Master the Back Squat for Superior Strength, More Leg Muscle, and Better Movement

Fresh-faced gymgoers and world-class strength athletes don’t have a lot in common, but there’s one throughline that matters — the squat is integral to both of them. Regardless of which camp you fall into, or what your fitness goals are, few exercises get you where you need to be like the back squat.

Bodybuilders squat to build up their legs. Powerlifters squat because they have to. Runners, martial artists, and military personnel all squat as well, just for different reasons. No matter your "why", the back squat deserves a seat at the table in your exercise routine

There are different squat styles — and both present different mechanics that new and experienced lifters alike have to wrap their heads around.

The payoff for learning this movement — bigger quads, more power, and bragging rights to your gym buddies — however, is well worth the time spent mastering it. 

  • How to Do the Back Squat
  • Back Squat Sets and Reps
  • Common Back Squat Mistakes
  • How to Warm Up for the Back Squat
  • High Bar vs. Low Bar Back Squats
  • Back Squat Variations
  • Back Squat Alternatives
  • Muscles Worked by the Back Squat
  • Benefits of the Back Squat
  • Who Should Do the Back Squat
  • Frequently Asked Questions

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

Índice
  1. How to Do the Back Squat
    1. Step 1 — Set Your Base
    2. Step 2 — Get a Grip
    3. Step 3 — Set Your Stance
    4. Step 4 — Sit Straight Down
    5. Step 5 — Explode Up
  2. Back Squat Sets and Reps
  3. Common Back Squat Mistakes
    1. Half-Squatting
    2. Hips Shooting Up
    3. Overusing Your Glutes
    4. Shifting Your Weight
  4. How to Warm Up for the Back Squat
  5. High Bar vs. Low Bar Back Squats
    1. Bar Placement
    2. Joint Mechanics
  6. Back Squat Variations
    1. 1 1/2 Squat
    2. Pause Back Squat
    3. Tempo Back Squat
  7. Back Squat Alternatives
    1. Goblet Squat
    2. Split Squat
    3. Hack Squat
  8. Muscles Worked by the Back Squat
    1. Quadriceps
    2. Glutes
    3. Spinal Erectors
    4. Core
  9. Benefits of the Back Squat
    1. Improved Leg Strength and Size


How to Do the Back Squat

Before you step into the squat rack, know that there’s more than one "style" of squatting. Powerlifters rely on the low bar squat — resting the barbell across their upper back and shoulders, rather than directly on their traps — while the "standard" technique places the bar up higher.

This guide will instruct you on how to perform the high bar squat.

Step 1 — Set Your Base

Back Squat Step 1 Credit: Mike Dewar

Start by stepping under a barbell (supported in a squat rack), setting a firm foundation by flexing your core, and preparing to lift the barbell out of the rack. 

While you will need to step out of the rack to set your stance for the squat, you should place your feet in your squat stance, or slightly narrower, so you can "squat" the load out of the rack, rather than stepping in and out with one foot.

Coach’s Tip: The tip here is simple — do not rush this process. Press your traps firmly into the bar and brace that core!

Step 2 — Get a Grip

Back Squat Step 2 Credit: Mike Dewar

Where to hold the barbell varies person-to-person — but not by much. There will be two rings on the knurling on most quality barbells, on either side of the bar, about six to eight inches from the base of the sleeve. Use that as a guide by placing your fingers on it and seeing which width feels the most comfortable. For some, it’s the ring finger, while others favor the middle finger. 

Once you find a comfortable hand position, grip the bar tightly by wrapping your thumb around it. Bring your elbows down and in, so they’re close to your lats. This down-and-in elbow position will help you pull the barbell onto your trap and create a stable "shelf" for the bar to sit on. (For low-bar squats, you’d position the barbell more on the rear delts and lower traps.) 

Coach’s Tip: Don’t over-arch your spine. Your back should be mostly flat, but there’s no need to obsess over it significantly. 

Step 3 — Set Your Stance

Back Squat Step 3 Credit: Riley Stefan

Perform a partial squat to remove the barbell from the rack. Take one step backward with each leg, and then realign your feet. Your stance should be roughly hip-width apart, with your toes pointed as forward (or as turned-out) as is comfortable. Your weight should be evenly distributed across your foot, and your gaze fixed straight ahead. 

