6 min read

Back Squat Skill

There is no way around this, squatting is an essential movement. When you get up from your chair, you’re squatting.

Sit down on the toilet, squatting. Asian and aboriginal cultures famously hang out in the bottom of a squat position instead of chairs even.

Jumping from one or two feet? Squatting!

Most everything you do with your lower body is a variation of a squatting type movement.

Most every sport requires a variation of squatting.

Running is almost an alternating partial single leg squat done at high speed with a horizontal vector force instead of a vertical force vector found in something like a back squat.

Much of the same muscles are actually involved just activated in a different patterning sequence.

When most people tell me it hurts to squat or they don’t like squatting, I’m almost 99% sure that’s because no one every taught them how to do it correctly.

Squatting is a skill, you have to practice it like any other skill like adding and subtracting or writing.

The above video (since removed) was a reader whom agreed that I would critique his squat, in exchange for putting his video on my blog.

If you have an exercise video you’d like me to take a look at, I’m happy to help, send me an email at darren@fettle.ca or contact me on twitter @darren_beattie.

Before I discuss this particular back squat, I must say that his form is actually pretty good.

I also have to say that although it is a back squat, it’s technically a back box squat because he has a box behind him predetermining his depth.

This is a common trick used in the fitness world to teach people how to squat better and feel the end range of motion.

The end range (bottom of the squat in this case) is where most people have the greatest amount of trouble in a variety of lifts.

Due to difficulty, this is why people at the gym often rely on a quarter or half squat over full-range squats.

However, ego aside, the further quality range of motion you have in your squat I would argue the better back health (among other things) you will experience.

They also improve mobility and quality of movement.

There are relatively minor changes everyone can make (with a little coaching) to nearly every single lift out there, so the little suggestions here doesn’t mean he’s doing it completely wrong, just that he could do it a little bit better.

Here is a rundown of the things he’s doing right:

1. Bar is back onto the meaty part of his upper traps and shoulders.

It is NOT on the back of his neck creating compression on the spine (I do not recommend a towel or cushion for any kind of squatting as it alters the position too much from ideal unless you have access to a safety squat bar and most people do not)

2. Spine for the most part remains in a mostly neutral position (curve in at the neck, curve out at the upper spine, curve in at the lower lumbar spine) through the majority of the lift.

3. Weight is shifted predominantly back onto his heels, hips break first and shoot back. If you look at the centre of the bar it aligns with about the front of the heel or middle of the foot, that’s ideal.

4. Knees do not excessively shoot beyond his feet, putting strain on the knees or weight onto the balls of his feet.

You won’t be able to keep your shins perfectly perpendicular to the ground, but that is essentially the aim.

What he should probably work on:

1. Improving knee alignment.

They should be in line with his hips and ankles. It’s tough to see from this angle, but if you saw him from a head-on position, it looks as though his knees track at least slightly inside of his hip to ankle line creating inward knee stress — or ‘medial’ knee stress most likely on the medial collateral ligament of the knee — and it is particularly noticeable as he fatigues.

If your toes are pointed outward to a twenty or thirty degree angle the knees should be pushed out to follow that angle, so driving the knees away from one another is a good cue.

This recruits the gluteal muscles better (the biggest most powerful muscles of the lower body) and contributes to a stronger squat, while protecting his knee joint.

Drive the knees away from one another when you squat, as if you were trying to rip the floor between your legs into two pieces.

In a two legged squat such as this, often the weight is towards the outside off the foot and on the heels.

A potentially good warm-up exercise for him would be a body weight squat with a band around his knees and other variations of that corrective exercise.

2. Reducing his twist.

I believe his twist is within a safe range, most everybody is not perfectly symmetrical when they squat so provided he doesn’t have a huge shift, this is of minor importance.

You can notice that has a slight twist where the bar drifts forward on his right side and slightly back on his left side.

This is often indicative of a right-handed lifter who will try to internally rotate on his or her right hip, while externally rotating on his more stable and secure feeling left hip.

You’d think righties would feel more comfortable pushing from their perceptually stronger right leg, but stability and strength do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Often this means he’ll have to stretch his left hip into more internal rotation and possibly try to de-activate his left gluteal muscles a little through static and dynamic stretching protocols.

He may also want to strengthen his left ADDuctors (internal rotators), with a band or mobilization drill.

He’ll also want to strengthen his right hip gluteal muscles a little and stretch that hip through more external rotation so that his internal and external rotation is more even through his hips.

3. Improving Trunk Strength

Specifically increasing Anterior Core tension/control and most likely Psoas strength at the bottom of this squat.

It’s tough to see from this angle but I notice some slight sacral tucking and a little bit of a bulge near L2.

Psoas predominantly helps to stabilize the pelvis relative to the spine and legs, among several other functions.

It attaches to the lower spine and pulls it forward to maintain neutral spine position particularly in the bottom of a squat.

When most people think of the core, they think six pack. “Core Training” is really the buzz word for, “trunk training” though, or the part of the body between the pelvis/hips and the bottom of the ribcage.

Therefore anything that crosses through that area of the body like psoas or illiacus, quadratus lumborum, and many other fancy pants latin named muscles, is technically considered a “core muscle.”

Psoas strengthening done in conjunction with some other static (not moving) core training might significantly help with the bottom range of this particular squat. Psoas needs some static work above 90 degrees of hip flexion, which may require some coaching but a should progress from something like the video below.

A corrective exercise to put in the warm-up (1-2 sets) or at the end of a workout in greater repetition (2-4 sets at the end even) is to try 3 x 10 second holds of this:


More Recommendations:

Like all other exercises, it’s a skill that can be learned through deliberate practice, essentially constantly refining the technique.

I’ve been squatting for 15 years and I still make improvements.

Generally speaking I teach people how to body weight squat in combination with a goblet squat or a low cable squat first.

Once they’ve worked up to a 45 lbs Goblet Squat, we learn to front squat with a barbell (typically starting with a cross-grip vs an olympic grip, which we’ll learn later depending).

Once they’ve learned to front squat, then we move onto a back squat, and we finish learning the overhead squat, which is by far the most difficult of the bunch to learn as a skill.

Anyways, this video starts with the back squat, which in my experience can take novices 1-12 months to progress to, so be patient.

Now it looks as though he has about 165 lbs on the bar (two 45 lbs plates, with two 10 lbs plates and two 5 lbs plates) and he does five repetitions.

So what do I recommend people work towards in the back squat?

Generally speaking I think most everybody (depending on age) should focus first on squatting just their body weight with excellent technique.

Then they should focus on getting their body weight on the bar.

From there most people can easily learn to back squat about one and a half times their body weight, even women.

Keep in mind that this is a 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM), meaning the amount of weight that someone can do a maximum of one time, and that it may take a while to achieve this (but it’s worth it).

Try this tool out to see where you are relatively speaking.

Ben Johnson famously back squatted 600 lbs for three reps and his trainer, the late Charlie Francis questioned, ‘why add more?’

Certainly there is a limit to which back squatting a certain amount of weight becomes a useless or pointless endeavor, even in terms of performance.

However, this hasn’t stopped the powerlifting community from challenging the upper levels of human limits by back squatting more than 1000 lbs.

If that’s what you’d like to do, by all means, enjoy yourself.

For general health and wellness I like my recommendations better. I’ve also come to believe that if you want to loss fat, upping the squat is critical.

If you’re wondering what other advantages learning to squat more equates to, check out this post on Quora.