The barbell back squat is the simplest exercise you can possibly imagine. Yet, with all of the innovation in the fitness industry and the introduction of a plethora of lower body training equipment, including all sorts of leg press and hack machines, the good old-fashioned back squat remains the king of exercises.
But it’s also the exercise that you’ll see most improperly performed and, as a result, the one that causes the most injury. But don’t worry, you’re in safe hands here - I am going to lay out the benefits of squatting, along with a quick overview of correct technique. Then I will drill down to identify and overcome the most common mistakes that people make while squatting. I'll also provide you with some awesome auxiliary squatting exercises, lay out three squatting no-nos and give you the low-down on squatting shoes. It all adds up to the most comprehensive squatting guide you'll read this year!
How to Perform the Barbell Squat
- 1Position an Olympic bar on a squat rack at the level of your shoulders. Load it up and put on the collars.
- 2Position yourself under the bar, with it resting across your mid traps (this is the default position; see the bar positioning section below for more detail on bar positioning for strength vs mass gains).
- 3Unrack the bar and take a step back.
- 4Position your feet shoulder width apart, toes slight outward.
- 5In the start position, your spine should be neutral, your knees slightly bent with the hips back and you should be looking directly ahead.
- 6Squat down until your quads are parallel to the floor.
- 7Push through the heels to explode back up, keeping the hips back and being sure to keep your knees just short of lockout.
- 8Continue in a smooth, piston-like manner to complete your set.
Barbell Squat: Muscles Worked
The barbell squat directly targets the four muscles that make up your quadriceps. They also work the gluteus maximus (butt muscles), hamstrings, hip flexors and core. Yet, this is an exercise where the sum of the parts is greater than the individual benefits. You see, when you squat heavy and hard, you put your body into an anabolic state. All weight training exercises will do this, but the barbell squat does it more than any other. In the 24 hours after an intense squat workout your testosterone and human growth hormone levels will be enhanced.
6 Hacks for Better Barbell Squats
Barbell Squat Hack #1: Bar Positioning
The position of the bar on your back makes a big difference to the effect of your squat. If you are focused more on lifting heavy weight than on developing leg size, then you should follow the powerlifting pattern and position the bar as low as possible across your lower traps.
Doing so will position your glutes and erector spinae in the ideal power position.
However, if you are focused on building size in the thighs, then you want to place the bar high on your shoulders, across the upper traps.
Bar positioning is also important when it comes to working with injury. The higher you position the bar when you squat, the harder it is on your knees. That’s because it forces you to stay more upright, making the knees take the brunt of the load as you descend into the squat.
A low bar position, however, forces you to lean forward slightly in order to keep the bar over your center of gravity. That allows you to load up the hips and back more than the knees. That’s why you should position the bar quite low, along the posterior delts when you squat. If you’re a person with back problems then you should do the reverse, positioning the bar as high as you can on the shoulders.
Barbell Squat Hack #2: Foot Positioning
If you’re a person who regularly squats, you know how important your feet are to your success. The entire force that you are exerting is coming through your feet. If you don’t have them encased in a shoe that will provide rigidity, correct angle, alignment and adequate support, you’re going to be in trouble. Not only will your lifts be disappointing, but you are likely to do yourself some long term injury.
Perform the barbell squat with your feet at least shoulder width apart, your toes pointing slightly outward. Do not stand with your heels on a block or turn your toes widely outward. Doing so will place undue stress on the knees, opening you up for long-term injury. Rather, make sure that you are wearing a quality pair of weightlifting shoes that feature a three quarter inch raised heel (more on this later).
Barbell Squat Hack #3: Upright Torso
In order to place maximum pressure on your quads, you will need to keep your torso as upright as possible through the entire movement. However, you will want to maintain a slight forward bend. Thrust your chest out and look straight ahead as you perform both phases of the move.
Barbell Squat Hack #4: Coming out of the Hole
Getting out of the bottom position (the hole) of the barbell squat is where most people tend to have a form break down. They will either lurch forward with the chest or push the hips backward to initiate the ascent. The key to doing the move most effectively, and therefore putting the maximum amount of stimulus on the quads, is to move the hips and the chest at the same time. Maintain a tight, stable core throughout the movement.
Moving the hips and chest together as one unit is the key to keeping the pressure off the lower back and on the thighs, where it belongs.
Barbell Squat Hack #5: Good Mornings
If your goal is to get bigger legs, you’ve got to squat heavy. And to do that you have to do more than just set after set of the barbell squat. True strength comes from building up your compensatory strength and that happens by developing the stabilizer muscles that go into the squat movement.
The good morning is a great auxiliary move that will build up your squatting power.
When done properly, this is an excellent move to teach the hip hinge, which is crucial for proper squat and deadlift movement. You don’t want the weight to be too heavy on this exercise. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
Here’s how to perform the Good Morning exercise:
- 1Place the barbell in a squat rack a little lower than shoulder height. Now approach the bar with a split stance and unrack the bar onto your upper back. Step back with feet shoulder width apart and feet tight.
