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November 11, 2021 10 min read

The classic barbell back squat needs little introduction. It’s heavy, it’s badass, and for some, it’s all they need.

It’s a tough lift that builds as much grit as it builds muscle, and so it’s a favorite of lifters—whatever their goals may be.

But to maximize all the benefits from the squat, you need to perform with the best form you can. There’s a lot that goes into a squat, but with some attention and training, you can be well on your way to a built lower body and greater overall wellness.

The Many Benefits of Squatting

The barbell back squat is a juggernaut of a movement. Along with the bench press and deadlifts, it makes up the backbone of some of the biggest lifts you can incorporate into your training routine.

The secret of the squat is that it can be done very heavy, and it’s a foundational movement. So many of our daily lives require the muscles needed in the squat, and challenging these muscles is a sure-fire way to improve countless activities both in the gym and outside of it.

muscular man doing a barbell back squat in a gym

Strength and Size

This goes without saying, but the back squat is an amazing lift for both strength training and cultivating muscle mass. Squatting works particularly well with strength training because a barbell can be loaded very heavily. The squat also works some of the largest muscle groups in your body, so you’re going to be getting a ton of muscle activation and strength development.

Not only that, but pretty much your entire body is recruited to some extent when squatting, allowing for full-body development. And if you want big glutes and quads, the squat is your one-stop-shop. Isolation movements might allow you to better hone in on certain muscles, but the classic barbell back squat is going to be a workhorse when it comes to this department.

Ramping Up Endurance and Fitness

But it’s not just your muscles that are going to be feeling the effects of a good squat routine. Since basically your entire body is recruited in squatting, you’re going to get fit. Not only will your heart health benefit, but so will your muscular endurance.

This indirectly affects things like fitness and body fat percentage, since you’re going to improve in a lot of cardiovascular activities that require leg movement. Heavier squats will also increase your metabolism for several hours after working out, making it easier to burn fat. Combine this with the increased levels of hormones like testosterone, and you’ve got a recipe for a chiseled physique.

A Fine-Tuned, Explosive Movement

Squats are also a movement all about finesse—and explosive power. For one, you’re going to be seriously challenging (and improving) your flexibility. For many first-timers, squatting below parallel is either impossible or very challenging. Squatting regularly will allow your range of motion to progress, which will, in turn, help you with other lifts and daily activities. Along with improved mobility will also come improved balance.

Not only will you be forced to balance a heavy bar, but your ability to sense your body moving through space will also improve.

This is called proprioception and it’s used in all activities, but athletes will find this particularly useful. Just keep in mind that it’s important to use free weights instead of a machine, or else you won’t challenge your balance. And even with squats improving your flexibility and balance, they still have time to work on your raw, explosive power.

Explosive power is your body’s ability to generate force as quickly as possible. Squats allow you to develop explosiveness in your legs, making your lower body able to do significantly more work in much less time. This is particularly useful for sports and anything that includes plyometrics (or jumping).

Good for the Bones and Joints

Heavy lifting is also a great way to make your bones and joints stronger. And there’s not much heavier lifting than with the squat. Heavy weightlifting has been shown to increase bone density, making you significantly less prone to breaking anything. This benefit will also give you protection against conditions such as osteoporosis later in life.

Not to mention that “stronger bones” just sounds badass.

Your joints also come under a lot of stress with the squat. But with proper form, you can successfully improve your joint health without killing them in the process. If done properly and carefully, a good squatting routine can even help people recover from lower back and knee pain.

Building Discipline

Finally, there’s the mental aspect. If there’s anything that everyone can agree on about squatting it’s that it’s hard. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise—seeing as how it’s so beneficial for us, it’s difficult to see why squatting would come easy.

There’s a great level of mental fortitude to not only start squatting but also stick with it religiously over the long term.

The grit you need to become a squatting master is the grit that will help you out in many other places in your life. The first step is always the hardest, but once you get into your groove, you’ll be able to move any mountain (or bar) in your way.

The Muscles Worked in Squatting

As we’ve mentioned plenty of times already, the squat is a full-body exercise. Pretty much every major muscle group is going to be activated to some extent, and there’s going to be plenty of muscle groups that are gassed out completely.

Here are some of the main muscles that the squat works:

  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Hip flexors
  • Lats
  • Erector spinae
  • Traps

As we can see, there’s a lot that goes into a successful squat—everything from your lower body to the upper body is touched, and therefore, engaged. This is part of the reason why the squat is so difficult but such an important movement to include in your workouts. There are very few lifts that can measure up in terms of a bang-for-your-buck. The squat will give you efficient workouts that challenge your body and lead to well-rounded development.

Setting Up for the Squat

To properly squat, you’re first going to need to set yourself up for success. This means looking at several things. The first is your equipment. Either a squat stand, half-rack, or power rack is going to be necessary for the barbell to be supported. The goal here is to have the bar rest on the muscles of the upper back, so the supports should be secured at just below shoulder level, near the height of the collarbone.

There are also different methods of squatting, including the low bar and the high bar squat.

As the names suggest, the difference lies in the bar placement on the upper back. However, most squats are the low-bar variants, and so we’ll stick to that one. The grip can also be changed—some people prefer a thumbless grip, for example. A thumbless grip will allow for better alignment with your forearms. Once you’re set up and you’ve warmed up, it’s time to squat.

How to Barbell Back Squat

The barbell back squat is a complex movement that takes a lot of synchrony between many different body parts. Knowing this, it’s important to take form seriously. The fact that the squat is usually performed with heavy weights also adds to the risk of injuring yourself.

Improper technique can lead to aches and pains developing over the long term, which will get in the way of everyday movements and other lifts in the gym.

In the worst-case scenario, improper form can lead to a breakdown of the movement and the load falling. Squatting well will allow you to reap all of the benefits of this useful exercise, and keep you safe.

