If you’ve been going to the gym for even a little, you probably know how beneficial the back squat is. And if you don’t, allow us to enlighten you. The back squat leads to strength and muscle gain and reinforces movement patterns we engage in daily. (Every time you sit on the toilet or bend down to get your keys, you’re essentially squatting.) But it’s not an easy exercise to nail right out of the gate.
There are different squat styles — and both present different mechanics that both new and experienced lifters have to wrap their heads around. The payoff for learning this movement — bigger quads, more power, and bragging rights to your gym buddies — however, is well worth the time spent mastering it. Refer to our thorough guide below, and then get to squatting.
- How to Do the Back Squat
- High-Bar V.S. Low-Bar Squats
- Benefits of the Back Squat
- Muscles Worked by the Back Squat
- Who Should Do the Back Squat
- Back Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- How to Warm Up for the Back Squat
- Back Squat Variations
- Back Squat Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
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Back Squat Video Guide
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If you’re a competitive powerlifter (or like to train like one), then you may know that there are two primary back squat positions — high-bar and low-bar. We’ll elaborate on the differences below, but this step-by-step guide will go over how to perform the high-bar back squat.
That said, the fundamentals of the following steps apply to both squatting styles.
Step 1 — Set Your Base
Start by stepping under a barbell (supported in a rack), setting a firm foundation by flexing your core, and preparing to lift the barbell out of the rack.
While you will need to step out of the rack to set your feet up for the squat, it is recommended that you place your feet in the squat stance, or slightly narrower, as you want to think about “squatting” the load off the rack hooks, rather than stepping in and out with one foot. This is especially the case as the loads get heavier. (You don’t want to stagger-step the wrong way and hit the floor with 500 pounds on you.)
Form Tip: The tip here is simple — do not rush this process. Press your traps firmly into the bar and brace that core!
Step 2 — Get a Grip
Where to hold the barbell varies person-to-person — but not by much. There will be two rings on the knurling on most quality barbells, on either side of the bar, about six to eight inches from the base of the sleeve. Use that as a guide by placing your fingers on it and seeing which width feels the most comfortable. For some, it’s the ring finger, while others favor the middle finger.
Once you find a comfortable hand width, grip the bar tightly by wrapping your thumb around it. Bring your elbows down and in, so they’re close to your lats. This down-and-in elbow position will help you pull the barbell onto your trap and create a stable “shelf” for the bar to sit on. (For low-bar squats, you’d position the barbell more on the rear delts and lower traps.)
Form Tip: Do not over arch your back, as this will cause you to lose tension in your core and upper back.
Step 3 — Step Out and Get Stable
At this point, you should be ready to step out of the rack. Go slow. Take three small steps backward, and then bring the forward foot next to the back foot at hip-width apart. The toes slightly pointed out, the chest held high, and the abs fully flexed. The chest should be held high, with the core and obliques contracted.
Also, be sure not to have too much of a forward lean, as this high-bar variation should allow you to keep your torso up vertical.
Form Tip: The walkout portion of the squat can be daunting for new lifters. To get used to walking the bar out, do so for each of your warm-up sets. Over time, you will become more comfortable with this movement.
Step 4 — Pull Yourself Down into the Squat
With the feet planted and pressure evenly distrusted throughout the feet, slightly push the hips back while simultaneously allowing the knees to bend forward. Despite old-school lifting myths, it is OK for the knees to track over your toes.
Think about gripping the floor with the toes and pressing your knees out to create space for the belly to sit between the thighs. Then think about pulling your torso straight into the space between your thighs, also known as “the hole.” Aim to get the bottoms of your thighs to be parallel with the floor.
Form Tip: Take your time as you lower yourself into the squat, making sure to feel any weight shifting back/forward or tendencies to collapse the torso.
Step 5 — Explode Up
Once you’ve reached the desired depth, push your back upwards into the bar while simultaneously drive the feet into the floor. Keep your weight on the entire foot — heels and toes. As you ascend, continue to keep the chest high and core braced.
Form Tip: You should feel your legs working, as well as the upper back and hips.
