The back squat is an essential part of any strength and conditioning program, and helps athletes with full body strength, power and hypertrophy.
Classically, the back squat has been associated with strength, power, and collision sports such as powerlifting and football, but has also been shown to improve performance in most sporting contexts, even in more aerobic based sports such as soccer and cross country.
How to Back Squat
There are four basic elements of the back squat: the setup, the eccentric, the concentric, and the re-rack.
- Squat Rack
In setting up for the back squat, athletes choose between the high bar and low bar position.
In the high bar position, the barbell rests on the athlete’s trapezius (traps). When squatting high bar, the athlete adopts a relatively upright torso position in order to keep the bar over the mid-foot.
Generally, athletes squat less weight high bar than they do low bar, but many strength and conditioning coaches prefer this method because of the reduction in shear forces on the spine, along with the more upright torso position that many feel is safer and more sport-specific.
In the low bar position, the bar rests across the athlete’s rear deltoids. This bar position is especially popular with powerlifters, as the majority of athletes are able to squat more weight this way relative to high bar.
In most cases, athlete preference should dictate between high bar and low bar.
Regardless of bar placement, the athlete should actively pull their shoulders together and back in order to both create a shelf for the barbell to rest on. This is also to generate as much upper body tension as possible in order to maintain a consistent torso position for the duration of the lift.
A good cue here is to have the athlete pin their elbows down by their sides, similar to the bottom position of a Lat pulldown, before placing the bar on their shoulders.
Generally speaking, the athlete should place their hands as close together as comfortably possible, which helps maintain the aforementioned upper body tightness and shelf for the barbell to rest on.
Certain athletes will experience pain in either their shoulders, elbows, or wrists when setting up for the back squat. Most athletes can work through these issues and squat comfortably by adopting different combinations of the following variables: bar position (high bar and low bar), hand width (wider/more narrow), or adopting a grip with their thumbs over or under the bar.
After setting up properly, the athlete un-racks the bar and walks it out of the uprights, takes a big breath in, braces their core, and initiates the eccentric portion of their squat.
While maintaining a tight brace in their core and tension in their upper back (as mentioned in the setup paragraph), the athlete initiates downward motion of the bar via simultaneous hip and knee flexion until the crease of their hip goes below the knee.
While some coaches are satisfied with their athletes reaching parallel, current research (to include the following systematic review by Brad Schoenfeld and Jozo Grgic: Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review – PMC (nih.gov)) suggests that training at full ranges of motion confers greater gains in both strength and hypertrophy.
The especially important part of the range of motion is taking the muscle to its full eccentric length, demonstrating that athletes further benefit by taking their squats to the deepest depth that their mobility allows. Once the athlete reaches their lowest position in the squat, they transition from the eccentric to concentric portion.
The concentric portion of the squat involves the athlete rising out of the hole via a combination of knee and hip extension.
In rising out of the hole, athletes commonly experience sticking points either in the hole or when they are just above parallel. These can vary based on each athlete’s relative strengths and weaknesses, or some technical errors to be addressed later. Once the athlete completes the rep, they exhale, and either initiate the next rep or re-rack the bar.
Upon completing the last rep of their set, the athlete should maintain their brace, and walk the bar back into the uprights.
Common Back Squat Mistakes
Resting the Bar Across the C7 Vertebra in the High Bar Squat
In setting up for a high bar squat, novice athletes occasionally rest the bar across their C7 vertebra, the most prominent vertebra that lies just below the neck, as pictured below.
Placing the bar here places undue stress on this vertebra, and causes the athlete unnecessary discomfort. The simple fix here is to have the bar rest on the athletes traps for the high bar setup, or rear deltoids for the low bar setup.
Heels Coming Up at the Bottom of the Squat
This is a common technical error at the bottom of the squat, where the bar comes forward of the athlete’s center of mass and forces them to lift their heels off the ground. Two common fixes for this are to have the athlete sit back into the squat to keep their balance over their mid-foot, and to have the athlete actively pull the bar down into their back using their lats.
Athletes who are still having trouble due to poor ankle dorsiflexion, long femur length relative to their height, or a combination of both, can use a device to elevate their feet such as weightlifting squat shoes, an angled plate, or 2.5lb weights to help address the issue.