 

 

  1. Face the bar you’ve already set up, and step underneath it. Bring your hands and arms up to either side of you, grasping the bar with your palms facing forward and slightly up. Your grip will largely depend on the length of your arms and your mobility, but you should try to have your hands at least just outside of shoulder-width apart. Hooking your thumb around the bar is optional, but a thumbless grip will help your forearms align better with your wrists. The bar should stay stable enough regardless since it’ll be pressed into your upper back muscles.
  2. Next, take a step back to clear the bar supports on the rack. You should plant your feet at a shoulder-width distance from each other, pointing out your toes at around a 30-degree angle. It’s important your feet remain flat on the ground throughout the entire movement.
  3. Before you begin squatting, allow for a slight bend in your knees. Your chest should be pushed high, and your glutes and abdominals will be braced. Instead of moving your head up or down, look at a point directly in front of you. Your back should be kept in a neutral position throughout.
  4. Ensuring that there isn’t any rounding or arching of the spine, begin by bending the hips and knees at the same time. You should be pushing your hips backward, with your knees coming forward at the same time. Make sure that your knees are in line with your feet instead of caving inward or outward.
  5. The descent should continue until you’re at least parallel to the floor, but going down slightly further is best. This will depend on your mobility. As you arrive at the bottom of the position, maintain a raised chest and engaged abs and glutes. The bar should travel in as vertical of a line as possible.
  6. Pause at the bottom of the movement before explosively pushing through your heels. Focus on moving your hips straight up and bringing the knees back. Continue looking straight ahead with your eyes while also keeping your chest in position.
  7. Arriving back in the starting position, continue until your knees and hips are locked out. Once you lock them out, give your glutes a tight squeeze to activate as many muscle fibers as possible. Inhale before your next rep—you want to hold your breath as you enter the bottom of the position, and release it again at the top.
  8. Once you’ve completed all the reps you’ve set out to finish, rerack the bar by stepping forward and placing the barbell on top of the supports. Once you’re sure that the barbell is supported, bend your knees and climb out from under the bar.

Common Mistakes and Issues to Avoid

Although the above breakdown provides a good overview of proper squat form, there’s a lot of intricacies to look out for. The squat will engage almost every major muscle group, and so the perfect squat requires all of your body to work together to move the weight properly. Here are some of the most important points to keep in mind during your next squat session.

Going Below Parallel

To get the most out of the squat, you need to go through a full range of motion. And when it comes to the squat, a full range of motion only occurs after you’ve broken parallel with your thighs to the floor.

Although many lifters only go to parallel, this actually doesn’t recruit as many muscle fibers as it should.

On the other hand, squatting deep will result in you not being able to move as much weight. But by using lower weight, you will learn to control the weigh throughout the movement and thus it will allow you to build a foundation of strength from a true bottom position.

Positioning Your Body

There are several body position cues to remember when squatting. The most important is not rounding the back. When performing a back squat, your spine is already placed in a precarious position, which means remaining tight throughout the movement is key.

Losing tension can result in rounding of the upper back which can lead to injuries.

This issue usually comes from going too deep in the squat under a load that you cannot lift properly or having generally bad mobility. You might also accidentally round your spine if you have your feet pointing straight ahead while squatting.

You should also plant your feet flat on the floor, and have them remain there.

Heels rising off the ground is a common issue that many lifters have to deal with. If you squat with your heels elevated will place a ton of stress on your knees because even more of the weight will be transferred forward. You can usually fix this issue by either improving your ankle mobility and/or widening your stance. It could also come down to your shoes—the best shoes for squatting don’t have any heels and have a hard sole that doesn’t compress.

Programming Squats into Your Routine

The squat will help you reach many of your goals, whether that be strength training or bodybuilding.

If you’re looking for strength, the squat is the perfect exercise for you.

Because you can go so heavy, squatting is great for high-load/low rep ranges.This will allow you to seriously challenge your muscles and put a lot of intensity on them, which is conducive to developing strength. For strength, aim for 3 to 4 sets of a maximum of 6 reps.

On the other side of the spectrum is hypertrophy, or muscle mass goals.

The squat is just as useful since it targets a lot of muscles, but you’ll want to use light to moderate weights with higher rep ranges. Anything from 3 to 4 sets of up to 12-15 reps is a good ballpark range to aim for.

Squat Variations to Try

The squat is a fundamental movement, and so it’s no surprise that there are many squat variations to try out.

Some methods make things easier, and others make the lift more difficult. All of them have their special emphases and intricacies that can work either better or worse for your needs. The secret is experimentation.

One example is the front squat.

A close cousin to the barbell back squat, the front squat has you place the barbell across your chest on your front shoulder area. Since the weight is shifted to the front, it makes this variation easier on the spine. It also places a greater focus on the quads.

The Bulgarian Split Squat is also a great option if you want to introduce some unilateral lower body movements into your workout.

Since it’s done with one leg raised behind you and one leg squatting, your balance and coordination are also going to be challenged. This exercise also places a large emphasis on the quads.

You can also opt to use kettlebells or dumbbells to perform the goblet squat.

If you don’t have a squat rack or any workout equipment around, the bodyweight squat is a good compound exercise in a pinch. If a prior injury prevents you from entering the squat position (or the bottom position), lunges are a good alternative to build muscle in similar areas.

A Big Lift for Big Gains

The squat is a juggernaut of a lift that will engage your entire body. It takes a ton of energy to properly train, and so it’s necessary to maintain a healthy diet and good sleeping schedule.

If you’re looking for an extra edge, a solid pre-workout can turbocharge your training. With all the right pieces in place, you’re going to be well on the road to tree-trunk legs and a stronger, more healthy body.