Back Squat, Low Bar

One of the big three powerlifting movements, the squat is your primary lower body pushing movement. It taxes nearly every muscle group in your body to some degree, as well as your central nervous system and cardiovascular system. No strength and power training program is not complete without some squat variation.

Muscles Used

  • Primary Muscle Groups: Quadriceps, Glutes, Hamstrings
  • Secondary Muscle Groups: When performing the low bar squat (the power squat) Glutes and Hamstrings as well as quadriceps can be treated as primary movers
  • Stabilizers: Nearly everything else - Abdominals/Core, Upper Back (Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius), Lower Back (Spinal Erectors), even your calves

Exercise Classification:

  • Primary
  • Compound

Technique

The squat seems simple enough - get under a bar, squat down and stand back up. There are, however, many nuances with the lift to efficiently squat for maximum power. The approach described here emphasizes lifting for maximum strength and power.

There are a few considerations I'd like to discuss before getting into the actual lifting technique.

  • Equipment:
    • Squat rack - Set the rack height to the upper part of your chest so that you can unrack and easily clear the pins, without having to do a full partial squat to unrack. Remember that when you have 600lbs on the bar, the bar will be bending and you'll need more room to clear the rack. If you're using a power cage, set the safety pins low enough so that you can squat to full depth without bumping them, and high enough so that they can catch the bar if you get into trouble.
      • Always set up the squat rack so that you can face away from the mirror. Your motion in the mirror will distract you, causing your form to falter.
    • T-Shirt - for squatting use a relatively tight cotton t-shirt. The bar will be less likely to slide on a t-shirt than on your bare skin (ie a tank top), and a tight t-shirt will keep the shirt from sliding between the bar and your skin. For additional stability, run chalk along your back and shoulders where the bar rests.
    • Shoes - lift in shoes with a solid sole. Running or athletic shoes have soles that will compress under the weight of your body and the bar, greatly decreasing your stability. Using a squat or weightlifting shoe with a raised heel can improve your squat mechanics by lengthening the distance from your knee to the floor, balancing it with your femur length.
  • Bar Placement (low bar): There is no 'one size fits all' with respect to bar placement. I'll cover talk about how different positions affect your lift, and then recommend where to start out, if you've never lifted with a low bar position before.
    • Moving the bar lower on the back will shorten the distance from the bar to the pivot point in your hips. This will increase the workload on your glutes and hamstrings and decrease the workload on your quads. It will also flatten your back angle, which could make hitting depth more challenging. Use a lower bar position to increase the explosive power which comes from your glutes and hamstrings. It may also be advantageous for a lifter who has a proportionally long torso length.
    • Moving the bar higher on the back increases the distance from the bar to the pivot point in the hips. This shifts the workload more to your quads. It also results in a more upright back angle. A higher bar approach is generally used more when looking for greater hypertrophy or quad engagement. It also may help with your squat mechanics if you have a proportionally short torso that causes a very flat back angle.
    • As a starting point when squatting low bar, set the bar in the groove between the base of your upper traps and the back of your delts. For most lifters this groove helps secure the bar in place and is a relatively well balanced low bar squat. Shifting the bar even lower may allow you to generate more power, but it can result in a very flat back making depth difficult, and can be more challenging to hold the bar in place.
    • You may need to play with the bar placement to find the best placement for your individual body mechanics
  • Hand Placement/Grip: As with many things about lifting, if you're comfortable, you're probably not doing it right. Grip the bar as close to your shoulders as you can without causing shoulder and/or elbow pain. A close grip will help you create more tension in your upper back, which will give your greater stability. Moving your hands out to a wider grip will reduce tension on your shoulders and elbows if you lack flexibility, but it will loosen your upper back, reducing your stability.
  • Foot Placement: As a starting point set your feet with your heels just outside shoulder width and your toes pointed slightly outward. This position helps you open your hips up so you can drop right in the hole, and allows a good hamstring stretch which aids in rebound. From this starting point, adjust your stance based on your body mechanics and mobility:
    • A wider stance reduces the lift's ROM, increases emphasis on your hips. Depending on your hip mobility a wider stance can make it more difficult to hit full depth and can make you more prone to knee valgus (knees caving in). Widening the stance may help improve squat mechanics for lifters with proportionally long femurs.
    • A narrower stance may help lifters with limited hip mobility, and lifters with hips structures limiting external rotation - sometimes the lifter's hips are designed in a way that simply won't allow a wider stance.
      • In extreme cases of limited hip mobility, you may need a hip width stance with the toes pointed straight forward. Note that this will push the hips farther back during the squat, result in a flat back angle, and will make depth more challenging.
  • Head Position: This is a topic of a great deal of debate in the lifting community - should a lifter look up or look down. My personal preference, and how I coach, is to look slightly up throughout the lift - the body has a tendency to follow the head, looking down can increase the tendency to drop the chest as you come up. Whether you look up or look down, there are a few important points:
    • Your head should be inline with your neck. When looking up, pick a point 'in the middle of the room' to keep your focus on. You should not be looking straight up (or straight down).
    • Your focus should remain on the same point throughout the lift, and your head position in relation to your neck and spine should remain relatively the same throughout the lift. Don't move your head or your focus point up and down as you lift.

