Is There a Correct Way to Back Squat?

Many strength athletes and fitness enthusiasts employ the squat in their strength & conditioning or rehabilitation programs. The squat is a great movement to strengthen the hips, thighs, and back by loading the entire body through a full-body multi-joint exercise. By loading and stressing the entire body, the squat is pretty much required for anyone who wants to achieve any kind of fitness goal.  It is also incredibly beneficial for athletes (whether professional or recreational) looking to run faster or jump higher, as it enhances the ability to put force into the ground. Thus, both athletes and non-athletes have a lot to gain from utilizing the squat in their training programs.

The back squat is arguably the most utilized variation of the squat. It is also arguably the most butchered. But what really constitutes the right way to squat? As it turns out, this is not a black and white issue. Depending on your training goals, your mobility, and many other factors, everything from squat depth to feet width to bar position can vary, and none of these resulting combinations would be wrong. As an example, both of the squats demonstrated here lie within the realm of what’s acceptable, even though their mechanics are different.

For the purpose of this blog post, we are going to outline the general differences between a back squat that is utlilized in weightlifting versus one that is utilized in powerlifting.

Weightlifting (Olympic-style) Back Squat

In the Olympic-style back squat, the bar rests directly on the upper traps and the back (high bar position).  Be careful though that the bar isn’t too high up on the back, or you could put unnecessary stress on the cervical spine.  During this squat, the ideal bar path is a straight line directly over the midfoot throughout the entire range of motion.

Foot position is highly individual and depends on a person’s hip and ankle mobility. Generally speaking, the feet should be somewhere between hip and shoulder width apart, and the toes angled having anywhere from 30-45 degrees outward.  Finally, the torso is almost completely vertical throughout the movement due to the high bar position.

While performing the descent of this squat, two of the big cues that you consciously want to have awareness of are to brace your abs for proper stabilization of the pelvis and rib cage, and to pull the bar down into your upper back in order to create tension of the lats to stabilize the spine. The Olympic-style squat is very knee dominant; this goes hand-in-hand with an upright torso. You want to think about dropping your butt straight down between your heels and allowing your knees to track forward over the toes, with your weight distributed between the ball of the foot and the ankle.  And no, your knees will not explode from doing so. To finish the movement, we simply reverse the movement and keep our weight distributed evenly over the midfoot, while maintaining tension and putting as much force back down into the ground as possible.

Between the torso angle, lack of the hips tracking back, and allowing the knees to track forward, this squat ends up becoming much deeper than those typically seen in powerlifting.  We want to squat as low as possible to maintain stability, and ideally will wind up with the calves meeting the hamstrings.

M. Rogers bottom positionIt also makes sense to squat deep here. The lower you can drop into a squat, the better your chances are of catching a heavy clean or a heavy snatch: crucial skills to succeed in weightlifting. Thus, deep squats must be trained if weightlifting is your sport of choice.

Powerlifting Back Squat

Many of the important aspects of the Olympic-style squat carry over to the powerlifting squat.  However, largely due to the requirements of the sport, as well as bar position and torso angle, the actual mechanics of the squat change slightly in powerlifting.

In a powerlifting squat, the bar should be approximately 2-3 inches lower than that in the Olympic-style squat. This means that the bar should sit closer to the mid-traps.  Due to this bar position, the torso can’t remain as upright, and it must pinch forward slightly in order for the squatter to maintain an optimal center of gravity.  Additionally, trying to keep a vertical torso with a lower bar position can cause a great amount of irritation in the glenohumeral joint due to the large amount of external rotation required to do so.  

As far as the feet are concerned, they should be shoulder-width apart or wider. For many people, this means that feet width is wider here than in the Olympic-style squat. To go along with this, the toes are typically less out-toed here as well, as this squat is slightly more hip dominant than the high bar squat.   

The same cues that are used in the Olympic-style squat still apply here.  This means that we still want to create a lot of intra-abdominal pressure by breathing and bracing, create tension through the lats by pulling the bar down into the back, and keep the bar over the midfoot despite more of a forward lean.  Because of this forward lean though, there has to be a counterbalance somewhere else to make sure we can maintain a vertical bar path.  Thus, as we are squatting, we want to push the hips back during the descent.  The upward phase of the movement is again simply reversing the motion by putting as much force down into the floor as possible while maintaining tension.

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That #squatface, though.

Due to its mechanics, the powerlifting squat is much more of a hip-dominant movement than the Olympic-style squat.  The knees don’t track as far forward over the toes here, and the shins remain almost entirely vertical throughout the movement. When it comes to squat depth, it is not uncommon for people to find that they can’t squat as low as they could in the weightlifting squat. The wider stance and hip-dominant mechanics means that the hips “run out of room” to squat deep sooner.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however. A deeper squat means that the bar travels a greater distance, and the body has to exert more force to stand back up. In powerlifting competitions, a lifter simply has to squat past parallel to make that attempt count. There is no competitive advantage to squatting any lower; a squat is a squat is a squat. A trainee should still do his or her best to squat as deep as their mobility allows for the best training effect. In competition though, that would be wasted effort and even possibly a missed lift.

Wrap-up

Both the weightlifting and powerlifting back squats are great for development of total body strength.  Depending on your goals and needs, either style can be utilized at different points during your training. Minus a few intricacies, both result in similar development in musculature. Whether you choose one due to comfort level, or for specificity, the squat in general is a must in any training program. Just keep in mind that more than one road leads to Rome.

by Dan Cerone

Dan Cerone

ceroneDan Cerone is the Director of Programming at Halevy Life.

Dan holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Exercise Science and a Master’s Degree in Human Performance, which were both completed at Ithaca College. In addition, Dan is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), earned a PRC from the Postural Restoration Institute, and is a Functional Range Conditioning FRCms, Functional Movement Screen Specialist (FMS), and Kinstretch Instructor.

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Dan completed a coaching internship at one of the country’s premiere strength and conditioning facilities where he worked with a wide variety of athletes, but mainly professional and collegiate hockey players. More recently, Dan worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Ithaca College where he programmed and worked with numerous varsity teams.

Dan is a competitive powerlifter who has placed first in multiple competitions.