Master The Barbell Back Squat: Form, Stance and Variations

Master The Barbell Back Squat: Form, Stance and Variations

clock-circular-outlinePosted 1 Mar 2024

The barbell back squat is the OG of squat movements: A staple in gym programs for professional athletes down to weekend weightlifters. But humans have been squatting long before gyms were even a thing – making this one of the oldest exercises in the book.

Whatever your age and training level, the benefits of the barbell squat are unmatched, partly due to it being a compound movement (recruiting multiple muscle groups throughout the body), but also because it’s a functional exercise.

What’s a functional exercise? Well, it’s an exercise that mimics movements we do in everyday life: Sitting in a chair, getting out of the car, walking up the stairs. Not only does squatting make you stronger in the gym, but outside of it too.

Feeling convinced? Stick with us to find out more about the king of leg movements – and discover the key technique points that will get you lifting heavier than you thought possible.

Struggling to hit full depth? Try these squat mobility exercises at the start of your session.

Table of Contents:

What Is A Back Squat?

The back squat is one of the most well-renowned lifts, and leg exercises in the gym. It is usually performed with a barbell using a squat rack. The bar is placed in a back rack position, resting on the meaty part of the upper traps. There are scaling options to make barbell back squats suitable for beginners or those with limited mobility, and progressions for more experienced athletes, which we’ll cover later on.

Barbell Back Squat Muscles Worked

It’s one of the ultimate leg builders, and often takes a prime position in leg day programming – and for good reason too. The barbell squat recruits the largest and most powerful muscles in the body, strengthening the leg muscles (quads, hamstrings and glutes) and the core [1]. They also work the upper back and shoulders in order to support the barbell on the back.

Back Squat Benefits

1. Ultimate Hypertrophy

If you’re looking for a way to put several big muscle groups under load at once, back squats are your exercise. A back-racked barbell helps stabilize and balance the weight. This makes it easier to challenge muscles for maximum growth and strength.

2. Increases Bone Density & Joint Strength

With strong muscles, comes strong bones. But you don’t need to worry about bone health until you get old, right? Think again – Early adulthood is the time when we have the greatest ability to increase bone density before bone mass starts to reduce at an alarming rate of 1% per year after 40 [2]. Lifting weights, especially doing back squats, can help prevent bone loss and even make bones stronger [3]. This can reduce injuries and counteract the natural decrease in bone density as we age.

3. Improves Performance

Research has proven that back squats help you excel on the track, improving both explosive strength and speed in athletes [4]. But that’s not all. By strengthening your squat, everyday movements become easier too. Think about it: When you sit, stand, and walk up the stairs, you’re using the same muscles and movement patterns of the squat – so it makes sense that a strong squat benefits movements we do every day.

Front Squats Vs Back Squats

The back squat may be the OG when it comes to barbell squats, but on the flip side, front squats offer quad and core development in a whole new way.

Let’s explore the key differences between front and back squats:


Unlike a back squat, where the barbell rest on the back of the shoulders, during a front squat, the bar is held in a front rack position. This involves placing the bar on the front of the shoulders, either in full grip or resting it on the tips of the fingers, elbows pointing forwards. This set up helps keep the torso upright and reduces strain on the spine. As a result, it can prevent lower back pain and knee problems that are common in back squats.

Muscle Recruitment

Both back squats and front squats will help you gain strength and power in your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core, but they work the muscle groups to slightly different degrees. The back rack positioning of the barbell during back squats places more emphasis on the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings), whereas front squats place the anterior chain (mainly quads) under more load, due to the front rack loading. Which type of squat you choose perform might change depending on how much or little you want to target the posterior or anterior leg muscles.


Back squats allow even less experienced lifters to pack the weight on but don’t expect to be hitting the same numbers on your front squat. The front rack position is more challenging, requiring more core strength and stability to remain upright. With the back squat, however, you don’t have to do any work to counterbalance the weight. Plus, the glutes and hamstrings are bigger muscles than the quads, so working together they have greater push strength to drive you out of the bottom squat position, meaning naturally you’ll be able to manage heavier loads doing a back squat vs a front squat.

That being said, less weight doesn’t mean less muscle gain. Research comparing both the front and back squats has proved that both exercises are just as effective at overall leg muscle activation, despite the difference in load [1].

