The Back Squat is a lower-body exercise that strengthens the glutes, hamstrings and quads. It’s often referred to as “the king of all exercises” due to its ability to build strength, power and size.
That said, it’s one of the most-often butchered exercises. It’s a rare sight to walk through a weight room and see lifters with perfect Squat form—especially in situations where people are training on their own without the help of a strength coach.
When done improperly, the Back Squat can be highly dangerous and increase your susceptibility to a knee or back injury. When done correctly, it’s a safe exercise that will undoubtedly make you a better athlete.
How to Do Back Squats
Before we talk about Back Squat form, you need to customize the Back Squat for your body. Let’s start with the stance.
Find Your Perfect Back Squat Stance
Wide Stance vs. Narrow Stance
Traditionally, the most commonly taught squat stance is with your feet shoulder-width apart and feet at a slight outward angle. This stance may work for many people, but it fails to account for individual anatomy differences.
The structure of your hips should ultimately dictate your ideal squat stance. Some of you may be more comfortable squatting with a wide stance, while that may cause pain for your training partner, and vice versa.
Put simply, there’s no rule that says you have to squat with a specific stance. Rather you need find the stance that allows you to squat with proper form without pain.
An easy way to find your ideal squat stance is to do a few Squat Jumps and note your landing position. There’s a good chance that’s a good starting point for your stance. However, you can get more specific as shown in strength coach Todd Bumgardner’s instructional video below:
High Bar vs. Low Bar
High bar and low bar refers to the position of the bar on your back, and each have their benefits and drawbacks.
The High Bar Back Squat is the variation you see performed most frequently when you walk through a gym. In this variation, the barbell rests across your upper traps on the back of your shoulders, sitting on the collar of your shirt.
The high bar position allows you to maintain a relatively upright torso throughout the exercise. You won’t be as upright as when you do the Front Squat, but not as bent over as when you use the low bar position (see below). This shifts some of the work away from your glutes to your quads, but not as much as the Front Squat due to the intermediate torso position. You’re able to squat a very heavy weight, but not quite as much as when you use the low bar position.
If your hip hinge technique is good but not perfect, you can still perform the high bar version thanks to the upright torso position. However, poor technique can put a ton of stress on your lower back. Also, sometimes athletes complain that the bar placement is uncomfortable.
In the Low Bar Back Squat, the bar sits 2 to 3 inches below the high bar position, between your rear delts and upper traps. You essentially create a shelf for the bar to sit on with your muscles.
The lower bar position alters the center of gravity of the exercise, which changes the technique. To keep the bar over your center of mass, your torso must lean forward at about a 45-degree angle instead of maintaining the upright position of the high bar variation. This requires excellent hip hinge technique, meaning you can bend at your waist through a full range of motion without moving through your lumbar spine.
Since your glutes do most of the work, the low bar position allows you to lift more weight than the other squat variations—which is why this version is used by powerlifters. That said, it can be tough on your shoulders if you lack mobility.
Should you choose this over the high bar version? It really depends. If you like the low bar version and it’s comfortable for you, go right ahead. Also, tall athletes with long femurs (thigh bones) tend to prefer the low-bar position.
Back Squat Form
Now that you know how to customize the Back Squat, let’s get into the form:
Step 1: Adjust the height of the bar on the rack
The bar should be at a height that allows you to get under it, set up and lift it off cleanly without rising onto your toes. Experiment with reps lifting the barbell without any weight to find your ideal setup.
Step 2: Position the bar evenly on your back
People often set the bar unevenly. They get under it and approximate their hand and shoulder positions. Even being off by a half-inch can make a huge difference. To fix this, stand with the bar in front of you and set your hands where you feel comfortable. Ideally, this is a close position to your shoulders, where you feel natural and not overly cramped.
Step 3: Engage your muscles
Create some tension and get under the bar. Grip the bar tightly and slide under it. Tighten your lats and pull the bar into your back rather than just letting it sit on your back. Maintain tension throughout the exercise.
Step 4: Lift the bar off the rack and set up for your first rep
Set your feet about shoulder-width apart, take in a deep breath and maintain the tension you created in Step 2. Stand up to lift the barbell off the rack and carefully take a few small steps backward to get into position for the exercise. You should be far enough away from the rack that you won’t hit the clips as you squat. Once you get into position, set your feet in your preferred stance.
Step 5: Lower into the squat
Bend your knees and your hips to lower into the squat, while keeping your core tight and your back flat. As you lower, imagine that you’re spreading the ground apart with your feet and pulling your butt to your heels. Your knees should track outward directly over your toes. Continue until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
Step 6: Stand up out of the squat
Drive through your midfoot and straighten your hips and knees to stand up out of the Squat. Even if you’re using heavy weight, try to move the weight as explosively as possible.
Breathing During Back Squats
Believe it or not, your breath plays a critical role in your Back Squat form and can help protect your lower back from injury.
Take in a deep breath through your nose and mouth before each rep as if you’re trying to suck the air out of the room. Fill your torso with air all the way around your body—filling only your stomach with air can throw your spine out of position. Then tighten your core as if bracing for a punch to create a brace for your lumbar spine. Perform the complete rep and only exhale after you stand up completely.
Common Back Squat Mistakes
Mistake 1: Forgetting about your core and upper body
Failing to create tension by tightening your upper back and core muscles throughout every rep will not only decrease the amount of weight you can lift, but will sabotage your form and set you up for injury. Make sure you remember to pull the bar into your back and keep your core tight throughout the exercise.
Mistake 2: Your knees to collapse inward
If your knees collapse inward, you have some work to do. Technically referred to as valgus collapse, this cardinal sin of squatting puts a ton of stress on your knees and can lead to injury over time.
Also, if you squat with this bad habit, there’s a good chance it will carry over to your sport, which puts you at a huge risk for an ACL injury when landing from a jump or cutting and changing directions.
To fix this issue, imagine pushing your knees outward as you squat. You can also wrap a light resistance band around your legs just above your knees to reinforce the proper position.
Mistake 3: Your heels come off the ground
Another common mistake occurs when lifters come up onto their toes as they lower into the squat. This is usually because people shoot their knees forward to lower into the squat and don’t hinge at their hips. Not only does this decrease the amount of weight you can lift, but it puts your knees in a precarious position to handle heavy weight. So to put it simply, keep your feet flat on the ground.
Mistake 4: Turning the squat into a good morning
If you find that you’re straightening your knees and then straightening your hips, you basically just turned the exercise into a Good Morning, which can put stress on your spine if you’re not careful. This might happen from time to time on heavy reps, but avoid doing this all the time.
Another common mistake is called Butt Wink, which occurs when your lower back rounds or your butt tucks under as you squat. Strength coach Dean Somerset goes into detail on this topic here.
Back Squat Muscles Worked
Although the Back Squat is lower-body movement, it can be thought of as a full-body move since a successful lift depends on a tight core, back and even your grip.
That said, the primary targets of the Back Squat are the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
Back Squat Alternatives and Variations
Here are several common variations of the Back Squat you can use in your workout depending on your level of experience.
This variation shifts the weight to the front of your body across your shoulders. For a detailed breakdown of Front Squats, check out this article.
A Pause Squat simply involves pausing at the bottom of the rep, which strengthens the weakest portion of your squat.
Anderson Squats are one of, if not the most challenging squat variations. You start at a complete standstill at the bottom of a Squat, which is an incredibly difficult position to create strength. These are only for advanced lifters.
How to Start Back Squatting
Before ever loading your back with a barbell, you need to learn the fundamentals of squatting. One of the single best ways to do that is to perfect the Goblet Squat. Once you have that mastered, work on your Front Squat form before eventually progressing to the Back Squat.
One of the best ways to perfect the move is with consistent practice. There’s no shame in using the bar only or a light weight to practice your form to hone the technique tips listed above.
Back Squat Workout
1) Med Ball Overhead Throws: 4×3
2A) Back Squat – 5×3
2B) 90/90 Pec Stretch – 5×5 each side
3A) Dumbbell Press – 4×8
3B) Single-Arm Dumbbell Row – 4×8 each arm
4A) RDL – 3×10 each leg
4B) Bent-Over Lateral Raises – 3×20
5) Suitcase Carries – 4×20 yards each side
6) Optional: Biceps and Triceps
Special thanks to Ben Boudro and John Papp of Xceleration Fitness for the form demos.