Category Archives: Back Squat
Here’s what you need to know…
Squats are one of my absolute favorite exercises. Unfortunately, as much as I love squats, my knees and back don’t. If I’m not careful they can really do a number on me. I could nix squats altogether in favor of more single-leg work, but squats are too valuable to ditch entirely, plus I just enjoy doing them.
If you have a similar love-hate relationship with squats, here are some ways to make the lift more user-friendly.
1. Switch to Front Squats
Most lifters who train for general strength and physique goals are better off doing front squats than back squats. For starters, it’s easier to squat to an appropriate depth with front squats than back squats, so more people can do it well.
Moreover, front squats are a lot easier on the body. You’re forced to keep a more upright posture and there’s a built-in safety mechanism that prohibits you from breaking form too much – you’ll dump the bar before it’s able to get too ugly. You’re also using less weight, and any time you can get a comparable training effect with lighter loads, you’re doing your body a favor in the long run.
Lastly, front squats do a better job of targeting the quads, which is why most people squat to begin with. Unless you have a good “squatters build” (i.e., short and stocky), back squats generally end up looking like a good morning and in turn target the posterior chain to a greater degree.
The biggest knock with front squats is that it can be difficult at first to hold the bar, especially if you don’t have the flexibility to use a clean grip. If that’s the case, try using straps or the cross-arm grip and you should be all set.
2. Shoot for About Parallel
Aim to squat to parallel or maybe slightly below. For most lifters this means you need to squat deeper because most people squat abysmally high. Quarter squats are just an ego exercise; they allow you to handle more weight than you deserve to be lifting. Any time you mix ego and heavy-ass weights, bad things happen.
Some bodybuilders argue that quarter squats are better for targeting the quads, but usually that’s their way of trying to justify squatting high because they don’t have the mobility to squat deep. There’s research supporting the idea that full squats are better than partial squats for leg development, and if you need empiric evidence, just watch footage of guys sporting the hugest quads on the planet squat – Ronnie Coleman, Tom Platz, Olympic lifters, etc. They all get down there.
That said, there’s such a thing as “too low,” especially for those with lower back and knee issues. It’s cool on the internet to preach rock bottom or ass-to-grass squats, but going to that extreme range can be problematic for those with prior knee issues. The last few inches from parallel to rock bottom is where the pelvis tucks under for most lifters, putting the lower back at risk.
I used to squat rock bottom, so I’m not just some guy bashing something I can’t do. I’ve recently switched to at or just below parallel for my heavy work and my joints feel much better for it.
You’re also not giving up much from a muscle-building and performance standpoint by going to just under parallel as opposed to rock bottom. Of course, this is largely a moot point since most people fall in the high squatting camp, but it’s worth mentioning for the few “ass to ankles” squatters out there.
3. Control the Eccentric
When people talk about squats and knee pain, it’s usually the knees coming over the toes. I’m not too concerned with the knees coming over the toes – provided it’s not excessive – but I’m a lot more concerned with dive-bombing the eccentric and bouncing out of the bottom. One study showed that bouncing increases shear force on the knee by 33%, which jibes with my experience.
For folks with knee issues, I highly recommend controlling the eccentric portion of the squat rather than dive bombing to prevent bouncing. You don’t necessarily have to pause in the bottom position, but I suggest it. This will also ensure that you’re relying on the muscles to lift the weight rather than using momentum.
4. Get Wider
Some people advocate a really wide stance squat where you break at the hips and push your butt back while trying to keep the shins as vertical as possible. This will indeed take stress off the knees, but it’ll also puts more stress on the lower back, and it also makes for a shitty quad stimulus.
Others advocate a really close stance squat with an upright torso to smoke the quads and take stress off the lower back, but this forces you into a knee-break squat where the knees shoot forward excessively. I’m not worried if the knees come out over the toes to some extent, but a pure knee break squat is a bad idea for long-term knee health.
Instead, I recommend taking a moderate stance just outside shoulder-width and breaking from both the hips and knees at the same time. This will allow for a good torso position and still smoke the quads without putting quite so much stress on the knees. Personally, just moving my stance out a few inches has made a world of difference for my knees.
