squat during powerlifting competition

The squat is the first lift you do at a powerlifting meet, and that’s good, because it’s also the most taxing on your entire body! Not just your legs! I consider the squat the best full-body strength exercise, and I’m not alone – it has been referred to as “the king of all exercises.”

The great strength gains come at a price, though – the squat is a complicated exercise that must be performed properly or you risk serious injury. So, I’m going to teach you how to squat properly.

If you can squat properly, you’ll be safer and stronger, so keep reading.

Squatting Basics

There are some key pointers to keep in mind for the basic movement. If you have squatted before, you might know this, but it’s still a good refresher.

You will start by putting your hands on the bar, getting a good grip, and then stepping under the bar. You don’t just walk up underneath the bar and get started.

Once you feel comfortable, take the weight off the rack and step back.

Next, squat down. You want to do this under control and really sit back. Most importantly, squat down to parallel, which means your hips will go further down than your knees.

As soon as you reach that bottom position, push back to the top with all your might.

Finally, step forward and rack the bar. You did it!

That’s just the basic idea, though. For the important details, check out the step-by-step instructions in the next section.

Step-By-Step How to Squat

Follow each step in each of the five phases of the squat.

  • Set Up
  • Unracking bar
  • Down
  • Up
  • Rack bar

Setting Up For the Squat

The initial set up for the squat is very important. If you don’t get it right, your lift is doomed from the start.

The bar should be racked on the pins in a power cage, in front of you, at chest height.

Grab the bar with a grip that’s roughly shoulder width – your hands will be just outside your shoulders. This narrower style of grip gives you the most support possible, which comes in handy on the “up” phase later on.

Now, squeeze the bar as hard as possible! This helps tighten your entire body which will help you produce the most power with the lowest chance of injury.

Keep your back tight and step under the bar. Make sure you really clench your shoulder blades together until they touch. Yes, they’ll touch. No, it won’t be comfortable (but it does give the bar a good platform to rest on.)

The bar should rest rather low on your upper-back; on your shoulder blades, just below your traps. (It should not be on top of your traps, which is very uncomfortable for your neck.) Generally, powerlifters position the bar lower on their back than a bodybuilder would. It will take some getting used to.

You want your elbows to go directly beneath the bar. In this position, your forearms will be perpendicular to the ground. Your wrists should stay straight, too. Rely on your back to support the weight so your wrists do not bend back at all.

Get your feet a little under shoulder width apart with knees slightly bent. (Having your feet closer together like this can help unrack the bar, whereas a wider stance helps the squat itself.)

Now that your position is correct, you can proceed with unracking the bar.

How to Unrack the Bar

First thing – get a good, deep breath.

Squat up slightly, just enough to get the bar off the pins, and step back, one foot at a time.

Now you want to make sure your foot position is ideal for lifting. Typically this involves shuffling your feet outward a few inches. Since there’s a hefty weight on your shoulders, shuffle your feet one at a time, in a heel then toe pattern. (Tip: Shift your weight onto your toes to be able to shuffle your heels out.)

The general position is to have your heels at shoulder width apart and have your toes pointed slightly out.

If this takes a while (and it will at first,) release your breath and regain your composure.

Now, stand straight up with your knees locked. You’re at the official starting position!

How to Squat Down

It’s time for another deep breath. Make sure it’s really deep, enough to push your stomach out into your belt. (You won’t get another breath until you have finished the lift and racked the bar.)

Make sure your body is tight and your grip is locked onto the bar. Your back should be arched (push your chest forward) and you should look ahead the entire time. Keeping your head up like this keeps you balanced.

To lower yourself down, think of sitting down in a chair, and use your hips and glutes to pull you back and down. Once your hips are low, your knees should bend forward until you reach the bottom – just don’t let them go further forward than your toes.

Keep your hips pushed back the whole time. Your knees should push outward.

Lower your body in a controlled manner so that the transition from down to up is easier.

It’s OK to lean forward slightly as you do the “sitting down” motion, just don’t lean too far or you’ll lose your good position under the weight. And keep your back arched.

As soon as your hips are lower than your knees, you are ready to go back up!

How to Squat Up

As soon as you break parallel, explode back to the top! Think of it like pushing down through the floor.

And it’s so important I’ll say it again – keep your body tight! Going up, make sure your stomach is still pressed out and your core is tight. Your core must be tight to stabilize the movement.

You should also squeeze your glutes tight on the way up for some extra power.

Also, you want to keep your knees pressed out. Don’t allow your knees to buckle inward. The best way to do this is to pretend you’re trying to spread the floor apart with your feet.

Stand up straight at the top and you’re almost done!


Finally, rack the bar (or repeat if you’re doing a set.)

To rack the bar, just step forward until the bar is against the uprights, then lower it onto the pins. (In a meet setting, your spotters will help here.)


That’s it, you know how to squat!

What’s next? Practice, practice, practice!

Do lots of practice with low weight to get your body accustomed to the feel and motion of a real squat. A lot of it might feel weird at first if you’re not used to squatting properly for a powerlifting meet. That’s ok. Just keep practicing and work on your joint mobility and range of motion.

It takes many years to perfect squat form, so take it slow and do it right!


Be sure to read these guides:

Photo Credit: J Griffin

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