Looking to perfect your front squat? Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Front Squats

So which one should you choose?

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with either selection, but it will ultimately depend on your goals and preferences. If you want a well-balanced training program, include back and front squats in your program.

Ready to get started with your squat program? Download the Gymshark training app and pick a barbell program to get started.

How To Do Back Squats

To reap the benefits of the barbell back squat, it’s important to learn the movement correctly and form good habits from the outset.

Follow these steps to do back squats with proper form:

  1. Set up the barbell in the squat rack, just below shoulder height.

  2. Place your hands on the bar, just outside of shoulder width. Move underneath the bar, resting it on your upper back and placing your feet directly below you, hip-width apart.

  3. Stand fully upright, unracking the bar. Take two steps back and place your feet in your squat stance, feet just outside of hips, toes pointing forward or slightly out.

  4. Take a deep breath into your belly, and squat down, driving your knees out and keeping your chest up.

  5. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get). Pause briefly, then press through your feet to come back to standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.

  6. Repeat for the prescribed rep range, then walk the barbell back into the rack to re-rack it.

Back Squat Form Tips

The benefits of back squats are huge, but with that comes the risk of injury.

To perform back squats safely and with maximum benefit, follow these form tips:

  • Create tension on the bar: Don’t just rest the bar on your back, squeeze it, putting it into your upper back, driving the elbows down. This will engage your lats, stabilizing the torso and protecting the spine.

  • Keep your chest up: This prevents your back from rounding, reducing injury risk and allowing the safe lifting of a heavy load.

  • Screw your feet into the floor: Imagine you are standing on a piece of paper and you want to tear it without moving any parts of your body. As you set up for your squat, drive your feet into the floor and ‘screw’ them out. This will prevent the knees from caving in and keep the hips and back in the right position.

Foot Positioning & Stance

The optimum foot positioning and stance for barbell back squats is a well-debated topic. In all honestly, there isn’t a set right or wrong answer – What is best for one person, may not be best for another. But there are some general recommendations we can look at.

There are two main considerations when it comes to back squat stance: foot width and toe angle.

Toe Angle

The American Council of Exercise suggests pointing the toes ‘slightly out’ – but what exactly does this mean? Well, a 2018 research study, said that toes should be ‘no more than 10 degrees outward’, but pointing forward is better for optimal joint movement and reduced injury risk [5]. Therefore, we could assume that anywhere between toes forward, and 10 degrees out would be a suitable stance.

Experiment with foot placement within this range and pick what feels most natural, allowing you to keep your chest up and come down to full depth.

Foot Width

In terms of foot width, there are generally three options: neutral, narrow, or wide.

The first of these is the typical squat stance, with feet just outside of hips. This is the general width that allows most individuals to comfortably squat down to parallel, and maintain form and balance throughout the movement.

If you’re looking for ultimate glute activation, research has found a wide stance (with feet much further out than hip-width – also called a sumo squat) to be more effective due to greater hip flexion and extension [6]. With this stance, it is easier to reach full depth whilst keeping your chest up, and often heavier weights can be lifted.

Taking a narrower stance, on the other hand, will shift the emphasis to the quads, but this isn’t without its drawbacks. A narrower stance is more challenging, requiring more ankle and hip mobility to reach parallel whilst maintaining a neutral spine. For this reason, it’s the least popular of the three stances, and you may need to place a plate under the heels of your feet or invest in lifting shoes for this one to keep your heels in contact with the ground and to allow you to sit back into the squat, without losing your balance.

In Summary:

Take a bit of time to try out the different stances and foot positions. In general, a neutral-width stance, with toes pointing forward or slightly out works best, but test the stances out to see what feels right for your body. If you’re struggling with depth and posture it may be a sign to dedicate some time at the start of each squat session to do some focused hip and ankle mobility work.

Also, think about your goals. If you’ve mastered the sumo stance, and want to activate your quads more, try the narrow stance squat – just know that it may feel strange at first when switching from one stance to another!

Barbell Squat Variations

Already mastered the barbell back squat or new to the game? There are a couple of key regressions and progressions that alter the difficulty of the barbell squat.