5. Squat to a Box or Pins
The primary reason for squatting to a box or the pins in a safety rack is to serve as a depth gauge. For high squatters, it forces you to go all the way down. For ass-to-grass squatters, it stops you from going too low. Squatting to a box or pins also encourages you to control the eccentric so you aren’t bouncing your ass off the box or bouncing the bar off the pins.
Whether you use a box or pins is largely a matter of personal preference and what you have available. Both work well, but remember that if you’re using a box, you’re just using it as a depth gauge, not rocking back onto the box like you would for a powerlifting-type box squat.
6. Use Chains
Chains are typically thought of as a powerlifting tool to help overload the lockout, but they’re also a great way to take some stress off the lower back and knees in the bottom position while still allowing you to move big weights.
7. Stick to Moderate Reps
Those with joint issues will do best spending the majority of their training time in the 6-12 rep range. Going much below that is flirting with danger, and doing super high reps can often lead to some gnarly form breakdown.
The good news is that 6-12 range is great for hypertrophy, so it’s not like you’re resigning yourself to a lifetime of being a skinny little bitch. Getting strong in moderate rep ranges is the best way to get jacked.
8. Squat at the End of the Workout
Squatting at the end of the workout ensures you’re sufficiently warmed up, and it also means you’ll have to lighten the load, which takes stress off the joints and makes it easier to maintain good form.
Most of the time with heavy front squats, the limiting factor is how much weight you can hold, not how much weight your legs can handle. With heavy back squats, the lower back is often the limiting factor, not the legs. If you pre-exhaust the legs prior to squatting, the legs become the limiting factor, which is what you want.
The Ultimate User-Friendly Squat?
Putting it altogether, my favorite user-friendly squat variation is the chain front squat to a box.
As a reference point, I’m using a 12-inch box, which puts me right around parallel. Taller lifters may be able to get away with using a slightly higher box, but don’t get carried away and start rationalizing that your 18-inch box puts you at parallel, because unless your name is Shaq or Dwight Howard, it probably doesn’t.
If you’re gym doesn’t have low enough boxes, you can also do chain front squats to the pins, like so:
The key here is to control the eccentric to avoid bouncing the bar off the pins, so think about resting it on the pins as quietly as possible.
Of course, if you don’t have chains, you can also just use straight weight. In that case I like to bump the rep range up a bit because I find my knees tolerate it better.
Now contrast that to how I used to squat with a closer stance while going all the way down. I no longer advocate that most squat this deep, especially if you have knee issues. If you turn the volume up on your computer and listen closely, you can actually hear my knees cracking!
I’m no doctor, but common sense tells me that can’t be good long term, even if it doesn’t cause pain in the short term.
You don’t necessarily have to apply all the tips here. For example, if you prefer back squats to front squats, that’s fine. Same goes if you prefer free squats to squatting to a box or pins. Putting some of these tips into practice though will definitely help your squatting in the long run.
Squats are the ultimate test of total body strength and mental toughness and one lift that every strength athlete worth his salt takes very seriously.
However, being the big iconic movement that it is, it’s not surprising that there are 50 schools of thought on what exactly a good squat is and what isn’t.
I’ve always found strength and conditioning research fascinating, but some lifters let studies and research go beyond just an opinion with support and let them become indoctrinated dogmas in which there’s suddenly no other way of thinking.
This type of narrow mindedness leads to glorifying the minutiae in our field, not to mention a whole lot of failing to see the forest for all the damn trees. This article intends to break that trend and kick all the squatting dogma to the curb.
1. The Truth about High Bar vs. Low Bar
High bar squatting versus low bar squatting is a frequent point of contention. The few inches of difference between the two styles can significantly affect the geometry of your squat.
A high bar position (where the bar rests high on the upper traps) facilitates a more vertical torso, since the body doesn’t have to accommodate for the bar being too far behind the center of gravity by leaning forward at the waist.
As long as you’re mobile enough, having a vertical torso can have a huge impact on the depth you achieve in the bottom end range of your squat, if that’s what you’re going for.
Of course, if you’re looking to compete in the Olympic lifts and need that position ingrained to perfect your mobility for your first pull, then certainly train it.
