How to Back Squat: The Best Guide Ever

By Ryan Anastoplus

illustrated by Louis Durrant
Special Thanks to Russell Taylor

The squat fairy will help us along the way.

The squat fairy will help us along the way.

If you don’t squat, you should. The squat will make you stronger, build muscle, and be more athletic.  This guide will cover the squat that most people do: the back squat. 

This guide is for you if:

You want to squat but don’t know how.

You squat but want to learn how to do it better.

This guide is not for you if:

You want to get into the finer details of squatting for specific activities (powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, sport performance).

You want to front squat better. I won’t get into front squats in this guide (although the same basic principles apply).

This guide will help you learn the basics of the back squat. We often skip all the basics and get caught up in details that don’t matter. As a result, 9/10 squats are eyesores, but instead of establishing better movement and form, we debate the minutea of accessory movements, programming, and whether we should get $300 shoes or $200 shoes. Most of us don’t need all that. Most of us need to focus on becoming really, really good at squatting before we can think about doing anything else. You can’t have a good pizza if the crust is made of cat turds, and you can’t build a good squat by adding things on top of your programming. We have to work on the base first. 

Our ideas on progression = cat culinary skills

Our ideas on progression = cat culinary skills

The squat is one of the pillars of exercise movement along with the deadlift, upper body pulling, and pressing. If you know how to squat, it makes learning other lower body exercises so much easier. By learning the squat, you’re not only learning essential movements and techniques like the hip hinge, core stability, and full body tension, you’re learning to use your posterior chain—the most powerful collection of muscles on the body.

 

When combined, the muscles of the posterior chain form Muscle Tron 5000.

When combined, the muscles of the posterior chain form Muscle Tron 5000.

If you learn these things, it makes picking up other exercises pretty easy because these skills and muscles are the basis of strength training.

Reading this guide may fill your head with information, but being a good lifter comes down to practice. To become good at something you have to do it, a lot. People often assume mastering the squat happens in a matter of weeks. While most people can take their squat from cat shit pizza to a fine margarita in with an hour or two of coaching, mastering the squat can take years. Don’t let that dissuade you though. The process of learning the squat is the most fun, since you get to try and learn new things each week.

The Muscles You’ll Use

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The following muscles are the prime movers in the squat: 

Quads: the four muscles of the quadriceps are responsible for knee extension (extending your foot up). The rectus femoris also aids in hip flexion (lifting your knee up).

Hamstrings: the three muscles of the hamstrings are responsible for flexion of the knee (bending your foot back towards your butt) and extension of the hip (pushing you knee back down). 

Glutes: the Gluteus Maximus is one of the most powerful muscles in the body. The glues are responsible for hip extension. 

Core: the “core” is made of the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis, multifidus, obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae. Your ability to have them work in synchronicity results in core stability.

Laws of Force

Postive force transfer results in happy diners.

Postive force transfer results in happy diners.

Imagine you’re a server and it’s your first day on the job. On your first order, a table full of mob bosses order large bowls of chili—that’s 7 bowls of chili. You haven’t even been trained on how to hold a tray, and now you have to walk across the restaurant with 7 large chilis on one tray. If you drop the chili, the mob will probably kill you. Where do you hold the tray?

A) In the center. 

B) Off center

The answer is A.

If they tray was dropped, it would fall straight down. To hold the tray in place, you have to counter the force of gravity with the equal force. Holding he tray off center would unevenly distribute force and make the tray off balance. 

Uneven force transfer results in wasted food and/or death.

Uneven force transfer results in wasted food and/or death.

 The same principle can be applied to your squat. In both cases you are fighting downward force, and to be successful against it, you must produce a greater force. 

As a result of spilling the chili, the mob has taken you hostage and is making you do 10 squats or else you die. What is the best way to get out this alive?

A) take the valuable lesson you learned about force and use it to squat

B) ask if they have a leg press machine

the answer is A.

As you learned during your time as a server, criminals don’t tip well. This should hint to you that they wouldn’t budget for a leg press machine.

You also learned that holding weight is representative of downward force. Force is a product of mass (weight of the object) x acceleration (speed of gravity).  By holding a barbell on your back, you are fighting downward force, just like when you’re holding a tray of food. The barbell is your center of gravity. Your only job in a squat is to overcome downward force. Downward force in a squat moves in a straight line, so you should move the bar in a straight line. To achieve this, the bar should align with the center of your foot. 

