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!
Great article! Thank you! I do have a question as it relates to limited equipment: I work out at a rec center and have access to a Smith machine and plates, dumbbells (5#-100#) and fixed-weight curl bars (10#-100#), but no free-weight squat racks. What is my best option with these equipment choices?
I have a similar issue. I despise the Smith machine so I do dumbbell front squats. 100 pounds probably isn’t enough weight for your squat, especially if there is no power rack to set up on
I agree with Sam. You can get a lot of work done with dumbbells doing exercises like goblet squats. Once you can squat with a 100lb dumbbell you can progress to holding 2 dumbbells on your shoulders.
Thank you for this very timely article as I am engaged in squatting at the moment. But I have problems with flexibility as I am not able to go down to parallel in the squat, and I also have to raise my heels.
What are your thoughts about squatting with raised heels? Is it good or bad?
Also, will stretches that target the psoas really help me improve hip flexibilty and go lower, and how long will it take for me to see results?
Is it safer to stop squatting until I am more flexible?
Thanks again for this fantastic, well-written article!
Hey Brendon, glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the kind words!
I strongly advise against doing heavy squats with raised heels. If your heels lift off the ground during any squat you are placing sheering stress on your knees, this is very bad. That said, doing bodyweight or light goblet squats with raised heels may be a good tool to teach your body how to use that mobility. Also, make sure you are driving your knees outward the whole time.
Find out what muscles are the least mobile (eg addutors, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors) and start there. Go after the weakest link to provide the fastest and most profound results.
It is okay to practice the squat while working on mobility just keep it light.
What’s the fascination with squats on the Smith machine? I’m fairly new to all this (lifting for 3 years) but had 2 great trainers when I started. Neither one allowed me to use the Smith machine, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I use standard free weights. Today was one of my best days squatting to date – progressive load up to 200 lbs x 4ea. BTW I’ll be 59 in Oct.
Hey Tony, that’s very impressive! Squats will keep you young!
In my opinion, Smith machines are $10,000 coat racks. They are, however, good for pushups and inverted rows!
Squating on machines is lame. they do half the stabilizing work for you and the form isn’t natural to do
What’s wrong with looking at a mirror when you squat? This isn’t an option for me at my gym.
^@ Brandon- a really good book to help with identifying what areas of the body that are causing the heel to rise – and all other faults associated with lifting weights can be found in a book called Supple Leopard by Dr Kelly Starrett.
I really enjoyed reading this as its nice to have a well written article explaining how to do use the various techniques and all the steps needed to execute proper form!
I’m not an experienced lifter – but had lifted in my younger days while serving in the Navy. But now that I’m nearly 49, I’ve packed on a few pounds and was really out of shape. My wife and I have started lifting heavy weights and started with only the bar, increasing the weight 5lb each session (3x week). Now I’m squatting 160lb in 8 weeks.
I’m feeling great as I’ve lost 29lbs and added ~ 2.5lb of muscle.
Awesome article – well explainwd. I love to squat. This is a great article to share.
I have the same problem with my heels coming up, but my trainer has had me put 5 pound plates under my heels, and this seems to have alleviated my issues and I can squat a lot better.
@Lillian – If your heels come up, you may have tight calves. Consider foam rolling them, or using a softball, or lacrosse ball. For more info, check out this article => Best Calf Stretch To Relieve Tightness.
great article….i have a LLD (right leg is 2/3 of an inch longer) and slight scoliosis…so feeling centred when doing squats is always an ongoing issue. i can’t be a perfect A shape leg width wise (to compensate for LLD)