Gymgoers and strength athletes need to squat to be successful. No matter which side you’re on, or what your fitness goals are, few exercises are as effective as the back squat.
How to Do the Back Squat
There are many different ways to squat, so before you choose a method, make sure you know what you’re doing. Powerlifters use the low bar squat instead of the “standard” technique. The low bar squat involves resting the barbell across the upper back and shoulders, rather than directly on their traps.
This guide will provide you with instructions on how to perform a high bar squat.
Step 1 — Set Your Base
Step under a barbell in a squat rack, flexing your core to set a firm foundation, and lift the barbell out of the rack.
You will need to step out of the rack and set your stance for the squat, but your feet should be in your squat stance, or slightly narrower. This way you can “squat” the load out of the rack, rather than stepping in and out with one foot.
The coach’s tip is not to rush the process. Keep your traps pressed firmly into the bar and your core braced.
Step 2 — Get a Grip
Where you hold the barbell varies depending on the person, but not significantly. There will be two rings on either side of the main body of most quality barbells, about six to eight inches from the base of the sleeve. These rings are called knurling and they help to provide a better grip on the bar. Place your fingers on the text, using it as a guide, and see which width feels the most comfortable. Some people favor the ring finger for this purpose, while others favor the middle finger.
Find a comfortable hand position on the bar, then grip it tightly by wrapping your thumb around it. Keep your elbows close to your sides. An elbow position that is down and it will help you to pull the barbell onto your trap and create a stable surface for the bar to sit on. To do low-bar squats, you need to position the barbell more on the rear delts and lower traps.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t over-arch your spine. There’s no need to worry too much about your back is flat.
Step 3 — Set Your Stance
To remove the barbell from the rack, perform a partial squat. Move one leg back at a time and then readjust your feet so they are aligned. Your feet should be about hip-width apart, with your toes pointed as forward or turned out as is comfortable. Make sure your weight is evenly balanced across your foot, and keep your gaze fixed ahead.
You should take a deep breath before removing the barbell from the rack. Deep breaths are key when squatting. Inhale as you step back into your squat stance, and then exhale as you squat down.
Step 4 — Sit Straight Down
From a standing position, inhale deeply and then sit down, keeping your eyes looking forward and your core brace Try sitting with your pelvis between your feet. Get your thighs as close to the ground as you can while still being comfortable and not overstretching.
You can allow your knees to go past your toes as long as your foot is still firmly on the ground.
Step 5 — Explode Up
Once you’ve reached the farthest point in your range of motion, go back to the starting position. If you want to go up, use your legs to push and try to maintain the same posture you had when you sat down. Do not move your hips in a backward direction or tilt your torso downward. Think about standing up straight, without flexing your glutes too much.
If you are new to squatting, you may want to try pausing at the bottom of your range of motion to get used to the position.
Common Back Squat Mistakes
The back squat is equal parts simple and complex. This is an activity that may seem very challenging at first, but with enough practice, it will eventually become as easy as something we do every day. There are a few dangers to be aware of if you are just starting to get involved in the movement.
If you’re not a powerlifter, it’s not technically important how low you squat. The depth of something is usually better when it is more. Some people might stop squatting down because they’re either afraid of movement, anxious or not flexible enough. When squatting, you should aim to go as low as you can unless you have an injury or restricted movement.
Hips Shooting Up
You should maintain the same angle for your torso when you squat down and when you push back up. If you have stronger back muscles than leg muscles, or if you try to stand up too quickly, you might fall over because your pelvis tilts backward.
If you get thrown off balance, it can screw up your “groove” and make you lose power. Stand up with your hips and legs equally.
Overusing Your Glutes
Believe it or not, it is possible. Although the back squat is great for building your glute muscles, there is no need to overdo it. You may occasionally see people stand up out of their squat and really thrust their hips forward at the top, squeezing their bums as hard as they can.
Although this may appear to be effective, it does not make your glutes work any harder. Squatting with your hips close to the weight results in less tension on your glutes at the top of the back squat. If you want your glutes to be more active during the squat, make sure you break parallel at a minimum.
Shifting Your Weight
Most people’s foot pressure in the squat does not need to be adjusted, tweaked, or tinkered with. The goal is to have your weight evenly distributed across your whole foot at all times.
As you learn to squat, you may find that your body weight shifts forward onto your toes or backward onto your heels. Try to distribute your weight evenly throughout your feet to avoid placing too much pressure on any one area.
Quad Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
The quadriceps are the primary muscle group involved in squatting. If you have weak quads, your hips will rise up faster than your shoulders when you squat, causing you to use more of a hip hinge movement.
Your quads are the 4 muscles found at the front of your thigh and can be strengthened with the following exercises:
1. Front Squats
In a front squat, the bar is held in the front of the body, on the collarbone, rather than on the back. This squat variation places more emphasis on the quads than other variations, making it a good choice for increasing leg strength and size.