In the squat, you generate force from your hips and legs. To transfer force from your hips and legs to the bar, everything under the bar (aka, your whole body) must stay rigid. That’s why bracing and full-body tension is so important. It’s like if you tried to unscrew a bolt with a wrench, and the handle of the wrench turned into a noodle. You’d immediately lose leverage and the ability to transfer force. On the plus side, you have a noodle. 

Noodle wrench: incredibly useless, or incredibly delicious?

Noodle wrench: incredibly useless, or incredibly delicious?

Moments and Moment Arms

Moment arms

Let’s say you’re a carpenter for the mob. You’ve built furniture for all the mob guys for years. Little do they know, you buy all of it from Ikea and  put it together with a little multi tool. One day they found out and tell you to squat 10 times or die. 

How do you get out of this alive?

A) realize you’ve been training the squat your entire life by understanding moment arms when tightening bolts with wrench

B) offer them a Dominos gift card.

Answer is A, unless you have a dominos card for every member of the gang.

As you know from being a fake carpenter, a moment is the leverage you create when rotating the bolt. 

The moment arm is the distance between the axis of rotation (the bolt) and point of force (where you press the wrench). 

When you hip hinge for the squat, your hip and the barbell become the moment arm. In the squat,  your hip is the axis of rotation (the bolt) and gravity—the invisible line going straight down from the barbell—is the point of force. In the squat, you have moment arms the hip and the knee.  Imagine the barbell as the end of the wrench, and the hip as the bolt, we can begin to see how we must apply force to create a successful squat. 

Left: force from the hip and legs transfer efficently since the point of force is lined up with the barbell. Right: the barbell is misaligned form the point of force, creating a lot of extra work to move the weight.

Left: force from the hip and legs transfer efficently since the point of force is lined up with the barbell. Right: the barbell is misaligned form the point of force, creating a lot of extra work to move the weight.

Also consider the moment between the bar and the mid foot. Creating a moment arm between the bar and mid foot creates a lot of uncessary work (pictured). The squat becomes off balance if the barbell is not in line with the mid foot, since force is no longer applied to the bar vertically.   

Bracing

The best henchmen know how to brace.

The best henchmen know how to brace.

Let’s say you’re a hit man for the mob. They call you Iron Gut Gus because you can take any hit to your stomach no problem. Everyone thinks you’re a really tough guy, but the truth is, you’re just really good at bracing. For the past 6 months, you’ve been skimming some cash from The Family. You were sneaky about it, but as a henchman, you’re admittedly not the smartest or sneakiest guy. The boss finds out, and says you have to do 10 squats or die. What do you do?

A) Brace for each squat

B) Say you were holding it for a friend 

The answer is A. I know from experience B never works.

Bracing your core involves much more than flexing your abs. Ab strength has very little to do with core strength or stability. Core strength and stability is when the muscles of your abdominals, back, pelvic girdle, and diaphragm all work together to protect the spine. Achieving this is a matter of learning how to breath the right way.

To brace your core, take a deep breath into your stomach hold it, then try to force it back out but stopping it at your throat. You should feel pressure building up inside. This is called intra-abdominal pressure and is the most effective method to stabilize your core. Imagine your belly as a balloon and your trying to fill it up as much as possible. You should feel your stomach expand sideways and outwards. 

The force generated at your legs and hips will not transfer to the bar if you’re not braced.  If you lack full body tension, it doesn’t matter how strong your legs are, your squat will suck. That’s one big factor in why some people can leg press 700lbs but can can’t squat 225lbs.

How to Squat for Real

The Don lifts.

The Don lifts.

Let’s imagine you’re the mafia boss that ordered all the failed death-by-squats. In your mind, squats are the hardest thing in the world, and there’s no way someone can do 10 barbell squats. You are shocked and embarrassed to see these average criminals do them with such ease. You decide to hire a personal trainer to become the best squatter in the mob. 

Squat Must-Haves

There is no right or wrong way to squat. Everyone squats a little differently due to their anatomy. No matter how you squat, each squat needs to have a few things in common:

Toes and Knees in Alignment

Feet Stable

Hip hinge

Hip torque

Core stability/full body tension

Hip drive

 

Toes and Knees in Alignment

The squat fairy approves.

The squat fairy approves.

