The Fundamentals of the Back Squat

The Back Squat is one of the most fundamental exercises in the strength training, some people go to such length and call it the mother of all exercises.

I am not too sure whether I agree, that it is the mother of all exercises, but it’s certainly one of the best exercises or movement to build strength and power.

This article outlines

What is a Back Squat?

Simply speaking, a Back Squat is a variation of a Squat, where you place a bar on your back and squat.

There are two variations of the Back Squat, a high bar Back Squat and a low bar Back Squat.

On the high bar Back Squat the bar is placed higher on your back, specifically on the top of your traps. This leads to a more upright posture while squatting and you are able to descent further, squat deeper than in a low bar Back Squat.

On the low bar Back Squat the bar is placed much lower on your back, below the rear deltoids. This position feels very unnatural in the beginning and needs some practice if done correctly it feels as if the bar is rolling down your back. The lower bar position leads to a greater forward lean in the descent and results in less squatting depth.

For this article, I will focus on the high bar Back Squat since it’s most commonly used.

How deep should a Back Squat be?

There are a plethora of opinions when it comes to squatting depth. These opinions range from a preventative standpoint to angular specificity in a certain sport.

Let’s stay away from these opinions and discussions and define what a Squat is depending on squatting depth. These categories can be used for the different variations of a squat, such as Front Squat, Overhead Squat, etc.

Let’s start top down:

A Quarter Squat refers to a knee angle being around 120 degrees (180 degrees is fully extended knees).

Check out Double Olympian BMX Supercross Twan van Gendt performing a Quarter Squat from the rack

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A Half Squat refers to a knee angle of 90 – 100 degrees.

Check out Track Cyclist and Olympic Champion 2016 Elis Ligtlee, performing a Half Squat, you can see, that the crease of the hip is slightly higher than the top of the knee (please disregard, my weird spotting position, sometimes, you need to get creative)

A Full Squat refers to a knee angle of 60 degrees, with the crease of the hip being lower than the knees.

Check out 2020 Olympic Champ, 2015 & 2020 World Champion in BMX Supercross Niek Kimmann performing a full squat, where the crease of the hip is lower than the top of the knee in the bottom position.

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A Deep Squat refers to a squat, where the hamstring makes contact with the calf in the lowest position. You can’t literally go any deeper.

Check out Track Cyclist and 2020 Olympic Champ, and 2-time World Champion Roy van den Berg performing a deep squat (yes, it’s a Front Squat, however, you can see the depth of the squat quite well)

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Why Back Squats?

Squatting in itself is a fundamental movement and a very natural movement. If we look at children for example, especially before they hit puberty and the growth spurt kicks in, we can see they squat down all the time and it is very natural for them to stay in this position. We can see the full squat position replaces sitting as a resting position in different cultures or as Wikipedia puts it ‘Among Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Eastern European adults, squatting often takes the place of sitting or standing.’  but somehow it seems we have forgotten how to squat in the western world.

Concluding, the squatting pattern is very natural and the Back Squat is one of the best exercises to train that pattern.

From a strength training perspective, the Back Squat trains almost every muscle in the body imaginable and is a real ‘head to toe exercise’. Obviously, the lower body as this is the part that moves the weight up and down, but also the upper body, since this part has to stabilize the weight on your shoulders. This is the reason why you hardly see anyone with a strong lower body and a tiny upper body.

@jeffreyhoogland #backsquat 210kg vs 220kg

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What muscles do Back Squats work?

As mentioned before, the Back Squat works almost every muscle in the body. Prime movers in the Back Squat are the quadriceps, responsible for the knee extension and the glutes, responsible for the hip extension.

The lower back plays a major role since it has to stabilize the weight and very often we can see that the lower back is the weakest link in the chain. Which means, the total weight that is lifted is limited by the strength of the lower back.

The hamstring and calves assist in the lower body and if you have done full squats, where the thighs break the parallel position you probably felt your hamstrings the following day.

Check out this table outlining the muscular activation of the Back Squat.

What is the prime mover in a Back Squat

For more details, check out the article What is the prime mover in the Back Squat?

Why Back Squats are important for athletes?

Looking at the movement of the squat, it trains the flexion and extension of the hip and knees. A special variation often used in track & field also uses the extension of the ankle at the end of the ascent and therefore trains, the extension of the hip, knee, and ankle (the triple extension).

The flexion and extension can be seen in a lot of movement patterns in sports where running and jumping are involved and the Back Squat can help to train this pattern.

