If you are looking for the best repetition scheme in the Back Squat, make sure you have identified your training goal to ensure you end up with the training adaptations you desire.
How Many Reps in a Back Squat is highly dependent on the training goal
The first step in the training process is to determine what is your strength training goal? Do you want to become stronger? Do you want to build muscle size? Do you want to be more powerful? Do you want to endure longer?
Depending on the answer to this question you chose the repetition range, amongst other variables such as strength training intensity, strength training frequency, etc. I have written how you can start this process in the article The Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for Beginners
Why you can do unlimited repetitions in a Back Squat
First and foremost it’s worth mentioning, that the Back Squat is what I call a ‘robust’ exercise.
Let me explain.
As opposed to the Overhead Squat or the Front Squat, the Back Squat can be used across a wide range of repetitions, whilst the Overhead Squat and the Front Squat are simply not made for high repetitions.
Why is the Overhead Squat not made for high repetitions?
Having the bar overhead, the weakest link in the Overhead Squat is the strength of the upper body to support the weight. In most cases, the lower body can squat much more weight, than the upper body can support.
The bar position is difficult to hold for an extended period of time, your wrists will feel quite uncomfortable, the bar slides in your hands and you lose the grip and the elbows will start to bend.
That doesn’t mean the Overhead Squat is useless, it just means if you want to really overload the lower body, the Overhead Squat is not the right exercise to do that.
However, there are various benefits the Overhead Squat has, which I have explained in the article 9 Benefits of the Overhead Squat and counting…
We won’t do more than 3 repetitions in the Overhead Squat and focus more on proper execution of the Overhead Squat technique in order to improve the Back Squat technique and Front Squat technique.
Have a look at this video from Janne Tiktak Junior Track Cyclist, you can see how much effort is required to balance and stabilize the weight overhead.
Why is the Front Squat not made for high repetitions?
Similar to the Overhead Squat, the Front Squat is difficult to perform for higher repetitions.
Regardless whether you use a ‘Clean-grip’ or a ‘cross-grip’ on the Front Squat, the bar will have the tendency to roll forward and away from the shoulders the more repetitions you do, which makes you fighting more to keep the bar in position than working on your lower body.
Have a look at this video from 2 time Olympian Twan van Gendt, you can see, that in the bottom position the elbows drop slightly.
Slightly dropping the elbows works fine for 2 or 3 repetitions, but will definitely be a problem with higher repetitions.
In order to reinforce proper posture for the Front Squat, we use the Handsfree Front Squat to work on the Front Squat technique.
Have a look at the Front Squat form displayed by Kevin van den Groenendaal Junior BMX rider on the Handsfree Front Squat.
For those who are able to keep the bar I the right position will experience difficulties breathing because the bar is squeezed slightly against the throat and makes breathing more difficult.
While these points make the Front Squat not a good exercise for higher repetitions, the Front Squat also offers unique benefits, that I have described in the article What Do Front Squats Develop and Why You Need To Do Them
Generally speaking, we keep the intensity in the Front Squat above 80 – 85% of the 1RM (1 repetition maximum) and limit the repetitions to 4 or 5 and do more sets to get the strength training volume we aim for.
If you are interested how the interplay between repetitions, sets and intensity works have a look at the article The Holy Grail of Strength Training – Sets and Reps
How Many Reps in a Back Squat do I need to do to become stronger?
If your goal is to become stronger, you should focus on working with higher intensities (above 85% 1RM) and fewer repetitions (below 5 repetitions).
This video from Jeffrey Hoogland, Olympian 2016 and World Champion Track Cycling Team Sprint 2015 gives you a good impression how a Back Squat with high resistance looks like.
How Many Reps in a Back Squat do I need to do to become bigger legs?