Setting Up

An effective setup can make a surprisingly large impact on your squat. Done right, it can make the weight feel much lighter coming out of the rack (it doesn't matter how heavy it feels), improve your control of the weight and stability, and get you into the optimal position for a powerful squat. You have time and focus to think about each movement as you setup, it should be done methodically and correctly every set from your lightest warm-up to your heaviest working set.

  • Position the bar and your hands as described above.
  • Position your feet directly under your hips with your toes pointed forward.
    • This is not your squat stance, but the best unracking stance. It gives you good control of the weight, and minimizes the shift of weight from one foot to the other, which can get challenging when you have 600 lbs on your back.
  • Tighten your back. In addition to setting your hand position for upper back tightness, pull your shoulder blades downward to create additional tension. This, and bracing (below) will turn your back into a rigid lever that will effectively transition the power from your legs to the loaded bar on your shoulders.
  • Breath and brace. Take a deep breath. Let it expand into your abdomen, loosening your core enough to let your abdomen expand. After breathing in, tighten your core, and push down with your diaphragm (like you're trying to push out a turd). Hold this tightness until the movement is complete (unracking the bar, or completing a rep as described below).
    • Done correctly, bracing creates intra-abdominal pressure stabilizing your spine.
    • Bracing tightens the lumbar/lower back. It works in conjunction with a strong, tight upper back to create a rigid lever to support the weight.
    • Note: Bracing is critically important whether you are using a belt or not!
  • Push your hips forward. Keeping your back rigid and straight, drive your hips under the bar.
    • Don't simply flex your lumber, pushing your hips by rounding your back.
    • Rotate forward around the shoulders/bar using the back like a rigid lever.
    • Typically the best position to drive the bar out of the rack is rotating forward until your knees are as far ahead of the bar as your hips are behind it.
  • Drive the bar straight up out of the rack using strong leg/quad drive (I call this the quad pop - the bar should pop right out of the rack).
    • Keep your core tight, but slowly snake the air out of your lungs as you pop the bar out of the rack. Don't suddenly exhale releasing all your air and all your tension.
    • Continue to breath using small, short breaths.

Block your torso and rotate at the shoulders to shift your hips forward

  • Stop, control the weight, and let the bar settle before beginning your walkout. You want to be quick and efficient, but not rushed.
  • Begin your walkout. Watch your feet as you walk out, to ensure correct placement, using the same steps for every setup, from your lightest warm-up to your heaviest working set.
  • Three step setup. I prefer a three step setup, described here.
    • First step: Take a first, short step straight back. You don't need to step back farther than heel-to-toe as my old Air Force drill instructor would say (yell). The purpose of this step is to clear the rack.
    • Second Step: Move your other foot back and into the squat stance. It should be even with our first foot, not farther back.
    • Third Step: Shift your first foot out and into the squat stance: your feet should be just outside shoulder width (or adjusted for your own squat mechanics) with your toes pointed outward.
    • You may need to adjust slightly, but practice setting up with a minimum of foot shuffling. The more efficiently you get to your stance, the more quickly you can begin you reps, or get the 'Squat' command, saving energy. When you have 600 lbs on your back, you want to eliminate unnecessary movements and time under the bar.

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 tighten the upper back.
    • Spread the floor with your feet. Push out against the floor. This should create tension from the outside of your hips all the way down to your feet. This will help you open your hips as you squat, and give you greater stability throughout each rep.

