The barbell back squat is a hugely popular exercise for both elite athletes and general gym goers. It is popular for many reasons, and in this article I will be talking about how to get stronger in this exercise. The back squat is a ‘fundamental’ movement pattern, as it forms the basis of many sporting actions and more broadly in day to day life. It can develop robustness and strength, and contribute to better sports performance.
Disclaimer: none of the content in this article is designed to be an exercise prescription. Please do not complete any of these loading parameters unless supervised by a qualified professional.
- The back squat has been found to improve athletic performance in youth athletes, with research demonstrating an impact on sprint velocity and peak power output (Chelly et al., 2009).
- It has been shown to elicit greater hypertrophy of the quadriceps and gluteus maximus than hip thrusts in well trained women (Barbalho et al., 2020).
- Finally a single set of 3RM back squats has been found to significantly improve countermovement jump 4-12 minutes after completion of the set (Crewther et al., 2011)
Clearly this is a versatile, potent stimulus for improving athletic performance and stimulating adaptation. A quick google trends search demonstrates the fact that more and more people are interested in this exercise and how to improve their strength in this lift.
Next let's dive into the technique needed to optimise strength gains in the back squat.
The back squat can be performed in a number of different ways, and to suggest that there is one ‘perfect’ technique is a little misguided. Athletes have different limb lengths, joint limitations and sporting demands. Therefore it does depend on the adaptation that is being sought after, more than the technical model achieved.
As the three research examples above demonstrate, it can be used to improve short term performance, stimulate hypertrophy and increase athleticism. Each athlete in these studies won’t have performed the squat in exactly the same way, but there are a couple of key technical points to aim for where possible.
- Feet shoulder width apart
- Toes turned slightly outward to externally rotate the hip
- Knees driving out along the line of the toes
- Hands narrow on the bar unless limited by shoulder range (or a powerlifter)
- Bar pulled down onto the shoulders
- Hips below knees in relation to the horizontal at the bottom of the movement
In regards to squat depth, this does again depend. More specific joint angles may be used during peaking phases or where higher loading is required. But as a general rule, hips below knees is a useful frame of reference.
The most common issues seen in the back squat are often driven by loading or mobility. If you load too heavy, your body will self organise to lift the load in any way it can. Technique will be affected by this, so always ensure that you load safely and effectively.
Mobility issues at the ankle and hips are often factors too. If limited in dorsiflexion, the ankle won’t be able to achieve full range of motion and this will manifest itself in limited squat depth. Equally, if your hips are limited in flexion, then it will limit depth.
To solve this problem, try to focus on regular mobility of these two joints, and practice full range back squatting at light loads to get into safe, effective positions.
Different loading parameters can be used to elicit different adaptations. In general there are three main loading schemes that can be used with the back squat:
- 6-10 repetitions
- 70-85% 1RM
- 1-2 minutes rest per set
- 3010 tempo (3s down, 1s up)
Other loading parameters for hypertrophy include the following:
- 8,8,6,6 @ 75%, 75%, 80%, 80% 1RM
- 4 x 10 @ 70% 1RM
- 10,8,8,6 @ 70%, 75%, 75%, 77% 1RM
- 2-6 repetitions
- 80-95% 1RM
- 3-4 minutes rest per set
- 20X0 tempo (2s down, up as fast as possible)
Other loading parameters for max strength include the following:
- 5,5,3,3 @ 80%, 80%, 85%, 85% 1RM
- 6 x 2 @ 90% 1RM
- 5,4,3,2 @ 80%, 82.5%, 85%, 90% 1RM
- 12-20 repetitions
- 50-70% 1RM
- 1 minute rest per set
- 2110 tempo (2s down, 1s hold, 1s up)
N.B. Squats can also be loaded a little lighter, in order to generate rate of force development.
In order to make appreciable gains in performance in the back squat, consistency is key. Not only does it need to be well executed technically, but your body needs time to adapt to the loading that it is being placed under.
Aim to squat twice per week if you are keen to push your strength on in this exercise, and three times per week if you are really serious.
Finally, undulate the loading in the exercise.
This means not doing the same loading every session in the week, but providing different stimuli each time. This might look like 5 x 3 on one day, and 4 x 8 on another day.
Finally, ensure that you are always working with a qualified professional if you are unsure of how to perform this exercise safely.
Other tops tips for improving your back squat
- Wear lifting shoes to give yourself more stability and depth in the squat
- Use a spotter to help give you confidence in your ability to get to depth
- Set up the rack with safety pins always to give you a safe means of failure if lifting heavy
- Use fractional plates to give yourself small incremental gains in load, rather than the typical approach of 5-10kg jumps in load
- Change your stance to find the right fit for you - shoulder width is a good rule of thumb but some prefer a wider stance
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Barbalho M, Coswig V, Souza D, Serrão JC, Hebling Campos M, Gentil P. Back Squat vs. Hip Thrust Resistance-training Programs in Well-trained Women. Int J Sports Med. 2020 May;41(5):306-310.
Chelly, Mohamed Souhaiel; Fathloun, Mourad; Cherif, Najet; Amar, Mohamed Ben; Tabka, Zouhair; Van Praagh, Emmanuel. Effects of a Back Squat Training Program on Leg Power, Jump, and Sprint Performances in Junior Soccer Players, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 8 - p 2241-2249.Crewther, Blair T; Kilduff, Liam P; Cook, Christian J; Middleton, Matt K; Bunce, Paul J; Yang, Guang-Zhong The Acute Potentiating Effects of Back Squats on Athlete Performance, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2011 - Volume 25 - Issue 12 - p 3319-3325