Barbell Back Squat

How To Barbell Back Squat
By Alli McKeeFebruary 11, 2016

Barbell Back Squat Exercise

The barbell back squat is a great exercise for strengthening the muscles in the lower body, most notably, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The barbell back squat utilizes the muscles in the posterior chain more than the quad dominant front squat. It also strengthens the core muscles.

Equipment needed:

A barbell should be used for this exercise. A traditional barbell may be used and to increase the resistance users may add weight plates to each side. Some gyms have fixed weight barbells which are shorter than a traditional barbell and the resistance is not adjustable. These fixed weight barbells often increase in resistance by 5-10 pounds (50 lbs, 55 lbs, 60 lbs, 65 lbs, and so on). As for the extra resistance, you can use traditional weight plates, or bumper plates. You also have the option of using safety bars, and clips keep the weights in place.

Ability level:

Beginner

In some instances, the barbell back squat might be too advanced for women who are just beginning to strength train. If this is the case, beginners might prefer to start with the goblet squat, goblet box squat, or barbell box squat variation.

Intermediate

The barbell back squat is a great option for the intermediate lifter. You can perform this exercise on its own, you can pair it with another upper body pushing or pulling exercise as part of a superset, or can you even make it part of a metabolic conditioning circuit. However, if you are planning on using heavy resistance, it should be done towards the beginning of the workout when your body is fresh. Intermediate lifters might perform 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps of the barbell back squat.

Advanced

Women who are comfortable with the barbell back squat can choose to perform negative barbell back squats where the lowering phase is increased to 3-5 seconds. This trains the muscles eccentrically. You can also perform the barbell back squat pause variation, where you pause for 3-5 seconds when you are in the bottom position, or you can combine the negative and pause squat variations. You can increase the weight/resistance for multiple sets (2-4+) of fewer repetitions (3-6). You can also challenge the glutes by placing a resistance band both above and below the knees, and actively pressing both knees out against the bands while performing the barbell back squat.

Benefits of Barbell Back Squats:

There are many barbell squat benefits. How a woman chooses to use the barbell back squat is highly dependent on her overall technical ability and experience, how much weight is being used, the set/rep scheme used, where the exercise falls in the workout, what it’s paired with, and what the rest periods are. In general, the barbell back squat can be used to do any or all of the following:

  • increasing lower body strength, primarily in the quads, glutes, and hamstrings
  • increasing core strength, particularly the anterior core
  • building muscle
  • fat loss (if your diet and exercise routines are conducive to fat loss)
  • increasing conditioning (if used as part of conditioning circuits)
  • improving sports specific performance

How to perform a Barbell Back Squat:

  • Set up the barbell in the squat rack so it is at the level of your upper traps/top of your shoulders. You should not have to stand on your tip toes to reach the bar, nor should you have to bend down.
  • Before you get underneath the bar, grab on to the bar with both hands, and position them as you would when you are going to squat. Generally, placing your hands so they are much wider than shoulder width apart works best for most women. However, due to differences in mobility or structure, some women might prefer to use a slightly wider width, and others a more narrow one.
  • Now that your hands are set, position your entire body so it is directly underneath the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, and rest the barbell on the ridge of your muscle that is your upper traps. The bar should never rest on your neck. Your hands should be gripping the bar firmly, and you should be pulling it down to this ridge of muscle as this will create stability in your upper body and spine.
  • Set your feet so they are about hip width apart in the heels and shoulder width apart in the toes. However, if a slightly wider stance is more comfortable, feel free to do that. Some find that a shoulder width stance works best. Most women find that it feels best when the toes are slightly pointed out.
  • Before you lift the bar, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (imagine that you're about to block a soccer ball with your stomach), and lightly tuck your rib cage down towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), now stand up with the bar on your back. Take several steps back so you are in position. The fewer steps you have to take, the better.
  • Before you descend into the squat, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (imagine that you're about to block a soccer ball with your stomach), and lightly tuck your rib cage down towards your hips (close the space in your midsection).
  • While maintaining muscular control and the same tempo the entire time, simultaneously move at the knees and hips, and aim to sit between your heels.
  • When you are in the bottom position of the squat, it is absolutely vital that you maintain muscular tension the entire time. You cannot disengage your muscles. This will place you at a greater risk of injuring yourself.
  • Do not sacrifice form for depth. Go to whatever depth allows you to maintain proper form. Sometimes, it might mean using less weight. At the very least, aim to reach a depth where your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • Stand up by driving your body away from the floor with your feet and squeezing your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Lock out at the top position by squeezing your glutes, quads and hamstrings, bracing your core, and keeping your rib cage down (closing the space in your midsection) as this will prevent your lower back from arching and will help you maintain proper alignment.
  • As for your torso, you should have a slight forward lean, but keep your chest up, and do not tip forward and do a ''squat-morning.'' The amount of torso lean will also depend on your body structure. Generally, people with longer femurs tend to lean forward more than people with shorter femurs.
  • Make sure that your weight remains in the mid-back portion of your feet but keep your toes down, particularly your big and baby toes. This will improve your stability and strength, and ability to perform the exercise.
  • Maintain a neutral spine for the duration of the exercise.
  • Do not allow your knees to collapse in or fall outside of your feet.
  • Reset before each rep, and repeat for the desired number of reps.
  • Make your first set your warm-up set and just use the barbell, and only add more weight when you have good form.
  • All of the above is how to squat with a barbell

