The squat is usually the most intimidating lift for beginners because there are several considerations to keep in mind in order to execute it both safely and efficiently.
The top 17 squat mistakes are:
- Sloppy walk out technique
- Not breathing and bracing properly
- Choosing the wrong foot placement
- Heels lifting off the ground
- Not squatting to depth
- Losing tension at the bottom
- Not using your glutes
- Not keeping your upper back engaged
- Doing a “good morning” squat
- Excessive forward lean
- Not staying over midfoot
- Knees caving in
- Rounding your back
- Lower back arching
- Placing the bar too high on the back
- Wearing the wrong shoes
- Not warming up
Although a squat can look pretty different from lifter to lifter based on body size, proportions and anatomy, there are some general pieces of advice that apply to most and should be taken seriously especially by beginners and intermediates.
In this article, we will go over each mistake and explain why it happens, why it may be unfavorable for your performance or longevity, and what you can do to address it.
If you constantly find squatting hard, read my article on Why Are Squats So Hard?
1. Sloppy Walk out Technique
The squat starts the moment you touch the barbell, so if you set up and walk out like a noodle, be prepared to squat like a noodle.
The squat walkout is your set up and creates the foundation for your squat and needs to be done efficiently and with confidence. Oftentimes this is an overlooked aspect to the squat because it feels like just a simple step that you can’t mess up and isn’t all that important.
However, it is the portion of the squat where you set your grip on the bar, squeeze your back, brace your core and position your stance in the correct spot. In addition to this, the heavier the weight gets the less “simple” taking 2-3 steps backwards will become.
Therefore, practicing a strong and intentional walk out is the best way to address any current inconsistencies you may be noticing in your own technique and will only serve you as you become stronger and start handling heavier weight.
For a more in-depth look into each element of the squat walkout and how to improve them, check out Squat Walkout: 7 Common Mistakes Lifters Make
2. Not Breathing and Bracing Properly
Breathing and bracing your core are a key component of feeling strong from the moment you unrack the bar to the point of lockout.
Improper breathing leads to improper bracing which leads to not harnessing enough strength to lift the weight as well as leaving your back in a vulnerable position for potential injury. It could also lead to your legs shaking while squatting.
In a squat, breathing should start with an inhale before you unrack the weight, followed by holding your brace as you step back and a slight exhale as the bar settles on your back. At this point, you should re-inhale and brace before descending into the squat.
In essence, you should be holding your breath throughout the actual squat movement. To note, some lifters, myself included, do release some air as they come up from the hole and can often be heard like a whistling through your teeth or a grunt, but this is not the same as a full exhale.
The actual brace itself is the creation of a 360 degree pressure around your torso in all directions. To learn more about proper breathing and bracing for squats check out Proper Breathing Technique For Squats (Step-By-Step Guide).
3. Choosing the Wrong Foot Placement
It’s said that strength starts with the feet and this is especially true with the squat where your foot placement can make or break your performance.
There are some general pieces of advice tossed around in the fitness community that can sometimes unfortunately be misconstrued as ultimate truths. One of those misconceptions is that there is such a thing as a single proper squat stance.
This misconception unfortunately leads to many novices trying to build strength with a suboptimal base of support. In reality, how far apart you place your feet and whether or not you point your toes out comes down to the individual and where they feel the most strong.
While a starting point can be placing your feet just outside of shoulder-width apart and with your toes pointed 15 degrees out, that still may not feel comfortable for you because of the anatomy of your pelvis combined with your hip and ankle mobility.
You will know you have found the sweet spot when sinking into your hips feels smooth and unrestricted and your glutes feel like they are firing as you hit the bottom of the squat.
Take a look at this video to get you started on figuring out whether you would be best having your toes point forward or outward:
4. Heels Lifting off the Ground
One of the most common beginner mistakes when trying to squat is having the heels come up off the ground and can be the result of several factors.
Heels coming off the ground is usually the result of having the wrong squat stance (see mistake #3), not keeping the bar over midfoot (see mistake #13) or having mobility restrictions. Your heels will come off the ground because you are unable to continue moving at the ankle, knee or hip joint as you reach depth.
Fixing this can be the result of just needing to practice the correct squat mechanics using a stability ball, box or kettlebell.
