Back Squat Basics
Safety is the first consideration when doing squats. Use good equipment that won’t break down during the lift. Clear all debris from the squatting platform. Use a solid rack that allows you to perform the lift without excessive forward or backward movement. Use collars and a straight bar to prevent weights from falling off during the exercise. Bars will sometimes bend dangerously after years of use.
Use experienced spotters. Position one spotter behind the lifter if the weight is light or use three spotters— one behind and two on the sides— if the weight is heavy or the lifter is doing a maximum lift.
Lifting belts and wraps increase the weight you can squat. Don’t use them when training with submaximal loads. Squats use core muscles as stabilizers. Training with belts and wraps decrease the stress to these muscles so that they don’t benefit fully from the exercise. Also, wraps can put excessive stress on your kneecaps and contribute to kneecap pain. Wear wraps and belts for max lifts only; otherwise, leave them in your gym bag.
Wear a good pair of shoes that provide lateral support. Consider purchasing a pair of weightlifting shoes if you get serious about this exercise. Otherwise, a good pair of tennis shoes, such as Chuck Taylor Converse, will do. Don’t wear jogging shoes!
Bar Placement: Place the bar on the rack so that you only have to lift it a few inches to begin the exercise. Put the bar on the fleshy part of your back so that you create a solid foundation for the lift. Carrying the bar lower on your back will reduce the stresses on the knees and spine.
Taking the bar from the rack: Facing the rack, with the bar on your back, bend your knees while maintaining a neutral position with your head, keep your shoulders level, and back arched slightly. Stand up and take two steps back from the rack— just enough to avoid bumping it during the exercise. Adjust your feet to establish a solid starting position.
The Stance: Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart. A wider stance allows you to squat without excessive forward lean. A narrow stance makes it more difficult to use the hips during the squat. Consequently, you rock forward on your toes and take much of the load on your back and quads, which can cause pain in the knees, back and neck. Increasing the stance width enhances the load on the large gluteal muscles and allows you to maintain a neutral spine during the exercise. Point your toes outward slightly 40-45 degrees, which helps align the femur and pelvis for a powerful movement during the pushing phase of the lift.
The Descent: Squat until your hips are lower than your knees (thighs below parallel). Begin your descent by gliding your hips backwards before breaking your knees (a backward movement of your butt). Keep your torso upright and avoid excessive forward lean so that your hips stay under the bar at all times. The movement is similar to sitting in a low chair or on the toilet. Think about squatting between your thighs and spreading the floor with your feet. Use your hip flexors to pull you down into the squat.
Keep your weight over the arches of your feet, which will keep you from bending over at the waist or sitting back on your heels as you do the active (pushing) part of the lift. Placing too much weight on your toes will make your hips rise faster than your shoulders, which will make the movement look more like a good morning exercise (back extension from a squat position). Maintaining a neutral spine and head will place your center of gravity over your hips and legs and put you in a powerful position for the active phase of the squat.
At the bottom of the squat position, the angles formed by the knee and hip joints should be approximately equal. Stay tight at the bottom position by keeping the muscles contracted.
The Ascent or Pushing Phase: Push out of the bottom position following the same path that you used during the descent phase. Keep your torso and back erect and maintain your hips under the bar throughout the pushing phase of the lift. As you push, strive to extend the hips and knees at the same rate. Extending the knees prematurely will place excessive stress on your low back and subject your spine to dangerous shear forces and back injury. The low back muscles should maintain a stable spine so that the force from the legs can be applied directly to the weight and help you complete the lift successfully. Try to explode upward during the pushing phase of the exercise so that the motion is smooth and fluid.
Lifting Tempo: A good rule of thumb is to go down slow (under control) and up fast. The descent phase should take one to two seconds, so it is not excessively slow. Dropping too fast during the descent phase causes dangerous stresses on the knee and spine because the knee and hip extensors must exert more force to slow down the movement. Descending more slowly helps you stay tight and maintain good form that puts you in a powerful position during the pushing phase of the lift and decreases the risk of injury. Descending slowly may also increase the stress on your muscles so you get a better training effect.
Breathing: Try to breathe in during the descent phase and breathe out during the ascent phase. Once the load exceeds 80 percent of maximum weight, it is difficult or impossible not to use the Valsalva maneuver— increasing the pressure in the abdomen by closing the epiglottis and activating trunk and abdominal muscles. Valsalva causes large increases in blood pressure but increases pressure in the abdomen, which stabilizes the spine during the squat so that you can lift more weight. While it may be dangerous for people with weakened arteries, the Valsalva maneuver protects the spine and increases squatting power.
Returning the Weight to the Rack: Blood pressures— measured directly inside the arteries— have reached as high as 480/350 mm Hg during heavy squats (resting blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg). This can compromise blood flow to the brain and leave you dizzy and disoriented. Let your spotters help you return the bar to the rack. They should make sure that the lifter’s hands are clear of the supports when re-racking the weight. Even the strongest lifter can lose control after heavy squatting. It is not unusual for healthy weightlifters to pass out during or after doing squats. Spotters should be vigilant when assisting with this exercise.
Progression: Few things look more ridiculous than a person who loads the bar with a monster weight and squats down two inches. “Curtsey” squats do little to build leg muscles or improve lower body power. Start with a lower weight— the bar if necessary— and do the lift correctly. Don’t add weight until you can do the exercise without breaking the position and keeping your spine neutral. At first, do 10 to 20 repetitions per set until you develop the flexibility and muscle endurance to do the lift using good form.
Squatting Tips from Jud Logan
Four-time Olympic hammer thrower and Ashland University throws coach Jud Logan is one of the most successful track and field coaches in the country. He has coached more than 40 national champions and more than 180 All-Americans. As a thrower, he is known for his incredible strength and lightning-fast technique. His lifting program is the foundation of his training program. Squats play a central role in his training routines. Logan outlined some basic principles for incorporating squats into a power athlete’s training routine:
• We start with a general fitness program for three weeks before hitting the weight room. We include circuit training, running, and target specific muscle weaknesses and joint stability.
• When we begin lifting, we use slow-tempo back squats for three weeks— five seconds down, five seconds up— stressing time under tension rather than reps.
• We never use the same type of squat for more than three weeks. Some variations on the basic exercise include front squats, paused front squats, chain back squats (drape chains over the bar. At bottom of the squat, the chains are on ground. The weight gets heavier as you come up), and neural back squats (eight sets of three reps at 70% of max with one-minute rest between sets)
• We squat on Monday and Thursday and don’t have a light/heavy day. We try to progress through weight or volume every workout.
• All athletes squat one inch below parallel.
• We always do a pulling exercise (e.g., cleans, snatches, high pulls) first, squats second, auxiliary leg exercise third (lunges, step-ups), and finish with ab-torso work.
• We avoid squatting heavy early in a cycle to avoid disturbing sports movement patterns. By the third workout in a cycle, the athletes begin to adapt; then we use more weight.
• We don’t allow athletes to do plyometric exercises until they can squat one and one-half times bodyweight for one rep.