Back Squat, Safety Squat Bar
Squatting with the Safety Squat Bar (SSB) is an effective assistance squat variation that shifts the lift's emphasis from the posterior chain to the quads. Because the bar is securely supported by the shoulders, it allows you to really overload weight on the quads in contrast with front squats, which are limited by how much weight you can securely rack on your anterior delts.
SSB squats can also be substituted as your primary squat movement, and is particularly valuable if you have upper body injuries, particularly in the chest or shoulder regions that limit your ability to support a barbell.
- Changes the squat mechanics to increase quad and core emphasis
- Padded bar and handles allow squatting even with upper body and/or shoulder injury
- Reduces upper body strain, which may be beneficial if in a high volume/high intensity bench press cycle
- Primary Muscle Groups: Quadriceps
- Secondary Muscle Groups: Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings, Adductors
- Stabilizers: Abdominals/Core, Upper Back (Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius), Lower Back (Spinal Erectors), Gluteus Medius
Squatting with an SSB is more than just grabbing the handles and getting after it. Because of the mechanics of this bar there are a number of differences to take into account to use the SSB effectively:
- With your hands on the bar's handles, your upper back is not naturally tightened as it is when you grip a straight bar.
- With the weight having a more anterior load, and a more upright torso position, you have much less rebound from the glutes' stretch reflex. This also presents a different core stimulus to maintain a strong upright position.
There are some considerations to cover before getting into the actual lifting technique. Most of the equipment used for SSB squats mirrors that used for a normal straight bar squat. There are, however some differences:
- Squat Rack - When setting up the squat rack to use an SSB, keep in mind:
- Dumping is a bad habit to get into with any squat, but with a SSB it will be incredibly difficult to get out from under the bar. If you are squatting without spotters, use a power cage or rack with safeties set to let you escape in the event of catastrophic failure, or keep the weight in a range you can comfortably complete all your reps.
- Because of the thick pads and handles, it can be more difficult to get out from under the bar if you fail. Set the rack's safeties low enough so you can do full ROM squats, but higher than for a straight bar squat so you can get out from under the bar if you get into trouble.
- Bar - With an SSB:
- Set the bar in the rack so the handles point in the direction you will be facing.
- A SSB is usually heavier than a standard power bar. A standard power bar is typically 20kg/45lb. An SSB may be around 30kg/65lb, but verify the weight of your bar before you get started.
- Bar Placement: There really is only one way the bar goes onto your back. The pads rest against your neck and shoulders and you grip the handles.
- Foot Placement: Use the same foot position for SSB as you use for your standard power bar squat.
- Head Position: Keep your head in line with your back and push back into the pad; this will help you keep your chest up during the lift. Keep your focus on the same point throughout the lift. Don't move your head or your focus point up and down as you lift.
Setting up with the SSB can be slightly more challenging than with a standard power bar. Your hand position on a straight bar inherently creates more upper back tightness, and you can increase the tightness simply by moving your hands in. With the SSB you have to consciously tighten your upper back. It is much harder to look down to watch your foot placement, so you have to be able to feel the proper foot position, like you do with a front squat.
- Position yourself under the bar with your shoulders under the shoulder pads, your head and neck pushed back against the neck pad, and your hands gripping the handles.
- Place your feet directly under your hips and centered under the bar. Point your toes forward.
- This is not your squat stance, but gives you good control of the weight as you unrack and minimizes the shift of weight from one foot to the other as you walk out.
- Tighten your upper back. Pull your shoulder blades downward as hard as you can to create tension in your upper back
- Breath and brace. Take a deep breath, letting it expand into your abdomen. Tighten your core and push down with your diaphragm to create as much intra-abdominal pressure as possible.
- Keeping your entire back rigid and straight like a lever drive your hips forward until your knees are forward of the bar and your hips are behind the bar about the same distance.
- Force the bar straight up like you own the weight using strong leg/quad drive (I call this the quad pop - the bar should pop right up out of the rack).
