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.
- The barbell must rest across your shoulders.
- Squat begins with the knees in a locked position.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Step back so that the bar will not be impeded by the rack when you squat.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
Barbell Squats Form: The Lift
Finally, pressing the bar back up in a straight vertical line.
- 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.
- 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 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.
Muscles Used For Barbell Squats
Target (Agonist) Muscles
- Adductor Longus and Magnus
- Gluteus Maximus, Medius, and Minimus
- Psoas Major + Iliacus
- Thoraco-Lumbar Fascia
- Erector Spinae
- Rectus Abdominis
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Increase the reps.
- Go slow.
- Hold at the bottom
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.
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.
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?