I myself prefer not to load any barbell whatsoever on my cervical vertebrae (in the high bar position). I think the benefits of doing so come with enough disadvantages to make me skeptical of the overall need for it. I’d rather use other squat variations if bottom end range is the goal. But that’s just me.
Take home point: If you’re looking for size and want to kick your posterior chain into gear when you back squat, use a lower bar position. Low bar squatting will allow you to use slightly more weight as well, so you’ll see a faster rate of change in your strength training.
2. The Truth about Hinging
When people refer to “hinging” as it relates to squats, they’re referring to the initial “break” coming from changing the hip angle when they begin the movement. Many people will signify a proper hinge pattern by “spreading the floor” and pushing the butt back, possibly coupled with a notable forward pelvic tilt. This does a few things:
- Allows ideal amounts of pressure to be placed on the back of the foot (the heel).
- Encourages the low back to remain tight and not lose its arch, especially not too early.
- Makes the posterior chain much more active.
A little more on that last point. When the pelvis tilts forward to create the hinge at the hip, the ischial tuberosities travel upwards, which pulls the hamstrings much longer and tighter. The added tension in the hamstrings acts to facilitate their activity much more.
One of my favorite coaches, Mark Rippetoe, uses this to his lifters’ advantage when squatting, since a pair of taut hamstrings will usually be coupled with a much smaller hip angle, potentiating much more hip drive to finish the lift. Check out a prime example below:
Here’s my take. If you want to work your posterior chain more, you’re going to have to apply tension to the right muscles so they’re highly active for a greater portion of the lift.
Hip hinging will activate the posterior chain more, and as a result of the hip hinge, the lowest possible back squat depth will be compensated due to the differences in geometry. And that’s fine, if depth isn’t what you’re after in particular.
Using a knee break to start the descent, Poliquin style, will encourage more quad activation since the knee gets to flex to a smaller angle and migrate differently. In his style, the torso also stays more vertical due to further forward tracking of the knees, and also due to the bar’s placement on the back. If depth and ROM are your goals, you can prepare for a deeper squat by using this style:
I’ve practiced both methods of hinging and prefer to break at the knees first. I find that if I don’t, my 6’4″ frame won’t get down nearly enough for me to comfortably deem it a “back squat” at all.
Below is a video of a heavy set. As you can see, my stance isn’t the widest (more on that later), but I do use the knees to break and track to get my most effective squat. There’s more lean forward than a high-bar squat encourages, and that’s because I still use a lower bar position – but that’s what works for me.
Take home point: Much like the above section, if you’re after posterior chain recruitment, a hip hinge is your best bet. It also goes well with low bar and box squatting. If you’re going for both depth and quad activation, play around with a knee break.
3. The Truth about Foot Width and Muscle Recruitment
According to Stu McGill, professor of spine biomechanics, squatting foot width is more sensitive to depth and ROM than meets the eye. Most people consider an excessively narrow or wide width to take away from depth, and this is true in many cases.
However, as McGill mentions, we have to consider skeletal anatomy. The hip socket (acetabulum) isn’t located in exactly the same place on everyone’s pelvic girdle. For people whose sockets are placed more toward the front of the pelvis, they’d likely achieve more success deep squatting if they use a narrower stance to mimic their build.
There will be less resistance in the ball-and-socket joint since the femoral head will not be placed in an angled position in the acetabulum as the squat progresses.
To figure out what would be best for you, take this test:
Start with your back mildly arched and knee angle at 90 degrees. Use your arms to “push” your butt towards your heels – it should look like you’re doing a sideways squat. Take note of what point in your “depth” your pelvis turns under and the low back begins to round.
Repeat the test with a different knee and foot width, narrower and wider. Whatever width promotes the deepest flat-back position is your money-maker, so use that same width when standing in your squat. As a bonus, you’ll likely feel less hip issues from squatting, especially if you squat often.
The cool part about all this is – depending on what width you use and what width is “correct” for your build – you may end up recruiting different muscles through your ROM.
