How to Improve Your Back Squat

Things are going great in the gym. You’re hitting PRs on your lifts, you’re adding muscle and burning fat, but eventually your gym progress is going to hit a point where it stalls. You can’t put five more pounds on your push jerks. You can’t stand up the weight you’re trying to clean. You can’t get to the next higher box jump.

Guess what?

It just may be time to focus on improving your back squat.

Having a better squat and stronger squat pattern will translate to increased performance across the board (and a more voluptuous bum), even in lifts where it seems your legs aren’t as important since all of our power is generate from the lower half.

The squat can aid in:

  • Developing a strong posterior chain that allows you to better extend your hips. Hip extension = power.
  • Strong quads to aid in sprinting and jumping.
  • A solid core to hold weight without collapsing and maintain isometric holds.
  • Creating a stronger back for all of your pulling/pushing and rowing exercises.

The following will take you quickly through the squat, from the set-up to re-racking the weight. It is by no means all-inclusive, but hopefully will provide some hints and tips to help you increase your back squat.

1. The Set Up

First you want to know where to place the bar on your back. Most people will benefit most from training a high bar squat, where the bar sits across the meaty part of your traps. A high bar squat will allow you to keep your back more upright (under reasonable weight), is slightly more quadriceps dominant, and can allow greater depth in the hips. high bar squat will force the lifter to maintain a more upright position so that it is easier to keep the hips under the bar.

Just before un-racking the bar, both feet should be firmly planted under your shoulders in preparation to receive the weight. The core needs to be fully braced in order to transfer the force from your legs to move the bar. And finally, the walk out of the rack should be taken in as few steps as possible. You only need one step backward with each foot to step away from the uprights, and then one more side step for width adjustments, if necessary. All of your energy should be saved for the squat and not wasted in the set-up.

Here is an internal training video where Level 3 Coach Ashley Pritz is demonstrating how she instructs the back squat set-up:

2. The Descent (Eccentric)

Bracing for the descent is one of the most important aspects of the squat. How well you brace your core before you descend will make or break the lift. This is accomplished by taking a extremely large breath, filling the belly and pushing out into your obliques in a 360 degree manner. This strong core you’ve created should not move, tilt, or extend in any manner throughout the entire lift. As you take in your bracing breath, you should also also engage your glutes and solidify your (hopefully) already tense upper body. Your weight should be toward the mid-foot and heel to avoid rolling forward on the balls of your feet.

As you descend, your speed should be as quick as your body will allow while still under full control. Every squat rep you perform should be treated as though you have your 1-rep max on your back.

Notice how Coach Mark is focused on being under control on the descent and then speed on the way up. It is NOT the other way around.

Your warm-up speed and effort should look exactly like your top sets.

Last but not least, you need to make sure you are getting below parallel. The crease of your hip should be below the top of your knee at the bottom of you squat. Failing to squat to depth does inhibits full range-of-motion of your leg muscles and you will not fully benefit from your squat workouts.

3. The Ascent (Concentric)

Most people’s sticking point will be just above parallel on the way up. It is rare to get stuck in the absolute rock bottom of the squat if you correctly hold tension and use that stretch reflex to begin your ascent. Things to keep in mind if you start to slow down at this point:

  1. Drive your hips under the bar. Don’t let them shoot back behind you. If that happens, your leverage is off and you have just made the lift exponentially more difficult.
  2. Focus on pushing your upper back and traps into the bar with force.
  3. Don’t give up! Finishing a really difficult squat may be a slow grinder, so keep your form tight, explode upwards by pushing your feet into the floor, and do not stop the second it gets tough.

4. The Top

It’s important that each and every time you complete a rep, you take a second to draw in another purposeful bracing breath into your belly, create tension, and protect the spine. You should never rush a rep with a barbell and it’s perfectly okay to collect yourself at the top. This is the phase of the lift where you set yourself up for success for the rep that follows.

The back squat has many functional and aesthetic benefits, and there is a reason we perform it regularly on our STRENGTH rotation. Spend some time learning it in class, and always look to make improvements with your load and form. It’s the surest way to ensure your progress continues in the gym.