Coach’s Tip: You should have taken a breath in before removing the barbell from the rack. Hold that air as you step backward into your squat stance and then recycle a new breath before squatting. 

Step 4 — Sit Straight Down

Back Squat Step 4 Credit: Riley Stefan

From a standing position with your eyes looking forward, inhale deeply, brace your core, and then sit straight down. You can think about trying to sit your pelvis directly between your feet. Sink as low as your flexibility or comfort allows — you should aim to get your thighs roughly parallel to the floor. 

Coach’s Tip: Contrary to some popular fitness myths, it is perfectly okay for your knees to drift ahead of your toes, as long as your entire foot stays firmly planted on the ground. 

Step 5 — Explode Up

Back Squat Step 5 Credit: Riley Stefan

Once you’ve hit the bottom of your range of motion, reverse the movement and return to a standing position. Push with your legs and try to ascend with the same posture you sat down with. Don’t shoot your hips backward or tilt your torso down. At the top, simply think about standing up — there’s no need to dramatically flex your glutes. 

Coach’s Tip: New squatters should consider pausing at the bottom of their range of motion to get comfortable with the posture. 

Back Squat Sets and Reps

As the back squat is relevant for just about every flavor of fitness enthusiast, how you go about programming it matters a great deal with respect to what kind of returns you’re looking for.

Here are a few different ways to program the back squat, but take note — the more specific your goals become, the more nuanced your squat training will be as a result. Use these as what they are: generalized prescriptions. 

  • To Build Muscle4 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps with a moderately heavy weight.
  • To Gain Strength: Anywhere from 3 to 8 sets of 3 to 5 reps with a heavy but manageable weight.
  • As a Beginner3 sets of up to 10 reps with a light weight to work on technique.

Common Back Squat Mistakes

The back squat is equal parts simple and complex. It’s one of those exercises that feels insurmountably difficult when you’re first learning but, over time, can become as natural as walking. Still, there are a few pitfalls to be wary of, especially if you’re just finding your proverbial footing in the movement.

Half-Squatting

If you’re not a powerlifter, how low you squat doesn’t technically matter. That said, when it comes to depth, more is more, almost universally. Many learners will cut their descent short on the back squat out of fear, movement anxiety, or inflexibility. You should strive to sink as low as you can while squatting unless you have a restriction or injury.

Hips Shooting Up

When you reverse the descent and push yourself out of the bottom of the squat, the angle of your torso should remain consistent from start to finish. If your back is stronger than your legs or you try to stand up too quickly, you run the risk of keeling over as your pelvis shoots out behind you.

This can throw you off balance, screw up your "groove", and sap you of your power output. Stand up with your hips and legs equally. 

Overusing Your Glutes

Believe it or not, it is possible. The back squat is a phenomenal glute builder, but there’s no reason to over-emphasize it. You may occasionally see people stand up out of their squat and really thrust their hips forward at the top, squeezing their bums as hard as they can.

This may look effective, but it doesn’t work your glutes any harder. Since your hips are so close to the weight already, there is little tension on your glutes at the top of the back squat. If you want to increase glute activation on the squat, make sure you’re breaking parallel at minimum.

Shifting Your Weight

Most people don’t need to adjust, tweak, or tinker with their foot pressure in the squat. Your goal is to be balanced at all times, with your body’s weight evenly-distributed across your whole foot.

As you learn to squat, you may find that you shift forward onto your toes or backward onto your heels — strive to stay in the middle the whole way through. 


How to Warm Up for the Back Squat

A great warm-up is a must before getting under the barbell, especially if you plan to lift heavy. Some lifters like to warm up by performing lighter barbell squats, while others prefer to use scaled exercises before getting under the barbell.

There are multiple ways to warm up for squats, and regardless of what you prefer, it’s a must to prep the body properly before loading it. If you need some squat warm-up ideas, elite Swedish powerlifter Isabella Von Weissenberg can show you what it takes to get your game right: 

High Bar vs. Low Bar Back Squats

The differences between the high-bar and low-bar squat aren’t as stark as you might think, but they do matter and can affect how you choose your preferred style of squatting.  