This can also be addressed by addressing your mobility by either incorporating drills and stretches into your weekly routine or opting to purchase squat shoes with an elevated heel.
For an in-depth look on this topic and solutions to help you out, check out the following articles:
- How To Fix Heel Rising During Squats (7 Tips)
- How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
- 11 Squat Progressions From Beginner To Advanced
5. Not Squatting to Depth
While the concept of depth can be variable depending on your training purposes, coming to even just parallel can be a real challenge for many.
Depth for a competitive powerlifter, achieving adequate depth where the hip crease is lower than the top of the knee is compulsory.
For the average gym go-er this may not be something you’re being assessed on; however, reaching a depth of at least parallel is in your best interest when it comes to building strength and size in your lower body.
Not being able to achieve your desired depth, whether it’s parallel, a powerlifting squat or ass-to-grass can be caused by a couple of factors including poor ankle or hip mobility and/or a lack of strength in the bottom position.
These deficiencies can be addressed through squatting more, adjusting your stance, warming up properly, ankle mobility drills, purchasing heeled squat shoes, and adding accessory exercises that can help add more lower body work into your week.
Looking for exercises or tips to improve your depth? Check out 22 Exercises To Improve Squat Depth (That Actually Work) and 9 Tips To Squat Deeper + Advice From Pro Powerlifters.
6. Losing Tension at the Bottom
In order to execute any lift properly you have to maintain tension for the entirety of the lift; however, it’s common to lose tension at the bottom of the squat if you aren’t mindful.
Losing tension at the bottom of the squat can happen if you descend too quickly and just rush to drop down and inevitably lose their ability to brace and stay tight, or it can occur in those who squat too deep.
While not everyone who squats “ass-to-grass” loses tension near the end, there are many who do not have the ability to stay tight in that position and will let some strength potential bleed out.
The way to address this is by slowing down the eccentric and perhaps adding in eccentric tempo or pause squats into your program in addition to monitoring your depth and calling it a couple centimetres higher than your “max depth.”
For a more in-depth look into solutions for this problem, check out: How to Fix Losing Tension At Bottom of Squat (8 Tips)
7. Not Using Your Glutes
Over-relying on your quads and sinking into your legs instead of into your glutes is a mistake that will cost your depth, joint health and strength.
The squat is a quad-dominant exercise, but this does not mean that they should be doing all the work! Some novices misunderstand what a proper squat should look and feel like and as a result end up just focusing on bending their knees, sinking into their quads and standing back up.
This tends to happen when your feet are set too narrow and your leg ends up obstructing the way of their hips and not allowing them to open up to let you sink down.
This can also occur when a person has been “warned” to never let their knees pass their toes and are trying to sit back with their glutes rather than sitting down into their glutes.
To address this issue, you should try some beginner squat exercises such as stability ball squats or goblet squats. To see more progressions check out: 11 Squat Progressions From Beginner To Advanced.
8. Not Keeping Your Upper Back Engaged
The upper back is your shelf of support for the barbell and must be engaged from the very start to the very end of the lift.
Issues with keeping your back engaged can be seen in lifters who’s elbows flare out, point backward or shift around throughout the squat. It can also be felt by lifters when they complain about the bar feeling very heavy on their back.
Elbows should ideally be tucked away, pointing down and motionless throughout the squat however achieving this can be a challenge for some because of mobility constraints.
An engaged back will feel like it is pushing back into the bar with the same force that the bar is pushing down on it. Make sure to squeeze as hard as you can keep those elbows in place.
Experiencing elbow pain when you squat? We have some suggestions: How To Fix Elbow Pain Low Bar Squatting (8 Solutions).
Not sure the difference between the placement of high bar vs low bar? Check out: Where Should I Put The Bar When Squatting?
9. Doing a “Good Morning” Squat
If your hips start to rise faster than your back as you come out from the bottom of a squat, you are doing what’s referred to as a “good morning” squat.
The good morning squat occurs when your quads are weak relative to your glutes making it so that your body is relying on the glutes to do all the work and causing the hips to rise prematurely.
To fix the good morning squat you should adjust the weight on the bar so that you can practice rising from the squat in a more correct manner. Using the cue of driving your back into the bar also helps ensure you prevent the back from coming down and hips going up.
