When done properly, the barbell squat is one of the all-time greatest bodybuilding exercises. But the key phrase is “When done properly.”
Many bodybuilders shirk the barbell squat, so the first most common mistake is not squatting at all. (But if your physical configuration is much more suited to the parallel-grip deadlift, and you’re not a powerlifter, then train hard on that exercise instead of the squat.)
The second most common mistake is using incorrect technique. With incorrect technique you’ll get injured, and usually sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the incorrect technique will reduce the effectiveness of the squat.
One of the most important qualities of correct squatting technique is never rounding your lower back at any stage of a rep. There should be a slight hollow or arch in your lower spine, even at your bottom position, which, ideally should be where the tops of your upper thighs just break parallel with the floor.
But don’t squat deeper than the point at which you can no longer maintain a properly extended lower spine. With improved technique you may be able to squat deeper while maintaining proper spine positioning.
And you must keep your knees shoved outward as you descend and ascend on each rep. Absolutely never should your knees buckle in. But if your set-up is wrong, knee buckling is almost inevitable.
Unless you’re sufficiently flexible—especially in your calves, hamstrings, thigh adductors, glutes, and shoulders—you may never be able to adopt good squatting technique.
The set-up errors that are especially common in the squat, particularly among bodybuilders, are a too-close foot placement, insufficient flare of the feet, and positioning the barbell too high.
Never place the barbell across the base of your neck. Instead, position it on the muscle immediately above the top of your shoulder blades. When you have your arms fully pulled back ready to hold the barbell in position, that bunches up the muscle at the top of your shoulder blades, and gives you the natural padding on which to position the bar. Tinker with the precise position that’s best for you.
Don’t wrap any padding around the bar. Wear an extra shirt—a thick one—if you need some additional cushioning between the bar and your torso.
Some bodybuilders squat with their feet close together and parallel to each other, which is really bad form. It increases forward lean, prevents full recruitment of all the squatting muscles, encourages premature rounding of the lower back, and leads to a tendency to topple forward.
Always have sufficient toe flare when you squat, and the right spacing of your heels for you. About hip-width heels, and each foot flared about 30 degrees, works well for some trainees. Others prefer a little closer heel spacing with the same approximate degree of flare, while yet others prefer heel spacing a little wider than hip-width and perhaps with a little less flare of their feet.
I’m referring here to bodybuilding and general strength training. Powerlifters, whose primarily goal is to lift as much weight as possible for maximum singles, are likely to user a lower bar position, and a wider stance, than non-powerlifters.
Powerlifters who wear support gear may stand a little wider still, and perhaps place the bar a tad lower on their backs than they would if lifting “raw.” Wearing support gear can affect the dynamics of squatting.
The lower the bar is placed, the more flexible the shoulders need to be, the wider the feet are likely to be, and the more forward lean is likely to result.
Don’t elevate your heels. Instead, improve your flexibility, and learn to squat properly, with the heels of your shoes flat on the floor.
For squatting, avoid shoes with thick heels, and avoid shoes with spongy heels.
Spend some time, with just a bare bar, tinkering with the width and flare of your feet, and bar positioning, to find the set-up that works best for you.
Your height, torso length, and thighbone and shinbone lengths affect your leverages for the squat, and thus the specific stance that works best for you.
What works well for some trainees may not work well for others.
But even if your set-up is good, don’t ruin your form by rushing the descent of each rep. A rushed descent increases the difficulty of making the turnaround properly. And if you mess up on the turnaround, you’ll also mess up on the ascent.
If you descend under control—take about three seconds—you’ll be much more likely to make a good turnaround, and then be able to drive upward with good technique.
Over time, as you grow in strength and size, you may benefit from tweaking your set-up for the squat.
Another ubiquitous mistake is not squatting hard enough to produce growth stimulation. But before you squat hard, be sure you’re using correct exercise technique.
Comparing those exercise variations is a nothing issue for most bodybuilders.
My concern is with typical bodybuilders—the genetically typical, natural guys who comprise the great majority. You don’t need any form of the forward raise.
Your front or anterior delts get plenty of direct stimulation from benches, inclines, dips and overhead presses, as well as some indirect stimulation from a few other exercises.
Forward raises, bent-over raises, pec deck work, and most other isolation exercises, are distractions from the primary exercises—the big compound movements—that hardgainers should focus on.
Just a few of the best compound exercises work most of the musculature of your body, directly or indirectly. For example, take the squat, deadlift, bench press, chin-up and overhead press. Give your all to just those five great exercises (or a similar fivesome), recuperate fully between workouts, be patient as you gradually build a lot of additional strength, and you’ll build lots of muscle over your whole physique.
You have only a limited amount of training energy, and only a limited recovery ability, so don’t go frittering away both on unnecessary exercises like the forward raise.