Back Squat Exercise Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked

Everything you need to know to properly perform and complete the back squat.

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.

In this back squat exercise guide, we’ll cover multiple topics including:

  • Back Squat Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Back Squat
  • High-Bar vs Low-Bar Back Squat
  • Muscles Worked by the Back Squat
  • Who Should Do the Back Squat?
  • Back Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Back Squat Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Perform the Back Squat: Step-By-Step Guide

There are two main back squat variations; high-bar and low-bar back squats. Both of which are discussed below. Note, that the below step-by-step- guide will go over how to perform the high-bar back squat. You can learn more about how to perform the low-bar back squat in this low-bar back squat guide, however many of the same steps apply to both variations.

  • High-Bar Back Squat: The high-bar back squat is often seen in Olympic weightlifting and movements looking ot increase quadriceps hypertrophy and strength, as the knee goes into deeper flexion angles, allowing the torso to stay more upright in the squat. This has wide application to movements like snatches, cleans, and jerks.
  • Low-Bar Back Squat: The low-bar back squat is a more posterior chain dominant squatting movement, often seen in powerlifting and strongman training. This style relies more heavily on hip extension, allowing the glutes, hamstrings, erectors, and back muscles to aid in the movement. Unlike the high-bar squat, the low-bar squat has the lifter place the barbell slightly lower (about 2-3 inches) on the back, rather than high up on the upper back/traps (high-bar back squat).

1.
Set Your Base

Start by stepping under a barbell (supported in a rack). This step is key as it is your chance to properly engage the upper back (step 2), set a firm foundation with the core, and mentally prepare for the un-racking of the barbell.

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, etc. This is especially the case as the loads get heavier.

Coach’s Tip: This step is significantly important the heavier the loads are. Not not rush this process.

2.
Get a Grip

Grip widths will vary, however the key is that you should be able to take a full grip on the barbell, as this will allow you to maximally contract the upper back/traps/forearms to properly secure the barbell in the high-bar squat position. Note, that the barbell should be placed above the traps, or on them, rather than on the rear delts/lower on the back (like the low-bar squat set up).

When doing this, be sure to actively flex your upper back and traps up into the barbell, which will give you some “padding” for the barbell to rest on. Lastly, be careful not to hyper-extend the back as you do this, as many lifters will lose tension and bracing in the core.

Coach’s Tip: Squeeze the bar and find a secure position. Once you have found it, pull the barbell tight into the body so that you and the barbell are now one, massively dense and stable unit.

3.
Step Out and Get Stable

When you are ready, step out of the rack, using either a 2 or 3-step approach (as this is often the best way to minimize barbell movement and conserve energy). The feet should be about hip-width apart, with the toes slightly pointed out. The chest should be held high, with the core and obliques contracted.

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.

Coach’s Tip: This can be challenging and inconsistent for many beginner and intermediate squatters (the pre-squat routine). Be sure to practice the same set up and walkout techniques every time you squat, as this will help it become more automated (one less thing to worry about).

4.
Pull Yourself Down into the Squat

With the feet planted, and pressure evenly distrusted throughout the foot, slightly push the hips back while simultaneously allowing the knees the bend forwards, tracking over the toes. Keep the upper back locked to minimize forward lean or collapse of the thoracic spine.

Think about gripping the floor with the toes and creating space for the belly between the thighs. Often, the cue “knees out” is used, which can be beneficial for some (however it can also cause excessive bowing of the knees). Regardless, think about pulling your torso straight down so that the abdominals and hip flexors assist in the lower of the movement.

Coach’s 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.

5.
Squat to Depth, and Stand Up

Squat to the desired depth, which for many is at parallel or below. Once you have assumed the desired depth, push your back upwards into the bar while simultaneously pushing the feet aggressively through the floor, making sure to keep weight in the heels (and toes). As you stand, continue to keep the chest high and core locked.

Be sure to keep your spine locked into position, and your heels down on the ground. A general rule of thumb when assessing high-bar squat technique is that the shin angle should be parallel to the spine. If they are to intersect (id you continues those angles) at any point in time, it could indicate excessive forward lean of the torso (horizontal displacement of the barbell, which is not desired).

Coach’s Tip: You should feel your legs (quadriceps) working, as well as the upper back and hips.

High-Bar vs Low-Bar Back Squat

In our previous article, “High Bar vs Low-Bar Back Squat“, 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.

Based on these factors (which you can read more about in the above link), coaches and athletes can determine which variation is the most beneficial and sport specific to the athletes’ needs.

3 Main Benefits of Back Squats

Below are three main benefits of the back squat (both variations). 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. For further reading, you can also find more about the immense benefits of the back squat here.