Box Squats

If you’re a beginner and new to squatting, box squats are a great starting point. The setup for these is exactly the same as a barbell squat, but you’ll need to grab a box – ideally, one that allows your knees to bend to a 90-degree angle once seated.

Box squats are also great for those with limited mobility or those recovering from injury. So if mobility is your limiting factor, opt for a slightly higher box that you can comfortably sit down on and stand back up.

How To Do Box Squats:

  1. Set up the barbell in the squat rack, just below shoulder height. Set up a box (or bench if you don’t have a box) a few inches back from the rack.

  2. Place your hands on the bar, just outside of should width. Move underneath the bar, resting it on your upper back and placing feet directly below you, hip-width apart.

  3. Stand fully upright, unracking the bar. Take two steps back until you are just in front of the box, facing away from it. Move your feet into a squat stance, just outside of hips, toes pointing forward or slightly out.

  4. Take a deep breath into your belly, and sit down onto the box, driving knees out and keeping your chest up.

  5. Pause briefly, then press through your feet to come back to standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.

  6. Repeat for the prescribed rep range, then walk the barbell back into the rack to re-rack it.

Pause Squat

If you’re looking for a way to up your barbell squat game and challenge your posterior chain, then you need to try pause squats. As you may have guessed, they’re exactly like back squats, but with an added ‘pause’ at the bottom of the squat – increasing muscle time under tension in the most difficult part of the movement.

How To Do Pause Back Squats:

To perform pause back squats correctly, you’ll want to follow the exact set-up listed above for a regular barbell back squat.

  1. Once the barbell is on your back, and your feet are in your squat stance, squat down at normal tempo, as close to parallel as your mobility allows.

  2. Once you reach the bottom of your squat, pause for 2-3 seconds, keeping your hips and body stable, and bracing your core.

  3. Drive through your feet, extending your legs to come back to the starting position. Repeat.

Back Squat FAQs

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Ready To Squat?

Barbell squats are arguably one of the best exercises for building leg size and strength. But don’t be fooled – they are an incredibly technical movement that require a ton of energy to perform.

Be clever with your programming – if you plan on back squatting, do it early in your workout. Only once you’ve finished the big compound leg exercises should you move onto isolation exercises – that’s when the fine-tuning on the individual muscle groups happens.

Be patient with back squats – they take time to learn. Experiment with form and foot placement to find what feels right for you. And once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to start really loading the plates on.

Searching for more squats? Discover our 5 top alternative squatting exercises to build stronger legs

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WRITTEN BY: Alex Kirkup-Lee

Alex is an inhouse Content Writer for Gymshark’s Health & Conditioning categories. A qualified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 and Functional Fitness Coach, Alex is experienced in training clients from a range of sporting backgrounds. With a passion for functional training, her favorite workout is anything that includes deadlifts, rowing, or wallballs.

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  2. Harvard Health Publishing (2021). Strength training builds more than muscles - Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at:

  3. Almstedt, H.C., Canepa, J.A., Ramirez, D.A. and Shoepe, T.C. (2011). Changes in Bone Mineral Density in Response to 24 Weeks of Resistance Training in College-Age Men and Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(4), pp.1098–1103. doi:

  4. Wirth, K., Hartmann, H., Sander, A., Mickel, C., Szilvas, E. and Keiner, M. (2016). The Impact of Back Squat and Leg-Press Exercises on Maximal Strength and Speed-Strength Parameters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(5), pp.1205–1212. doi:

  5. Lorenzetti, S., Ostermann, M., Zeidler, F., Zimmer, P., Jentsch, L., List, R., Taylor, W.R. and Schellenberg, F. (2018). How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading. BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, [online] 10(1). doi:

  6. Paoli, A., Marcolin, G. and Petrone, N. (2009). The Effect of Stance Width on the Electromyographical Activity of Eight Superficial Thigh Muscles During Back Squat With Different Bar Loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), pp.246–250. doi:

  7. Fares, M.Y., Fares, J., Salhab, H.A., Khachfe, H.H., Bdeir, A. and Fares, Y. (2020). Low Back Pain Among Weightlifting Adolescents and Young Adults. Cureus, 12(7). doi:

  8. Escamilla, R.F. (2001). Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, [online] 33(1), pp.127–141. Available at:

Alex Kirkup-LeeBy Alex Kirkup-Lee

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