Squats are one of the best exercises for a stronger, fitter you—but only if you do them right. So before you crank out another rep, make sure your squats aren't falling victim to these all-too-common mistakes:
Oh, and avoid these 15 Most Annoying Gym Habits.
Letting Your Knees Fall In
A combination of wide hips and weak inner and outer thighs makes this mistake pretty much ubiquitous among women. Unfortunately, when your knees move in toward each other during a squat, it can put undue pressure on your knee ligaments, resulting in injury, says exercise physiologist Marta Montenegro, C.S.C.S. But correcting this mistake isn't as simple as willing your knees into place. You need to strengthen your inner and (especially) outer thighs, she says. Lateral band walks are a great way to do just that. (Here's how to do them right: Lateral Band Walks.)
Not Lowering to 90 Degrees
If you don't complete the exercise through its full range of motion—all the way down until your thighbone is parallel with the floor—you won't fully engage your glutes and the upper part of your hamstrings, says Montenegro. Basically, you won't get a better butt. To train your body to complete the entire move, try practicing some squats in front of a knee-high box or step. Lower your body until your butt just barely touches the box, and then push back up.
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Arching Your Back
Your back naturally has a slight "S" to it. If you don't have enough lower back strength—and many women don't—it's easy to add some extra arch while squatting. The problem: That dumps the weight into your lower back and means you risk injury, says Montenegro. To shore up your lower-back strength, try performing this dumbbell straight-leg deadlift.
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Doing the Same Squat Over and Over
If you aren't regularly switching up your foot positions, you aren't taking advantage of what a versatile exercise the squat really is, says Montenegro. For instance, if you stand with your feet closer than shoulder-width apart, you'll target your glutes. Take a wide stance, and you'll work those hard-to-tone inner thighs. Move one leg forward a bit, and your booty will burn. Interested? Here are seven squat variations you NEED to try.
More: How to Prevent Injuries With Overhead Squats
Lifting Too Little
If you complete your squats with lighter-weight dumbbells in-hand, you might want to consider reaching for something heavier. "Women tend to think that because we want to slim our legs, we should do a lot of reps with a low weight," says Montenegro. "But if you don't lift more weight, you aren't going to tone anything." Plus, when you lift heavier, you burn more calories. Her advice: Try upping the poundage of your hand weights so that you can only eek out six reps at a time (with proper form, of course!).
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Going to Too-Great Pains to Keep Your Knees Behind Your Toes
"For so many years, it has been ingrained in our brains that the knees should never go past the toes when squatting," says American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. While letting your knees move past your toes increases the stress placed on them by 28 percent, trying to restrict any forward movement of the knees ups the stress placed on your hips by a whopping 1,000 percent, according to a 2003 University of Memphis study.
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So instead of dwelling on your knees and toes, focus on starting the squat by pushing your hips back before lowering your body toward the floor, says Matthews. That will automatically reduce how far forward your knees travel, but without pre-registering you for a hip replacement.
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