by Robert Maxwell
If you’ve spent much time observing small children, you’ve probably noticed they’re much more flexible than most adults. While many people over 40 struggle to put their socks on in the morning, let alone bend over and touch their toes comfortably, kids seem to have no trouble contorting themselves into all sorts of interesting shapes. One is the squat. Watch an curious child find something interesting on the ground, and you’ll probably see them drop down to its level faster than you can blink, usually by hitting a full depth squat with perfect form. That’s because squatting is the most natural and easiest way to lower the human body. It’s also a fundamental movement which recruits just about every major muscle group you’ve got, not just your legs. If you lack the flexibility to squat down comfortably without your feet moving or heels leaving the ground, it’s time to make some changes. Squatting is vital to your health, mobility and strength, and the ability to squat properly is usually a pretty good indication of overall physical capability. All normal children can squat easily, and the gradual loss of this ability in adults is regrettable. If you want to improve your health, fitness and strength, assessing and improving your ability to squat is a good place to start. Try squatting all the way down, so the crease of your hips drops below the tops of your kneecaps without your heels rising off the floor, back rounding, or feet swiveling. If you’re able to do it on your first try, great. Keep it up. If not, work on your flexibility until you can. Of course, if strength is your goal, squatting with just your bodyweight only takes you so far. That’s where a barbell comes in. In this article I’ll lay out all steps involved in the high bar barbell back squat. High bar refers to the barbell’s position on top of your traps, just below your neck. This version is easier to learn and master than the low bar variety, and is the preferred squatting style of nearly all Olympic weightlifters. Let’s get started.
Step 1 - Racks and Racking Height
If you’ve never squatted with a barbell on your back before, it’s vital you understand what kind of rack you should use to house the weight between sets. In this article, I’ll be referring to “the rack”. What I mean by this is a 4-sided structure you step into to squat - not a 2-legged power rack. The 4-sided squat racks (sometimes called squat cages), allow horizontal safety bars to be installed on two sides, ready to catch the barbell if you lose balance or fail a rep. As a novice squatter, this is a crucial feature. Losing control and being crushed to the ground by a heavy barbell could end your squatting career for good. The height from which you’ll transfer a loaded barbell from rack to back is one of the most important setup decisions you’ll make. Too low, and you’ll have to do a partial squat just to get the bar free, wasting valuable energy and strength. Too high, and you’ll severely compromise balance by going up on your tiptoes while unracking. Not a good idea with a heavy weight on your back. The ideal height to unrack the barbell from for the high bar squat depends on your particular proportions, but is usually around your mid chest or so when you’re standing normally. For most people, this position is high enough to comfortably get under the barbell, anchor it on the upper traps, and unrack it with a small amount of upward hip drive (covered in step 3).
Step 2- Warming Up
I’m a firm believer in a proper warmup routine before working out. Although some coaches disagree, I’ve found that properly stretching the muscles, tendons, and ligaments about to be recruited is vital. Before a squat session, it’s important to fully stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, hip abductors, and spinal erectors. Don’t stop with static stretches, either. Get your blood pumping and body fired up with some bodyweight squats in preparation for the weighted version. Warming up properly in this fashion usually takes about 10 minutes. An optional extra step is foam rolling. Foam rollers are long cylinders of compressed foam or rubber designed to be rolled back and forth on the floor, beneath a body part. The idea is that the firmness of the roller and repetitive motion loosen knotted muscles and increase blood flow to the area. Once you’re fully stretched, it’s time to squat.
Step 3- Unracking & Setup
Standing directly in front of the racked barbell, place your hands on it somewhat wider than shoulder width. Grip width is very individual, and as you gain more experience with the squat, you’ll adjust yours to match your particular biomechanics. That said, not all grip positions while squatting are created equal. Generally, the ideal grip width is the narrowest your hands can be without compromising your wrists or elbows. Elbow and wrist compromise is any position where there is excessive or unnatural bending, or a portion of the weight on the barbell is resting on the arms, rather than the upper back where it should be. Too wide a grip is equally problematic, loosening your upper back muscles so they relax under the bar instead of providing a solid support platform. No part of the body should be relaxed while squatting, and keeping this in mind will affect your entire squat dynamic for the better. With your hands gripping the barbell in the position above, hinge at your hips and a little at your knees, lowering your head and body beneath the barbell. Step forward without moving your hands, so your upper back is directly below the barbell, then slowly straighten until your upper back presses against it. Without lifting it from the standards yet, adjust your position so the barbell is nestled into your upper back, just above your traps, at the base of your neck. This is called the high bar position. Take a deep belly breath, then squeeze your core muscles hard. You’ll be maintaining this tightness in your core throughout the set. While holding the same breath and continuing to squeeze your abs, slowly straighten your hips and legs so you lift the barbell free of the standards. Take a second to ensure the barbell is still in the right place on your back, then take a step backwards, first with one foot, then the other. Even up your feet, then position your heels slightly beyond shoulder width. Angle out your toes about 30 degrees. This is your squat stance. With the barbell on your back and your feet properly positioned, you’re ready for your first squat.
