Have you heard that the Back Squat is the mother of all exercises and should be part of every strength training program? And if you don’t Back Squat you might be missing out on something?
This is what I heard when I was starting out training and looking at collecting as much information as possible.
In my opinion, the Back Squat is one of the best exercise and everyone should invest time to learn and dominate the Back Squat technique.
This article and video covers
- What is a Back Squat
- Different Back Squat techniques
- The differences between a High Bar Back Squat and a Low Bar Back Squat
- How low to Squat, what is a full Squat, a Half Squat and a Quarter Squat
- Variations and alternatives to the Back Squat
What is a Back Squat?
The Back Squat is one of the most fundamental exercises.
Because squatting is one of the most fundamental movements, if you want to read up on fundamental movements, have a look at the articles
- How much Strength Training is too much
- What Is The Overhead Squat Good For?
- The Ultimate Guide to Power Cleans
In very simple words, the word ‘back’ in the Back Squat refers to the bar position. Yes, you have the bar on your back or better neck.
There are slight variations in the Back Squat and some people refer to a High Bar Back Squat and a Low Bar Back Squat.
With the High Bar Back Squat technique, you place the bar high on your shoulder/neck, with the Low Bar Back Squat technique. The difference between High Bar Back Squat vs Low Bar Back Squat would go beyond the scope of this article and will be the subject of a separate article.
In a nutshell, the High Bar Back Squat technique requires you to stay more upright and allows you to descend a bit lower and the Low Bar Back Squat technique allows you to lean further forward, engage your posterior chain more and generally allows for greater loads to be lifted but also sacrifices depth of the squat.
The High Bar Back Squat tends to have a closer grip and narrower stance than the Low Bar Back Squat.
The table below offers an overview of the main differences.
High Bar Back Squat
Low Bar Back Squat
|Bar high on shoulders||Bar below rear deltoids|
|Close grip / forearms parallel||Wide grip|
|Narrow(er) stance||Wide(r) stance|
|Upright upper body||Forward lean|
|Greater depth achieved||Less depth achieved|
|Shin angle parallel to upper body angle||Shin angle vertical|
|More activation of anterior chain||More activation of posterior chain|
|Lesser total load lifted||Greater total loads lifted|
Please note, that some of the points are facts, some points are just a result of the bar position, and you need to understand cause and effect.
My favorite phrase to explain the difference between cause and effect is ‘In a tornado a turkey can fly.’
What does that have to do with High Bar and Low Bar Back Squats?
The cause of having the bar higher on the shoulders has the effect that you can achieve a greater depth. The same is true in reverse for the lower bar position.
The cause that in the Low Bar Back Squat you squat less deep, has the effect that greater total loads can be lifted.
Squat Depth or How low to Squat?
The question of how low to squat and what is the correct squat depth is an ongoing discussion and most of the times based on believes much rather than facts.
However, squat depth can define objectively and the Back Squat can be classified into
- a full Back Squat
- a half Back Squat
- a quarter Back Squat
The Full Back Squat is characterized by a knee angle of 60 degrees or less (the reference point is if you stand upright with extended legs is 180 degrees). In the bottom position, the crease of the hip is lower than the mid-point of the knee when viewed from the side. Some people also refer to a deep Back Squat.
The Half Back Squat is characterized by a knee angle of 90 degrees and a Quarter Back Squat is characterized by a knee angle of 120 degrees.
|60° knee angle||90° knee angle||120° knee angle|
The characteristics of the knee angle also apply for the Front Squat and Overhead Squat.
Back Squat Technique: How to do a Back Squat
To give you an overview of the Back Squat technique, check out the article
Or have a look at the Back Squat technique analysis videos
Why Back Squats are bad?
What? You might be asking, first I explain all advantages of the Back Squat and now Back Squats are bad?
As every other strength training exercise, the Back Squat is a great exercise and a must in every strength training program, if you can perform the exercise correctly and safely.
However I have experienced a certain phenomenon with a few athletes, that they become obsessed with Back Squats and subconsciously rate the importance of the Back Squat higher than it should be.
In my world of improving sports performance and preventing injuries, the Back Squat (again as any other exercise) is a means to an end, it’s not the end in itself.
And for some reason, some athletes can’t perform Back Squats. That might be because of body proportions, functional limitations in mobility and flexibility, injury or many other reasons.
In these instances, it’s important to understand, that there are valuable alternatives for the Back Squat.
What are Back Squat alternatives?
Why should you have alternatives to the Back Squat, if it’s the mother of all exercises?
Well, there are a few people who simply can’t do Back Squats and I have trained athletes who never got the Back Squat technique right. Not many, but a few, it’s important to understand that the Back Squat is not irreplaceable and you can use effective alternatives.
What should you do?
In my opinion, you still want them to squat, so look at a variation that is close to the Back Squat, that they can use and execute.
Possible examples from my experience?
Well, that depends pretty much on the fact why they can’t Back Squat.
I have seen athletes who simply couldn’t get into the right position, sitting back and maintaining balance.
How can you spot this?
Most of the times they can’t achieve full depth and are leaning forward, and the deeper the go, the more they stick their butt out and lean forward, so the Back Squat turns into a Good Morning.
Or, sometimes you see, they can achieve full depth, but in order to maintain balance on the front foot they use a different strategy to lean forward – they round their lower back. In these instances, it’s important to understand cause and effect, because rounding the lower back or some people call it the ‘butt wink’ is often associated with physical limitations and mobility issues. So it is important not to jump to conclusions too early.
How can you spot this?
These people have problems with balancing, so if you put a counterbalance into their hands and let them squat, they can execute a good squat without rounding their lower back and you know it’s not a mobility issue.
The easiest way for most of those athletes is if you put a weight plate into their hands and let them squat with the arms extended to the front.
If they are able to do this, you can put them onto Goblet Squats or hands-free Front Squats.
And there you already have the solution to what squat variation they can do – Front Squats.
What if someone really can’t Back Squat because of physical limitations?
Even though there has been a bit of discussion in the last years, that people from different ethnicities have different shapes of hips and a different anatomical structure, therefore these people should Back Squat, or at least not perform a full Back Squat.
However, from my experience, I can’t confirm that. There is only one athlete I have worked with, that comes to my mind who had this issue of not being able to perform a full squat due to physical limitations. He and I tried really hard to get him to squat and we did multiple assessments and decided to look for an alternative.
In this case, he also could do Front Squats, so we looked at single leg variations and found that he can perform Bulgarian Split Squat without problems and replaced the Back Squat with Bulgarian Split Squats.
So, if you want to replace the Back Squat, look at the cause why the athlete can perform a Back Squat and find the appropriate alternative.
Concluding What is a Back Squat
Squatting is a fundamental movement pattern and the Back Squat is one of the best strength training exercises to train that fundamental movement pattern.
Different variations of the Back Squat exist, such as a High Bar Back Squat and a Low Bar Back Squat and both variations have different characteristics and different applications.
The Back Squat should be an integral part of any strength training program. For the few who are not able to perform the Back Squat safely and correctly, there are valuable alternatives that can be implemented into the strength training program.