Seven Things You’re Forgetting with Your Back Squat

By Eric Bach

Squats are lifting loyalty for curing chicken leg syndrome’ and building high-performance muscle mass.  Squats develop total body strength, stimulate tons of total body muscle growth,  and improve athleticism. Yep, the squat reigns king among bang-for-your buck  exercises.

Problem is, most lifters have the mobility of a caste iron  skillet and lack ability to execute the squat safely and effectively. 

This poses a huge problem—If you don’t squat safely and effectively a powerful tool becomes  limited at best, dangerous at worst. To maximize the squat you need mobility  to reach proper position and the stability to control movement through the  intended range of motion. 

Know this: without the form and  technique you’ll still be squatting baby weights and have toothpicks for legs.

It’s time to maximize your squat potential  through improving technique, mobility, and execution to take your  high-performance training to another level.  

Rack at the correct height:

We’ve all seen it: A rack set-up too high, a calf-raise walkout  followed by the poor sap missing the rack and crashing to his knees during the set. This is non-sense and an idiotic way to get injured. 

Set the rack up with the barbell set between nipple and shoulder  height, low enough to allow you to squat to weight out and easily re-rack the  weight when you’re fatigued. Make your mark and write down the “notch” in your  workout log.

Shorten your walkout:

Your walkout needs to be the same each and every time. Get tight, feet even in the rack, squat the bar out; right back,  left back, feet even.

That’s it—practice and rehearse every time you  get under the bar. I see too many athletes take 7 steps every time they squat,  wasting time perfecting their tap-dance rather than preparing for a battle. Taking  too long in your walkout and set-up leads to overthinking and self-psyching out  of your squat. Get underneath, get even, and get it done.

Bend the Bar:

Rather than being lazy with the bar get your Hulk on and bend the bar until the ends  touch the ground. If you’re not actively applying force to the bar the bar will  act on you—jumping and burying you in the rack.Drive your elbows down and back to engage the lats, providing a  larger shelf for the barbell and additionally stability in the trunk. Solomonow, et al concluded that over 200 muscles are  activated during squat performance,  using them all will improve your performance.

Additionally, you’ll prevent the bar from jumping off your back  during explosive squats, improving rep quality and decreasing injury risk.  Plus, you won’t be that chump who loses a barbell behind your back during  explosive squat work. 

Spread the Floor:

Allowing the knees to buckle in, known as valgus collapse, is a  great way to reinforce poor mechanics and set yourself up for a significant knee  injury. Prevent valgus collapse by spreading the floor and pushing the knees  out during the squat. This emphasizes   hip and posterior chain development and skyrocketing your squat numbers.

Vary  your stance:        

Everyone has unique anatomical consideration that dictate which  squat position is best for their body-type.
Don’t take any squat pattern as a must, especially if it’s  painful.
Don’t take any squat pattern as a must, especially if it’s  painful.  
Got it? Good

Vary your squat among different positions to minimize  weak-points and avoid overuse injuries. Get strong from multiple positions, not  just your shortest range of motion.

Brace the core…Hard:

Imagine bracing yourself for a punch in the gut by Mike  Tyson—That’s the tension and intent necessary for maximum core activation,  strength, and safety.  

Abdominal  bracing involves contracting your abdominal musculature and  low back muscles and bracing, like you  were about to get hit lit up by Iron Mike. This produces a rigid, stable core  for increased abdominal pressure, which according to myamota et al and Vakos et  al creates greater spinal stabilization and a greater anti-flexion moment  during dynamic lifts to decrease injury risk and improve performance. 

Train the pause:  

If you’re  squatting to depth you need to be stable in the bottom position. Train the  pause use submaximal loads and squat to maximum depth while maintaining trunk  integrity—this means no butt-wink. Unless you’re training for a big total  and need to hit certain depth the risk reward probably isn’t worth a rock  bottom (bro-science translation: ass-to-grass) squat under load in the presence  of butt-wink.

Squat Depth Considerations:

A  parallel or sub-parallel squat is ideal when core integrity is maintained, but  it rarely happens. In most cases  greater depth is reached through “butt-wink,” resulting in the sacrifice of lumbar  integrity and a greater risk of injury. 

So what is it?

Butt-wink occurs when the butt  “tucks” underneath the pelvis to reach greater depth and hip flexion. As a  result, there’s a ton of additional stres on the lumbar spine.

Squatting with  neutral spine (left) Vs butt-wink (right) photo-credit Bret Contreras

Squatting  to depth with but-wink is hammering a square peg into a round hole and  significantly increases the risk of injury. In most of my experiences butt-wink  is the result of poor anterior core engagement, anterior core instability, and shortened  hamstring length—the anterior core can’t counteract pulls from the hamstrings  and adductor magnus and the forces on the pelvis, resulting in posterior pelvic  tilt. 

