Back Squat Ultimate Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked

By now nearly everyone knows that they should be squatting in some capacity. Regardless of fitness level, sport, and aspirations, squats are a critical component to optimal health and fitness. When determining which squat style one should embrace we must first take a deeper look into they specifics behind each back squat variation (high bar vs. low bar) to best fit the needs, goals, and training purpose of an athlete/individual.

Therefore, in this article we will do just, to ultimately help you succeed on your squatting journey.

High Bar vs Low  Bar Back Squat

In a previous article we discussed the specific differences between these two similar yet very different squat movements. In summary:

  • Bar Placement: The high bar has the barbell sits upon the back of the traps, just below the C7 vertebrae. The low bar back squat placement is much lower upon the back, often having the barbell rest upon the spine of the scapulae or across the back of the posterior shoulder.
  • Hip and Knee Mechanics: While both movements involved knee and hip flexion/extension, the high bar squat requires a greater amount of knee flexion to maintain an upright torso positioning. By doing so, the quadriceps are engaged at a higher degree than in the low bar back squat. The low bar back squat has the lifter push their hips back more to allow for a more forward leaning back angle, which in turn increases hip, hamstring, and back involvement via greater hip flexion and extension with decreased knee flexion needs.

Muscles Worked

Below are the muscle groups involved with the back squat movement. Note, that 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. Additionally, barbell placement and movement patterning may shift greater emphasis on loading onto one muscle group more than the other depending on the backs squat movement you select (high bar vs low bar back squat) which will be noted below.

  • Quadriceps (greater emphasis in high bar back squat)
  • Gluteals
  • Hamstrings  (greater emphasis in low bar back squat)
  • Spinal Erectors  (greater emphasis in low bar back squat)
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids, Scapular Muscles, Posterior Shoulder

Technique

The technique and squat patterning for the back squat is very specific to the style of back squat selected, as each requires different set up, bar placements, and joint mechanics to ensure proper movement. Below is a more thorough breakdown and video demonstration on how to properly perform the high bar back squat and the low bar back squat.

High Bar Back Squat

In the video below, Omar Isuf and Canadian 77kg Olympic Weightlifting National Champion (2008-2013) Bryan Marshall break down how to properly setup and perform the high bar back squat.

Low Bar Back Squat

The below video shows how to properly set up in the low bar back squat positioning, which can be very challenging for many lifters. Mark Rippetoe, of Starting Strength, goes in high detail how where to place the barbell and how to secure it onto the back for the most optimal back angle for greater leverage.

In this second low bar back squat video, Mark Rippetoe covers the low bar back squat setup and squat patterning from start to finish, which when paired with the first tutorial makes for one strong and secure low bar squat.

What Type of Squat Should You Do?

Both squat variations can be justified as sports performance enhancing movements, however one may have great application to specific sporting movements than the other, and therefore should be prioritized.

Powerlifting

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 lifter often being able to withstand greater loads upon their backs. The range of motion is often decreased at the knee joint, further assisting in often more weight being lifted on the bar.

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Weightlifting

Unlike powerlifting, the competition lifts for Olympic weightlifting are the snatch and clean and jerk. The high bar squat is critical to leg strength and torso positional strength for both competitive movements. The low bar squat, while can increase lower body and back strength, can lead to too much forward lean of the torso, which has very poor application (and often can be detrimental to squat patterning) to the snatch (overhead squat) and clean and jerk (front squat and jerk), therefore leading to many Olympic weightlifters only high bar squatting.

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Strongman

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, often the low bar squat can be trained since the lifter is able to use more of their leverage against a barbell. The low bar placement may also have a good transfer to the pulling  and carrying (back loaded) movements (increase back and hips strength) as well. That said, both movements are key to overall development and health of an athlete.

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Competitive Fitness / CrossFit

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. Therefore, I personally feel that these athletes should prioritize the high bar back squat, as application to weightlifting movements is key, however integrating the low bar back squat can also work to enhance overall development in the long run.

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General Fitness and Sport

Low bar squatting, while can help to build a strong back and hips, should be done only if a lifter is already high bar squatting, as failure to high bar squat will disservice the development of the lifter. Many fitness goers are familiar with deadlifts and low bar squats, as many love to lift heavy, however those same individuals often lack knee extension strength and proper squat mechanics, often leading them to complain about knee pain once they finally decide to address their imbalanced issues. Start now with high bar squatting, unilateral leg exercises, and build a healthier, stronger, and leaner you.

More Squat Tips

Check out some of the most popular and useful squatting tips for coaches and athletes below!

Featured Image: @lisahaefnerphoto on Instagram

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