A narrower stance deep squat keeps the hips closed and really curtails involvement of the inner thigh muscles, thereby doubling down on the quads. A wider stance squat on the other hand can activate more glute and hamstring tissue, along with the adductors doing their share to contribute.
Take home point: Remember that the wider the stance, the more inner thigh you’ll have available to contribute to the lift. Above all, use the right squat width for your height and build by using the above testing method. That way if you’re lacking in ROM, you can find your way into a deeper squat and out of injury territory.
4. The Truth about the Hip Flexors
People always talk about lengthening and mobilizing the hips to assume a better depth. That’s all good and very valid, but people don’t talk about the importance of hip flexor strength relating to the stability of a bottom-range squat.
The hip flexors, in part, are made up of the iliacus, which is the common “go-to” when referring to the hip flexors group. These muscles flex the hip to an angle of roughly 90 degrees. Basically, anyone can train the iliacus muscles, directly or indirectly, through any weight training quad dominant exercise, even jogging.
The hip flexors to look at more closely are the psoas muscles. These bad boys flex the hip to an anglesmaller than 90 degrees. Translate that to a squat, and strong, responsive psoas muscles can actually helppull the lifter down into a deeper and more solid squat position far below parallel.
Of course, there are few exercises that target the psoas muscles directly, but if you’ve got any shreds of athleticism I’d recommend one thing: start sprinting.
There are few other exercises or movements that accentuate a high-knee concentric action like sprinting, so it’s the easiest way to make the psoas muscles wake up from hibernation. Plus, it’ll get you lean and mean!
Take home point: Strength and flexibility are both important in basically all weight training movements, and squats are no different. If you notice instability at the bottom of your deep squat, or realize your squats just aren’t making it deep enough to begin with, giving your hips some added attention can do you good.
5. The Truth about Tempo
In the previous videos, you’re given different examples of tempo to use when back squatting. My squats and the squats by the athlete in the Rippetoe video use a moderate-speed negative, and an inclusion of the stretch reflex to get out of the hole.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Without getting into the different styles of squatting (like dead-stop box squatting or paused reps), it’s very important that you maintain your muscular tightness at all times when squatting, so load stress doesn’t get shifted to the ligaments. That includes abdominal pressure through the bottom phase too.
You’ll notice that by using a slower, more controlled negative, your stretch reflex will be slightly inhibited and you’ll also spend more time under tension, limiting the amount of weight you can ultimately perform for the same number of reps. The good thing about this method is that it allows the strongest muscle fibers to get trained.
Take home point: Depending on what you’re training for, using a slower negative can lead to huge gains in strength since you’re taxing your strongest fibers through the eccentric portion. If you’re used to a tempo like 10X0, take a shot at some 30X0’s and see how they make you feel for the days to come.
6. The Truth about Heels Elevated
Elevating the heels is usually done to ensure the full foot remains in pressure on the ground, and also to make up for any lack of depth from a flat footed position. Many view it as a “shortcut” in light of poor flexibility, but we have to remember that weightlifting shoes also perform the same function.
Taking a step back and looking at this objectively, if we want to have the deepest squat depth we can, as soon as possible, and elevating the heels was the way to achieve that, why wouldn’t we?
Elevated heels will change the pelvic angle and encourage the knees to track forward over the toes. This, as I mentioned earlier, will encourage much more quad involvement, depending on the depth you reach. Poliquin also uses heels-elevated squats as a way to tap into the strength of the quads, especially the rectus femoris and VMO, to specifically hypertrophy them.
I say to treat elevating your heels as an option, not only a solution. Work to achieve the ROM and mobility necessary to get as close to a full range squat as possible without anything under the heels. If you need to use heel lifts, use them, but do your accessory work on the side so that the end goal is you squatting without them.
Take home point: If you have weak quads or want to develop them, try deliberately elevating your heels during squats. If you lack depth in your squat, heel elevation will help, for now. Don’t rely on them forever, though. Get your flexibility up, and you’ll get more work done in your sets from the added ROM.
You Down With This?
It’s just common sense. There isn’t a “best method” to do things – it all depends on your build and what you’re after in the weight room. Remembering this will help you keep your headspace open when it comes to the most universally revered (and criticized) exercise in the gym.