Bar Placement

For high bar squats, the barbell rests right on the "meat" of your trapezius muscles. This places the resistance a bit closer to your center of mass, which enables a more upright posture.

When you squat low bar, you "lock" the bar into place across your rear deltoids and upper back. This will naturally fold your torso over slightly, even while standing, but does allow you to lift a bit more weight. 

Joint Mechanics

The placement of the barbell is what affects how you move with it. High bar squats will generally create a more upright torso, while low bar squatters fold themselves over more.

However, neither of these things are a conscious element of the technique that you should "try" to achieve. Whether you squat low bar or high (or front, or Zercher, or…), you should still think about maintaining balanced foot pressure and using your knees and hips in tandem.

Generally speaking, you’ll just notice a bit more stress on your legs with the high bar squat, and more tension on your back and hips during low bar. 

Back Squat Variations

Below are three back squat variations that you can do to improve your strength, form, and power.

1 1/2 Squat

[Related: Best Home Gym Squat Racks on the Market]

The 1 1/2 squat entails performing a full rep, then a half rep, then finishing. This variation is great for increasing time under tension, improving postural positions, and sharpening mental awareness during the squat. Be warned, though: this one burns. 

Pause Back Squat

The pause squat is identical to the standard back squat in every way save one — you come to a full stop in the bottom of your range of motion. Pause squats are great for developing isometric strength, improving your hip or ankle mobility, and teaching yourself how to develop explosive power. 

Tempo Back Squat

[Related: How to Build Your First Workout Program]

Tempo training during the back squat can improve muscle growth, increase angular strength and coordination, and improve your awareness and understanding of balance and positioning during the squat. To do this, choose a cadence (for example, two to four seconds) and stick to it as you descend.


Back Squat Alternatives

Below are three back squat alternatives that can be used to improve leg strength, muscle hypertrophy, and posture.

Goblet Squat

[Related: The Untold History of the Back Squat]

The goblet squat is a fantastic back squat alternative for the beginner that wants to nail down their movement mechanics. Besides being a fantastic precursor for back squats, the goblet squat is a great exercise to do during warm-ups and when teaching torso positioning. 

Split Squat

While not traditionally done with a front rack position (however it can be), the split squat is a great unilateral exercise to develop quadriceps strength and muscle mass. This exercise can be used as an accessory movement to increase front squat and lower body performance.

Hack Squat

The hack squat machine is an excellent alternative to the back squat as it helps emphasize quadriceps growth via increased knee flexion. This is ideal for lifters who need additional quadriceps development yet may be limited by their mobility, upper back strength, or a combination of the two. The hack squat can be done using tempos, pauses, and double pauses to really maximize growth.  

Muscles Worked by the Back Squat

Below are the muscle groups involved with the back squat. The back squat is a very taxing compound exercise that takes just about every muscle in your lower body to the limit.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps extend your knee joint and, as a result, are the prime mover in every form of squat you perform. The deeper you sit into the squat posture, the more your knee bends. As such, you’ll generally get more quad engagement the deeper you squat, so don’t skimp out on your depth. 

Glutes

Your glutes help control the rate at which you descend into the squat. More importantly, they help you extend your hips and return to a standing posture.

Man performing back squatCredit: Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock

Your gluteus medius (and minimus, to a degree) also play a role in controlling the angle and rotation of your thigh so your technique stays on-point.

Spinal Erectors

The spinal erectors work to maintain an upright torso position in the back squat. Like the front squat, the erectors work to maintain a vertical torso position to allow for a more quadriceps-focused high-bar back squat. Your erectors are stressed more in the low bar back squat than when working high bar, which is worth considering when you’re picking your preferred squat.

Core

The musculature of your core enables the squat. If your legs are the engine, your trunk is the frame that allows you to produce power and move well. You’ll notice a great degree of abdominal engagement if you squat with a high bar or front position, as your abs need to work double-time to maintain a vertical posture. 

Benefits of the Back Squat

Below are three main benefits of the back squat. It’s important to note that back squats are one of the most beneficial exercises (when done correctly and not in excess) for strength, sports performance (especially in strength and power sports), and leg strength.

Improved Leg Strength and Size

The back squat, like

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