Hips Shooting Back out of the Hole
Another common technical error involves the athlete shooting their hips back as they come out of the hole. This action disproportionately increases the athlete’s hip extension demands relative to their knee extension demands.
Athletes are prone to this mistake because the added “hip drive” that they get from shooting their hips back leads to less stress on their knee extensors and gives them a feeling of going faster out of the hole, but these perceived benefits fail to confer a benefit and lead to breakdowns in form with heavier weights.
There are a multitude of available fixes here; some of which are external cues, and some of which are targeted exercises that fix athlete’s weaknesses.
Popular cues include having the athlete keep their chest up, knees forward, or center of mass over their mid-foot (as opposed to their heels) out of the hole. Functionally speaking, all of these cues accomplish the same thing, and this variety helps to resonate with different athletes based on their individual perceptions.
There are also a wide variety of exercises to target athlete’s knee extensors, to include seated knee extensions, belt squats and hack squats.
Lastly, while the fundamentals of squatting remain the same regardless of body type, the execution can look different based on the individual athlete’s proportions.
Using a rack with properly set safety heights is the most effective means of providing athlete safety.
To properly set the safety heights, have them set up just below the athlete’s lowest point of depth below their squat.
It is better to set the safeties one level too low vs one level to high, as the athlete can either let the bar off of their back or allow themselves to lean forward until the bar hits the safeties. In the event the safeties are too high, the barbell has a chance of colliding with them during the exercise.
Back Squat Variations
Several back squat variations are utilized by athletes and coaches either as teaching tools for technical cues, or as variations to train different effects.
Pin squats are popular for athletes who have trouble keeping their weight balanced over their mid-foot, have issues with their hips shooting back out of the hole, or struggle to hit consistent depth. In executing a pin squat, the athlete sets the safeties to appropriate depth, and performs the eccentric phase of the squat until the bar gently touches the pins.
Upon the bar making contact with the pins, the athlete comes to a dead stop and then executes the concentric phase. Make sure not to relax when the bar touches the pins – maintain a braced midsection and back throughout the movement.
Pause squats are a good variation for athletes who struggle with maintaining tension in the hole or just out of the hole.
In executing a pin squat, the athlete executes the eccentric phase of the squat until they hit appropriate depth, bring the bar to a dead stop for one-three seconds, and execute the concentric phase. Both Pause Squats and Pin Squats take away the stretch-shortening cycle and force the athlete to accelerate the bar from a dead stop out of the hole.
Squats with Bands or Chains
Squats with Bands or Chains are commonly used to train athletes’ rate of force development. The bands and chains are a means of providing accommodating resistance to the training load, in which the combined resistance of the bar and bands or chains increases as the athlete elevates the bar.
In practical settings, coaches use these variations with relatively little bar weight compared to band or chain weight, and cue the athletes to lift the bar as fast as possible.
Back Squat Alternatives
(based on injury and equipment limitations)
Squat alternatives are typically used to work around various injuries.
Belt Squats provide the athlete with a means of training their lower body while taking strain off of their backs; an application that is useful for both injured and health athletes.
Safety Bar Squats
Safety Bar Squats are useful for athletes with upper body injuries who cannot grip a barbell with both hands.
Muscles Worked in the Back Squat
The Back Squat trains a wide variety of muscle groups, particularly the hip and knee extensors.
The primary muscle groups worked are the Gluteus Maximus, Quadriceps, and Hamstrings.
The Triphasic Model is an excellent introductory tool for novice athletes and can be applied to various movements, to include the Back Squat.
The model is broken up into three phases: Eccentric, Isometric, and Concentric. In the eccentric phase, athletes execute the eccentric portion of the squat with a tempo ranging from three-five seconds. The eccentric phase is excellent for extending an athlete’s time under tension and promoting greater hypertrophic effects.
In the isometric phase, the athlete executes a pause squat as described above. The isometric phase is useful for strengthening the weakest point of a given athlete’s lift, and feeds into the concentric phase. Lastly, the athletes execute the concentric phase, which involves executing the Back Squat at a normal tempo.
To wrap it all up, the Back Squat is a fundamental piece of any athlete’s strength and conditioning program. Training it provides an excellent return on athlete’s hypertrophy, strength, power, and coordination.