Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Squats Part 4 Back Squat

This is the Third Part of a series on Squats, the earlier posts can be found here: 

Any feedback or questions would be greatly appreciated.

In the previous sections we've discussed that the back squat is a primal motion, it is not an invented exercise, it's something that we all do everyday in different forms.  While it is a basic movement when we load it with weights there are several points to make it a safe and efficient exercise.

The back squat(high bar) is the typically the first barbell squat movement that most people are introduced to. The back squat uses a great deal of muscle mass, and because of this heavy weights can be lifted which will lead to greater adaptation.  Squats are a full body exercise with much more muscle used than the leg muscles Quad, Hamstrings and glutes.  The mass be supported and stabilized, thus putting a high demand on the core.

In the back squat, either form, you will be lifting more weight than in almost any exercise except the dead lift.  You'll want to use the right equipment and check to make sure that it is set up properly. 
Power Rack

Squat Rack 

Power rack, 4 sided will have safety bars that can be placed between the uprights.

The safety bars should always be used.
To use you will set the side safety bars to catch the bar just below the bottom point of your squat.  If you cannot complete the lift you simply dump the weight the short distance to the safety bars.

Please note that this is not a Smith Machine.  The Smith Machine has a rail or guide on which the weight rides.  The Smith Machine takes all of the stabilization work from you and you are placed where your movement must conform to the machine.  This is not a natural movement and training with the Smith Machine can hardly be called a squat.  Where ever possible avoid constrained motions like the Smith Machine and use a free unguided movement.  

Globo gyms and clubs like Smith Machines because they perceive them as safer.  This is a myth, a properly executed squat with appropriate equipment and appropriate load is perfectly safe.
Squat Stand

Squat stands, which have no safety bars can be used if you are using bumper plates, rubber plates made specifically to allow you to dump the weights to the floor, a practice frowned upon in big box gyms and health clubs, but embraced in most true weightlifting gyms, Crossfit Boxes and other gyms that specialize in free weights. 


While this seems a minor consideration it can have a large impact on your movement and the reaction forces against the floor.

Shoe lift (the difference in elevation between the back and front) will help with squat depth.  That is why you will see lifting shoes with a relatively high heel,  

This heel has two purposes: .  
1. To lock and and provide stability of the foot.
2. To raise the heel so that ankle mobility is not the limiting factor in squat depth.
These shoes also have no, (or very little), padding to absorb shock. The point of this is that all of the muscle-mechanical force you exert is directed to moving the weight rather than having some portion of that effort dampened by shock absorbing materials like those typically found on cross-trainer or similar shoes. This does have a large effect in the squat and even more so in Olympic lifts. 

General Characteristics of Back Squats

There are two types of back squats.  Most people when they think of back squats think of the high bar back squat.  The low bar back squat is more common in sports performance training and offers some unique characteristics.  

Both types share the following Characteristics

Start with an empty bar about sternum high on a power rack.  Load weights on both sides.

Make sure it is centered in the rack.

Make sure you are facing the bar.  NEVER back into the bar.  ALWAYS face the bar.  When the weights get heavy and you have backed into the bar and attempt to return the bar to the rack you can't see the supports.  There will be a train wreck when you miss the supports.  You would also have to turn and twist to even try to find the supports, putting torsion on you spine.  This is the LAST thing you want to do under a heavy load.  ALWAYS FACE THE BARBELL

Grasp the bar with a closed, palm forward grip .  Width will depend on shoulder mobility.

We'll discuss bar placement on your back and grip when we talk about the specifics of each because it will be different between the high bar back squat and the low bar.  Both styles require the shoulder blades to be contracted and retracted.

Head should be in a position that maintains the cervical spine in a neutral position, in line with your thoracic spine.  SO at the start it is up with eyes straight forward.  As you begin to move your neck should follow your spine, this will have your eyes then looking at a point on the floor or wall in front of you slightly below the horizon and you move downward.

Your Torso should be straight, back straight and abdominals braced.

Once braced, take 1 step back.

In both movements your shoulder blades should be pushed together and retracted.

Feet shoulder width apart,  or a bit wider.

Screw your feet to the floor in external rotation. We will have a separate post on external rotation in a future post.  For more on external rotation see also Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Sterrett.

Feet flat on floor and toes pointing slightly outwards at an angle between 15 deg and 30 deg depending on mobility.  See here discussion of foot position.

Inhale and hold your breath while lowering the bar. We will have a separate post on breathing, bracing and the Valsalva Maneuver in a forthcoming post. 

Knees and hips bend bend together, shins stay as vertical as possible, moving slightly outward(external rotation) always tracking over the shoelaces.  Think knees out.  Never let them collapse inward.  

Sit back over heels, weight is appropriately distributed over center of gravity.  Think pushing through the heels. 

Think of the torso as dropping through the hips.

Move downward in a controlled movement, stop at the bottom and immediately drive the weight back up pushing through the heels.

High Bar Back Squat

This is often referred to as Olympic style.

In the high bar back squat the bar rests across the back of shoulders, deltoids and traps.  Back is straight and inclined form the hips to keep the load balanced over the lifters center of gravity (think the back two thirds of the shoe laces). 

Because bar is higher on your traps than in the low bar position, your torso is more upright, you may be able to squat more deeply.

Grasp the bar with a closed, palm forward grip (actual width depends on the bar position). The hands should be spaced evenly and slightly wider than shoulder width apart. A narrower grip, requiring more shoulder mobility will allow the shoulder muscles to provide a padded shelf for the bar. The elbows should be pointing down and back.  Pointing them back will help raise the deltoids to support the weight.

High bar squats result in a relatively more forward knee placement than the low bar back squat resulting in a more acute knee angle. This squat variation, in comparison to the low bar squat position placed relatively more load on the quads than the hamstrings and glutes.  Though the knee moves forward it should also move outward and follow the line of the shoelaces.  It should not past the toes.

As in all squats the hips and knees should work together.  Think sitting with rear end out and torso passing through the hips.

Comparison of the High Bar Back Squat to the Low Bar Position

  • You may be able to squat deeper because of the relatively more upright position of the torso.
  • Quads receive relatively more load.
  • This may feel like a more natural movement than the low bar position.

Next we will continue with and in depth look at the Low Bar back Squat.

References and Additional Reading
McARDLE, W. et al. (2000) Essentials of Exercise Physiology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Contact Form


Email *

Message *