1. Improve Leg (Quadriceps, Hamstrings, and Glute) Strength and Hypertrophy

Whether you are a strength and power elite athlete or a newbie to the lifting world, squatting is one of the primary exercise responsible for some of the strongest, powerful, and most athletic lifters/athletes in the world. This exercise, like the deadlift, builds serious leg and back strength, and allows you to load the body with significantly higher amounts of external loading to induce chromosomal and physiological growth response.

2. Enhance Jumping, Sprinting, and Sports Performance Capacity

The squat patterning and performance outcomes have been linked to jumping abilities, running performance (as well as the deadlit), and positive outcomes in sports (such as heavier totals for powerlifters and stronger legs for weightlifters).

3. Improve Functional Movement

Squatting is a natural movement pattern for humans, as we have evolved to allow for ankle, knee, and hip flexion to produce movements such as walking, running, sprinting, jumping, crouching, crawling, etc. The squat, which is often a position many infants find themselves in, has shown itself time and time again as one of the most beneficial movements a human can reinforce with stability (strength). We can use the back squat to also improve proper joint functioning and establish a stronger basis for healthy, injury-free movement.

Muscles Worked – Back Squat

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

Who Should Perform the Back Squat?

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.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes often rely heavily on squats to build foundation total-body strength, lower body strength and muscle mass, and improve performance in various sport specific lifts/movements.

  • Powerlifters: 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.
  • Strongman Athletes: 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.
  • Weightlifters: 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.

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.

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.

Back Squat Exercise Guide
Back Squat Exercise Guide

Back Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

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.

Depending on the goals of the athlete (movement skill, core strength, endurance), the coach should input this exercise accordingly into the regimen. Generally speaking, training the back squat for strength and/or explosiveness should be done earlier in the workout, with higher repetition/endurance training taking place after main strength an power exercise have been completed.

General Strength– Reps and Sets

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 2-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
  • Increasing squat strength is a universal endeavor, with a wide variety of programming philosophies. Here is a list of some of the more famous squat strength programs out there.

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume.

  • 4-6 sets of 5-12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads
  • 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. Be sure to read more about the various types of muscle hypertrophy here.

Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended. You can also hold for pauses and add time to the set.

  • 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions or for more than 45-60 seconds under tension, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)
  • You can also increase time under tension sets like pauses, tempo training, and partial sets to further enhance muscular stamina.

Back Squat Variations

Below are three (3) common back squat variations that can be done to improve

1. Low-Bar Back Squat

The low-bar back squat was discussed above, with the main difference being the positing of the barbell on the back, which causes the loading to be shifted more to the posterior chain. Be sure to scroll back to the top to read more about high-bar vs low-bar back squats.

2. Pause Back Squat

The pause back squat is performed in the identical manner as a regular back squat, with the exception 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 it can also occur at parallel, halfway into the squat, or at any other stage where there may be a weakness or need for improvement.

3. 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, simply choose a cadence (for example, 2-4 seconds in the eccentric phase) and learn how to engage muscle groups and maintain tension under load.

Back Squat Alternatives

Below are a three (3) back squat alternatives that can be done to vary programming, challenge lifters, and more.

1. Box Squat

The box squat is a back squat alternative that has the lifter set the barbell either in the high-bar or low-bar position, and squat down to a box (which will be at varying heights based on goals). For more advanced lifters, the box squat could be used to overload a particular range of motion in the squat, help increase posterior chain activation and performance, and/or improve concentric strength throughout sticking points. For beginners, the box squat can be a great way to progress lifters deeper into a full unsupported squat as they increase leg strength at increasingly lower levels of the squat.

2. Front Squat

The front squat is a squat variation that has the lifter place the barbell on he front of the shoulders. This targets the quadriceps and upper back more, due to the forward placement of the load. Additionally, this variation directly correlates to leg strength in the clean and jerk, making it a pivotal strength exercise for Olympic weightlifters and fitness athletes.

3. Lunge and/or Split Squats

Both lunges and split squats are two unilateral variations of the squatting movement. Integrating them within a program can boost overall squat strength performance, enhance muscle activation of the quadriceps and glutes, and help to reinforce/develop joint stability and improve movement patterning under load.

More Squat Tips

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

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

2 thoughts on “Back Squat Exercise Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked”

  1. Hi Carrie,
    for what its worth, I’m in my mid-40s , with a 3 decade litany of injuries and bodily damage. I have only been lifting for 6 months and have noticed significant improvements in mobility, strength and pain-management.
    The effects of my back, knee and ankle injuries have been massively helped by squatting (which runs counter to lots of the “advice” I have had) so please don’t think that it is an exercise that will be beyond you.

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