Before you get under the bar to start squatting, you should have a solid warm-up routine to ensure your muscles are stretched, primed, and ready for the main workout.
So how should you warm-up for squats? An effective squat warm-up will include mobility, dynamic stretching, and muscle activation. The mobility will increase blood flow to the muscle, the dynamic stretching will increase the range of motion, and the muscle activation will ‘turn on’ the stabilizing muscle groups that support the overall movement.
Don’t worry if you have no clue what any of these things mean yet.
In this article, I will detail the exact warm-up routine that both myself and the athletes I coach use to increase performance and reduce the likeliness of injury.
Before diving in, I highly encourage reading my full guide on how to warm up for powerlifting where I discuss the research and best practices of an effective warm up routine (feel free to open this link in a new tab and save for later).
Best Mobility Drills for Squats
The purpose of performing mobility work is to increase your range of motion and improve blood flow to the muscles.
Mobility drills are often achieved through the use of self-massage therapy or myofascial release. This is the practice of applying pressure to a muscle group by using a foam roller or lacrosse ball. If we can release tight muscles, we have the ability to restore motion at the level of the joint.
My recommendation is to pick 1-3 exercises listed below, apply pressure to the muscle, and perform 5-10 strokes for 60-90-seconds. Feel free to choose different mobility drills over time.
A quick note before getting started: It’s important to know that performing mobility drills in this way to restore motion is only temporary. This means that you can increase range of motion for the specific workout, but the benefits of foam rolling doesn’t last (from a range of motion perspective). You’ll need additional interventions to make long-term progress in your mobility following your workout (such as static stretching) (Peacock et al., 2014).
Use the foam roller to apply pressure to the calf. By having one leg on top of the other and pushing downward you can control the amount of pressure applied.
Place the foam roller on the quad and find a tender spot where the muscles are tight. You can do more inner or outer thigh depending on where you feel you need it. The bent leg will allow you to roll forward and back on the foam roller.
If you find your quads getting sore from squats then heck out my article on Quads Sore After Squats: Is This Good Or Bad?
Place your glute on the foam roller and bend one leg on top of the other. By doing this, you’ll apply more pressure to the glute of the non-bent leg. Use your arms behind you to roll forward and back.
Apply pressure with the foam roller to the hamstring. Use your arms behind you to roll forward and back.
Use a lacrosse ball (or any hard ball) to roll out the front of the hip flexor. Keep your back leg straight and use your arms to roll forward and back.
Use the foam roller to apply pressure to the low and mid-back. Bend your legs to leverage onto the foam roller and roll forward and back.
For a complete list of hip mobility drills, check out my article on How To Increase Hip Mobility For Squats.
Best Dynamic Stretching For Squatting
The purpose of dynamic stretching is to lengthen the muscle and improve its function.
Dynamic stretching is achieved by moving your muscles through a stretched range of motion 10-15 times. This differs from static stretching where you hold your muscle in a stretched position for 30-60-seconds.
The important difference here is that dynamic stretching should be done before you workout, and static stretching should be done after you workout (McMillian et al., 2006). A lot of people do static stretching before lifting, and this is a big squat mistake.
My recommendation is to pick 2-3 of the following dynamic stretches and perform 1 set of 10-15 reps. Feel free to rotate through various dynamic stretches over time (don’t do the same ones over and over again).
Once you’ve mastered your squat warm-up, you’ll want to implement a squat progression that allows you to progress from beginner to advanced.
Downward Dog to Inch Worm
Leg Swings (Front-to-Back & Side-to-Side)
World’s Greatest Stretch
Leg Cradle to Lateral Lunge
Knee Hug to Inverted Hamstring Stretch
Best Activation Exercises For Squats
The purpose of muscle activation is to prime the stabilizing muscles that have a role in supporting the prime movers.
While the prime movers are the muscles responsible for producing force, the stabilizing muscles work to restrict inefficient movement patterns. As a result, the stabilizing muscles allow the prime movers to do their job to the fullest.
This is why you want to ensure your stabilizing muscles are primed and ready before you start squatting.
I recommend selecting 1-2 exercises below, and performing 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps with a light or bodyweight resistance. The goal here is to use a controlled tempo so that you don’t compensate with bigger muscle groups. Feel free to rotate through different activation exercises over time, even if they’re targeting the same stabilizing muscles.
It’s important that you don’t ‘overdo it’ with the activation exercises, as you don’t want to fatigue the stabilizing muscle before you squat. You simple want to prime them so that they stay fresh for the main work.
Medial Band Squat
This exercise will help build your glute medius muscle, which has a role in preventing your knees from caving while you squat.
Standing Banded Clamshell
Reverse Speed Skater
Lateral Walk (AKA “Mummy Walk”)
Forward / Backward Lateral Walk
Take a look at my article on Goblet Squats vs Front Squats where I explain why using these exercises might be a good warm-up before back squatting.
The goal of warming up is to prepare your body for the main workout, boost performance, and reduce the likelihood of injury. The warm-up recommendations above should take no longer than 10-minutes to complete before squatting, which should be easily budgeted even for people running short on time. Everyone will develop their own individual routine based on their personal preferences, but the premise that all warm-ups should include some mobility drills, dynamic stretching, and activation, is universal.
I highly recommend you read our Ultimate Guide to Warming Up for Powerlifting, since it will cover these concepts in further detail, as well as give you a step-by-step guide on how to do a ‘barbell warm-up’, which wasn’t covered in this article.
What To Read Next
McMillian, D., Moore, J., Hatler, B., Taylor, D. (2006). Dynamic vs. Static-Stretching Warm Up: The Effect On Power And Agility Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 492-499.
Peacock, C., Krien, D., Silver, T., Sanders, G., Carlowitz, K. (2014). An Acute Bout of MyoFascial Release In The Form of Foam Rolling Improves Performance Testing. International Journal of Exercise Science, 7(3), 202-211.