safe and effective technique. These movements are the basis of most exercises in the gym and once mastered a client can be progressed to more complex and strenuous exercises that will help them continue to progress with minimal risk of injuring themselves.

In this series of posts I will introduce what I believe to be 6 of the most basic and important exercises to master and build your weight training program around. Squats, Lunges, Deadlifts, Bench Presses, Rows, and Planks. We will discuss what muscles these movements work, proper technique of each, and how to modify them if needed.


We will begin with squats because as many seasoned weightlifters will tell you, the squat is the "king of exercises". Squats are an almost complete body exercise that works the gluteus maximus, quadriceps, hamstrings, abdomen, back, leg adductors and abductors.

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Some may say that squats can be bad for your back or knees, but in my experience I find that if performed correctly, squats can be an effective strengthener of these areas and actually be used as a tool to limit injury to these areas. The key however is to make sure you are performing squats correctly. All too often I see people, mostly men, performing squats in the gym with improper technique and way too much weight, in which case you will greatly increase your risk of knee, hip, and back injuries.

When teaching a client squats for the first time, I often use the Smith machine. A Smith machine is a piece of equipment at the gym that consists of a barbell that travels on a fixed path that will only allow vertical movements. My rationale for using this equipment to begin with is simple: a free weight barbell squat requires a lot of stabilization from the body and many new, and even some experienced exercisers, are not sufficiently strong or balanced to begin this way. By using the smith machine I limit the extraneous stabilization needs of the squat which will allow my client to focus on the core movement pattern and utilize proper form.

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Once a client is able to perform the primary movement consistently with proper form, only then do I move them to a free weight version of the exercise. It is important to note that some people are able to perform consistent safe form with only a minimal amount of time on the smith machine, others, may require more time performing this variation. All that matters before progressing is that proper form is achieved. Do not rush into a free weight version of squats before you are ready as the risk of injury will be greatly increased.

Once the movement pattern has been mastered and you are ready to begin free weight squats you will want to do so inside of a weight rack. Weight racks vary greatly (see examples below), but the main purpose of them is to allow you to step under the barbell, set your feet and body safely, accept the weight onto your body, back away from the rack, and then perform the squat. When you are finished you step forward to the rack and set the weight back down safely.

Before performing free weight squats there are a few safety concerns we need to address. If it is your first time performing a free weight squat I urge you to have a qualified professional with you. They can ensure proper form, help spot you if things get out of control, and give you instruction on how to improve. Also when performing a free weight squat for the first time keep your weights low and focus on your form. Only progress your weight when you can do the movement with perfect form and light weight.

You are now ready to squat! Step under the weight and place it across the top portion of your back, NEVER across the neck. Some people find it uncomfortable to have a bar sitting across their back. Many gyms provide padding that you can put on the bar for comfort. Others opt for just a towel rolled around the bar. Whatever you choose, if anything, be aware that it can give the bar a slight unbalanced feeling and this will affect your lift. Place your hands wider than the width of your shoulders and grip the bar firmly. With the weight properly seated on your upper back/shoulders and a tight grip, push upwards to lift the weight off the rack. Be sure to keep your core contracted. To do this you want to suck your stomach in as though you are trying to pull your bellybutton in towards your spine. This will help stabilize your back and reduce risk of injury.

Back away from the rack just enough to allow you to descend unobstructed. Place you feet shoulder width apart and slightly toed outwards to about 45 degrees. When you descend into a squat you want to push your butt backwards as though you are trying to sit in a chair that is not there. You never want to go straight down as this will cause too much forward lean and stress on the back. Keep your head and torso upright, make sure your weight is focused into your heels, and that your knees sit equal to or just behind your toes. They should never travel forward of the toes as this can cause knee pain and injury. Be sure to breathe in as you descend into the squat.

The ideal squat should go low enough that your thighs reach parallel with the floor meaning your butt will be just below parallel. There are many other variations that call for deeper squatting technique but these should be reserved only for experienced lifters who know how to perform them safely. Most people will be able to descend to parallel, however if you have a history of knee problems, or feel that you cannot get to parallel safely, go to just above parallel.

Once you reach parallel position, or just above, begin to stand immediately as you exhale through pursed lips. DO NOT sit in the bottom position, nor should you bounce the weight at the bottom. When standing you want to drive the weight upwards, with most of the pressure through your heels. As you ascend you want to push your hips forward and back under you to attain a fully upright position. DO NOT lock out your knees at the top. Once at the top check that you contract your core again before beginning the next rep.

Squats are an important move to master and the form is a basis of many other variation of the exercise that will allow you to work more specific parts of the body. Spend the time and effort in the gym to master them and you won’t be sorry. Stay tuned for the next exercise we will explore in this series: LUNGES. Until next time – Aaron

**Disclaimer: This guide is not meant to be a comprehensive review of squatting, nor is it meant to substitute for the real life guidance of a qualified personal trainer. It is for educational purposes only. People vary greatly and so do their needs. There may be extenuating circumstances of your health that have not been accounted for in this article and only a qualified trainer can assist you with this in a one-on-one situation. Please exercise caution and safety and consult with your physician before undertaking any type of weight training regimen**

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