Looking at the activation of motor units, especially the recruitment of motor units and combine it with the athletes’ ability to lift heavy loads I the Back Squat, we can see the beneficial effect of the Back Squat on motor unit activation. Hence you won’t find a lot of other exercises that will allow you to maximally recruit the motor units in the lower body as the Back Squat does!

Ceck out more benefits of strength training for athletes in the article Why is strength training important for athletes?

How to do a Back Squat

From a technical standpoint, the Back Squat technique consists of four different phases

  • start position
  • descent
  • bottom position
  • ascent

Please have a look at this video, where I explain the details of the Back Squat technique or refer to the entire article on How to do a Back Squat including video and description

How much should I Back Squat?

I have discussed training frequency and the amount of Back Squats recommended in a week, as well as how to sequence the Back Squats and different loading patterns in the article Increasing your Back Squat – How much and how often to Squat 

What are some quantifiable numbers on how much you should be able to Back Squat in relation to your bodyweight?

You have probably read, that athletes should be able to Back Squat two times their body weight. In my opinion, that is not a very sophisticated or differentiated statement, since Back Squat strength depends on various factors, which I will discuss in a few moments.

First and foremost I would like to mention that squat depth is probably the biggest differentiator on squatting strength. Squatting to thighs parallel can by no means be compared to squatting below parallel. Everyone who has tried it knows, that these few centimeters make a huge difference in the load being lifted.

Which brings me to the next point, when we train or test the Back Squat, it is of utmost importance to standardize the squat depth! I have seen it too often that once the weight gets heavier or towards the end of the set when repetitions get heavier squat depth is sacrificed. In my opinion, in these instances, the test result or repetitions should not count.

The reason being is, you are comparing apples with oranges and the worst thing is the influence it has on your training.

You are testing a Half Squat and expect to work on the according to the percentage in a Full Squat, which you will set yourself up for failure. Or if you are a coach, you will set your athletes up for failure.

Let’s look at the question of how much weight should you Back Squat related to your bodyweight and the factors influencing that relation.

The gender: from my experience, it is more achievable for men to get to two times bodyweight than for women

The individual: I have had athletes trying so hard to get stronger in the Back Squat and they just didn’t make the same progress as some of their peers. The sad truth is, not everyone is made for the same magnitude of strength gains. However, everyone who trains hard and is committed will make gains!

The sport: I have worked with athletes across different sports and I have worked with athletes from endurance sports. These athletes have been (and probably still are) very committed. But just by the nature of their sport and the amount of other training (such as endurance training) haven’t allowed them to make the same strength gains as athletes from more strength and power dominant sports. One thing you need to also ask yourself, how strongly do you need to be in the sport? For example, I have worked with sports like Equestrian or Shooting and the question to ask, how much better will it make the athlete in their sport if you are chasing a big Back Squat number?

Ok, so let’s get to some quantifiable numbers, based on my experience working with different athletes in different sports.

Back Squat standards

Why Back Squats are bad

Probably the headline should be, ‘when Back Squats are bad?’

Just a few words of caution here, I have had athletes that became obsessed with the Back Squat and were more interested in chasing a Back Squat number, than seeing the Back Squat as what it is.

In training with athletes, the Back Squat is a means to an end, not the end in itself!

Secondly, no single exercise is irreplaceable and so is the Back Squat. The Back Squat offers numerous benefits, but I have been in a position, where I had athletes, that simply couldn’t perform the Back Squat in a safe way.

If you or your athletes are not able to execute the Back Squat safely, then you simply need to replace the exercise.

But, I have to say these occasions were very rare and I have seen too often that athletes have been taken off training Back Squats to early with the reason they can’t perform the Back Squat technique properly, where in my opinion the correct answer would have been training the Back Squat technique for longer until the athlete has mastered the Back Squat technique.

A solid 205 kg #backsquat from @twanvangendt #backsquats #strengthtraining

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Fundamental Back Squat Conclusions

The Squat is a very natural and fundamental movement and the Back Squat is one of the best exercises to train that movement pattern.

The Back Squat is a true ‘head to toe exercise’ and trains literally every muscle in the human body and important for athletes since it positively carries over to sports where jumping and landing is involved.

Back Squat strength is dependent on various factors, such as gender, the individual and the sport.

Whether you are an athlete or just ambitiously training, invest time in learning the Back Squat technique and once you have acquired the Back Squat technique, work on getting a stronger Back Squat.

What to read next?

How often should I Back Squat

The Holy Grail of Strength Training – Sets and Reps