The differences between the high-bar and low-bar squat aren’t stark, but there are differences. You can check out our video on the main variances below.
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For high-bar squats, the barbell rests right on the back of the traps. The bar’s placement for low-bar squats is much lower, across the rear delts and almost on the scapula.
Hip and Knee Mechanics
All squats require knee and hip flexion, but the high bar squat stresses knee flexion more to keep the lifter’s torso upright. The low bar back squat requires the lifter to push the hips back more to allow for a more forward-leaning back angle, increasing hip, hamstring, and back involvement.
Below are three main benefits of the back squat. It’s important to note that back squats are one of the most beneficial exercises (when done correctly and not in excess) for strength, sports performance (especially in strength and power sports), and leg strength.
Improved Leg Strength and Hypertrophy
The back squat, like the deadlift, builds serious leg and back strength as it engages all major muscles in your legs — big and small — and allows you to load the body with significantly more weight than what can be achieved with other moves like lunges, goblet squats, and leg extensions.
More muscle is aesthetically pleasing. After all, no one (well, most people) wants to look like Hercules up top and the Road Runner from the waist down. Also, while a bigger muscle doesn’t mean more strength, it does mean you have the capacity for more strength.
More Power (Like, Lots More)
The squat patterning and performance outcomes have been linked to an athlete’s ability to jump higher and sprint faster. One study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a strong correlation between squats (well, half squats) and jump height. (1)
If you’re an athlete, you may want to (strongly) consider adding squats to your strength training routine.
We engage in squats, or some for of them, daily. Where do you think the expression “pop a squat” comes from? When it comes to moving, if you don’t use it, your body will lose it, so to speak.
Your joints need to engage in a specific pattern on the regular to become proficient at it, and so back-squatting will help your ankle, knee, and hip joints get better acquainted with this movement pattern, which is a good thing if you don’t want to be stuck on the toilet in your 80’s.
Below are the muscle groups involved with the back squat movement. The back squat is a very taxing and compound exercise. Therefore many smaller and assistance muscles that may not be listed here are also worked.
The back squat’s ability to overload the legs as a whole makes it a pillar of great leg workouts. That said, choosing the high-bar back squat option can help isolate the quadriceps due to increases demands on the area via higher degrees of knee flexion (the quads extend the knee joint).
Both high bar and low bar back squats can increase glute development, especially when deeper degrees of hip flexion is achieved (often from increased depth in the squat).
The spinal erectors, located in your lower back, work to maintain an upright torso position in the back squat. Like the front squat, the erectors work to maintain a vertical torso position to allow for a more quadriceps-focussed high-bar back squat. The erectors are stressed more in the low-bar back squat, which could be something to think about if you have lower back issues or your back seizes up during back squat workouts.
As mentioned above, squats can be useful for so many different training populations. Below we’ve laid out who should train squats, along with a rationale for the “why.”.
The squat is the first of three competition lifts that comprise a lifter’s total (squat, bench, deadlift). Often in powerlifting, the low bar squat is the style of choice as this allows the posterior chain to be highly active (more than in the high bar squat), resulting in a heavier one-rep max.
Both squat movements can be used to build a well-rounded athlete (much like high bar squats for quad strength and mass for powerlifters). When looking for maximal strength, the low-bar squat is a better option as the lifter can use more of their leverage against the barbell.
Unlike powerlifting, the competition lifts for Olympic weightlifting are the snatch and clean & jerk. The high-bar squat is critical for leg strength and torso positional strength for both competitive movements.
Competitive Fitness/CrossFit Athletes
Competitive fitness training and competitions involve many movements such as the snatch, clean and jerk, jumping, and other upright squatting movements. They also involve a good deal of pulling movements that require sound hip and back strength.
General Fitness and Sport
General fitness enthusiasts should perform back squats regularly, as they’ll have three major benefits for this population, including:
- Lower body strength and muscular development.
- Improvements in coordination and more fluid movement.
- Carryover to movement patterns used in everyday life, such as picking things up and walking up the stairs.
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming the back squat into workouts. Note: that these are general guidelines and by no means should be used as the only way to program toes to bar.