2. Leg Press
The leg press is an effective way to target the quads and develop both muscle and strength. There is little to no stress placed on other areas of your body when you do this exercise, as it is typically done with a machine. Additionally, your grip strength or balance are not factors limiting this exercise, as they can be with other leg exercises such as lunge and split squat variations.
To put more emphasis on your quads and avoid your glutes taking over, keep your feet in a narrow stance and point forward.
3. Split Squats
Split squats are a type of exercise that targets the quad muscles of one leg at a time. This exercise is effective for isolating and activating these muscles. This is helpful for any lifter, but it is especially helpful if you have one leg that is much stronger than the other.
There are three ways to do split squats: with dumbbells or a barbell on the back, with the back foot elevated (Bulgarian Split Squats), or with the front foot elevated.
To target the quads more than the glutes, stand more upright. If you want to engage the glutes as well, lean forward slightly in a Bulgarian split squat.
4. Goblet Squat
To perform a goblet squat, simply hold a dumbbell at chest level with both hands and perform a regular squat.
This exercise will help you improve your squat strength by focusing specifically on the muscles used in squatting. You can adjust the focus of the exercise to target your quads or glutes more depending on your needs.
For more emphasis on the quads, you can try bringing in your feet and doing a narrow stance goblet squat, although just doing the goblet squat with your regular stance will still add additional squat volume into your week and help you build your leg muscles.
Lunges are a good way to develop your quad muscles and, like split squats, they will help you work each leg individually. The main difference between lunges and split squats is that lunges involve your feet moving forwards or backward, whereas with split squats your feet remain in the same position.
Lunges will engage your quads and glutes more dynamically, providing the added challenge of stability which can be beneficial for both your feet and core.
Glute Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
The gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus make up the glutes. The glutes are the main contributors to a strong and efficient squat because they are important in locking out the lift and keeping the knees and hips in optimal position throughout the movement.
To strengthen your glutes try the following exercises:
6. Barbell Hip Thrusts
Barbell hip thrusts are a great way to activate your glutes. They are one of the few glute-specific exercises where you can load heavy weights.
If your glutes are holding you back from squatting more weight, you should do this exercise to improve your strength for squatting and/or to make your glutes bigger.
7. Sumo Deadlifts
Deadlifts can help improve back strength for squats, and sumo deadlifts can help target the glutes and quads. You can change traditional deadlifts for sumo, add another day of deadlifts, or program lower-weight deadlifts with higher reps to just focus more on glute growth and getting in some extra volume.
Sumo deadlifts are performed with a wide stance and toes pointed outward. This position helps build strength in the externally rotated hip position, which is key for squatting.
8. Belt Squats
Belt squats are like regular squats, but you don’t have to carry a barbell on your back, so you don’t get as tired. The belt squat is an exercise that primarily works your glutes and quads, with your upper body getting a break.
Belt squats are a great way to work your glutes more each week. They also help with locking out the top of the squat.
You can simulate the belt squat machine by placing your feet on two elevated platforms and attaching a weight belt around your waist. The weight will then hang in between the two platforms.
9. Glute Bridge
The glute bridge is an exercise similar to the barbell hip thrust. It is performed on the ground, rather than using a bench. The exercise can be performed without any weight, by holding a dumbbell, or by wrapping a band around the knees to better target the gluteal muscles.
The glute bridge is an effective way to strengthen your glutes without putting unnecessary stress on other muscles. It can be used as a warm-up or supplementary exercise after your main lifts.
Hamstring Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
The hamstrings are the 3 muscles located at the back of your thighs that work in opposition to your quads.
The hamstrings play an important role in the squat, even though it may not be immediately apparent. They help support the glutes and are most active at the bottom of the squat when they work to stabilize the movement.
The following exercises will help you build strong hamstrings:
10. Romanian Deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift is a compound exercise that works the posterior chain muscles (gluteus, hamstrings, and low back). It is a variation of the standard deadlift and is performed by starting in a standing position with the barbell in your hands, then keep your legs straight as you bring the weight down, and standing back up before the barbell touches the ground.
This workout targets your hamstrings, as well as your upper and lower back, your glutes, and your abs.
11. Glute Ham Raises
Glute ham raises are a type of exercise that is done on a machine specifically designed for that purpose. They are good for working both the glutes (buttocks) and the hamstrings (back of the upper leg), hence the name. If you want to focus on your hamstrings, don’t point your toes out too much. However, if you want to use this exercise to work your glutes, angled toes will probably work better.
This exercise is beneficial because it requires you to have good hamstring awareness and strength, which will help improve your squats and deadlifts.
Many people find this exercise difficult to do with just their body weight, but it becomes easier once you have more experience. Adding weight is a good way to increase the challenge.
12. Hamstring Curls
Hamstring curls are a great way to exclusively work the hamstrings without tiring out the rest of the body. They are also a great supplemental exercise to help build muscle.
Ham curls can be done using a special machine, or by placing a stability ball under your feet while lying down.