Considered by many athletes and strength coaches to be the ‘king’ of all exercises, the back squat is perhaps one of the most beneficial lifts you can master. Squatting will not only help you develop leg and hip strength, but also promote full-body mobility and stability. If you are looking to build muscle, burn fat, and get freaky strong then adding squats to your weekly program is a must.
When it comes to squatting, the back squat is hands down the gold standard as it allows the lifter to lift significantly more weight than other variations. The only downside is that it can be more dangerous than other variations when it is poorly executed. The truth is not everyone should back squat, as it requires a certain level of mobility at the hips, spine, and shoulders which many people lack (See: 5 Ways To Increase Squat Depth).
In this article, you will learn how to perform the barbell back squat with good technique to ensure safety and that you are getting the most possible benefit from this awesome lift. I will cover the proper setup as well as 2 different bar positions to help you determine which is best for you.
Barbell Back Squat: The Setup
1) Approaching the Bar
An important thing to note is that you want to make sure the bar is low enough for you to take out off the pegs. It is always better for the bar to be a little low than for you to have to get up on your toes to unhook the bar. Mid chest always seems to work well.
Next, before you even get under the bar, you must find your hand position. If you are a smaller lifter and/or have great shoulder and spine mobility you want your hands in relatively close. For a larger lifter or someone who lacks stellar mobility a wider grip may be necessary.
2) Bar Position
There is a lot of debate as to whether the high-bar or low-bar position is better but as in any exercise it depends on the person and their goals. Many beginners tend to favor the high bar position while competitive powerlifters learn to utilize the low bar position more to their advantage. I will discuss the different mechanics of each later in this article but first I want to show you where to set the bar.
The high-bar position is set up right at the base of the neck across the top of your traps. It is important to first squeeze your shoulder blades together to create a pillow for the bar to sit on to make it feel more comfortable. Make sure you do this before you set the bar across your back and stay tight the whole time.
The difference with the low-bar position is the bar will sit lower on your back, just under the spine of your scapula (shoulder blade). Again, get tight by squeezing your shoulder blades together. There are differences in the mechanics of each while squatting which I will get into in a little bit but first we must discuss un-racking the bar and the setup.
Note: Although bar pads may seem like a good idea, they are not – so ditch them. They will ‘disconnect’ you from the bar and you will not be able to get as tight. This will prevent you from having a solid squat.
3) Unracking the Bar
This can either make or break your squat since it is easy to lose your tightness or bar position if you are sloppy taking the bar off the rack.
- Start with your feet under the bar and your hands in position. Remember, you will have to determine what grip distance is best for you but tighter is usually better.
- Get under the bar and into the high-bar or low-bar position.
- Adjust your grip if necessary but stay tight.
- Keep your chest up and elbows down.
- Take a big diaphragmatic breath in and hold.
- Squat up to unrack the bar. Take a second to make sure the weight is comfortable and keep holding that breath!
- Take one step back with one leg and then the other. Stay tight. Now you can release your breath.
- From here you can wiggle your feet into the proper position.
Note: The bar may be a little uncomfortable if you have it loaded up but if anything doesn’t feel right, rerack the bar and start over.
4) Foot Position
Foot position is key as it will not only give you a stable base but will allow proper joint mechanics from your ankles all the way up to your hips and back. A good squat (or a bad one) always starts from the ground up.
Squat stance will vary slightly from person to person but to ensure proper mobility and hip drive, I recommend starting out with your heels directly under your shoulders with your feet slightly toed out. You should be able to test by doing a bodyweight squat in this position and get your butt as low to the ground as comfortable. Again, everyone will be slightly different so you will have to play around with your own stance.
5) Neck and Eye Position
I have these grouped together because invariably where your eyes go, your neck will follow. Remember that your neck is still part of your spine and it is very important to keep it safe.
Starting with your gaze, you should keep your stare at a fixed point on the horizon NOT the ceiling. I have heard many coaches say to look up when you are squatting. Looking up might sound like a good idea since you will be moving in that direction but is harmful to proper squat mechanics and hip drive. 9 times out of 10 it causes you to hyperextend your cervical spine (neck) and in turn will cause you to lose tightness.
What you want to do is pick a point either on the rack or about 5-10ft in front of you on the floor and stare at it. Looking straight is ok here to as long as there is no mirror.
Keeping your eyes on a fixed point will also allow you to ‘pack’ your neck or keep it in cervical alignment. The easiest way to visualize this is to stand tall and drive the back of your head back and up as if to make a ‘double chin’ or ‘no neck’ face. It ain’t pretty but this will teach you proper spinal alignment.
Barbell Back Squat: Ready To Go
Now that you have correctly unracked the bar and are in position it is time to squat down with the weight. Before you start it is very important to remember to ALWAYS keep your heels planted to the ground. I will cue clients to drive a spike into the ground with their heels as they squat.
1) Sit Back and Knees Out
Another beginner mistake that I often see is someone squatting straight down, which typically causes poor mechanics and places too much stress on the knees. What you should be aiming to do is sit back as you squat down which will allow you to center the weight over your midfoot-to-heel as you go through the movement. Think of sitting back into a chair.
To ensure proper mechanics and prevent your knees from buckling in you must also continuously press your knees outward. This will also give you more stability in your hips when you are driving the weight back up.
Note: There is a slight difference in torso angle between the low-bar and high-bar position for squatting. When using the low-bar position your torso will be closer to a 45 degree angle and you will have a more hip driven squat. When using the high-bar position your torso will be more upright and you will have a more quad dominant squat.
2) Squat Depth
Again, this is going to be highly individual but I always recommend squatting as low as is comfortable for YOU. Not everyone is built to get their butt all the way to the ground but you still want to use a full range of motion to ensure a safe squat (See: How Deep Should You Squat? Video).