 Test your squat mobility by squatting with feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead (a slight outward angle is ok). If you cannot perform a full squat with this stance, you might have some mobility issues. To pass this test, you should be able to comfortably squat deep enough so the crease of your hip is level with or below your knees.

When performing the barbell squat, angling your toes out will help you achieve better depth and more stability. Choose a toe angle that is most comfortable. No matter what your stance, keep your toes and knees in alignment. Doing so will provide your knees and hips with stability.

 

Feet Stable

Establish 3 points of contact on your feet.

Establish 3 points of contact on your feet.

You don’t have to look at the whole squat to spot an wobbly squat. All you have to look at are the feet. Often times, we see feet lifting off the ground either from the sides or from the heel. 

Once you have your foot position set, establish 3 contact points on your foot: big toe, pinky toe, and heel. Simply digging in your big toe to the ground and flexing the arch in your foot often does the trick. If your feet move around, lift at the heel or front he sides during your squat, you have an unstable base to push the weight from.  Set the contact points before your squat and once again at the bottom.

Hip Torque  

Create tension in the glutes and hips on the decent and ascent of the squat. This will keep your knees and toes in line, and create torque (rotational force) in your hip drive. The most common cues that help with this are:

Spread the floor

Force your feet away from each other, as if you were trying to tear the ground beneath you in half.

Force your feet away from each other, as if you were trying to tear the ground beneath you in half.

Screw your feet into the floor

Turn your right foot clockwise and your left foot counterclockwise.

Turn your right foot clockwise and your left foot counterclockwise.

Push your knees out

Push your knees away from you.

Push your knees away from you.

Hip Hinge

Hip hinge

The squat and deadlift teach us how to use our hips to move heavy weights. In both movements, the hip hinge is an essential part of the movement. Every squat begins with a hip hinge—driving the hips back and your chest forwards—to engaging the posterior chain. 

Here’s how to hip hinge

  • Maintain a straight back braced core

  • Keep your knees slightly bent

  • Push your butt out, imagine being pulled at the waist

  • You should feel a decent stretch in your hamstrings

An easy way to feel if you’ve maintained a straight back is by placing the back of your open hand on your lower back through the movement. You’ll be able to feel if your back rounds or not. 

 

Postural Integrity & Full Body Tension

Maintaining postural integrity in the barbell squat is crucial—while most people worry about knee injuries in the squat, back injuries are far more common.  As we discussed above, your body is essentially a series of levers working against gravity to lift a weight. Any weak point in a lever will result in failure to move the weight and/or an injury.  

 

Hip Drive

Left: with hip drive, Right: without hip drive

Left: with hip drive, Right: without hip drive

The muscle group of your hips are made of the hamstrings, glutes, adductors. These are the biggest movers in your squat, providing power out of the bottom and through any sticking points. Failure to use hip drive will end up in you folding over into a “squat morning,” wherein your knees extend before your your hips. Another common fault is pushing your hips forwards instead of upward, which creates a mechanical disadvantage for your squats by putting a bulk of the work on your quads. If you cannot create effective hip drive, you’ll never be a strong squatter. 

 

Step 1: The Bodyweight Squat

Bodyweight squat

 

When performing the bodyweight squat for warmups, mobility screens, or learning/teaching the movement, it’s helpful to do it barefooted and with your toes pointed straight forward. This will bring to light any mobility issues, and being barefoot will help you feel any stability issues.

Here’s how to perform a bodyweight squat: 

  • Extend your arms in front of you, it’ll help you maintain an upright trunk. Aim to keep your arms and ground parallel.

  • As you descent into the squat, there are two ways to hip hinge:

  1. Break with your hips first: keep your shins straight as long as possible as you decent.

  2. Break with your hip and knees at the same time: your chest and hips should decent together.

  • Breaking as the knees too early will shift your weight too far forward and you’ll end up off balance. At the bottom, you weight should be evenly distributed on your feet.

  • The primary driver on the ascent are your hips. Make sure your chest and hips rise together, and your knees stay in alignment with your toes.

Once you can do 3-5 sets of 10-15 bodyweight squats with relative ease, move on to the goblet squat.

Step 2: The Goblet Squat

Goblet squats can be performed with kettlebells, dumbbells, or goblets filled with Mr. Pibb, as pictured.

Goblet squats can be performed with kettlebells, dumbbells, or goblets filled with Mr. Pibb, as pictured.

The goblet squat is a good progression the bodyweight squat. Holding the weight in front of you acts as a counter weight, and will help you maintain balance. 

Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell at chest level, balance the weight against the heel of your hand. Keep your elbows in tight against your body, engage your lats, and squat.

Progress using the same sets and reps as the bodyweight squat, but increase the weight as you feel comfortable.  

Step 3: The Barbell Back Squat

Bar Placement 

Left: high bar, Right: low bar

Left: high bar, Right: low bar

Approach the bar at chest height. If you squeeze your shoulder blades together, you’ll create a “meat shelf” for the barbell. These are your traps. Play with your positioning and find where the bar is most comfortable. The bar should rest on your back without pain. For a lot of people, placing the bar just under the C7 spinous process (that bone that juts out of your neck when you look down) works well. If you feel you need to use a pad to alleviate pain from the bar, you’re probably placing the bar in the wrong spot or not creating a meaty enough shelf.

For the low bar squat, you will rest the bar on the rear delts. The rear delts are less meaty and less shelfy, they’re more like meat trays. 

Which is better: low bar or high bar?

We’re not going to debate minutea here because it really doesn’t matter that much. The best squat form is the one that’s you feel most comfortable and strong in. The low bar squat is the most popular in the powerlifting because in general, it shifts the leverage to the hips resulting in less knee travel and thus, a shorter range of motion. 

Grip

How you grip the bar is your preference, but for most people, a narrower grip helps keep their upper back tight. However, your grip width does not directly influence you how tight you can get, it just feels easier or more natural with a narrower grip. Do what’s more comfortable for you.

 

Wrists

From left to right: closed overhand grip, open overhand grip, closed overhand with straps.

From left to right: closed overhand grip, open overhand grip, closed overhand with straps.

A neutral wrist position (wrist joint in-line with the elbow) is ideal but not necessary. Mobility may be a limiting factor. In this case, simply widening your grip is a easy fix. Another solution is to place your thumb over the bar so the heel of your hand rests over the bar. If you prefer to squat with a bent wrist and it causes some discomfort, wrist wraps will help.

 

Elbows

In general, keeping your elbows tucked inline with your torso and close to your body will help create tension in your lats and maintain tightness in your torso.

In a low bar squat, driving the elbows up helps some people to create more stability by engaging their rear delts/meat trays more (the bar rests on the rear delts during the low bar squat). This has a tendency to cause some people’s chests to dip forward, so watch out for that.

Unrack and walkout

The part that gets neglected most often is the unrack and walkout portion of the lift. A good starting position can make or break your lift.  The unrack and walkout should be short and precise.   Unracking the bar is a mini squat. Just like a regular squat, you should brace, get tight, and lift with intention. Next, walk it out. There are two ways to do it: two step and three step.

2 step: better for narrow stance squatters. Two steps back, and adjust your foot angle.

3 step: better for wider stance squatters. Two steps back, and one step to adjust your stance width.

Stance: stand in the most comfortable way. Experiment an bit and you’ll figure it out. Your body will tell you how to squat.


Descent

After establishing 3 points of contact with your feet, create torque in your hips using one of the cues above. Then, brace your core and descent into a squat by either breaking at the hips first or breaking at the knees and hips simultaneously. Don’t worry if it don’t feel perfect right away. Keep experimenting and practicing and you’ll see what feels better for you.

Bottom

At the bottom, make sure you’ve maintained the three points of contact on your feet and the weight feels balanced. You should have full-body tension and the crease of your hip should either be in-line with your knee or below it. 

Ascent

Hips and chest rise together.

Hips and chest rise together.

Your chest and hips should rise at the same time and you should finish he lift with hip drive. You may notice some lifters “bounce” out of the bottom of the hole, or drop down forcefully. This is done to make use of the stretch reflex—when your muscles are stretched, they’ll provide a bit of rebound back, like a slingshot. If you do this, make sure the movement is controlled. Launching yourself out of the hole will do no good if you have no control over the weight. 

Squeeze the bar and shove your elbows under the bar, or let them flare up if you’re low bar squatting. Keep shoving your knees out to maintain torque in your hips while making sure your knees track with your toes and your hips rise with your chest. Did you make a funny face? Probably. That’s part of a good squat too. 


Sticking points

For most of us, the most difficult position in the squat is just above parallel. Why? This is the position where were are at a mechanical disadvantage. In the quarter squat position, your knees and your hips are in a Bermuda Triangle between it’s two strongest positions—the bottom of a squat and the standing upright.

