If I had to choose one exercise that I see performed incorrectly by almost 95% of the average gym goer I would have to go with the barbell back squat.  This makes me weep inside because when done correctly, the back squat may be one of the most valuable exercises for building overall strength and power of the posterior chain.  In other words, building you a strong ass.

Since I work in a commercial gym, there are quite a few things that I have/hate to tolerate such as bicep curls in the squat rack, BOSU ball crunches, and the Shakeweight.  AAAAAHHHHHHHHRDGH.  Okay, where was I?

Oh yeah, when it comes to watching your average Brozo the Clown get under a loaded bar, on the other hand, my knee caps feel like they are ready to shoot across the room.  I see things from half squats to 1/8 squats, hyperextended necks, heels on a 2×4 with running shoes to the bar wrapped in a pad sitting on their neck.  This I can not tolerate.

Who knows where these bad habits come from.  Maybe Youtube?  Then there are those that were taught by their football coach back in highschool and boy is that a fun one to fix.  Others have been shown squat ‘technique’ by their friends doing the same dumb shit.  Good idea, naht!  Luckily, most people are very receptive to some minor coaching tips to hopefully save their spine and get some benefit out of their squat.

Most of the time the biggest problem for people starts right with the setup.  I can’t stress how important proper setup is for any exercise but this is especially true when there is a heavy loaded bar sitting across your frame.  Now is NOT the time to just wing it.

[quote author=”- A Wise Coach”]A good squat is the result of a good setup.  Period.”[/quote]

This is nothing new but I feel like it has to be reintroduced.  Here are a few tips for a solid back squat setup:

Bar Position

There is a lot of debate as to which bar position is better, high bar or low bar.  I am not here to discuss this since there is always some jackwagon who wants to argue with me.  Powerlifter or not I still feel they have the best setup for the squat in terms of safety and mechanics so we will go with low bar.

Although bar pads and that manta ray thing may seem like a good idea, they are not so ditch them.  They will ‘disconnect’ you from the bar and you will not be able to get as tight or stable.  This is very important.

The first step is to get tight before you put the bar across your shoulders, just under the spine of your scapula (shoulder blade) across your back.  When I say ‘get tight’ I am referring to scapular retraction which can be done by ‘pinching’ your shoulder blades together.  My biggest piece of advice here is to get tight BEFORE you load the bar across your back.  This will create a pillow for the bar to sit on.

No excuses.

If the bar is uncomfortable there you may either be in the wrong spot, not be tight or have some mobility issues.  If it is the latter then the back squat may not be right for you…..yet.  If you lack mobility (probably from working at a desk) chances are you should NEVER load a bar on their back without proper mobility and training.  EVER.  

If you are one of those people check out one of my favorite articles on T-Nation by Tony Gentilcore, Squat Like You Mean It: Tips For a Deeper Squat.  Don’t worry, there are plenty of pictures and videos of mobility exercises if you want to skip the reading part.

Foot Placement

I have been back and forth on this one but working with a generally ‘tight’ population I have found that the best foot placement for most if not all people is relatively neutral with the heels directly under the shoulders.  If you go too narrow then you end up looking like an accordion folding up when you squat.  Too wide of a squat doesn’t work well for for most people as your adductors will reach their limit too early.  For all the powerlifters out there, a wide squat may help someone who is geared but I still feel raw lifters should take a neutral stance to aid in hip drive.

This is not a squat. It is a ballet move.

The other thing I tend to see a lot of is people squaring up their feet with their toes pointed straight ahead.  Yes, it is good posture to stand or even run like this you are squatting now.  This exercise requires you to efficiently use hip drive and to do that you need your whole ass to get into it so let’s not half ass it.  Pointing your toes out will allow you to incorporate more of your glute med/min as well as give you some extra mobility.

I have had numerous clients and trainees tell me that they are not flexible and have never been able to squat below parallel.  Every time their foot placement was off and every time I made the necessary changes.   Holy ass to grass Batman!  Just sayin’.

This is good foot placement.
P.S. Nice shoes!


Neck and Eye Position

I have these grouped together because invariably where your eyes go, your neck will follow.  There is a good amount of bros and even coaches out there that will tell you to look up when you are squatting.  From what I have noticed, much of this comes from football practice and bad weightlifting coaching when you were younger.  Although it might sound good in theory, it is wrong.

Starting with your gaze, you should keep your stare at a fixed point on the horizon NOT the ceiling.  Looking up might sound like a good idea but is deleterious to proper squat mechanics and hip drive.  9 times out of 10 it causes you to hyperextend your cervical spine (neck) and in turn will weaken (for lack of a better word) your entire posterior chain.  This includes your glutes and hamstrings which seem to be prudent muscles in this process but what do I know?

Mirrors in front of the squat rack might be the mostest dumb thing evur too.  Too look at a moving object (you) while squatting with a loaded bar is just plain silly since it will disorient your squat.  You can look at yourself later when you are flexing in the mirror.

What you should do is pick a point either on the rack or about 5ft in front of you on the floor and stare at it.  Looking straight is ok here to as long as there is no mirror.

Keeping your eyes on a fixed point will also allow you to ‘pack’ your neck or keep it in cervical alignment.  The easiest way to visualize this is to stand tall and drive the back of your head back and up as if to make a ‘double chin’ or ‘no neck’ face.  It ain’t pretty but it will teach you proper spinal alignment.  Charlie Wiengroff dPT, CSCS discusses this to a T in his Packing the Neck article.  Dean Somerset writes another lovely post on the same topic here.\

Neutral cervical spine or ‘packed neck’

One final note: As I mentioned before, I have found that this setup works best for MOST people and there are always exceptions which I will save for another post.  That being said, although you are awesome, you are probably NOT the exception.  

P.S. Front squats kick ass too and may be better for those who lack mobility.

P.P.S. Goblet squats are pretty sweet as well.  Let me know when you run out of dumbbells.

Ask questions below if you are curious about your setup or technique!


Written by Steve