table of contents

  • i. the back squat
  • ii. mechanics of the back squat
  • iii. role of the back squat in strength training
  • iv. training effects and injury hazards
  • v. conclusion

i. the back squat

This is a movement that primarily weightlifters are familiar and proficient with. Powerlifters have their own low-bar, break-parallel back squat, but it's the high-bar, calves compressed against hamstrings weightlifting back squat that is widely respected in the strength training community. It's got some sort of a badass appeal, not sure where it comes from, but it is generally a very hard exercise; the bar is being moved a considerable distance, the stress on the trunk is formidable, and it's unparalleled in terms of developing lower body strength and size.

If there was one movement that could be said to be the greatest developer of athletic ability, it would probably be the back squat. Tackling, anything that involves a grounded athlete projecting force against another object, involves driving the hips into the object with the feet planted. Sprinting and jumping involve explosive leg strength. What other movement could develop these as well as the back squat?

A lot can be said about a strong bench press, but there are few athletic movements that involving pressing something with the body fixed against a rigid support. Almost invariably, the important factor in athletic movements is the strength of the legs and hips. Many movements can develop leg and hip strength, but only the back squat allows the athlete to train those qualities with very little coaching and with a training load that's directly related to his physical abilities; using the power clean takes time to learn, and early on the limiting factor is learning the unfamiliar motor pattern, and other movements such as lunges or plyometric step-ups simply aren't heavy enough to have a significant training effect.

All that summed up in less words, if you want to be strong, back squat.

ii. mechanics of the back squat

The back squat is a compound movement, meaning it involves the manipulation of several muscle groups and joints. "In general" it is the movement of choice for developing the legs, the quadricep muscles, but it is also an invaluable movement for the development of the hamstrings, glutes, and trunk.

In the high-bar back squat, the athlete's center-of-mass is shifted so that he must have some forward lean of the torso in order to keep the weight on his heels throughout the movement. Thus, the quadriceps still play the dominant role in driving the body up out of the squat, but at the bottom position, or "in the hole," as it is referred to, the hamstrings and glutes are employed to "extend" the torso in relation to the hips. This is primarily why most athletes back squat more than they front squat; in the front squat, the torso is upright throughout the entire movement, limiting the role of the hamstrings and glutes.

It is the dynamic movement of the back squat, in relation to the hips and torso, which make it such an effective overall lower body developer. "Driving with the legs" and "extending the torso" are possibly the two most important movements in the athletic world. Accelerating in the sprint, driving the hips into a body during a tackle or takedown, extension of the torso in the vertical leap, these movements are all very similar to the motor pattern of the back squat.

The low-bar powerlifting squat shifts the emphasis from the quadriceps to the hamstrings and glutes. "Low-bar" refers to the position of the bar on the torso; the high-bar squat positions the bar at the base of the neck, astride the upper trapezius muscle of the back. A low-bar back squat puts the bar lower on the trapezius, astride the posterior deltoids. This bar position requires some shoulder flexibility.

Because the bar is placed so far back in the low-bar squat, the athlete must tilt the torso forward more in order to keep the weight on his heels, meaning the movement becomes more about extending the torso into an upright position, and less about driving against the ground with the legs. While it is possible to drop into a deep low-bar squat, most low-bar squatters generally go to parallel - crease of the hip drops to the level of the knees.

iii. role of the back squat in strength training

We'll take a more specific look at the back squat's role in an overall training program.

The strength assistance movement that weightlifters train early on is the back squat, almost exclusively. The back squat is prioritized in the early stages of a weightlifter's training because this is the movement that develops the basic leg strength to recover from the bottom position of the squat snatch and squat clean. It also builds the basic strength to drive the hips forward and extend the torso, which carry over into the snatch and clean pulls (both are a violent extension of the trunk coupled with a forceful shrugging of the shoulders while holding onto the bar).

Another reason for the emphasis on back squatting for beginners is because it allows the lifter to move the most weight, i.e. it produces the greatest training effect, as compared to other movements such as step ups or front squats. Front squatting is an effective exercise and by all means should make up a large part of a weightlifter's training program once a base level of strength has been established, but in terms of efficiency, time is better spent on back squatting. The greater the stress (measured in work performed per session and per week) placed on the body, the greater the training effect. The more an individual works with heavier weights, such as those used when back squatting, the more accustomed that individual will become to the physical and psychological stress of heavy weight.