Step 4- Squatting and Re-racking
At this point you’ve probably released that big breath you took while unracking the barbell. Take another one now, then hold it and brace your stomach as hard as you can, just as before. You are now ready to descend into the squat. With your hands still firmly supporting the barbell against your upper back, Your feet in the correct position indicated above, and your core muscles continuously contracted, begin hinging at the hips and knees simultaneously. Descend as if there’s a chair just behind you that you’re trying to sit on. Don’t let gravity force you down too quickly. This is a recipe for losing tightness in your supporting trunk muscles, and quite possibly compromising your lumbar spine by rounding your lower back. As you descend, keep holding your breath strongly, and make sure you don’t release the contraction in your core muscles. Keep your head and neck neutral, focussing your gaze straight ahead. In this variation of the squat, it’s important to keep your torso as close to straight and upright as possible throughout the movement. This is proper technique. As you descend make sure you shove your knees out so that they’re pointing in the same direction as your angled out toes. Giving in to the temptation to let your knees droop inwards as you squat, especially on the way up, is not only bad for your overall squat strength, but terrible for your knees. Depending on your flexibility, shoving your knees out this far might be difficult at first. That doesn’t give you an excuse not to observe proper form and technique. If flexibility of your hip abductors is a limiting factor in your squat form, you need to become more flexible. No other solution exists if you want to squat strongly, and safely. With your knees shoved out in this way, descend until the crease of your hips drops just below the top of your kneecaps. This is the optimal point to bottom out in your squat, since it makes use of the stretch reflex of your hamstring muscles to help you reverse direction and begin your ascent, and is deep enough that your quadriceps will be fully utilized. If you squat shallower than this, so the crease of your hips does not drop below the tops of your kneecaps, you’re not squatting properly. Many “gym bros” squat shallower than this, but it’s the wrong way to do it. Ego is often the driving force behind these “half squats“. Since the range of motion is reduced, more weight can usually be lifted. Trouble is, squatting above proper depth is terrible for your knees and fails to fully engage the leg muscles.
Once you reach the bottom of your squat, Use your hips and the tension in your hamstrings to drive the barbell and your body back up. The path of the bar must remain straight and vertical, directly over the middle of your foot during the ascent, just as it was when you descended. A non-vertical bar path means your technique is bad. If you allow the bar to creep forward as you ascend, not only will you be in a weaker position mechanically, but your back will be in danger. Your hips should drive straight upwards, maintaining the same distance from the barbell throughout the movement. At this point you’re only using the empty 45 pound barbell, so your hips rising faster than the weight is pretty unlikely. When you start going heavier, it becomes a greater concern. Keeping your core braced hard for the entire squat helps. Make sure your back stays straight as you ascend. As you reach the top of the squat, exhale forcefully. You’ve now completed your first repetition. Take another deep belly breath, re-brace your abdominal muscles, then repeat the process for your second rep. Do 15 slow, controlled reps with the empty barbell, then rack it and rest for a couple minutes. To safely rack the barbell, walk it forward towards the standards until you feel it make contact with the vertical supports of the rack. Then break at the hips and knees and slowly descend until the barbell is fully resting on the standards. Once you’ve rested sufficiently, add 20 pounds or so and do another set of 10. You can add more or less weight than this, depending on how difficult the first set with the empty bar felt. Take another rest after the second set, then do two or three more. Congratulations, you’ve now done your first barbell squat workout. Allow your body to recover for a couple days, then do some more squatting. Try to add a little more weight than you used last time, as long as it doesn’t feel terribly difficult, and you’re able to maintain proper technique.
Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50