There is arguably no other exercise on the planet that displays the complexity of human strength and performance better than the barbell squat. From a stronger lower body, greater muscle mass, increased bone mineral density, less back pain, as well as better mental strength, the barbell squat ticks many boxes in making us stronger, healthier, and living a longer, more productive life.
Good things don’t come easy. This is no different with a correctly performed barbell squat. The nuances are manifold, and mastering the most important movement you can ever do takes time, patience, and – most of all – the right analytical approach.
This article explains the five most basic concepts on how to correctly perform a low-bar squat. Keep on reading to learn more.
The position of the bar needs to be placed in a way where it aligns with the top of our shoulder blades. This is around an inch below the highest point of the shoulder. Placing the bar in this position ensures that it stays in alignment with the middle of our feet – meaning the bar path will always be vertical with such a position. As we know from physics, objects that travel in a vertical line are lighter than objects that travel in curves.
Picture 1: The correct bar position on the back below the top of the shoulder.
Placing the bar below the top of the shoulder has the bar resting on a shelf of muscles in the upper back (predominantely the middle trapezius and rhomboids). This ensures that the bar need not be held with our hands, but will rather rest on the shelf formed by our upper back musculature – with the hands merely providing a downward pressure into the bar to “lock it in” on our back.
The hands need to be placed on the bar in such a way that wrists are kept in a straight position. An extended wrist (i.e. backward-bent) will have to bear a lot of the weight of the bar – which typically results in pain around the wrist structures after months of training.
On the other hand, wrists that are overly flexed forward and tilted over the bar do not provide a strong enough grip with the hands on the bar. The result is that we will "lose the grip” on and of the bar.
Picture 2: Correctly placed hands on the bar with a straight wrist and thumbs over the bar.
Thumbs are placed over the bar which allows a straight wrist position and keeping the elbows slightly behind the back. If we wrap our thumbs under the bar, our wrists are more likely to extend backwards, and our elbows are more likely to migrate forward at the bottom of the squat with which we lose crucial tension in the lats and back musculature.
We want to set the back as horizontal as possible in the squat. This ensures that the back and hip musculature (spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings) are loaded in the most predominant way.
Picture 3: A horizontal back angle with gaze onto the floor.
To the contrary: a more vertical back angle will shift the emphasis away from the back and hip musculature towards the quads and musculature surrounding the knees. This comes with a few drawbacks: firstly, with a vertical back angle, most of the weight bearing of the lower body is done by the quads. While we want our knees to get stronger, we are missing out on getting the most important muscles in the body (glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors) significantly stronger.
A more horizontal back angle will create a longer moment arm from the barbell to the back and hip – increasing the demands on the musculature and structures around that area.
At the initiation of the squat, the knees have to bend slightly to a degree where the shins obtain an angle that is slightly ‘in front of vertical’. From this point on, the knees are held in a rigid position, and the hips are sent back and down to become the main drivers of the squat. A so-called “knee slide” at the bottom is a common mistake which new lifters make – shifting the load to the quads and away from the hips. In this case, box squats become our best friend as they excellently teach us to keep our hips back and down and reaching towards the box behind us.
Picture 4: Knees pushed out and in alignment with mid-foot.
The knees have to be pushed outwards in a correctly performed squat. They have to stay in alignment with mid-foot, which ensures that pressure is evenly distributed across the entire knee. The major benefit, however, of pushing our knees out in the squat is that a greater amount of the hip musculature (gluteus maximus, deep external hip rotators) is recruited – making it a hip-dominant exercise that creates a rock-solid support system for our back and spine. Remember: every bit of force your hips can absorb is taken off the spine.
To get out of the “hole” in the squat, the hips must be shoved upwards as strongly as possible. This is the foundation of completing the most important thing in the squat: coming back up again after we have sat down.
A correctly performed “hip shove” will recruit the most amount of muscle mass in our hips – i.e. the gluteus maximus and hamstrings. These are the drivers of hip extension and must be recruited in a mechanical way that can fulfil the “standing up” part of the squat. Whether you want it or not, the hip shove is the most crucial element in the squat. If you perform it half-heartedly, chances are you won’t able to stand back up from the squat – leading to missed reps and having to reset the exercise.
The basics of the squat. Short, simple, efficient.
Because, as we know, tomorrow never comes.