Do you even squat bro? If you don’t squat, you can’t expect to grow a serious set of wheels. Every serious athlete squats: bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, even elite athletes from other sports. They all know the importance of the big, solid, no-nonsense exercise we call the squat.
Love it or hate it, you gotta do it. Unless you’re happy to hide your tiny legs away in baggy joggers. If you are, we can’t help you.
But if you want solid quads with an impressive sweep, big hanging hamstrings, and juicy calves then you gotta get your squat game on point. Our expert tuition video and how-to guide will talk you through the perfect barbell back squat.
What Are Barbell Squats?
Exercise type: strength, size, mass builder, muscle gain, hypertrophy
Main muscles worked: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves
Equipment needed: barbell and squat rack or power rack
Can also be done with: Smith machine, or variations done with sandbag, dumbbells or kettlebells
Level: beginner, intermediate, advanced
Other names for barbell back squat: squat, back squat, powerlifting squat
Which Muscles Do Barbell Back Squats Work?
Squats are the number one leg exercise for well-developed quads and hamstrings. Sure, other exercises can isolate different leg muscles and help you bring up lagging body parts. But squats should be your go-to for hitting all the leg muscles at once. This compound push exercise puts a ton of load through the muscles and increases workout volume like crazy.
Back squats target the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, adductors, and soleus. The hamstrings, erector spinae, core muscles (including rectus abdominis and obliques), and gastrocnemius will come in to stabilize.
The great thing about squats is there are so many variations. Really, the ‘squat’ is just the movement of the weighted leg bend. If you can’t hold a bar across your back, don’t have access to a rack for safety, or just don’t wanna back squat then try out some of the variations further down this article.
But if you can barbell back squat, you should. So that’s what we’re gonna focus on here. Be badass; back squat.
How To Do Barbell Squats Properly
Fired up to nail the best back squat you can? Show ‘em how it’s done. Here’s how to do a barbell back squat properly (no half squats here!)
Step by step back Squats Instructions
1 – Set the bar in the rack. Make sure it’s the right height for you by standing in front of the bar. The bar should touch the middle of your chest.
2 – Now set up properly. Good set up is key for performing a safe and effective squat. Don’t rush your set up.
3 – Walk up to the bar, making sure the knurling in the center of the bar is right on the middle of your chest. Grab the bar with your pinkie fingers on the outer knurl rings and wrap your hands around the bar. Now dip your body under the bar. Position yourself in the rack (don’t lift the bar up yet). The bar should be across the back of your shoulders, your feet should be side by side directly under your hips, with your knees bent a little.
4 – It’s time to walk the bar out. From your stable set up position, stand up with straight legs (the bar will automatically lift, cos it’s across your back). Take three distinct steps: one step back, second step back to meet the first foot, and a third step to set the distance between your feet. Your feet should wind up just wider than hip width, toes pointing a little outwards.
5 – OK, you’re ready to squat! Take a big breath right into your belly, lift your chest (so your body doesn’t collapse forward), and break at the hips to squat back and down. Think about squatting back onto a miniature chair or onto the toilet.
6 – Pull on the bar, as if you are trying to wrap it around your back. Obviously, it’s not gonna bend, but pulling on it like this will help stabilize you.
7 – Keep your eyes looking forward the whole time, not up or down. Your eye line should move throughout the squat as you go up and down.
8 – Pause slightly at the bottom of the squat, then power up.
9 – Breathe out as you squat up, and squeeze your glutes at the top (but don’t push your hips forward).
10 – You’re done. You can now either rack the bar, by walking it back in and putting it back. Or you can go again for another rep.
Avoid These 3 Common Squat Mistakes
Mistake 1: never squatting
Bro, don’t skip leg day. Even if you can’t do barbell back squats, you should do some kind of squat variation. And you should definitely train legs. Who wants to be the idiot with skinny bird legs and a big unbalanced upper body? Don’t be that guy. Nobody likes that guy.
Mistake 2: tipping forward
Keep your chest high, your gaze forward, and think about squatting back first (not down). This will stop you from folding over and doing a kind of mangled good morning exercise instead of a squat.
Mistake 3: rushing your set up
It’s not just for powerlifters. Take time to set your bar position, to focus your mind, and to walk the bar out. Then pause and take a breath before every rep. Squats shouldn’t be rushed.
6 Similar Exercises To Barbell Squats
If you can’t barbell back squat, you can still do some kind of squat in your leg workouts. Here are 6 alternatives.
Set up like for a regular barbell back squat, but have the bar a little lower. Hold the bar across the front of your chest (either use a crossed-arm or a clean grip). Squat down and stand back up again, keeping your chest high and elbows up.
A traditional hack squat is done with a barbell, but we don’t have time to talk you through the technique here (holla if you’d like a hack squat tutorial). Get on the hack squat machine at the gym, and try keeping your feet low on the plate with a narrow stance.
The leg press is a great alternative to squats, or another addition to leg day. Feet narrow and low hits the quads, feet high and wide hits the hammies.
Hold a kettlebell, dumbbell, or sandbag up high on your chest, then sit back and down. Play with your feet width to shift the emphasis across quads, hamstrings, and adductors.
Bulgarian split squat
OK, so this is more like a lunge, but it’s a killer leg day move that really gets into your quads. Stand in front of a bench in a lunge position, with the back foot up on the bench. Lunge down into that front leg. Stay upright for more quad emphasis, or lean over like a sprinter to put more work in the hamstrings.
Safety bar squat
Has your gym got a safety bar squat? Great, grab that bad boy. It feels kinda weird at first (and you probably can’t use as much weight as a barbell squat) but it’s much easier on your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. A good option if you have an upper-body injury. No excuses!
Take Your Workouts To The Next Level With Barbell Squats
Barbell back squats are a big, compound, multi-joint exercise that hammers a ton of muscles and sends your hormone output into overdrive. Squats build muscle, burn calories, and help you shed fat. The best way to use them is in a low to mid rep range at the start of a leg workout. Think 5 sets of 6-8 reps. But you can also use squats as a real heart-rate raiser, doing 12-15 rep sets at the end of a workout. If you’re gonna go high rep with squats, just make sure your technique is good right to the very end.
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What’s your favorite type of squat variation to do in your leg workouts? Tell us in the comments below.
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