The low bar back squat is the ultimate exercise for overall muscular development, it recruits more muscle groups than any other exercise if performed correctly.
Barbell Back Squat 101
Back Squat — Setup
1. Grip bar and position
- Set your bar on the squat rack at about nipple height. Facing the bar, grip it with both hands slightly wider than shoulder-width distance–you want to get as close to shoulder distance as possible while still maintaining some level of comfort in the shoulder. The closer together your grip, the more of a shelf you will be able to develop for the bar to rest on your back.
- Keeping your grip on the bar, duck under the bar and set it evenly on your upper back. The bar should be rested on your rear delts (the back of your shoulders)–not on the top of your shoulders, and not on your neck/cervical spine, which will feel terrible (this is a high bar squat which has different mechanics). Squeeze the shoulder blades together.
2. Unrack the bar
- With your feet planted evenly under the bar, “squat” the bar up out of the rack.
- Take 2-3 small direct steps backwards. The bar moves up and then back. Never diagonally.
3. Set feet
- Heels about shoulder width apart.
- Toes pointed at about 30 degrees. Think of your feet as “at attention,” but instead of heels touching they are at shoulder-width distance. Experiment with this to get the most comfortable stance that allows for the best depth. Wider legs and more pointed toes will tend to be better for those with big bellies, long legs, or both.
Back Squat — Execution
1. Breathe and Squat
- Inhale and brace with the abs. The pressure from the full lungs and tight core are what protects the spine. Spinal protection in the squat has NOTHING to do with vertical back angle. Keep the eyes fixed on a spot on the floor 5 feet in front of you.
- Squat with a straight bar path. Don’t let the bar come forward or backwards at all. Straight down and straight up. Stay in your ass, with a tight core (see breath above), and make the tailbone move straight up and down: the rest of the body will follow.
- Don’t let the knees collapse inward. Actively “twist” your knees apart so that they track over your toes. You’ll feel this engage the muscles in the side of your glutes, which may be an entirely novel sensation for you.
2. Finish and exhale at the top
- Knees and hips should lock out softly at the top. Don’t “snap” into position: be easy on your joints.
- Every rep finishes with an exhale at the top when you are finished with the movement. Don’t exhale on the way up, as this reduces intra-abdominal pressure and puts your spine in a compromised position.
Back Squat — Coaching Cues
- Breathe at the top
- Knees track out over toes for the entire movement
- Vertical bar path, stay in your tailbone/ass
- Balance is over the midfoot
- Eyes look at the ground 5-10 feet in front of you
Back Squat — Adjustments
The bodyweight squat, the goblet squat, and machine assisted squats can all be less taxing alternatives to the barbell back squat if you are injured or need adjustment.
If you have issues reaching depth due to pain or lack of mobility in the ankles, try the reaching plate squat to learn how to use a counterbalance to keep your balance over your midfoot.
If you have pain in your knees, try warming up with 3 sets of 20 hip thrusts from the floor with a moderately heavy dumbbell. It’s been shown to reduce knee pain.
If you have undiagnosed nonspecific back pain, you need to embrace the process of progressive overload. Perform the movement with an empty or very light barbell. As soon as the weight starts to cause pain during or even after the exercise, stop or go lighter next time. Over the next few months, slowly progress in weight as you’re able. You will more likely than not find that once you learn how to move through the squat pattern comfortably, the pain will go away.
Many trainees experience “growing pains” in the beginning of their first real training plan. Learning to differentiate between your body adjusting to the new training and actual pain due to an issue is an invaluable skill that needs to be developed.
Caveat: This exercise guidance should never usurp the advice of your medical professional. If there is a question in your mind as to the suitability of this exercise for you confer with your doctor. WATM is not liable if you do something ill-advised after reading any of our fitness content.
Back Squat — Resources
- The Back Squat: Full-body Exercise King
- WATM: 5 steps to back squat perfection article here
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