Additionally you may want to add accessories to build quad strength as well as coordination drills like the 1.5 squat. To learn more about these accessories and about the good morning squat itself, check out our article here: The Good-Morning Squat: Why It Happens? 4 Ways To Fix.
10. Excessive Forward Lean
If leaning over is how you initiate your squat, you are likely descending in a way that is not optimal and causing too much forward lean.
While lifters with long legs compared to their torsos or long femurs (thigh bones) will have to lean a bit more when squatting, those who do not fit that exception should be addressing any forward leaning occurring at any point of the squat.
Forward leaning becomes an issue because it can place your back in a vulnerable position under heavy weight and is likely throwing off your bar path and it occurs because of weak quads or upper back, tight hips or you’re losing your balance.
Fixing excessive forward lean is very similar to fixing the “good morning” squat (mistake #9) in that you likely need to work on pushing the bar with your upper back and building quad and upper back strength.
Additionally, you’ll want to ensure you’re activating your feet as well if balance is an issue or mobilizing your hips in case restricted joints are causing the compensation.
To learn more about the forward lean and whether your current back angle is acceptable or not, check out:
- How To Fix Leaning Forward When Squatting (5 Solutions)
- Best Squat Back Angle For Your Size & Build (With Pictures)
Another mistake not mentioned in this article is leaning to one side in the squat. If that’s you, check out my article on How To Fix Leaning To One Side While Squatting.
11. Not Staying over Midfoot
The squat bar path is a vertical line directly over the midfoot; therefore, if the weight of the bar shifts forward or back your technique needs work.
Not staying over the middle of your foot can happen for a variety of reasons all that come down to poor lifting technique. Some lifters may shift their weight over their toes because they are leaning too far forward or are not able to activate their glutes or engage their upper back properly. This causes the bar to pitch forward and can cause your heels to come off the ground.
Alternatively some lifters will sit too far back into their heels which will typically result in not achieving depth because this will throw you off balance by the time you hit parallel.
To help fix this problem you need to record your squat from a side angle and determine whether the bar path is following a straight line over the midfoot, if not, you’ll need to address the underlying mistake you are making that is causing the bar to stray away.
Visualizing the weight of the bar and your body being supported by the arches of your feet may also be a cue that can work to keep this top of mind!
Interested to know more about the best squat bar path? Read more here: What Is The Best Bar Path For Squats? (Science-Backed).
12. Knees Caving In
Some knee valgus, or caving, can be considered negligible, but if it is very pronounced, occurs frequently and/or causes knee discomfort or pain it should be addressed.
Knee valgus can occur due to poor ankle mobility, poor coordination or if the weight is too heavy.
If you watch some advanced level lifters you will notice a slight inward motion with the knees as they come up out from the squat. The difference between this and a problematic knee valgus is that their hip is able to push the knees back out by lockout and the glutes are still very much engaged throughout the entire motion.
Knees that consistently move inward in a very pronounced way even when lifting moderately heavy weights, is likely not something to ignore. This movement pattern can cause pain and injury down the road and is a sign of some weaknesses that should be addressed.
Some fixes to this problem are working on activating your feet and “screwing” them into the ground, building glute strength, doing more single leg exercises like pistol or cossack squats, focusing on your ankle mobility during warm-ups, lowering the weight and/or narrowing your stance.
Need more information on knee valgus? Read the article How To Fix Knee Valgus During Squat (7 Tips).
13. Rounding your Back
Rounding of the back is most obviously noticed as a deadlifting issue; however, rounding can also happen during squats and can be a sign of several issues depending on where you are rounding.
When the lower back rounds it’s a sign of shallow hip structure, tight hips or a loss of balance whereas mid back rounding can indicate weakness in the spinal erectors. Upper back rounding on the other hand is usually the result of not getting tight under the bar.
How you address the rounding will depend on where your rounding is occurring and what is the underlying issue. The issue with rounding is that you are applying shear forces on your spine which can lead to disc and other back issues down the line.
Increasing tightness and strength in the upper back will help with upper back rounding, strengthening your spinal erectors and increasing body awareness can help with mid back rounding and mobilizing your hips and stabilizing your feet can help with lower back rounding.
