The squat is a fundamental movement useful for picking stuff off the floor, going to the bathroom, or simply sitting down and getting up from a chair. It's also the backbone of any muscular training programme. It's more than just a leg exercise; it's a compound movement that engages practically every muscle in your body, from the calves to the core.
Not only does the squat promote functional strength and enhance your overall performance, but it also fosters improved posture, joint flexibility, and mobility. It's an essential exercise that has a place in any well-rounded workout. However, when additional weight is added to the squat, it becomes a more challenging and risky movement to perform.
Whether you're a beginner looking to establish a solid foundation or an experienced weightlifter aiming to perfect your form, this step-by-step guide will discuss the intricacies of the back squat and help you flawlessly execute the movement.
Disclaimer: While this guide aims to empower you with knowledge, you should seek the guidance of a healthcare professional before beginning any new muscular training programme and/or engage the services of a fitness professional to monitor your performance and progress.
Are you ready to back squat?
As with all exercises, you may or may not have the strength, coordination, flexibility, mobility, or physical condition to perform a back squat immediately.
If that's the case, or your form is deteriorating at any point during the movement, consider working up to the back squat using these regressions:
However, if you are ready to back squat, you should first ...
Find a comfortable position
Before you perform the back squat with additional weight, you should practice with just your body weight to find an optimal and comfortable position. Take note of the following while squatting:
Perform a bodyweight squat with arms out in front of you. Start with feet about shoulder-width apart.
Squat downwards and watch for when the tension in your lower back is lost (when it starts to curve).
Adjust the width of your feet until you can achieve a depth that brings your thighs parallel to the floor without your heels leaving the floor.*
* If you can't achieve a desired range of motion without your heels leaving the floor yet, you can try elevating your heels using weightlifting shoes, a wedge, or plates.
Before the back squat
Un-racking the bar
The bar should be on a rack at chest height.
Step under the bar and create tension in your upper and lower body (stiffen the core to lighten the load on the back).
Your hands should be comfortable, usually outside the shoulders. Thumbs can be over or under the bar.
Squeeze the bar down into your traps and squeeze in to bring your shoulder blades together to create a "shelf". The bar should be resting on your back, not your hands. The hands are only for balance. Squeeze your elbows into your sides and maintain this tension throughout the squat.
Take a big breath in and then un-rack the bar.
Take 2 confident steps backwards.
Flare your toes accordingly. If unsure, start with toes slightly turned to the side (about 8–10 degrees).
Externally rotate ("torque" or twist) your knees out to the side. This will activate your hips and lateral glutes (sides of your bum). This will create stability in the hip sockets and help maintain the knees tracking in line with the third toe of the foot.*
Grip the ground with the toes, which should cause the mid-foot to arch.
Take another big breath from the stomach to "brace" the core before the squat.
* If you struggle to feel the "torque", you can practice using a moderately tight resistance band above your knees.
** Draw air into your stomach and pretend someone is about to punch you in the stomach to stabilise the spine.
During the back squat
Hinge at your hips first. Drive the hips back and the chest forward. Your knees will move but they won’t drive forward.*
When balanced, squat straight down and maintain balance.**
Maintain a straight spine throughout the squat. There should be no rounding of the spine.
Maintain the "brace" throughout the movement. Either expel air as you come up or maintain the brace until you are stable at the end of the movement.
* A lot of the back squat is determined at the start of the movement. Hinge too far backward and your knees will drive forward. Hinge too far forward and your chest will collapse towards the floor. Repeat the movement to find the right amount of hinge for you.
** You can ask a friend or use a camera to view your squat from the side. Watch if the bar travels in a relatively vertical path from the start to the end of the movement. If it stays vertical, you're maintaining balance.
After the back squat
Re-racking the bar
Stand up straight and ensure you’re stable.
Take 2 confident steps forward and don’t release body tension until you hear the “click” of the bar in the rack. Do not lean forward.
Once you're comfortable performing the back squat, you may start to notice other things that impact your ability to progress or perfect the movement. There are numerous possibilities, but here are some of the most common ones:
If you're weak during particular phases of the squat, you can isolate them to work on them individually. For example, if you struggle to get out of the lowest part of the squat (isometric), you can perform pause squats to strengthen the muscles in that position.
If your chest collapses forward during the lowering phase of the squat, it could be because your core cannot support the weight you're squatting. Consider performing core strengthening exercises to help resolve this.
If your form suddenly deteriorates, it could be because you've added too much weight too soon. Slow and steady progress is key to ensure you build strength in your muscles over time—don't worry the gains will come!
If you want to perfect your squat or work on any other fundamental compound lifts, get in touch, it's my speciality. Book a free 30-minute consultation with me where we can discuss your fitness journey to date and collaborate on clear and effective goals. If you'd like to receive a steady stream of free weekly advice, tips, and guides about fitness, consider subscribing to Root Fitness and following me on Instagram.