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How to Do Squats Properly Step by Step

Woman performing a squat exercise in the gym.
Karla Tafra

The ultimate lower body exercise that targets all of your leg and glute muscles, squats are irreplaceable when leg day comes around. Unfortunately, many people don’t know how to do squats properly so here’s a step-by-step guide you can follow.

Squats activate your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, glutes, and even your lower back. All while strengthening your core. Talk about an all-in-one exercise! That’s why they’re also referred to as one of the four basic compound fitness movements as they utilize your whole body to lift the added weight.

They exist in a variety of different forms and can be combined with plenty of other exercises so you can use them to intensify and switch up your leg routine whenever you feel like it. You can be sure of one thing, your legs will do the work.

What Muscles do Squats Work?

Leg muscles in a squat close up.
Ground Picture/Shutterstock.com

Squats target your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, and depending on how you’re built, you might feel one muscle group working harder than others. That’s where accessory exercises come into play and help strengthen the weaker muscles so you can improve not just your muscle strength, but also your squat performance.

Additionally, they also work your calves and shins, your lower back and hips, as well as core muscles. It really is a full-body exercise.

Squatting shoes

Best squatting shoes to improve your squats.

Step 1 – Preparation

Woman preparing do do squats in the gym.
Karla Tafra

Before you start, it’s important to set up for the exercise. If you’re a beginner, you’ll abstain from taking on any additional weight and if you already know whether you’re using dumbbells, a kettlebell, or even the bar, make sure to put safety first and avoid loading on too much weight.

Come in a standing position and separate your feet hip-width distance to start. Now add a third of a foot more room in between your feet and open them slightly so your toes are facing inwards. The goal is for your knees to track your feet once you get low in your squat. This will prevent injuries and help you activate the right muscles without compensating with the wrong area of your body (like your lower back).

Engage your abs by pulling your navel up and closing up the ribcage. Tuck your pelvis to prevent a larger curve in your back as that might cause too much tension and pinched nerves. Relax your shoulders and shake out your neck so there is no tension in your upper body.

If you’re grabbing dumbbells, let them rest at your sides, naturally elongating your arms; if you chose a kettlebell, do the same thing but let the weight rest in front of your body; and if you chose the barbell, place it on your upper back, right above your shoulder blades, and grab firmly.

Squat stretchers

Help support your squats so you better target your glutes.

Step 2 – Proper Breathing

Breathing is extremely important in all exercises, but when it comes to compound movements, we’re using slow inhales and explosive exhales to help us reach the full potential of the move. You’ll start with a slow inhale as you lower down into your squat.

At your lowest, you’ll take a pause and hold your breath for a short moment before you explode up on your exhale and squeeze your glutes at the very top.

Resistance bands for leg day

Challenge your squats with these heavy load resistance bands.

Step 3 – Proper Form

Proper form is another crucial aspect of injury prevention and reaping all the benefits of this popular exercise. The goal is to keep your spine as straight as possible throughout the entire movement. Now, straight doesn’t mean perpendicular to the floor, it means without curving in your upper or lower back.

Keep your core engaged the entire time and don’t drop it. A tight core protects your lower back and helps prevent pinched nerves and potential injuries.

At your lowest, you should be as close to parallel to the floor with your thighs. Naturally, if you’re just starting out, this won’t be possible, but always go as low as you can without compromising your form and technique.

Keep your knees pointed outward and prevent them from caving in. This will ensure you’re really using your glutes and hamstrings and not putting too much load and pressure on your inner thighs and groin.


Great and versatile gym equipment tool.

Step 4 – Proper Weight

Don’t go too heavy too fast. In the beginning, your own body weight is plenty! If you want to challenge yourself, you can always add a resistance band around your thighs or simply increase the number of repetitions. Remember, you are just starting out and slowly training your body to become comfortable with the exercise before you even start toning and building muscle strength.

On the other hand, if you’re already in training for a while and know your maximum weight, find a program that will help you progressively load over time so you don’t overdo it too fast. Even the best programs feature offload weeks where your body takes a moment to reset and repair before tackling big weights again.

15 lb Dumbbell

One large dumbbell to challenge your workouts.

Step 5 – The Movement

And now, the actual movement. Warm up with a few sets of faster bodyweight squats and some leg kicks and then get into the proper position. Take a big inhale and slowly start descending into your squat. Keep your back straight and core tight, aiming to go as low as you comfortably can.

At your lowest, hold your breath and check your knees. Exhale and straighten your legs, squeezing your glutes at the very top with a slight pelvic tilt to the front to feel the burn. Inhale and keep going.

Squat leggings

Help you feel comfortable even when performing squats.

Squats are the absolute leg day foundation. Once you learn how to properly perform them, you can start playing with their vast number of varieties!

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
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