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The Back Squat: How to Do It, Benefits, Variations, and More

Everything you need to know about the king of strength exercises.

There is no strength training exercise like the back squat. Hitting many muscle groups at once, the back squat requires the structures in your lower body and core to work together for optimal performance.

The back squat is a great way to build absolute strength, as it’s usually the squat variation that allows you to lift the heaviest load.

Back squats can be used to increase sporting performance or, alternatively, can be added to rehabilitation processes to strengthen muscles and joints.

How do you perform a good back squat, how can you add weight to your back squat, what muscles does the exercise work, and what are the main benefits? We answer all these questions and more below.

How to do a back squat

  1. Place a bar on your shoulders, generally from a rack, and step back so your feet are around shoulder width distance.
  2. Your hands should grip the bar just outside your shoulders in a comfortable position. You should have a full grip around the bar.
  3. Point your elbows down and back, brace your core, and bend from the hips, bringing your body down.
  4. Keep your core engaged as you go down and make sure you don’t round your back. Your upper body should stay tall as your hips descend back and down.
  5. Go all the way until your hips descend lower than your knees.  
  6. Generally, try to keep your knees in line with your toes. Your heels should stay in contact with the ground throughout the exercise.
  7. Stand back up. A rep is completed when you fully extend the hips and the knees.

Breathing

Breathing correctly is a vital part of the back squat set up and is important throughout the full movement of the exercise.

A deep inhale with the diaphragm at the start of the squat will help you gather tightness in the midline so you can control the spine and core during the lift. Contract your abdominal muscles and begin the squat.

Hold your breath on the way down and then exhale slowly on the way up. This is important because you need to keep midline tension as you come up form the bottom of the squat position.

Common mistakes

  • Half-squatting or not going into the full depth: choose a lighter weight instead and ensure your work is efficient and effective. Squatting deep will also increase the stress of the squat, making it more beneficial in the long run and allow your body to practice standing up out of the ‘hole’ during other lifts like the clean or the snatch. Always go lower than parallel.
  • Choosing weights that are too heavy: lift weights that you can control.
  • Not enough rest between sets: the back squat is a very taxing exercise, so make sure you’re 100% prepared and focused at the start of each set.  
  • Not caring about technique: letting your technique slide will only lead to injuries and ineffective training. Holding a heavy weight on your back can be very bad for you if you don’t move it properly – technique is there for a reason, make sure you use it for all your reps.
tia toomey reaps back squat benefitsSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Back squat benefits

The benefits of performing back squats as part of your training routine go well beyond the gym. Yes, squatting can make your legs bigger and your core stronger, but aesthetics aside, squatting is one of the most functional movements out there.

These are some of the best back squat benefits:

Targets many big muscle groups at once

The back squat is a muscle-building favourite because, for such a simple exercise, the muscle mass recruited is unsurpassed. Squats are efficient and effective.

Builds lower body and midline strength

The back squat works some of the biggest muscles in your body and those muscles are responsible for a vast number of daily activities, as well as being useful for strength and contact sports.

Because the exercise allows you to lift a significant amount of weight, it can also fortify your lower body tendons and ligaments.

Source: Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Inc

May reduce risk of injury

Squatting is not only safe but can be a significant deterrent to knee injuries, research has found. Additionally, resistance training can increase mineral bone density or prevent its decline, which in turn can prevent fractures and breaks to the bone.

Improves sprint performance

Because of the specific muscle activation and mechanical aspects of back squats, it seems like the exercise can help sprinters run faster.

Benefits coordination and joint flexibility

The biomechanics of the back squat, where athletes need to go through a full range of motion, can improve coordination and balance, as well as ankle, knee and hip flexibility.

Improves general sports performance

Powerful legs have positive implications for any sport which requires leg strength or leg power. Back squatting will strengthen joints, muscles, and bones; improve your ankle, knee, and hip flexibility; and forge a strong and stable core, all of which carry over to many sports and activities in daily life.

Other benefits

Additionally, if a person suffers from wrist or shoulder mobility issues, a back squat can be a good alternative to exercises like the front squat.

Read more: Back Squat Benefits That Will Make You Want to Grab a Barbell Straight Away

Muscles worked

As a compound exercise, the back squat targets many muscles in your body at once. When you squat, you activate all major muscles in the lower body as well as well as your low-back and core muscles to stabilise your upper body.

Specifically, the back squat activates your:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Hip flexors
  • Calves
  • Abdominals

How to add numbers to your back squat?

Increase your strength

The best way to increase your back squat is by strengthening your muscles through progressive overload, as they adapt to progressively greater demands. To grow them, our cells need to be exposed to higher workloads than they are used to.

You can develop your strength in two ways: maximum strength or endurance strength. Performing back squats with heavy loads for very few reps will increase your maximum strength, while doing the exercise with low to moderate loads for more than around 4 reps reps will increase your strength endurance (and is conductive to hypertrophy).

The right training, intensity, and volume should give you the tools to improve your back squat.

Squat often

You can’t improve on something you don’t train. If you want to become stronger, squatting regularly is one sure answer to help you.

Squat barefoot

Sometimes, shoes hide mobility problems you seriously need to address. Whether it’s hip or ankle mobility keeping you stuck, make sure you find and address these problems so you can increase your back squat. If you can perform a solid back squat barefoot, wait and see what you can do with lifters on.

Check your technique across all rep ranges

Your first few reps should look the same as your last few. If your technique breaks down towards the end of your set, you won’t be squatting efficiently and reaping all the benefits of the exercise.

athlete performs heavy back squatSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Add tempo to your training

Squatting slowly and spending some time going down, in the hole, and standing back up can help you build additional strength and control in all parts of the squat.

Try squat variations

Sometimes, all you need to do is try something different to see progress. Try the variations listed below.

Variations

Squats are a staple of every athlete who wants to have a strong lower body. However, not all squats are equal.

Additionally, there are myriad variations to the weighted squat you could try. They include:

What type of squat is best for you?

“Understanding the intention of the training session and your individual physical capabilities, limitations, and overall goals should determine what squat to use at any given time,” says Georgia Smith, Education Advisor at OPEX Fitness.

“In order to understand which squat is right for an individual client, you need to understand the benefits of each movement — i.e. what any given type of squat is useful for. Once you understand that, it’s easier to decide how each one might help an individual fix unique limitations or reach goals they might have,” she continues.

Read more: From Goblet Squats to Zercher Squats: What Type of Squat is Best for You?

Should you back squat with knee pain?

You should always consult a trained professional if you experience pain or discomfort during exercise. If you are cleared to train, front squats are recommended over back squats if you have knee problems.

Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning in 2009 studying the biomechanics of the front and back squat found that the front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, but placed less stress on the knee joint.

Back squat workouts

1 Rep Max

For max load:

Back squat 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 reps

Plan to increase the weight over all the sets and rest between 2 to 3 minutes between them.


CrossFit back squat workout

27-21-15 reps for time of:

  • Back squats
  • Handstand push-ups

♀ 110 lb ♂ 165 lb

If the weights are too heavy for you, reduce the load in order to complete the reps in 1-3 sets with minimal rest. Perform push-ups if you don’t master the handstand push-up.


CrossFit Total

For load:

  • Back squat, 1 rep
  • Shoulder press, 1 rep
  • Deadlift, 1 rep

Get comfortable with heavy lifts.


Conditioning and strength

For time:

  • 20 back squats
  • 40 toes-to-bars
  • 60/40-calorie row

♀ 155 lb ♂ 225 lb

Reduce the weight and perform hanging knee raises if the exercises are too advanced for you right now.

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