Later on, once the athlete has developed a sufficient base of strength, other movements such as the front squat and various pulls off the floor will come into the foreground of training. However, when the general strength of the athlete needs to be developed and there are no specific weaknesses that need to be corrected, the back squat is almost always used as the assistance movement for this purpose, and it is commonly the movement by which strength levels are developed and assessed. It doesn't necessarily guarantee good competition numbers, but it's usually a pretty good indicator of what the athlete is capable of.

In the case of advanced athletes, the back squat's role becomes less important; after years of training and competition, the athlete has developed most of the necessary strength needed to compete well, and his performance needs will be more specific. The back squat will continue to be trained, but in a much less active role, it's purpose in training will be purely for maintenance of strength.

iv. training effects and injury hazards

Assuming you're eating enough (measured in calories, not degrees of how full one feels), an intense squatting program will put slabs of muscle on your lower body and lower back. This is just what squatting does. It's like the deadlift in that it's one of the best movements for developing muscle mass. This is another reason the back squat is so important for many athletic endeavors; a high school football player, like an offensive lineman or something, can put on like 20-30lbs of mass, a large part of that muscle, during his freshman and sophomore years, get his best high-bar, full depth squat somewhere in the 300s, and when he plays against a rival school his junior year he will fucking wreck some 17 year old's shit. It would be fucking beautiful.

Once you start breaking a certain effort barrier, like when you're squatting a significant amount for your bodyweight and your blood pressure plummets after a set of 10, there's not too many other things that can induce a comparable anabolic state post-workout. The physical stress of moving the weight several feet, constantly driving with the legs and extending the trunk against resistance, is pretty harsh, and the body's going to respond in kind; people can pass out from squatting. They start to lose their air and they see fucking stars. Things like 10 or 20 rep squats are commonly associated with puking. Squatting makes people hungry. If you respond to this hunger and eat accordingly, you are going to grow and get stronger. The posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back) and the quadriceps, the lower body in general, has a huge potential for growth in healthy individuals.

There's a pronounced recovery period for hard back squatting, generally not as bad as it is with the deadlift, but enough for you to notice and have to work around. If you are a weightlifter, you will notice your hamstrings making things feel heavy off the floor. Obviously your legs are going to be tired, so things like jumping or running are going to be painful and performance in movements similar to these (i.e. a squat clean) will suffer. Most weightlifters will begin to "taper" their squatting as they get closer and closer to a meet, so that their strength can recover in time for competition. They'll squat for fewer sessions per week, and do less overall work, and by the time they're on the platform, they are ready to make some crazy shit happen.

Some lifters from countries heavily influenced by Bulgarian-style training will actually squat heavily in the days approaching certain competitions; this is because competition is an integrated part of their training cycle, meaning they do not have "recovery periods," they are more or less constantly in heavy training. I have been doing this shit for like two years now and I have yet to figure out what's going on with them, but here's a few educated conjectures; they train the squat purely as assistance, meaning that they are never squatting at a difficult limit weight, only something that they can move with sufficient bar speed. This would fit in with the Western-style model of recovery and competition performance, they conserve their strength by keeping the work exerted, relative to their work capacity, low. Another guess is that the Bulgarians really are as crazy as they sound and that in their training model, squatting heavy pre-competition is necessary in order to keep the body in the "adapted" state.

Here's an example of the value of the back squat in training; a lot of people can back squat pretty much exclusively for a month or two at a time, and when they're off that particular training cycle, they usually expect certain aspects of their lower body strength to have decayed over time, like pulling off the floor, or accelerating the bar in a snatch pull, but a lot of the time, this is not the case. They can suddenly power snatch 5 kilos under their best squat snatch, and their best deadlift apparently got 20k heavier out of the fucking blue.

Back squats are not always the answer to better performance, but if I had to pick an exercise that would help my strength the most and I didn't have a particular goal in mind, I would probably just back squat.