If your goal is to become bigger legs, you should focus your efforts on hypertrophy training. There are two basic ways to achieve that, one is termed functional hypertrophy and leads to growth of contractile elements of the muscle, the other one is termed non-functional hypertrophy and leads to growth of the non-contractile elements of the muscle (I have explained that in more detail I the article The Holy Grail of Strength Training – Sets and Reps)
Functional Hypertrophy Training is characterized by higher intensities (75 – 85% 1RM) and lower repetitions (4 – 8 repetitions), while Non-Functional Hypertrophy Training is characterized by lower intensities (65 – 75% 1RM) and higher repetitions (8 – 12 repetitions).
Have a look at the video from Steffie van der Peet European Champion Track Cycling Team Sprint 2016 in the junior competition below how an 8 RM Back Squat looks
How Many Reps in a Back Squat do I need to do to endure longer?
Here comes one of the benefits I mentioned earlier, when I spoke about the Back Squat as a ‘robust’ exercise, the ability to use the Back Squat for higher repetitions (more than 15 repetitions).
Have a look at this video, showing Hetty van der Wouw European Champion Track Cycling Team Sprint 2016 in the junior competition performing 15 repetitions in the Back Squat. If you try it yourself, be prepared for some discomfort, as you can see in her facial expression, when she finishes the set.
If you are a distance runner or cyclist and you chose to do a specific strength endurance training, you can use the Back Squat as an exercise to achieve that goal, by training at lower intensities (below 60% 1RM) for higher repetitions (above 15 repetitions).
With one of my endurance Mountain bike athletes, we have actually done strength training circuits at certain periods in the competitive year, where we did the Back Squat (amongst other exercises) at 40% 1RM for 30 repetitions.
How Many Reps in a Back Squat do I need to do to faster and more powerful?
Well, this is probably an entire topic in itself. I have written at length about speed and power development before and if you want more in-depth information, have a look at the following articles
- The 101 of Power Training for Beginners as an introduction to what power is
- The Importance Weight Training Has On Power explaining the role of strength training in speed and power development
- 3 Steps to Develop your own Power Training Method how to put the pieces together and develop the appropriate power training for your demands and / or the demands of your sport
In a nutshell, speed and power can be trained across a wide variety of intensities, ranging from 80% 1RM down to 0% 1RM (or bodyweight) or even assisted and supported, where the actual intensity is lesser than body weight.
The chosen intensity range also requires you to work with a certain effort, as I have outlined before
- 0 – 20% 1RM plyometric effort
- 20 – 50% 1RM ballistic effort
- 50 – 70% dynamic effort
Have a look at this video from Roy van den Berg, former BMX rider and now track cyclist, which is a good example of a ballistic effort in the Back Squat, because the weight is fairly light (as it realtes to the 1 RM) the athlete has to perform it ballistically, which means it will go into a free flight phase and consequently perform a Jump Squat
Have a look at the video below from Jelle van Gorkom, two-time Olympian and silver medalist at the Rio Olympics 2016 as an example of a dynamic effort, you could argue it appears more like a maximal effort as opposed to a dynamic effort, because the velocity of execution isn’t really powerful, the principle remains the same, the bands are attached to allow Jelle to push with a maximal voluntary effort until the end of the Back Squat, without having to decelerate the bar.
For more information on accommodating resistance have a look at the article How Strength Training works – Accommodating Resistance or check out the video below
For true speed and power development, the repetitions need to be low (2 – 6 repetitions), if you chose to do more repetitions you would work more on a speed endurance or power endurance quality rather than true speed development or power development.
Concluding How Many Reps in a Back Squat
The Back Squat is an exercise that allows you to train through an entire range of repetitions, from 1 maximum effort repetition to 100 repeated repetitions (if you would choose to do that), whilst other common squat variations such as the Overhead Squat or Front Squats simply wouldn’t allow that.
The question how many repetitions you need to do in a Back Squat is dependent from your training goal, the desired outcome you want to achieve. If you want to become stronger, faster, bigger or endure longer the Back Squat can help you.