Squat Therapy Is a Genius Trick for Learning Proper Squat Form

FYI, it's more important to squat with good form than it is to squat heavy. Squat therapy is a tool that can help you reach perfect squat form.

Three people practicing perfect squat form over yoga mats
Photo: Getty Images

In addition to building super strong glutes, squatting — and squatting heavy — comes with all sorts of health perks. But with so many people interested in lifting heavy (like, really heavy) here's a friendly PSA: It's more important to squat with proper form than it is to squat heavy. Full stop.

"The back squat requires and builds strength, flexibility, mobility, and coordination. But if you're not squatting well, you're only accessing a fraction of your athletic ability," says Dave Lipson, C.S.C.S., a CrossFit Level 4 Trainer and founder of Thundrbro, an educational fitness platform.

You might be wondering, "then how can I get perfect squat form?" Two words: squat therapy. Below, everything you need to know about using squat therapy to get perfect squat form.

Why Should You Be Squatting

Before diving into squat therapy, it's important to recognize how essential squatting is to everyday life. And that can be done in one simple sentence: "If you went to the bathroom this morning, you did a squat," points out Alan Shaw, a certified CrossFit Level 2 Coach and owner of Rhapsody Fitness in Charleston, South Carolina.

Even if you're never going to add weight to your squat — even if you don't exercise at all — squatting correctly is fundamental to moving safely through life. "Every person needs to be able to move through this range of motion," says Shaw. That's where squat therapy comes in.

How Squat Therapy Can Help You Achieve Perfect Squat Form

Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with a psychologist or psychiatrist's office. "Squat therapy is just a cute name for the practice of refining the positions of the squat so that it's more mechanically advantageous," says Lipson. "It's something that helps point out the weaknesses in your squat and improve them," he adds.

More specifically, the drill forces you to use the "tripod foot" (i.e., maintain equal pressure through your big toe, little toe, and heel), sit back through your hips, and keep a tall back and neutral spine — all aspects of good squat form, according to Laura Su, NCSA-C.S.C.S., strength and conditioning coach and owner of LS Training. "Without staying balanced through your feet, sitting back in your hips, and staying tall and neutral in your spine, you'd struggle with this drill," she says.

You don't even need a rack or full gym setup to try squat therapy. You just need something to sit down on, such as a chair, medicine ball, plyo box, bench, or stack of weight plates; a wall; and a mirror, a coach, or a phone so that you can videotape yourself.

"To start, I'll grab a medicine ball and a few 10-pound plates that I can stack beneath the ball to make it higher if needed," explains Shaw. "Then I have the athlete stand 12 to 24 inches away from the wall, but facing it. Then I'll instruct them to squat to depth slowly," he continues.

Note: The height of the platform you're squatting your butt onto will depend on your hip, ankle, and thoracic mobility and strength, but 18 to 24 inches tall is a good starting point. "If you struggle with squat depth, my biggest advice is keep squatting," says Su. "You can certainly do individual joint mobilizations and spend time working on hip and ankle mobility, but squats are the best way to improve your squat," she notes.

To try squat therapy, squat down to the target on a three- to five-second count and quickly stand up on a count of one, suggests Shaw. Lowering slowly allows you to recruit and strengthen all the muscles involved in the full range of motion of a squat. "If you practice the movement slowly, you're training your body to keep proper form once you speed up the squat, like in a real workout," says Shaw. If you go too fast on the way down, you likely won't activate all the muscles that should be at play during a squat, which defeats the purpose.

From here, Shaw says that he'll instruct more advanced athletes to extend their arms above their head with palms facing the wall and thumbs touching, and perform a squat without letting their hands touch the wall. Squatting in this position helps you maintain an upright torso (think: proud chest) when you're squatting. One caveat: Squatting with your arms overhead is an advanced position, and some people will find that their thoracic spine is actually too tight to do this. As with most things in fitness, if you're in pain, stop.

Over time (meaning weeks or even months), you'll develop more control in your squat. "You don't ever graduate from squat therapy," says Shaw. Instead, you can gradually shorten the target that you are squatting to, move closer to the wall, and narrow your stance. Even when you reach the pinnacle of squat therapy — lowering below parallel, in good form, standing up against the wall — squat therapy is a good warm-up, he says.

How to Perfect Your Squat Form Using Squat Therapy

A. Either stack two 10-pound weight plates with a heavy medicine ball on top or place a bench, box, or chair (18 to 24 inches tall) about 2 to 3 feet from the wall.

B. Stand facing the wall, about two shoe lengths away from the wall — so that butt would touch the ball or the edge of the box if squatting. Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes turned 15 to 30 degrees outward.

C. Keeping chest tall, take a deep breath in, engage core, and keep gaze straight ahead. (If advanced, straighten arms overhead at this point.) Push hips back, bend at knees, and lower into a squat so that knees track in line with ankles and toes, but don't go forward past toes. Continue to descend slowly on a 3- to 5-second count into the squat until either spine begins to round and chest begins to fall forward, or butt grazes the ball — whichever comes first.

D. Keeping core tight, quickly return to standing by driving hips forward and exhaling on the way up. (The upward portion of the squat should be about 1 count compared to the 3- to 5-count lower.)

Too easy? If so, make the target lower by removing one of the weight plates. Still too easy? Remove another. Once the medicine ball is too high, move closer to the wall.

Try doing squat therapy as a five-minute EMOM, meaning that every minute on the top of the minute you'll do five to seven slow air squats, suggests Shaw.

How to Practice Good Squat Form Without a Trainer or Coach

Ideally, the first time you try squat therapy, you'll have a professional coach or trainer available to provide feedback. If that's not possible, you'll want to do squat therapy so that you can see a side profile of your body in the mirror as you squat, says Shaw. This will take a little self-policing, but it will also help you build awareness within the squat movement.

No mirror? Videotaping yourself from the side can serve a similar function, says Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, a certified CrossFit Level 3 Trainer and founder of Féroce Fitness. Here's what to look for: When you're doing the squat, what is your spine doing? Does it stay neutral or begin to round under? If it rounds, adjust the platform you're squatting to so it stops you right before you get there. Are your hips traveling back? Are knees in line with toes? Is your chest vertical?

No doubt, it can be tricky to tell whether you're using perfect squat form without expert feedback. Try watching as many videos as possible of people squatting and then comparing your video to theirs, suggests Leblanc-Bazinet.

There are a number of places to go on Instagram for pointers on how to have good squat form: The official CrossFit Instagram, powerlifter and 25x all-time world record holder Stefi Cohen, and the #powerlifting hashtag are all good places to start.

How to Use Squat Therapy In Your Routine

You can't really overdo squat therapy — and, in fact, it's something that you should do every day, according to Leblanc-Bazinet. "It's the equivalent of brushing your teeth. You do it every day. It will not hurt you if you do a lot of it," she notes. This is true whether you're keen on acing barbell squats in the gym or just getting up and down in your office chair.

Need proof? Leblanc-Bazinet has been doing squat therapy every day for 10 years and she won the CrossFit Games in 2014. Enough said.

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