- Stop, control the weight, and let the bar settle before beginning your walkout. Your setup should be efficient, but not rushed.
- You can't watch your feet with the SSB on your back, so you have to practice setting them by feel.
- First step: Take a first, short step straight back just to clear the rack
- Second Step: Move your second foot back and to the side even with our first foot but into your squat stance.
- Third Step: Shift your first foot straight out into the squat stance.
Foot Placement During Walkout
- Once you are set, re-tighten your body in preparation for your squat.
- Pull your shoulder blades down again firmly to re-tighten your upper back. This step is much more important with the SSB as mentioned earlier. Holding the handles instead of a straight bar leaves your upper back inherently less tight.
- Spread the floor with your feet. Push out against the outer edges of your shoes to push the floor apart. This engages your gluteus medius and done right it creates tension down the outside of your hips all the way to the floor. It will help you open your hips as you squat. This step will give you much greater stability throughout each rep.
Don't be lulled into a sense of security thinking the SSB squat is just a squat with a funny looking bar. There are nuances to the lift that make it more challanging than a normal back squat.
- Breath and brace tightly. With the weight more forward, and more challenging upper back tightness, you will likely find your core works a lot harder to stabilize the weight and maintain the more upright position.
- Keep pushing out against the floor as you start your squat to maintain the tension throughout each rep's full ROM.
- Push your hips back as you start to descend.
- Normally I squat by opening the hips to drop in, not pushing back. I have found, however, that with the SSB pushing your hips back helps you keep the bar in the proper groove.
- As you descend, keep the bar moving in a straight line. Your descent should be a quick, controlled tempo. Keep your head and chest up and your back flat.
- Squat to depth. Be aware that with the forward loading and quad dominance of the lift, you will get much less stretch reflex from your glutes off the bottom of the lift, and therefor far less rebound assistance. It will feel much more like you are 'muscling the weight up' from the bottom.
- Drive the weight back up explosively.
- Push back into the pads. Keep your head and chest up as you start back up.
- Continue pushing out against the floor to keep your knees out and in line with your feet.
- Snake your air out as you come up. Don't exhale suddenly at any point during the lift. With the SSB a sudden exhale will exacerbate the tendency for your chest to collapse downward.
- Complete the lift by locking out your knees and hips, and bringing your back fully erect.
- Drive up powerfully and push your hips forward to a hard lockout. Don't relax once you've passed the sticking point - drive up with as much power as you have all the way to lock out.
- Come to a complete stop, fully locked out and in control the weight before beginning the next repetition or racking the weight. Begin the next rep by spreading the floor, re-tightening your shoulder blades, and breathing and bracing.
- Partial squats: Squatting less than the depth noted above (below parallel) reduces the effectiveness of the exercise. Reduce the load to a weight you can control through the full range of motion.
- Knee Valgus: Allowing your knees to buckle inward puts unnecessary strain on your knees and pushes your hips back, which leaves you in a disadvantageous lifting position.
- Consider using spotters when using the SSB, particularly if you are new to it. It can be deceptively difficult for reasons I've mentioned, and it is hard to get out from under if you get into trouble.
- Don't try to dump an SSB. You are not going to be able to clear the bar and the handles.
- Always use proper technique. If you can't complete the lift with correct technique, lower the weight until you can.
- Cambered Bar - Like an SSB, a cambered bar puts less strain on shoulders. The lifting pattern, however, more closely matches the back squat. It does force a wider grip and as with the SSB it has less inherent upper body tightness.
- Hatfield Squats - Because the SSB can stay in place on your shoulders even if you let go of the handles, you can use your hands to grip the rack and assist with the lift allowing you to overload the weight.
- Front Squats - Using the SSB for front squats can make holding the bar in the rack position somewhat easier. Because of the positioning of the weights, however, an SSB front squat will create a different stimulus than a straight bar front squat.
- Bulgarian Split Squats - As with Hatfield, you can use your hands for stability doing split squats, and use them for assistance to overload the lift.