Squats: What Proper Squats Look Like & Which Muscles They Work

Woman doing a proper squat

Learn more about the Squat exercise and how to Squat properly so you don’t miss out on key benefits of your workout program.

Most of us find it hard to do Squats without making at least one big mistake. This is mainly due to our sedentary lifestyle.

Proper squats…

  • Strengthen your legs, glutes, and many other muscles
  • Improve your lower body mobility
  • Keep your bones and joints healthy

“Bad” squats…

  • Don’t activate the right muscles at the proper intensity
  • Put additional stress on ligaments and joints
  • Increase risk of injury

Don’t worry, by the end of this article you’ll know exactly how to do a squat properly and you’ll never skip leg day again. You’ll also learn tips that will help you avoid squat mistakes and correct your squat form.

The Squat

The Squat is a lower body exercise. You can do the bodyweight version, without added resistance (also called Bodyweight Squat or Air Squat), or with weights such as a barbell (Front Squat and Back Squat are variations of the Barbell Squat).

The Squat exercise mainly targets the thighs (quadriceps & hamstrings) and the glutes. However, core strength & stability, ankle mobility, back muscles, calves, and other factors play an important role when you are doing this exercise.

Set up before you squat:

  1. Find a foot stance that feels best for you. Pointing your toes slightly outwards helps some, but keeping them parallel is fine, too. If you’re not sure what’s best, start by putting your feet shoulder-width apart and pointed about 15 degrees outwards.
  2. Tense your abs like someone is about to punch you.
  3. Look straight ahead and stand tall!
Mistake #1 – Starting from the knees

Very often the first thing people do when they want to squat is bend the knees. Not only does that make a proper squat impossible, it also places a lot of unnecessary stress on the knees.

woman doing squat wrong by bending at the knees first


woman doing a proper squat


  • When you start the squat, think “sit back” not “bend at the knees”
  • Move your butt backwards as you descend and feel the weight shifting to your heels


“Sit back” – before you start to lower yourself, think “sit back”. You can practice this with a chair (without sitting on it). Make a very controlled descent and touch the seat of the chair before getting up. Once you master this, you can do bodyweight or weighted squats without a chair.

Mistake #2 – Letting your knees go inward

You might notice your knees “caving in” the deeper you squat. This might help you get lower, but it puts too much stress on your knees.

knees going inward during a squat


woman squatting with knees out


  • As you descend, try to “push” your knees slightly outward
  • Your knee caps should be facing the same direction as your toes. Make sure your knees are not bending in; they should be directly above your feet

Your knees are not caving in, but you want to activate your glutes more?

The “knees out” tip can also be useful if you are trying to activate your glutes more. Try using a band around your knees; it’s a great way to feel your glutes work harder in the squat.

However, if your knees trouble you even when you squat properly, check out this workout that is very easy on the knees.

Mistake #3 – Hunching your back

The more you focus on your lower body in squats, the greater the chance your form will suffer somewhere in the upper body. Many work environments cause tension in the upper back and shoulders. Becoming aware of your posture can help you change this.

woman hunching back during a squat


woman doing a proper squat


  • Look straight ahead, don’t look down
  • Open your chest and relax your shoulders
  • Put your hands straight out in front of you. If they fall toward your knees as you squat down, that means that your back is rounded


Holding a dumbbell or something similar against your chest might help. Try to squat keeping the object close to your chest. If you notice that the bottom of the dumbbell is moving away from your chest as you go down, you are probably leaning forward too much.

If none of the above helps, use assistance – hold onto a door frame and squat down while keeping your upper body as upright as it can be. Practice holding the correct position at various heights to get more stable and comfortable. Don’t give up – experiment and practice until you feel confident enough to try the same position without assistance.

Mistake #4 – Lifting your heels off the floor

Standing up from a squat should be “powered” by a heel drive. In other words, pressing your heels into the ground ensures the right muscle activation and balance for a proper squat.

woman lifting heels of the floor while doing a squat


woman doing a proper squat


  • Keep your heels on the floor
  • “Push” from your heels as you go up
  • If you can’t do a squat without putting your weight on your toes, take the time to work on your mobility (especially in your ankles)

How deep should you squat?

Your hips should go lower than your knees, but a deep squat requires additional mobility. It’s great if you can do it with good form. If not, squat as low as you can while maintaining proper form. A good indicator is the arch of your lower back. If your lower back starts to arch excessively at a certain height, don’t go any lower.

Squats are the foundation of many workout programs. Hopefully you feel much more confident about doing them now.

Don’t forget to switch it up, try some squat variations as well.


Check your form:

  • “Sit back” – make sure to move your butt backward, don’t just bend your knees
  • Be careful to keep your knees in line with your toes, don’t let them cave in
  • Don’t forget about your upper body – look straight ahead and don’t round your back

Most importantly – explore the movement…

  • Try to notice what feels different when you change something like your foot stance or the position of your knees…
  • Experiment with tips and don’t hesitate to use assistance (such as a door frame for upper body support) if you need it
  • It takes a lot of practice to become more aware of how you move, but it’s worth it

If you experience difficulties performing a proper squat – take your time to work on mobility and practice, practice… it will pay off. It may seem boring to focus on your weakness, but remember – weakness is where your biggest potential lies!



Hana Medvesek With a background in physical therapy, Hana strongly believes that movement is medicine. She likes to run, lift weights, and try out simple, healthy recipes. View all posts by Hana Medvesek »