Squatting is sometimes associated with back or knee injury, though both of these types of injuries are related to poor biomechanics rather than the act of squatting. Lower back injuries are generally caused by letting the chest fall down, causing the lumbar to flex. This is indicative of poor core conditioning. The squat is one of the most taxing core developers, and a lot of people are going to have problems with keeping the chest up out of the hole, keeping the torso tight and erect throughout the movement. A tight, erect torso requires both a strong back and strong abdominals, tension throughout the entire trunk, not just one side. Remedies to poor abdominal stability aren't found in abdominal exercises that involve movement of the trunk; stability is found in movements that require the torso to be kept stable, i.e. non-flexing, so things like front squatting or good mornings would be much more beneficial in improving core stability in the back squat.

Knee injuries are the result of poor knee tracking during the movement, i.e. the knees do not follow the toes and collapse in. There's a mistaken belief among many gym goers that squatting "too deep" is detrimental to the health of the knee joint; this isn't the case. Shear stress is what is correlated with knee injuries dealing with the patella or patellar tendon, meaning too much tilting of the shins, which is usually caused by pushing against the ground closer to the toes. "Pushing through the heels" is a common coaching cue for keeping the stress of the weight off the knees by reducing shearing forces upon it while squatting. Rotation of the knee joint is probably a more familiar cause of knee injury, this is what happens when the knees drift in; this type of tracking is not good for the ACL and the supporting LCL and MCL ligaments. An ACL tear is what a lot of skiiers get when they twist their knees in a fall, or what football players get when they are tackled in one direction while their feet are planted in another. If the knees don't track in the direction of the toes when squatting, similar ligament damage can occur, depending on the severity of movement.

Some squatters advocate the use of a weight belt and/or knee wraps. A belt allows one to push the abdominals against a rigid support, essentially providing structural support for the lumbar that the thoracic spine receives from the rib cage, resulting in a very solid, very stable trunk support. It is widely accepted as a safety precaution to protect the back, though there are a few schools of thought which believe that using a belt takes away from the development of the core; this doesn't stop some of the best in the world from using them, though. Guys like Taner Sagir, one of the best 77s the world's ever seen, 94k phenom Ilya Ilin, even the super men of the Chinese National Team, Shi Zhiyong and Zhang Guozheng, use a belt.

Knee wraps, or at least heavy ones like those produced by Inzer and other powerlifting accessory producers, have a decidedly less favorable image in the strength community. They are generally a powerlifting accessory, and quite simply restrict mobility of the knees through extreme compression; you are not supposed to be able to drop into a full depth squat with heavy knee wraps on. Most users report that wraps give some rebound "out of the hole," and this is why they are frowned upon by some. This way of thinking gained popular respect when Ivan Chakarov's pre-Worlds training session was taped by Ironmind in 1993, and the term "no-no-no squat" was pioneered from that training session (he squatted 270kg for a double at 91kg bodyweight, no belt, no wraps, no spotters; three times his bodyweight with a high-bar squat, smooth and controlled without a hernia, nose bleed, bursting blood vessels, etc., very different from a 270kg squat you might see in a powerlifting meet).

I would like to note that a weight belt and knee wraps aren't safety precautions, you can still strain a lumbar wearing a belt and you can still hurt your knees wearing wraps.

v. conclusion

Surprisingly this is not a movement you're going to see a lot of at your average gym, most people don't care for having tree trunks for legs, or they have other demands that make squatting impractical; running, basketball, etc., and if you're in it to look better (and let's fuckin face it, folks, who isn't in it to look better by some standard?), people aren't going to be looking at your quads, the legs aren't, you know, the sexual markers that people look at these days. When most people think of "fit" they think of broad shoulders, toned arms, a six pack.

It's seriously one of the most important exercises, though, in terms of developing performance and building a balanced physique. "Power comes from the legs," "power comes from the hips," how many sports use that line for their related movements? And you obviously need size and mass in the lower body to balance out a broad, thick upper body, that's just basic art and math and physics, balance and symmetry.

And admittedly these aren't very pleasant or fun to do, that's why people don't do them, high-bar weightlifting back squats are a huge bitch to do, but you reap what you sow, you get out of weight training what you put into it. The back squat is hard work, though, this is what self-improvement, self-absolution, all that, this is what it's all about.


being a weightlifter

being an injured weightlifter at times

listening to and observing a weightlifting coach

various training vids of various athletes

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