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To Build Muscle
For increased muscular size, try performing four to six sets of five to 12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads (60-80% of your one-rep max). It is important to note that muscle hypertrophy can still occur (and often does, even with more advanced lifters) with higher load, lower repetition squat training.
To Improve Strength
For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. Try performing three to six sets of two to five repetitions with 80-95% of your one-rep max. Rest for two to three minutes between sets.
To Develop Muscular Endurance
Try performing two to three sets of 12 or more repetitions for a total of 45-60 seconds of total time under tension. Rest for one minute between sets. You can also increase time under tension sets like pauses, tempo training, and partial sets to further enhance muscular stamina.
A great warmup is a must before getting under the barbell, especially if you plan to lift heavy. Some lifters like to warm up by performing lighter barbell squats, while others enjoy doing the movement to progress the body into the squat pattern.
There are multiple ways to warm up for squats, and regardless of what you prefer, it’s a must to prep the body properly before loading it. If you need some squat warmup ideas, check out our video below featuring elite Swedish powerlifter Isabella Von Weissenberg.
[Related: BarBend’s Squat Calculator]
Below are three back squat variations that can be done to improve your strength, form, and power.
1 1/2 Squat
The 1 1/2 squat entails lifters performing a full rep, then a half rep to complete one full rep. This variation is great for increasing time under tension, improving postural positions, and sharpening mental awareness during the squat. Be warned: this one burns.
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Pause Back Squat
The pause back squat is performed identically as a regular back squat, except that the lifter will perform a pause and isometric contraction at a given stage in the range of motion. Most commonly, the pause will occur at the bottom of the squat. However, you can also pause at parallel, halfway into the squat, or at any other stage where there may be a weakness or need for improvement.
Tempo Back Squat
Tempo training during the back squat can improve muscle growth, increase angular strength and coordination, and improve a lifter’s awareness and understanding of the balance and positioning within the squat. To do this, choose a cadence (for example, two to four seconds in the eccentric phase) and learn how to engage muscle groups and maintain tension under load.
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Below are three back squat alternatives that can be used to improve leg strength, muscle hypertrophy, and posture.
The goblet squat is a fantastic back squat alternative for the beginner that wants to nail down their movement mechanics. Besides being a fantastic precursor for back squats, the goblet squat is a great exercise to do during warm-ups and when teaching torso positioning.
[Related: The Untold History of the Back Squat]
While not traditionally done with a front rack position (however it can be), the split squat is a great unilateral exercise to develop quadriceps strength and muscle mass. This exercise can be used as an accessory movement to increase front squat and lower body performance.
The hack squat machine is an excellent alternative to the back squat as it helps emphasize quadriceps growth via increased knee flexion. This is ideal for lifters who need additional quadriceps development yet may be limited by their mobility, upper back strength, or a combination of the two. The hack squat can be done using tempos, pauses, and double pauses to really maximize growth.
Who should back squat?
The back squat is an interesting exercise because it holds benefits for every lifting population, however, not everyone needs to perform this exercise to progress. However, if you’re able to and comfortable in doing so, then regularly using the back squat is a fantastic tool to develop total body musculature.
What are the benefits of the back squat?
The back squat holds multiple benefits for every fitness enthusiast. Some of the most popular benefits include:
- Improve lower back strength.
- Increase lower body power.
- Build a strong core/torso (due to stabilization of weight).
- Sharpen body awareness and coordination.
- Build resiliency in sport and daily life.
Can beginners back squat?
Absolutely! However, it’s worth noting that true beginners should seek out a coach when first learning the back squat. It’s never a bad idea to have someone watch and critique your form when starting out, but yes, everyone — ever true beginners — can back squat.
What muscles do back squats work?
The back squat works a variety of muscles and this is why most call it the “king” of the lifts. Some of major muscle groups squats work include:
- Rectus Abdominis
- Erector Spinae
- Wisløff U, Castagna C, Helgerud J, et alStrong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players British Journal of Sports Medicine 2004;38:285-288.
Featured image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock