Fit Man Performing Good Barbell Squat Form

Ultimate Guide for the Barbell Squats – Form, Benefits, and Tips

Many People have trouble executing barbell squats form correctly. If this is you, then you may be risking injury to your knees, hips, and back. But, when you have excellent barbell squat form you will stimulate strength gains for your entire body.

Barbell Squat Overview

The barbell squat is a push-type compound exercise that primarily uses your quadriceps. Additionally, the squat engages your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, as well as muscles in your lower back. Here is a general overview of information about barbell squats and the muscles that you use when you perform a barbell squat.

  • Primary Muscles Worked: Quadriceps
  • Other Muscles (Secondary) Worked: Adductor Magnus, Gluteus Maximus, Soleus, Erector Spinae, Rectus Abdominis, and Obliques
  • Equipment: Barbell, Rack, and Lifting Belt
  • Mechanics Type: Compound
  • Force: Push
  • Utility: Basic

How to Execute Proper Barbell Squats Form

The traditional barbell squats form used in powerlifting should be one of the first squat techniques you learn. There are many variations of the squat, but these steps below are describing how to perform the classic barbell back squat. Once you learn proper barbell squat form you will be able to easily adapt to other squats. The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) has a lot of rules on squat technique, but you should focus on meeting three of them even if you are never going to power lift.

  1. The barbell must rest across your shoulders.
  2. Squat begins with the knees in a locked position.
  3. Lower the body until the top surface of the legs at your hip joint is lower than the top of your knees.

Barbell Squats Form Step by Step

Before you add any weight to the bar, ensure that you can un-rack and rack the bar safely.

Barbell Squats Form: Setup and Un-Racking

  1. A good place to have the bar resting on the rack is below your shoulders but above the center of your chest when you approach the bar. You want to ensure that you can place the bar correctly across your shoulders and un-rack and rack the bar using your quads and not your calves or back.
  2. Center your body on the bar, most bars have smooth section in the grips that are spaced equally between the collars. You can use those to help you center yourself on the bar.
  3. Duck under the bar and position the bar across your shoulders. There are two main ways to place the bar called the “high bar squat” and the “low bar squat”.
    • For the high-bar squat, you use your traps to create a shelf for the bar and the bar rests much higher.
    • For the low-bar squat, you place the bar further down on your back, laying the bar across your posterior deltoids, the backs of your shoulders.
    • We will discuss why you may want to do a high-bar or a low-bar squat later. When you are just starting out you should try both and see which one is more comfortable for you. I did the high-bar squat for years and switch to the low-bar squat because I was experiencing a pressure release in my right hip joint in the down position. When I switch to the low-bar squat, it allowed me to go down farther without any issues with my hips.

Barbell Squats Form: Un-racking

  1. After you have the bar place across your shoulder, which is the first rule you should abide by in IPF squats, you want to grab the bar properly. Again you should use the breaks in the barbell grip to place you hands equal distances from the collars. Your hands should be above and slightly outside your elbows, with your elbows below and behind the bar. You should flex your back by pulling your elbows inward. Pulling in will help you to flex your deltoids and traps to maintain a strong base for the bar, as well as maintain good control of the bar.
  2. Once you have the bar on your shoulders, lower your hips and stiffen you back. You want your hips and feet under the bar and the only way to do that is to bend your knees. Next, un-rack the bar by straightening your legs.
  3. Step back so that the bar will not be impeded by the rack when you squat.
  4. The final step in setup is positioning your feet. You want your heels shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing out at approximately 30-degrees. So your toes and mid-foot will be slightly wider than shoulder-width.

Barbell Squats Form: Breathing

Breathing is critical to keeping your core tight. Immediately before you squat, breath in and concentrate on tightening your core. You want to breathe in by using your obliques to allow your lungs to expand, do not push your stomach or chest out when you breathe in. Now, if you are doing a one rep max (1RM) you may want to hold your breath the entire time or start letting your breath out near the top of your ascent. For very low reps you will have more core strength by holding your breath during the squat and breathing in between reps.

Holding your breathe if you are doing a set of 3 or more can be dangerous since you could get light headed. For normal training, you want to breathe in before the descent and slowly breath out on the way up. Breathe again before the descent and slowly breath out on the way up. It is okay to make noise when you breathe out, keeping your core tight is key.

Barbell Squats Form: The Descent “Squat”

The bar should be positioned directly over the middle of your feet and before you descend down you want to have a strong base and tight core. Additionally, if you are abiding by the IPF rules your knees should be locked.

  1. Lower the bar by bending at your knees and hips simultaneously. It is critical that you keep the bar moving in a straight vertical line directly over the middle of you feet.
  2. When you focus on keeping the bar moving only vertical will ensure that your form is good by moving bending your knees and hips together.
  3. You must squat down until the “top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.” (IPF Rule).
  4. You want to descend as quickly as you can comfortably, this will help you generate more power. You knees should be over your feet at the same 30-degree angle from you body.

Man performing barbell low bar squats

Barbell Squats Form: The Lift

Finally, pressing the bar back up in a straight vertical line.

  1. Start with the power in your quads to begin the press, even though your knees and hips will move simultaneously start by pressing with your quads to ensure proper alignment. If you start by raising your chest first the bar will move back over your heals first and not up.
  2. Keeping the bar moving vertically by extending your knees and lifting your chest through straightening your hips.
    • If you are doing a set of multiple reps remember to breath out while generating your power up as you press against the floor.

Low Bar Vs High Bar Squat Form

As I discussed in the setup step there are two main barbell positions for the squat, namely the high bar and low bar squat. Megan Gallagher from strongstrongfriends.com in the below video provides some good tips on why you may choose to do the high bar or low bar squat. Below this video is a video by Alan Thrall from trainuntamed.com that helped me decide to switch to performing the low bar squat.

How to Squat Properly - Form Fixes + Tips + Myths

How to Low Bar Squat

Alan Thrall provides entertainment and education for powerlifting. Since the squat is a powerlifting and bodybuilding exercise. Therefore, there is a lot of information on how to squat, and it is not all good. Alan Thrall uses a physiological and Newtonian physics approach to proper squat form. The information he provides is great and entertaining, and you can usually tell what is his opinion and what is science. I definitely have learned some good stuff from Alan in a way that I remember it and can use it.

How To Squat: Low Bar

Muscles Used For Barbell Squats

Target (Agonist) Muscles

  • Quadriceps

Synergist Muscles

  • Adductor Longus and Magnus
  • Gluteus Maximus, Medius, and Minimus
  • Gracilis
  • Pectineus
  • Psoas Major + Iliacus
  • Sartorius
  • Soleus

Stabilizers Muscles

  • Hamstrings
  • Gastrocnemius
  • Thoraco-Lumbar Fascia
  • Erector Spinae

Antagonist Stabilizers

  • Rectus Abdominis
  • Obliques

Primary Benefits from Squats

Squats build your muscles. Squats create an overall anabolic environment in your body that maximizes gains from other exercises. The squat involves a large muscle group and requires a tremendous amount of energy. Performing heavy squats can trigger the release of extra testosterone and growth hormone in your bloodstream.

Squats can be your plateau busters. The squat should be a staple of leg training. The squat movement places so much stress on the body and works so many muscles at once that it has been shown to affect your hormones! Many people report growth in all areas of their body – including their arms – by merely performing heavy squats. Squatting can improve your overall workouts by several percents and define your body more effectively.

Squats increase overall power and strength. The Squat can increase strength in the back, as well as help, strengthen the muscles around your joints, giving added protection and reducing pain. When you perform squats you build strength in your legs and provide definitions for your glutes. Using squats can enhance your ability to jump and give power as well as strength to your legs. Squats also increase core strength, improving your skill in other sports and with other lifts.

Squats are beneficial for the heart. The squat is not only a strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) exercise but can provide a great cardiovascular workout as well. Persistent squatting improves the heart muscle, helping it run more efficiently.

7. Barbell Squatting Tips

1. Point Your Feet and Knees Out

Never squat with your feet pointing directly forward. Your quadriceps contract more efficiently when your feet (and knees) are pointing slightly outward.

2. Wear Solid Shoes

You want very little cushion on the soles of your shoes to better transfer force from the floor up. You can place your heels on a 1-1.5 inch block to further emphasize your quads and may help you achieve the proper IPF upper leg angle. IPF rules allow for up to 5 cm (1.9685 in) heel shoe to be worn. Many powerlifters wear squatting shoes. They have a solid sole with a 1-1.9685 in high heel.

Good and Bad Lifting Shoes

3. Plan Exactly Where You Are Going to Put Your Feet

Avoid taking up too much time of your time fidgeting with foot position while the weight is on your back. Plan because most injuries from squats occur during racking and unracking the bar than during the actual lift.

4. Go Down as Quickly as You Can Control

There are benefits in performing isometric and negative squats, but if you are lifting for power, go down fast yet controlled. Your maximum descent may not be very quickly, not wasting your strength on the way down. The most challenging part of the squat is the bottom, and you want to have the most power left when you start your push up.

5. Keep Your Core Tight and Back Straight

You want to have the bar travel in a straight verticle line. To do so, you must avoid shifting your balance forward or back. To maintain your balance, you must keep your core tight and back straight throughout your barbell squats form. Additionally, rounding your back under load can cause severe injuries to your lower back.

6. Use Your Breathing

Focus on breathing in at the top and holding your breath on the way down will help you keep your core tight. Remember to breathe in by expanding your obliques and filling out your lifting belt. When you perform heavy squats you should always wear a lifting belt.

7. Use Full Range of Motion on Your Barbell Squats Form

You can benefit from doing half squats, but those benefits are few compared to performing full squats. If you put too much weight on the bar that prevents you from performing full squats, then reduce the weight.

Additional Types of Squats

There are many variations of the squat. These modifications are intended to work different subgroups of muscles or work the same muscles in slightly different ways. Here are some of the most popular squats broken down by groups of barbell, dumbbell, bodyweight, Smith Machine, and Seld.

Barbell Squats

In order to lift heavy you must use either a barbell or a machine. Below are some different barbell squats you may want to use in your training, either because they are more comfortable or because they help you work additional muscles.

High-Bar Squat. To perform the high-bar squat use all the techniques outlined in this post.
Low-Bar Squat. As described above the low-bar and high-bar squat can be used in powerlifting to lift heavy.
Front Squat. The front squat is a more advanced squat. Many lifter perform fronts as part of improving their cleans and jerk.
Zercher Squat. The Zercher Squat is similar to the front squat except you support the barbell in your bent arms instead of your shoulders.
Cross Arms Zercher Wide Hips Squat. The Cross Arm position resting the bar on your biceps instead of your shoulders or in your elbows provides you another way to hold the bar. You should also notice the wide hips, similar to sumo squats will work your inner thigh more.
Barbell Narrow Stance Squat. Bringing your feet in closer will place more emphasis on your thighs. You likely won’t be able to go down as far since your stomach will contact your legs.
Barbell Sumo Squat. Performing wide stance squats, like the sumo squat will work your inner thighs more as you pull your legs together at the top more.
Barbell Hack Squat. The barbell hack squat will take some of the pressure off your lower back. Additionally, performing hack squats can help your deadlifts.

Dumbbell Squats

These variations of squats using dumbbells will utilize more stabilizing muscles. You will find it more challenging to lift heavy using dumbbells, since the get bulky and awkward as the get heavier. Although, if you want to lift to failure with dumbbells you don’t have to do a ton of reps. Instead slow down each rep to at least five seconds down and five seconds up.

Hanging Arms Dumbell Squat. In order to hang your arms to the side you must have a narrow stance.
Dumbbell Half or Quarter Squat. The quarter squat focuses on your Glutes and Quads. This is a good exercise to do with Good Mornings, but placing some additional emphasis on working your quads.
Goblet Squat. The goblet hold or any dumbbell hold above your waist allows you to have a neutral stance. Some people may even rest a dumbbell on each shoulder to get a neutral stance.
Single Dumbbell Sumo Squat. When you hang the dumbbells between your legs you will naturally have a wide sumo like stance.
Double Dumbbell Sumo Squat. Because dumbbells get awkward as they get bigger, sometimes it is easier to lift with two and other times it is easier to lift with one. Understandably, two dumbbells will require you to have a wider squat stance than a single dumbbell.

Body Weight Squats

Even if you want to lift heavy your should do some body weight squats into your routine. Body weight squats are the best warm up before you start loading up a ton of plates on to that bar. If you want the body weight squats to fatigue your muscles there are three things you can do.

  1. Increase the reps.
  2. Go slow.
  3. Hold at the bottom
Wide Leg (Sumo) Body weight Squat. Performing wide legs squats can help you open up your hips and work your inner thighs.
Half or Quarter Squat. The quarter squat will work your quads without putting too much pressure on your knees. If you have bad knees warming up with quarter squats can help loosen you up.
Prisoner Squat. If you don’t know what to do with your hands when doing body weight squats then you can put them behind your head. But seriously, placing your hands behind your head can help you open your chest and stomach up so you can breath better.
Kick Squat. If you want to work your Abductors as wells as your Quads, then add a kick out at the top of the squat.
Jump Squat. Jumping is a great way to develop explosive athletic power. You need to generate a lot of force and power to jump, but remember you also must land. Consequently, landing is when all the injuries happen. So, don’t jump higher than you can safely absorb on the landing.

Smith Machine Squats

Using a Smith Machine can be great to remove some of the stabilizing muscles and maximize the use of your major muscles. Specifically your Quads and Glutes. You can also use the Smith Machine to help you improve your form.

Smith Machine Squat. Using the Smith Machine to work on your barbells squat form can be great. You want to have the barbell move in a straight vertical line. Consequently, the Smith Machine will only allow you to move the bar in a straight vertical line.
Smith Machine Frankenstien Squat. Frankenstien squats are a variation of the front squat that you should only do on the Smith Machine, sine you aren’t holding the bar.
Smith Machine Front Squat. Doing front squats on the Smith Machine can also help you with your form. Additionally, it can help you improve your cleans.
Smith Machine Front Squat Clean Grip. If you are working on cleans and you can use the smith machine to break down portions of the exercise. The Smith Machine will make sure that you are using your force vertically.
Smith Machine Zercher Squat. The Zercher squat places the weight farther in front of you. Because the weight is pulling you forward, your back must compensate to keep you upright.
Smith Machine Hack Squat. The hack squat places the weight behind you and pulls you back. Consequently your abs pull to keep you vertical.

Sled and Machine Squats

Using a sled or lever machine do perform squats can be a safer way to work your muscles to failure. Since your range of motion is limited and there are usually many safety features, you can lift heavy and to failure. But you will remove all of your stabilizing muscles when you use most of these machines.

Lever Cable Machine Squat. Lever Machines are some of the safest machines if you use them properly. Your gym may have a cable squat machine where you are lying on your back. When you lay horizontal you are removing your own body weight, besides that the is no difference in the muscles that are engaged.
Sled Hack Squat. The hack squat sled doesn’t provide the same benefits of doing hack squats. Although you will isolate your Quads and Glutes well.
Sled Reverse Hack Squat. Most hack squat sleds are designed to use both facing in and out. The main benefit of this is how it allows you to place your feet in different positions to work you muscles at different angles.

Perfecting You Barbell Squats Form

You should be well verse in how to execute barbell squats like a pro. Remember that having proper form is always more important than lifting heavier weights. If you have proper form you muscles will grow and you will be able to add more weight safely. There are many more types of squats that we didn’t mention. Specifically, we didn’t discuss any one legged squats. What squats do you prefer to do and why?

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