How To Master The Back Squat – Set Up Technique & Troubleshooting

The back squat has been called the king of all lifts in the weight room, and it’s easy to see why. It hits your legs, hips, lower back, and upper back, making it one of the most well-rounded strength-building exercises you can do.

In this article, we’ll look at the back squat techniques and troubleshooting so that you can build lower body strength and power safely and effectively.

Back squats are one of, if not THE best exercises for overall lower body development. There are many variations of back squats that can be used to target different parts of your legs and glutes.

The back squat is one of three common variations of squats, along with the front squat and overhead squat. But to put it simply, a back squat is any squat where you’re holding your weight up in your hands behind your head rather than on your shoulders.

It’s also known as an Olympic-style squat because it’s an ideal position for quickly loading weight onto an Olympic barbell.

Set Up & Technique

  1. Stance

    What’s the ideal Squat stance? Despite what many will try to tell you it actually depends on the person squatting. Everyone is different. The squat stance usually prescribed – roughly shoulder width, toes pointed forward or out slightly – works for most people, but not everyone.

    While we can always improve mobility, what we cannot change is the structure of our hips. On some people the head of the femur has a more anterior insertion into the acetabulum of the hip.

    On others the femoral head inserts more laterally. The latter person will have trouble squatting shoulder width with toes pointed straight forward, because the joint simply won’t allow good movement in that position.

    Squat
    A wider stance Squat, with toes pointed out more, will suit that person better. The disadvantage of a wide Squat stance is that it is harder to create torque in the hips by screwing the feet into the ground. On the other hand, it puts the body into a mechanically stronger position, as we “shorten” the length of the femur.

    Experiment with different Squat stances and see which one feels the most natural to you. Testing this with some weight on the Bar is the way to go, to see what position you feel strongest in.

    That being said, poor mobility shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take an overly wide squat stance. Always work on your mobility and see how far you can get with a more neutral stance.

  1. Grip

    The ideal grip for the Back Squat is hands just outside the shoulders, wrists neutral (not extended or flexed), driving the elbows into your ribs and pulling the bar down into the body.

    This narrower grip with the elbows underneath the bar and in line with the torso activates the back extensors, shoulder retractors and latissimus, which all add tightness to the body during the squat and improve performance.

    Big, muscular guys are often limited in how narrow they can grab the bar due to too much bulk in the lats and biceps. They should just grab the bar as narrow as possible. Another issue the narrow grip can uncover is poor shoulder mobility.

    Due to poor shoulder mobility or bulk, big guys tend to break at the wrist, which will compromise their ability to create tension off the bar. Only with a neutral wrist can you get a death grip on the bar and get that added tightness.

  1. Bar Position

    • High Bar Position

      In the High Bar Position, the Bar sits on the flesh of your traps (just below C7). The traps serve as a nice cushion. If you feel the bar push down on any bony part of the spine – which will be incredibly uncomfortable –  you are not set up properly (review GRIP section)). The High Bar Position puts the knee extensors – the quads – in a stronger position, because the moment arm (horizontal distance of the Bar to the knee joint) is decreased.

    • Low Bar Position

      In the Low Bar Position, the Bar rests on the shelf created by your rear delts. You will need a strong narrow grip for that shelf to appear though. If you have poor upper back development, the low Bar position is a tough one to pull off. It also requires even more shoulder mobility than the High Bar Position to create stability off the Bar. In the High Bar Position, the Bar’s horizontal distance to the hips is shorter, putting the hips in a mechanically stronger position than the knee extensors. So it is a favorite of very hip dominant Squatters.

    Bar position really comes down to preference. There’s no wrong or right here.

  1. Head Position

    Keep your head in a neutral position for the entire Squat. Hyperextension of the neck (tilting the head back), especially in the upward portion of the squat, can lead to all types of nasty issues.

    It is usually a compensation for poor extension in the thoracic spine and can lead to excessive lordosis in the lower back which increases compressive forces there.

    Tilting the head back and looking up during the squat is an attempt to ease moving through the upward portion of the squat. While the head should always be fixed in the neutral position, your gaze can go up to help you move through the sticking point, as it helps looking in the direction that you are moving.

