The Fundamentals of the Back Squat
The Back Squat has often been referred to as "the King of Exercises" because it uses a great deal of the body's musculature and is therefore very efficient in making you bigger and stronger. Really, squats are a full body exercise, though most people will view them as a leg exercise due to the demands placed on the quads, hamstrings & glutes.
While squatting is a very natural maneuver, there are a few points that need to be covered to ensure that you're doing them safely and effectively. This post is a quick guide to the basics of back squatting.
Safety & Equipment
Back Squats are an extremely effective exercise, and ought to be a part of nearly everyone's workout routine - no matter whether your goals are strength, size, or just general fitness. However, you're going to be moving more weight in this exercise than most others you will do, so care must be taken to use the right equipment, and do them safely. At a fundamental level the only equipment you really need to be concerned with (short of a barbell and weights) are your shoes and your squat rack.
Shoes: Squats move a lot of weight. Not only the weight on the bar, but also your own body weight. Therefore, you need a shoe with a relatively stable, incompressible sole. Your best bets are Chuck Taylor All-Stars (or a similar old-school canvas shoe), an indoor soccer shoe like Adidas Sambas, an Olympic lifting shoe (Do-Wins, etc.), or just go barefoot. Using a running shoe or something with too much padding and compressibility in the sole will be unstable when using a lot of weight.
Squat Rack: Personally, I recommend using a full, 4-sided power rack for squats since you have full-length safety bars (which should always be used, and set to catch the bar just below the bottom point of your squat). Dedicated squat racks are okay too, but you'll need to assess whether the rack and its safeties will be adequate. I would not recommend squatting just using "squat stands", since there are no safeties (though you can usually just dump the bar), and racking the bar is more difficult. As for jury-rigged home setups...well, it's your funeral. In any event, "plan for the worst" and you won't end up a statistic.
Belts, Wraps, etc. By the time you need these, you won't need to read this thread to tell you whether you need them. If you want to use them, do your research and decide for yourself. But be aware that belts do not protect you against injuries if your form is not good in the first place. It's a lifting aid, not a band-aid.
High Bar, Low Bar, & the Setup
Without getting into a dissertation on the intricacies of the bar position, just be aware that there are generally two different positions on your back to place the bar. In both cases, the bar rests on the trapezius muscles, and not your spine.
- High Bar: In this position the bar is placed on the traps, higher up toward the neck (see center image below). This will tend to give you a more upright back position, and (along with a little narrower stance) place a little more emphasis on the quads.
- Low Bar: In this position the bar is again placed on your traps, but lower down so that it's resting across both your traps and your delts (image on the right). This will tend to give you more upper body lean, but also (with a little wider stance) emphasize the hamstrings and glues a bit more.
- Grip: Regardless of bar position, as you take your position under it, bring your hands in toward your body and pull your shoulder blades toward your spine. This will bulge your traps outward to give you a "shelf" or "cushion" on which to rest the bar. The bar should not be resting on your neck, or your spine.
- Rack: The bar should be set in the rack, at about mid-chest level. The safeties should be set to catch the bar just below the bottom level of your squat. If you get in trouble, you can just set it down.
So, you've got your Chuck Taylor's on, your rack set up, a pre-workout drink in your system, and some fire in your belly. Now what? Well, gym rats, now you squat. But let's do it right:
1. Step up to the bar, duck under, bring your chest up and your hands inward until the bar is positioned properly on your traps (make sure you're centered). Pull the bar into your body with your hands (elbows back) and tighten your upper body. Your wrists should be straight, and a thumbless grip is okay here if you prefer. Your lower back should be arched inward to maintain a natural curvature. This lower back position must be maintained throughout the squat! Allowing the back to curve outward, or "round", transfers the force of the lift from your muscles to your spine and could cause a disc injury.
2. Focus on a point on the floor about 10 feet in front of you (don't look upward or at your feet). With your body tight, take a breath, and then squat the bar out of the rack.
3. Keeping your body tight, take 2-3 steps backward and position yourself for the squat. You can use whatever stance is comfortable for you, but generally speaking your feet should be about shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outward (so that your knees will travel in the direction of your toes when you squat). Note: do not allow your body to "loosen up" as you arrange yourself. You should practice the walk out so that you're able to do it in 2-3 steps and without needing to look down at your feet.
4. Now the good part: Keeping your chest high and body tight, weight centered over the midfoot, take a breath, hold it, tighten your abs, and begin the squat by pushing your hips backward. Imagine you're sitting back onto the toilet. Your knees will naturally bend and your body lean forward to compensate. Squat all the way down (more on depth later) in a controlled manner (don't just drop).
5. To return upright, drive your hips and shoulders upward in a smooth, controlled motion. Either continue to hold your breath or allow air to escape slowly through clenched teeth (this keeps your core tight). Think about pushing your feet outward and "spreading the floor" to keep your knees from buckling and engage your musculature. While the weight should always remain mid-foot, you should feel like you're driving the weight through your heels, and not tipping forward on your toes.
6. Back at the top, exhale (but keep tight), and breathe as necessary before repeating steps 4 & 5 to your heart's content.
7. When you're finished with your repetitions, take a couple steps forward and rack the bar. After you've ensured the bar is on the pins, step out from under.
And that's the gist of it.
A Few Other Points:
The Lower Back: As I mentioned above, it's critical to maintain an inward (or at least flat) curvature to your lower back. Do not allow it to round outward. If this happens, you need to drop the weight and work on your form until your lower back is strong enough to maintain that arch throughout the entire squat. Ego lifting and ignoring this point is asking for some big trouble.
Squat Depth: A "proper" squat depth is to descend until your hip joint is at or below the top of your knee (a "parallel" squat). If your flexibility allows, you can squat deeper, until your hamstrings bottom out on your calves (an "ATG" squat). Anything at or below parallel is fine, though you should note that squatting below what your flexibility allows will cause your butt to "tuck" under and round your lower back. The better part of valor here is to stop your depth at the point just before "butt tuck" occurs and work on your flexibility first if you want to squat deeper.
Weight: Since the goal is to be able to squat well, and for life, don't be in a hurry to continually toss more weight on the bar. Squats take some practice to get right, and better to make mistakes with light weight than with something you can barely handle.
Squat Variations: Though this post is on the back squat, be aware that there are different versions - Front Squats, Hacks, Zercher, Jefferson, etc. Each is simply a tool to be used when it best serves your goals.
If you follow the points above, and work your way upward with reasonable weight increases, you shouldn't have a lot of trouble. If you get into trouble with any point of your form, the best rule is generally to drop the weight, reset, and remember the basics.
The "Squat Rx" series of videos (the first one is below) are good reference material, as are the "So You Think You Can Squat" ones (also below). If all that doesn't help you, then take a video of your form and create a thread asking for tips or advice.
Good luck, and SQUAT SAFE!!