How to start squatting heavier and improve your lower-body strength

Unsure of how to get started with heavy squats? Read this advice from personal trainers on increasing your weight and perfecting your form.

Squats are one of the most popular exercises out there, which makes sense as they have so many benefits for the entire body. They are particularly common for people who lift weights as they allow a lot of room for progression, while also being valuable for people training at any level.

Knowing where to start with incorporating squats in your workout routine can be confusing, though. After all there are so many different variations of the exercise, including bodyweight squats, goblet squats and barbell squats. It can also be tricky to know just how much weight you should be squatting.

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We spoke to personal trainers Pippa Sealey from Hyre, Bristol and Tash Lankester from FLEX, Chelsea, to get their advice on getting started with squats as part of your weight lifting routine, including figuring out how much you should be lifting. 

Start with bodyweight squats

Sealey explains that the most important thing when it comes to any weight lifting movement is form, so you should aim to perfect your bodyweight squat before adding weight. “Look at your mobility too in order to make sure you are achieving maximum squat depth,” she says. You can enlist the help of a personal trainer to help you perfect your form or ask a friend to give you feedback.

Alternatively, practice bodyweight squats near a mirror or film yourself completing them so you can analyse your own form. If you are struggling with mobility, you can squat onto a box to help you improve your depth. To do this, find a box that you’d usually use for exercises like box jumps and squat down until you’re sat on the box. 

Move onto goblet squats

Once you are happy with your bodyweight squat, you can move onto goblet squats, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest while squatting. “This will load you posteriorly and help you prepare to get the barbell on your back,” Lankester explains. Barbell squats will be your ultimate aim if you’re looking to squat heavy, as you tend to be able to lift the most when the weight is evenly distributed across your back. But goblet squats are a good way to prepare for this with equipment you might be more used to, as well as using smaller weights.

Lankester recommends experimenting with different dumbbell and kettlebell weights, slowly increasing the amount until it’s around half your bodyweight. Once you can hold half your bodyweight while completing 6-8 goblet squats, you’re probably ready to move onto using a barbell.

Start slowly with a barbell

Sealey and Lankester agree that you should always start by squatting with just a barbell and avoid adding plates as a beginner in order to get comfortable with the feeling of the barbell on your shoulders. To start, place the barbell on a squat rack, put your head underneath it and reach your hands around the back of the bar, shoulder-width apart, so it is balancing on your back. Bend your knees slightly and stand up to lift the barbell off the rack and take a couple of steps back before beginning your squats.

Sealey suggests slowly adding weight onto the bar when you feel comfortable, starting by adding 2.5kg plates and gradually increasing the weight by 2.5kg or 5kg each session.

Lankester says that it’s generally important to be able to complete 12 reps at the current weight before increasing your load: “Lower the reps when you add weight onto the bar, starting with 4-6, and gradually increase your reps to 12 until you feel comfortable completing 12 squats at the weight you’re up to. At that point, you’re ready to increase your weight.”

Set yourself goals but be ready to surpass them

“The sky is the limit when it comes to your one rep max goal for a squat,” Lankester says. Many people will aim to complete one squat at their maximum capacity every 6-20 weeks, depending on how their training programmes are structured.

Lankester suggests aiming for a back squat equal to your bodyweight to start off and progressing from there, continuing to add weight in the same way you did as a beginner. As you start to lift heavier, however, the amount of reps you should complete will naturally become lower. 

It’s then up to you if you want to practice lifting heavy with less reps more regularly or if you’d prefer to lighten the load a little in order to complete more reps and sets. Both options will benefit your strength and fitness so it really comes down to what you enjoy more.

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