    Looking down on the descent is a bad idea though, since it might lead to the trunk following suit.

  1. Breathing

    Take a diaphragmatic breath before you set up (your stomach should expand, not your chest) to create intraabdominal pressure that counters the shear forces on your lumbar spine during the squat.

    Then, brace as if someone was going to punch you in the gut. This helps you maintain a neutral spine position and keeps your back healthy. Don’t go overboard with your inhalation. 80% of a full breath is generally recommended.

    Once you’ve unracked the Bar, take another diaphragmatic breath before hitting the first rep and don’t breathe out until you have completed the ascent.

  1. Squat Down, Not Back

    One of the biggest mistakes is to initiate the Squat by pushing the butt back. This leads to excessive forward lean and a compromised position from the start. Instead, initiate the Squat by dropping the hips just slightly earlier than you bend the knees.

    After that, the ankle, knee and hip should move in sync as you lower yourself into the Squat. Aim to bring your hips between your feet to distribute the work between your quads and hips equally.

    If you struggle with this Squatting down pattern, add Goblet Squats to your routine, which will teach you to Squat down, rather than back. Back Squats against a wall (facing away) work well too here. Too much hip flexion and too little knee flexion will lead to your butt hitting the wall.

  1. Depth

    Come on people, should I even have to mention this? A Squat only counts when the hips travel past the knees. I’ll spare you you the “ass to grass” cliche, but at the very least your thighs need to travel slightly past parallel to the floor at the bottom.

    If you’re not getting this depth, you may as well just do lunges, as you are not getting the wonderful benefits that a deep squat will bestow on you.

  1. Be Explosive On The Way Up

    The ascent in the Squat should always be done explosively. It helps activate more high-threshold muscle fibers to assist in the movement. Jamming your traps up into the bar, as you come out of the bottom position will help you drive through the sticking point of the squat, (when the hips are just above the knees). The rate at which your knees and hips extend on the ascent should also be the same.

  1. Knees

    Your knees should be tracking above the second toe during the Squat. Often when the knees cave in during the squat, we focus on strength for the lateral hips and mobility of the adductors.

    Not a bad idea. But, usually the issue is instantly alleviated just by screwing the feet into the ground – pulling the toes out and the heels in.

    Remember, this is harder to do, when you Squat with a wider stance with already externally rotated feet.

Troubleshooting

Some Common Squatting Faults:

  1. Too Much Forward Lean / Excessive Trunk Flexion

    The most common fault in the Squat is leaning forward too much on the ascent and/or descent. This “Good Morning Squat” is a faulty Squat pattern, where there is more forward upper body tilt than there should be.

    Reasons for this can be manifold.

    • Poor Hip Mobility

      It could be tight hips. When hip range of motion is limited, the body will try to gain depth by flexing the trunk instead. Excessive trunk flexion must be avoided as it puts shear forces on the lumbar spine, that increase injury risk.

      Tight hips are usually associated with tight hamstrings. But the hamstrings don’t actually change in length much during the Squat itself. They lengthen at the hip, but shorten at the knees at the same time.

      Hip mobility issues are rarely a hamstring issue. Rather it could be tight hip flexors that are pulling you into excessive trunk flexion.

      Tight, overactive Hip Flexors (Psoas, Sartorius, Rectus Femoris) can be a limiting factor in the Squat. In today’s deskbound world, many people suffer from tight hip flexors.

      This can lead to excessive forward lean during the Squat and inhibit activation of the posterior muscle of the hips – mainly the glutes. The result is a weak, compromised Squat.

      To test for tight hip flexors, perform the Thomas Test. Lie face up on a table with your butt just on the edge. Pull one knee to your chest and let the other one hang down.

      The hanging leg should be hanging down loosely – lower than the height of the table. If it is not, and it looks like your leg is suspended in the air by some invisible force, that means you have tight hip flexors.

      Do mobility/flexibility work on your hip flexors ideally every day, especially if you have a deskbound job.

    • Weak lumbar and thoracic erector spinae

      If your back extensors are weak, they will yield to the weight of the Barbell and the result will be more trunk flexion. If you have weak extensors, get on the GHD and do 3 x 15 reps of Hyperextensions every day.