If you have a shallow hip socket, opting for a wider stance or using squat shoes can be helpful.
For more information and detail on this issue and what you can do to address your specific needs, check out: How To Fix Rounded Back During Squats (Ultimate Guide).
14. Lower Back Arching
Arching could be considered the opposite of rounding, but it is just as concerning and should be addressed if it’s occurring.
Arching is what occurs when your pelvis is in an anterior tilted position and there is a curvature in the lower back, with the chest and belly rounded out in front.
Some individuals exist in their everyday life in this arched position which may be causing their squat to start in an arched position.
This can also occur with people who don’t normally have an anterior tilt but are over-focusing on keeping the back “straight” and their chest up and essentially end up overshooting the neutral back position.
The goal should always be to keep the spine neutral and in a straight line, but a little awareness can go a long way and this can be achieved by consciously tucking the hips forward before initiating the squat.
Some exercises you might also want to include in your pre-squat warm-up to help cue the pelvic tucking includes:
15. Placing the Bar Too High on the Back
There are two options when placing the bar on your back: high bar or low bar. However, neither of these positions involves resting the bar on the base of your neck.
Almost every single beginner to start squatting will opt for what strength athletes refer to as the high bar position. This involves placing the bar on top of the upper trap muscles; however, novices have a tendency of improperly placing it right at the base of the neck.
This is not a good spot for it to sit because it will likely feel very uncomfortable and could even be dangerous as the weight gets heavier.
If you’re experiencing pain whilst in the high bar position it’s likely you have the bar resting right on your C7 vertebrae and the bar should instead come a bit lower and be cushioned on your upper back muscles instead. Get more tips on this here: How To Fix High Bar Squats Hurting Your Neck (6 Tips).
Not sure what options you have for bar placement? Check out: Where Should I Put The Bar When Squatting?
16. Wearing the Wrong Shoes
Squats should either be performed in flat shoes with a firm sole or in squat shoes with a heel.
A common mistake among beginners is doing barbell squats in everyday athletic shoes. This is usually just a result of lack of education regarding the importance of proper footwear or the convenience of having a single pair of shoes for all forms of exercise.
However, it is important that with squats you create a solid base and any old shoes are not good enough because they are too unstable and will result in unbalanced squatting, joint pain and overall poor mechanics.
You have 3 solutions:
- No shoes (going barefoot)
- Flat shoes like Converse
- Squat shoes with a heel
The goal should always be to help you feel in control and stable from the ankles down. If you’re not sure which of the 3 solutions above are best for you and your goals, abilities and budget, check out these articles:
- Why Do Powerlifters Not Wear Shoes? (Barefoot Training)
- Why Do Powerlifters Wear Converse Shoes? (8 Reasons)
- Best Shoes For Squats: Buying Guide & Reviews
17. Not Warming Up
Warming up is a fundamental part of being a great lifter and skipping or rushing through it can have an impact on your performance with the squat.
The warm up can be either rushed or done in a way where it doesn’t truly prepare you for the actual squat movement. This can result in any of the other mistakes listed in this article like not reaching depth, caving your knees or leaning forward excessively, simply because your muscles and joints are not operating at their best.
A good warm up consists of warming up the body, mobilizing the joints involved in the lift, dynamic stretching as well as activation of the appropriate muscles like the quads, glutes and core.
For a comprehensive look on warming up specifically for squats, make sure to read: How To Warm Up For Squats (Mobility, Dynamic Stretching, & Activation.
Although intimidating at first, the squat is a beloved exercise by many and oftentimes it’s because of the satisfaction you feel once you really nail down your technique. It’s important to keep a good record of what your squat looks like, how your strength is progressing and most importantly how you feel during and after in order to address any issues that may be holding you back.
It’s important to remember that mistakes are inevitable and even if you’re not a great squatter today, these obstacles shouldn’t turn you off from moving forward and working towards improvement.
Curious to learn about other mistakes that are made in powerlifting? Check out the following resources:
- 19 Bench Press Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
- 19 Deadlift Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
- 55 Powerlifting Mistakes Competitive Lifters Make
- 20 Exercises That Improve Squat Strength
Not making any of these mistakes but still stuck with your squat progress? Check out our 9 Tips To Break Through A Squat Plateau.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.