The back squat might be the king of all exercises, but unless you have proper back squat form, then you are not really getting the benefits of a king. The squat does not just work your legs, but it works every muscle in the body. The legs do the most work, but the rest of the body still has to support all of that weight. Unfortunately, most lifters end up displacing too much of the weight on their back instead of their legs. This leads to potential back injuries, underdeveloped legs and a plateau. In this post we are going to examine how to improve your back squat form so we can get you lifting heavier weight and reduce your risk for injury.
Proper Form Starts From The Ground
Check the position of your feet first. Most lifters end up on their toes when they try to squat low. A lot of this is due to poor ankle mobility and/or collapsed arches, but another contributing factor is the position of your feet when you squat.
Since there is no true gospel on where to position your feet, we are going to produce a consensus.
In Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe recommends that you position your feet somewhere between hip and shoulder width apart and point you toes out around 30 degrees. Since Starting Strength is regarded by some as the “bible of barbell training”, this foot positioning is used by many strength coaches for training their athletes.
The benefits of this type of foot positioning are:
- Requires Less Mobility
- Easy To Teach/Learn
- Much More Applicable To Strength Sports (i.e. Powerlifting/Weightlifting)
The other school of thought comes from the approach that your squat should have a stance similar to your everyday stance. This simply means that your feet should be pointed straight ahead.
Kelly Starrett mentions that how you squat is how you walk, run, sprint, etc. To generate the most amount out of your performance, as a hybrid athlete, you should squat with your toes pointed straight ahead.
The benefits of this type of foot positioning are:
- Places Joint Integrity First
- Provides Benefits To Both Strength and Endurance Athletes
- Teaches The Athlete How To Generate Proper Torque
Both of these foot positions can improve your back squat form. It just all depends on which one you feel the most comfortable doing. Never mind what the experts say, what does your body say?
Hips Or Knees?
Weightlifters and powerlifters can argue until their faces explode as to which sport has the better back squat form. Both sports have produced some incredible back breaking squats. Each sport, however, utilizes a different body structure in order to drive the weight up.
Olympic lifters emphasize the knees, when they discuss back squat form. They argue that the knees should be the primary driving force behind the weight. In other words, get really strong quads.
This makes sense though if you look at what their sport demands. Take a look at the clean and jerk and the snatch. Notice how upright their torso’s are? If they lean too far forward or backward, then they loose the weight and miss a lift.
When your back is straight up, the hips and lower back contribute much less to the overall lift compared to the powerlifting squat.
Powerlifting is all about one thing, lifting as much weight as possible. Therefore, powerlifters typically use a low bar back squat form.
Low bar squatting just means that the bar is placed lower on the back than a “normal” back squat. This shortens the distance of the lever arm and forces the torso to lean forward more. As a result, the hips and lower back take most of the load.
This makes the powerlifting squat more similar to a deadlift. A necessary bonus for a powerlifter.
Hybrid Athletes (Balance)
To recap, a hybrid athlete is someone who can perform heavy feats of strength and tackle tough prolonged endurance activities. An example is CrossFit.
Since hybrid athletes don’t necessarily train to compete in the big lifts (at least strength wise), then joint integrity and balance is a necessary part of their back squat form.
Instead of just focusing on either the hips or knees, hybrid athletes fuse the two together. This allows them to hold the majority of the weight on their hips, but also with enough of the weight dispersed on the knees as well.
Picking A Proper Back Squat Form
So now begs the question, which one of these is right for me? Well, first ask yourself:
- Am I a powerlifter?
- Am I a weightlifter?
- Am I a CrossFitter?
- Am I a competitive athlete?
- Am I an average joe?
If you are a powerlifter or weightlifter, then it should be a no brainer as to which back squat form you should pick.
CrossFitters have a couple of choices. Obviously you could do the hybrid style back squat form. There is one big thing to consider, however. CrossFit heavily involves weightlifting. Therefore, for competitive CrossFit athletes, it might be wise to consider using a weightlifter style back squat form. Building up strength in this movement will help greatly with your WOD time.
A competitive athlete has the luxury of choosing any of the squat styles of their choosing. If a weightlifting style squat is not for you, then you could do a powerlifting squat. I know many athletes that are top notch that use all different kinds of squatting styles. All that matters for these guys is which form feels the most comfortable and/or which form is going to prevent them from getting an injury.
For the average joe, safety is the biggest concern. It’s not that the other lifters don’t take safety seriously, but the average joe trains for different reasons other than competition. Most average joes just want to look good naked. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that!
With all of that said, I think that average joes should learn to use the hybrid back squat form first. This form will establish proper mobility and teach the individual how to generate torque in the hips. Once a proper understanding of squat mechanics is established, then the lifter may explore other squat variations of their choosing.