    • Weak scapular retractors

      As previously stated, squeezing the shoulder blades together during the Squat adds stability to the upper back and helps maintain a neutral spine position. When you squeeze your shoulder blades together, it is near impossible to round your back.

      Try it. If the scapular retractors, like the Rhomboids for example, can’t maintain this position, the result will be falling forward into trunk flexion. Add Wall Slides, Y-T-W-I, TRX T & Y fly’s and plenty of horizontal rowing with a focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together to your training.

    • Weak Quads

      Excessive trunk flexion puts more forces onto the lower back and hips, while the quads are not doing much work at all. Quite often this pattern is masking Quad weakness, especially when the Squatter can lower himself down into the Squat correctly (eccentrically), but then on the way up extends his knees faster than his hips and hence, finds himself in the compromised Good Morning Position.

      When the knees extend prematurely, before we hit the Sticking point on the way up, we shift the load and work to the hips.

      If this happens to you, you need to do supplementary work for your Quads like Step Ups and Reverse Lunges and practice Squatting facing a wall, which will call you out on excessive forward tilt.

    • Tight Ankles

      When your ankles are tight, your knees are restricted in how far they can travel forward (without the heels coming off the floor) as you descend into the squat.

      To make up for this, those with poor ankle mobility push their hips back more than they should, and then to balance the hips moving back, they need to tilt the trunk forward.

      To test for tight ankles – limited dorsiflexion – perform the Squat with your heels slightly elevated. If you can get into a deep squat while maintaining the same trunk angle and a neutral curvature in your lower back, but you can’t do the same without the heel elevation, it is the dorsiflexion of your ankles that needs work.

      In that case, hit the calves hard with plenty of soft tissue work (Foam Roller, Lacrosse Ball), plenty of calve stretching and lots of squatting practice.

  1. Flexed Lumbar Spine

    A curved lumbar spine can be a real problem when you squat, as there are great shear forces acting on the spine when it loses its natural curvature.

    The spine’s natural curvature is made to absorb shocks and is generally pretty good at it. But when the lumbar spine is placed in unnatural positions under load, it loses that ability. A neutral lumbar spine therefore is important.

    Losing the slight lordotic position of the lumbar spine early in the squat could be due to poor hip mobility, poor postural control over the spine in general, poor lower back stiffness for maintaining position and a weak core. Get to work on all of these issues.

  1. Poor Thoracic Extension

    Poor T-Spine Mobility will kill your Squat form and put you at increased risk of injury. It comes in the form of excessive kyphosis in the thoracic region of the spine – a collapsed chest and forward rounded shoulders.

    It is usually countered by excessive lumbar and cervical lordosis, which can lead to a host of other problems. If the cues of lifting your chest up and pulling your shoulder blades together don’t do much in terms of improving the squat, you should add a supplementary strength routine for the upper back/back extensors, mobility movements for your T-Spine and a stretching routine for the chest and shoulders.

  1. Knees Caving In

    There could be several reasons for your knees caving in during the Squat. For one, it could always be the unfamiliarity with the Squatting pattern. And as I said earlier, cueing to spread the floor with your feet usually takes care of the issue.

    If it doesn’t, it could be a general weakness in the posterior chain muscles, especially the hip abductor and hip external rotators. A good remedy here are plenty of Mini Band Lateral Walks.

    Then, your adductors might be overactive in pulling the knees inward without adequate control of the issue by the just mentioned hip muscles.

Summing up…

Saying all of the above, don’t forget that the Squat is a movement pattern, that we’ll improve the more we practice it. Not all limitations are due to poor mobility, imbalances or weakness. If you watch my golf swing, you could be quick to point out all kinds of restrictions.

But probably my Golf Swing just sucks, because I never Golf. So the same might be true for the unfamiliarity with the Squat movement itself. Neuromuscular control plays an important role and will improve the more we practice it.

Sometimes, we become too preoccupied with “fixing” things that might not even be broken. Good cues (eg. spreading the floor with your feet)  go a long way in improving squat performance. Never forget it. And if they don’t, I hope you now have a better understanding of the squat and how you can troubleshoot it to improve performance.

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