Video Transcription: 

The barbell back squat is one of the more advanced squat variations.  I generally like to have my clients master a bodyweight box squat, a bodyweight squat, a goblet squat and sometimes a front squat before moving on to a back squat.  The reason being, there are a lot of moving parts in a squat and having a bar on your back makes things a little more challenging.  

Just like all the other squat variations your squat is going to look slightly different from everyone else’s -- based on your height, your limb length, your training history, and any mobility or disability limitations you might have… so  the advice I am going to give you on how to barbell back  squat is going to be general principles but you might need to change things up a little  bit based on your specific needs.  

Just like with other squats we generally barbell back squat with our feet just a little wider then a shoulder width apart.  Now often times you will see people barbell back squatting really, really wide.  This is a technique used by powerlifter to shorten the range of motion.  There is nothing wrong with this position, but  in general we like to show woman a more moderate stance position.  So you are going to have your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, and toes turned out somewhere between 15 and 30 degrees.  You are going to make sure your core is extremely braced in the barbell back squat.  I like to take a deep breath in through my nose, blow all my air out through my mouth, and brace my core.  But I do that -- I blow my air out  -- simply to get my rib cage towards my pelvis and brace my core.  I never barbell back squat with my air all the way out.  After I blow the air out I’m going to breathe in again and make sure I expand  circumferentially.  So what does that mean?  

That means that when I go to breathe in,  I'm not just breathing out in the front.  Because, you can see what happens, I go into lumbar hyperextension.  I want to make sure I breathe in the sides, the back and the front.  So I'm going to take a deep breath in, blow my air out and get my rib cage in position, and then I’m going to breathe in circumferentially .  You should see  my hands kind of expanding because my front, side and back are all expanding at once.  Once I get in that position, I am going to drive my knees out and sit back and down in between my hips.

Now I have long limbs, long legs and a shorter torso so I am going to have a little bit more of a forward lean than someone with shorter legs and a taller torso.  Another thing that is super important:  before you get underneath the bar, you are going to make sure you squeeze your back together nice and tight and create a little shelf for the bar to sit on.  Often times people say “Oh the bar hurts my neck.”  The bar should not be sitting on your neck, especially not on any bony prominences.  You are going to make sure you squeeze your back together to create a little shelf back there and set the bar right there.  You are also are going to be gripping the bar really tight because it help maintain more tension throughout your body, and thinking about almost pulling your elbows underneath you.  

Now the more mobile your shoulders are, the closer your hands will be able to be.  If your shoulders are not that mobile your hands are going to need to be out a little bit wide.  Again that's why you see some of the power lifters  with their arms out really wide, because they lack the shoulder mobility to get in a little tighter.  So, grab the bar with hands a little wider than shoulder width apart, get under the bar  squeeze my back together to make a nice little shelf, squeeze the bar nice and tight, pull my shoulders under, stand up, take a couple of steps back, get into my stance, take a big deep breath through my nose, blow my air out, get my rib cage down to brace my core.  Another deep breath in,  drive my knees out and sit back and come up.  

Now I get the question a lot: How should I be breathing during my squats?  As I mentioned, a big deep breath in through your nose, out through your mouth, then you fill up again with air, That intra-abdominal pressure can be one of things that keeps your spine safe and supported in neutral.  So generally when I do that, I fill up with air,  I get a couple of reps in, then when I feel like I need to breathe again I  will hang out at the top and reset again.  If you can only do one squat per breath that's ok.  It's just absolutely critical that you're maintaining good spinal alignment and enough intra-abdominal pressure to keep yourself safe.  

So guys that's the barbell back squat and remember, yours might look slightly different than mine  based on our individual differences but in general those are the principles you should be following.

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About the author:  Alli McKee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at www.allimckee.com.

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