- 2Hinge forward from the waist while keeping your back straight. Allow your glutes to stick out behind you but keep your legs straight. Come down until your upper body is parallel with the floor and then reverse the movement. Keep your knees slightly bent in the top position. Keep your abs tight and your spine neutral. Squeeze the glutes on the way back up.
Barbell Squat Hack #6: Banded Goblet Squats
There are a number of squat variations that you should add into your overall training plan, such as the front squat. Another of the very effective squat variations is the banded goblet squat. One benefit of the goblet squat is that it teaches you to squat to depth. Holding a dumbbell in front of you is not as intimidating as having weight on your back, so you are inclined to squat lower.
If you can’t get out of the hole, you can simply dump the weight to the floor. This will transfer to confidence when you are squatting with the bar.
The goblet squat also has the weight sitting perfectly over your center of mass. This helps you to squat up and down properly. Adding the extra element of a band with help to train your body to keep your quads out rather than the knees beginning to cave as you come out of the hole.
Perform the banded goblet squat this way:
- 1Connect a resistance band to a low anchor and then stand about 18 inches away from the anchor point with a dumbbell nearby. Place the band around your outer thigh and move away until the band is taut. Now grab the dumbbell and hold it by one end in front of your chest.
- 2Squat down, keeping your back straight, to bring your elbows to the inner thigh and then smoothly push into the ground to come back to the start position.
- 3As you get stronger with this exercise, step further away from the anchor point. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps.
What Not to Do When Squatting
If you go to the end of your range of motion during an open joint movement, such as dropping all the way down when doing barbell squats, you put your knee ligaments on a stretch. In and of itself, this is not bad. But any additional stress on those ligaments - like bouncing at the bottom of the squat to get back up - can stretch those ligaments out, rendering your knee permanently unstable. That’s the basis for the recommendation not to bounce at the bottom of the squat. It’s the same reason that some exercises that were popular in the 70’s, like the duck walk, are now on the no-go list.
Don't Angle the Lower Leg
When squatting, keep your lower legs as close to vertical as you possibly can. Keeping your shin bones vertical drastically reduces your risk of injury (when you perform the movement, it may help to concentrate on keeping your feet flat on the floor).
Don't Use a Box
Do not barbell squat over a box or a bench. Every time you touch the bench or box, your spine compresses slightly. This will eventually cause vertebral damage.
Should I Wear Squatting Shoes?
The science of squatting has made it clear that a raised heel puts the body in the ideal plane for the perfect barbell squat. It keeps your torso in the correct alignment and it allows you to exert maximum force through the ankles and heels. In the past, this correct alignment was achieved with the aid of a block of wood. However, a block is not the best idea as it places undue stress on the knees.
Fortunately, over the last decade, a market has developed to cater for the need to wear a specially designed Olympic weightlifting shoe. As with any industry, however, the quality on offer ranges from shockingly bad to out of the ballpark good. Unless you know what to look for in a dedicated Olympic weightlifting shoe, you are going to find yourself at the mercy of the sharks out there. Here, then, are the key requirements of a good Olympic weightlifting shoe:
A three quarter inch wedge in the heel of the shoe will allow you to position your ankles correctly for the descent of the squat. In times past, bodybuilders used to place a two-inch block of wood under their heels when squatting. They instinctively knew that a raised heel would give them the best body positioning. Today, science has proven this to be the case.
In contrast to the majority of athletic training shoes, Olympic weightlifting shoes are very rigid. This ensures that they provide maximum lateral and medial integrity. As a result, the shoe is generally made from a hard material that will not bend to the touch. Often though, the toe box area of the shoe is noticeably softer, providing added comfort in the toe area.
Weightlifting shoes feature a lot less comfort padding than conventional athletic shoes. This helps to keep the foot secure, preventing lateral movement within the shoe while executing such lifts as the squat.
Secure locking mechanism
To further ensure that there is no side-to-side movement of the foot when performing an exercise, a dedicated Olympic lifting shoe will have a very secure foot locking system. Often this will be by way of both a Velcro single or double strap and a secure lacing system.
The connection to the floor is essential when performing overhead weight exercises. A good weightlifting shoe will feature a very firm grip that will provide absolutely no lateral movement. Many shoes feature a cupping system that provides suction like capabilities to ensure the integrity of the connection between the foot and the floor.
The barbell squat isn't known as the king of gym exercises for nothing. The back squat will help get you bigger and stronger than any other single exercise that you can do. But the barbell squat can also be one of the most troublesome moves you can perform on the gym floor.
The human body was not designed to be compressed under a weight of several hundred pounds. If you are aligned incorrectly or otherwise use bad squat form, your body, especially the knees and hips, are going to pay the price. In this article, you have discovered everything you need to know to get the maximum muscle building benefit from the barbell squat while avoiding the pitfalls.
So now that you know what to do, go out and squat.