A good rule of thumb is to squat slightly below parallel which would be your hips at or below your knees. This not only targets your gluteal muscles more efficiently but also prevents the shearing force on your knees that is caused by half or quarter squats.
If you lack good depth then mobility may be something to work on during your training and is something that is certainly measurable.
3) Back to the Top
Once you are at the bottom, or in ‘the hole,’ you want to use your pre-stretched hip muscles to your advantage to return to the top. Make sure you are activating your powerful glute muscles and hamstrings by squeezing your butt when you start to press. This will not only allow you to squat more weight but will also go a long way to keeping your knees safe.
You also want to make sure you keep pressing your knees outward and staying tight throughout your back to maintain stability throughout the whole movement. I have mentioned this several times as it is very important!
When you get back to the very top I recommend giving your glutes a little extra squeeze to reinforce hip extension and finish the move. A little bit of extra glute work is always a good thing!
Barbell Back Squat: Practice Makes Perfect
The back squat is one of the best ways to improve overall strength, core stability, hip drive, and help protect your knees as long as you use proper technique and squat to your abilities. Practice makes perfect so go squat and keep squatting!
I was recently working with a weightlifter that was trying to get over some nagging knee pain. During our session I had her perform a few sets of heavy back squats so I could watch her technique. Before she would approach the bar, I noticed she would take the weightlifting belt hanging around her waist and fasten it as tightly as she could. It was as if she was donning an 18th century corset just before she attempted the back squat.
As she finished I asked her, “Has anyone taught you how to use a weightlifting belt before?” With a perplexed look across her face she countered my question with one of her own, “Don’t you just wear it really tight?”
The weightlifting belt is one of the most common training accessories. Walk around any gym in the world and you’re bound to see a few people wearing one. What I’ve come to find is that a large majority of athletes and coaches are using belts incorrectly.
Why Use a Belt?
Athletes who regularly wear a belt will cite that its helps them lift with better technique and keep their back safe. I’ve talked with many who swear by the weightlifting belt and will use it for their entire workout. While others will only use it during maximum attempts.
I’ve talked with some athletes, however, who never wear a belt. They often claim that their core stability and back strength is good enough to lift without one.
So who is right? Does a belt really provide that much additional help when performing squats? And if so, does it need to be used all the time or just with maximum attempts?
A weightlifting belt provides additional stability for your lower back (3). It does so by aiding your core muscles. If you remember back to our lecture article on correct breathing mechanics during the squat, you would recall that creating stability in your lower back is all about breathing and bracing.
When we get under a heavy barbell, we need to take a big breath and brace our trunk muscles so that the weight on the bar does not bend us in two. Doing so amplifies the pressure inside our abdominal cavity. If you breathe correctly during a heavy squat you will feel your stomach rise and fall. Not your chest.
Essentially the volume of the body’s intra-abdominal cavity will increase when we take a big breath. If we couple this expansion in our core by bracing our muscles, the pressure inside the abdominal cavity grows because the volume can no longer expand. This is how intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is created. The belt is just another “layer” that halts the expansion of our abdominal cavity thereby increasing IAP even more.
Think of your abdominal cavity like a balloon. As you blow air into the balloon, it expands. If you place some light stretchy tape around the balloon and try to blow air into it again, it won’t expand as much. The tape acts like the muscles that surround our core. Because the balloon can no longer expand in size, the pressure inside the balloon goes up.
However, what if you now place some hard duct tape around the balloon and try to blow air into it again. By restricting the expansion of the balloon to a greater degree than with the stretchy tape alone, the pressure inside the balloon rises even more! This is what happens when we wear a belt.
The belt does not replace our core muscles, but rather it acts as another restraint. A belt combined with a correctly braced core is more stable than no belt. Research has shown IAP values can increase anywhere from 20-40% when wearing a belt during a heavy squat (1).
How to Use a Belt
In order to properly use a belt, you must breathe “into the belt”. If you only wear it tightly around your waist, you miss out on the potential of the brace. Always think about expanding your stomach into the belt and then bracing against it.
Researchers have shown that athletes who wear a belt correctly tend to lift heavier weights with more explosive power. They are also able to maintain their trunk stiffness for more reps during higher rep maximum lifts like an 8 RM attempt (1,2).
When to Wear Your Belt
While it is clear that wearing a weightlifting belt can contribute to more stability in your low back during barbell squatting, its benefits need to be taken with some caution. While wearing a belt can be very helpful on heavy lifts, the long-term use of a belt on ALL lifts can have some harmful effects.
By using a belt ALL the time, the body naturally starts to rely on the passive support the belt supplies. You’re essentially weakening your core by relying on the belt as a crutch. Therefore, learning how to brace and create stability on your own with lighter weight should be the first priority of all lifters.
Our goal as a coach is to always ensure our athletes are safe and lifting with the best technique possible. A belt can help facilitate this. Some athletes will not use a belt, even with maximum attempts. That’s okay, as long as they maintain good technique. However, if you are going to use a belt you should know how to use one correctly. I recommend practicing with a lighter weight with the belt on, making sure you’re using correct breathing/bracing. Therefore, when you do attempt a heavy squat it will be second nature.
If you have a weightlifting belt, I caution you to use it sparingly. I often will keep mine in my gym bag until my heaviest or most intense training lifts.
Until next time,
- Lander JE, Hundley JR, Simonton RL. The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 May;24(5):603-609.
- Zink AJ, Whiting WC, Vincent WJ, McLaine AJ. The effect of a weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise. J of Strength Cond Res. 2011;15(2):235-240.
- Cholewicki J, Juluru K, Radebold A, Panjabi MM, McGill SM. Lumbar spine stability can be augmented with an abdominal belt and/or increased intra-abdominal pressure. Eur Spine J. 1999;8:388-395.