Lifting

  • Now that you're set up, don't waste a lot of time under the bar thinking about the lift (or being intimidated by the lift) - and not lifting. If you find yourself delaying the start of your first rep, limit yourself to no more than three breaths, then go. Between reps you should just take your next breath and go.
  • Breath and Brace. Take another deep breath and brace, as described above.
  • Keep pushing out against the floor and squat down.
    • By pushing out against the floor, your knees should stay out and your hips open letting you easily drop into the hole (if this doesn't happen, then you may have an issue that needs to be troubleshot).
    • I don't coach 'hips back' as some of the old school powerlifters. There are times when this is an effective approach, but for most lifters, I've found the squats are most effective by simply sitting down, as if sitting into a chair.
  • As you descend, keep the bar moving in a straight line over your shoe laces - as if it were on rails.
  • Your descent should be a quick, but controlled tempo.
  • Keep your head and chest up, and your back flat throughout entire lift.
  • Squat to depth. Every rep, from your lightest warm-up to your heaviest working set should be to proper depth: 1-2" below parallel.
    • This will ensure you will get three white lights in competition.
    • If you are not a competitive powerlifter, 1-2" will give you the maximum muscle activation - squatting deeper than that results in a negligible increase in activation at best.
    • 'Below Parallel' means the top surface of your thigh at the hip is below the top surface of your knee.
    • If you have an issue with lumbar flexion ('butt wink') at the bottom of your squat, you may want to limit your depth until that issue is resolved. In most cases, you should be able to squat at least to parallel before the lumbar begins flexing to greatly.
  • Drive the weight back up explosively.
    • Push your elbows forward and drive your hips forward hard as you start back up.
    • The bar and your hips should come up at the same rate, maintaining the same back/hip angle. Your hips should not shift back or up ahead of the bar. Your head and chest should 'stay up' as you come back up.
    • Your knees should remain out, and inline with your feet.
    • Snake your air out as you come up. Don't exhale suddenly at any point during the lift. Exhaling as you lift will reduce your stability. Exhaling at the top can increase your chance of blacking out.
  • 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 let off once you're past the sticking point and know you'll finish the lift - try to give 100% of your power even if it's an 80% weight.
  • Come to a complete stop fully locked out and control the weight before beginning the next repetition or racking the weight. Begin the next by breathing and bracing again, and re-tightening your shoulder blades if needed.

Common Mistakes

  • Partial squats: Squatting less than the depth noted above (below parallel)  reduces the effectiveness of the exercise and sets you up to fail in competition. Reduce the bar to a weight you can control through the full range of motion.
  • Leaning forward: Excessive forward lean makes more difficult to squat to proper depth, reduces the workload on your legs, and increases the tension on your lower back.
  • Knee Valgus: Allowing your knees to buckle inward puts unnecessary strain on your knees and pushes your hips back, putting you at a disadvantageous lifting position.
    • Setting up with your toes pointed out can help with leg/knee position during the lift.
    • Using a narrower stance can reduce the tendency for the knees to buckle.
    • Knee valgus, if not addressed by technique, can be an indication of a weakness in the gluteus medius.
  • Rounding your back: Keep your back flat and rigid throughout the lift, using techniques described above.
  • Too much time to set up: set up efficiently and methodically; don't rush your setup, but don't waste time and energy under a heavy bar, or overthinking.

Safety

  • Always use a spotter when squatting. Make sure your spotter knows how to properly assist you if you get into trouble.
  • Perform your squats in a squat rack or cage with safety bars set when possible. Before starting, make sure the safety bars are set properly for your height. You should be able to complete a full squat without touching the bars, but with the barbell on the safety bars you should be able to easily get out from underneath the barbell.
  • Never purposely dump the barbell onto the safety bars and/or spotters.
  • Always use proper technique. If  you can't complete the lift with correct technique, lower the weight until you can.

Variations

  • You may need/want to vary your squat position to find the technique that best suits your body mechanics, strengths and weaknesses.
    • Adjusting the bar position up an down on the back can affect how much glute and hamstring or quad engagement you use. It can also be used to address proportionally long or short torsos.
    • Adjusting foot position can be used to address proportionally long or short femur lengths, hip structure, and can affect the lift's ROM.
    • Adjusting hand position can improve upper back tightness, and may be necessary to address shoulder and/or elbow mobility and health.

 


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