If you have a  significant tuck best to hammer away at core stability work and squat only to  positions when spinal alignment is maintained—even if it’s above parallel. 

Squat Width Considerations: 

A wider squat is used to increase  loading and decrease range of motion. This is fantastic for powerlifters, but  athletes need more specific considerations for foot placement for maximal  transfer to on-field performance. Bodybuilders will benefit from a variety of  stances to maximize muscle recruitment and minimize leg development imbalances.  The cool part about squat stance width is different positions recruit different  muscles.

A wider squat emphasizes:

McCaw et al reported a wide stance significantly increased activity of the  gluteus maximus and adductor longus, with greatest activity seen at 140%  shoulder width. If you’re looking for greater involvement of the glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and a shorter range of motion then a wide squat is worth  a shot. 

A  narrow squat emphasizes: 

A narrower stance keeps the  hips closed and limits the involvement of the adductors and hammers away at the  squats.

It’s imperative to consider anatomical differences with each athlete—a  6’6” basketball player is going to squat differently than 5’6” powerlifter. 

Hip socket anatomy is unique to each individual, with some individuals  having greater success deep squatting with a narrow stance and others  succeeding with extremely wide stances.  No amount of soft tissue work will increase  mobility if there is a “bony block” creating restrictions and pain. I’ve had  clients with seemingly great soft-tissue qualities try to squat wide only to  find pain and vice-versa. The point is everyone won’t be able to squat the  same--attempting to force it fights against your anatomy, leading to pain  and dysfunction.

Whether it’s wide or narrow whichever squat position you maintain without  pain or losing lumbo-pelvic integrity is your best bet.  

Feet Flared OR Feet Neutral:

Either foot position is fine and is often dictated  by squat stance. Most lifters who squat narrow keep the feet pointed neutral  whereas wide stance squatters use a foot flare and to help “spread the floor,”  prevent knee valgus, and further incorporate the hips. Excessive foot flare  rotates the tibia and  potentially causes  issues with patellar tracking and varus/valgus movements.

I’ve found most individuals prefer a slight flare  (15 degrees or so) of the feet, but your anatomy, goals, and comfort are the  ultimate deciding factors. You’ll have to tinker with both positions and see  what’s best for you.

Wrap Up:

Regardless of your goal the squat  will help you succeed and is an integral part of successful high performance  training programs.

Double-check the following during  your next session:

  • Shorten your  walkout
  • Rack at the  correct height
  • Bend the bar
  • Shorten your  walkout
  • Spread the  floor
  • Vary your stance 
  • Train the pause

The  squat is a technical movement and squatting for your body-type and goals is  imperative to long-term success under the bar. Optimize your technique first, and  then start piling on plates. Take these into  consideration and you’ll be squatting big weights without pain for years to  come.


McCaw, ST and  Melrose, DR. Stance width and bar load effects on leg muscle activity during  the parallel squat. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31: 428-436,  1999.

McGill,  S, Norman, RW, and Sharatt, MT. The effect of an abdominal belt on trunk muscle  activity and intra- abdominal pressure during squat  lifts. Ergonomics 33:  147-160, 1990.

Miyamoto, K, Iinuma,  N, Maeda, M, Wada, E, and Shimizu, K. Effects of abdominal belts on  intra-abdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles  and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Clin  Biomech 14: 79-87, 1999.

Schoenfeld, B. J. ().  Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and Their Application to Exercise  Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24,  3497-3506.

Solomonow, M,  Baratta, R, Zhou, BH, Shoji, H, Bose, W, Beck, C, and D'Ambrosia, R. The  synergistic action of the anterior cruciate ligament and thigh muscles in  maintaining joint stability. Am J Sports  Med 15: 207-213, 198

Triplett, N. T.,  McBride, J., Blow, D., Kirby, T., & Dayne, A. (). Relationship Between  Maximal Squat Strength And Five, Ten, And Forty Yard Sprint Times. Journal  of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 1633-1636.

Vakos, JP, Nitz, AJ,  Threlkeld, AJ, Shapiro, R, and Horn, T. Electromyographic activity of selected  trunk and hip muscles during a squat  lift. Effect of varying the lumbar posture. Spine 19: 687-695, 1994


Eric Bach, CSCS, PN1 is a strength coach, author, and fitness consultant. An avid fitness junky, Eric has been featured in publications such as T-Nation, eliteFTS, and thePTDC. He is owner of Bach Performance where he coaches clients to take control of their lives, helping them become stronger, shredded, and more athletic. Eric is the author of 101 Tips to Jacked and Shredded, which is available FREE for a limited time.

Website: http://bachperformance.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bachperformance

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Eric_Bach

101 Tips to Jacked and Shredded: http://bit.ly/101-Tips-to-Jacked-and-Shredded