To work around this, focus on the following:

speed out of the hole: the more momentum you have leading up to your sticking point, the easier it’ll be to overcome.

Drive your hips through: As you reach your sticking point, shove your hips forward to finish the lift.

 

Squat Checklist

Must Haves:

  • Toes and Knees in Alignment

  • Feet Stable

  • Hip hinge

  • Hip torque

  • Core stability/full body tension

Up to you:

  • Bar position

  • Grip width

  • Elbow position

  • Head position

  • Stance width

  • Foot angle

  • Hips first or hips and knees together

  • Accessories (sleeves, wraps, shoes)

From here, it will be useful to create your own set of mental cues that you run through during every set and rep. It probably looks like a lot of stuff to think about at first, but with practice, you’ll cut it down to one or two cues. 

 

Couch to Squat Workout

Main movement (in order from easiest to most difficult)

Body weight box squat

Goblet box squat

Goblet full squat

Barbell back squat to box

Barbell back squat

Supporting movements

Leg press

Hamstring curl

Reverse hypers

Bulgarian split squat: front loaded and counter balanced

 

Squat Gear

Belt:  a belt will help you brace better by increasing interabdominal pressure by up to 40%. This will help you lift more weight, more effectively and safely.

Knees wraps: a tight wrap will directly affect your performance ( increasing your lift by up to 10%) and change your technique. If used too much, some may argue that it can lead to compromised knee stability. It’s recommended to only use knee wraps for competition or your heaviest sessions.

Knee sleeves: sleeves will keep your knees warm, but they don’t increase your performance in any way (if you wear them super tight, they’ll provide a small bounce from the hole).

Wrist wraps: if you have wrist pain during squats, wrist wraps will help.

Shoes: any shoe with a solid, non-compressable sole is good. Do you need lifting shoes with a raised heel? Depends on your  mobility. A raised heal can help you squat deeper while staying more upright. Flat soled shoes are popular in powerlifting since the low bar squat doesn’t require much ankle flexibility.

 

Common Questions (and simple solutions)

How do I stop my knees from caving in?
Not all knee cave is bad. But excessive knee cave to where it causes pain is bad. Some easy solutions:

Bring your stance in: your knees caving in may just be your body saying “you’re squatting too wide, asshole!”

Squat with a light band around your knees: the band will cue your body to push out against the band. Try it for a bit and hopefully, the movement will become automatic. 

Do I have to go ass to grass?
 
The simple answer is to squat as deep as you can. Full-depth is different for everyone. Aim to squat at least parallel. If you can go past parallel, even better. Take a video of yourself every now and then to make sure you’re hitting depth and to check on any glaring form errors.

What do I do about butt wink?
 
This is a controversial topic, and there isn’t a conclusive answer to what causes butt wink. Butt wink is when your lower back curves downwards in the bottom of the squat. Butt wink between 5 people could have 5 different causes. Let’s look at two of the most common ones.

Option 1: your hip anatomy is not made to squat deep. If your hips sockets are deep, as your descend into the squat, the femoral neck will pull the pelvis down, and lumbar spine along with it. Test this by stretching your hamstrings and squatting again. If there is zero improvement, it’s not your hamstring’s fault. 

Option 2: tight muscles. Tight hamstrings, glutes, piriformis, adductors or hip flexors may cause butt wink. Stretch and test each muscle  individually to pinpoint the cause. 

Can my knees go over my toes?
 
Yes. While the knees are stressed more when they pass the toes, your muscles will adapt. If you have persisting knee issues, then it’s probably best to avoid it. 

Where do I look?
 
Some people say you have to look up, some say look down, some say keep you spine neutral. I personally believe a neutral spine is most advantageous and feels the most natural when creating hip drive out of the hole but looking up isn’t a deal breaker.  

Sources 

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Chiu, Loren Z F, and Eric Burkhardt. "A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises." Strength and Conditioning Journal33, no. 2 (2011): 46-54. doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e31821100bf.

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Kompf, Justin, and Ognjen Arandjelović. "Understanding and Overcoming the Sticking Point in Resistance Exercise." Sports Medicine46, no. 6 (2016): 751-62. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0460-2.

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Oʼshea, Pat. "Sports Performance Series: The Parallel Squat." National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal7, no. 1 (1985): 4. doi:10.1519/0744-0049(1985)0072.3.co;2.

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