Back squats are a weightlifting exercise that requires the lower body and core to work together.
Whether you’ve been going to your box for years or are new to CrossFit, you’ll already know how important squats are to CrossFit workouts.
In this article, I cover some key information on back squats, from the benefits of back squats to the common mistakes people make when attempting the exercise.
Keep reading to find out more.
The back squat takes the traditional squat motion and adds resistance to the shoulders with a barbell. Back squats target the posterior chain - or the back of your body - including the glutes, lower back, and hamstrings while engaging your quads and core.
The great thing about back squats is how many muscles you work in one simple exercise. Below are the main muscles that you work in a back squat:
- Upper back and lats.
- Adductor Magnus (Inner thigh).
- Abdominals and obliques.
Alongside all of the muscles that back squats target, there are a variety of benefits to carrying out back squats.
Back squats benefits
Strengthens your core
Back squats work to strengthen your core. Engaging your core throughout a back squat works to strengthen your core muscles and can make everyday movements like turning, bending, and standing much easier. Additionally, having a strong core can improve your balance, ease pain in your low back, and also makes it easier to maintain good posture throughout the day.
Improves leg strength
The back squat allows you to build leg and back strength as it engages all the muscles - big and small - in your legs. Additionally, back squats allow you to load the body with significantly more weight than you can with other exercises such as lunges and leg extensions, meaning you are likely to see results more quickly.
Strength training exercises like squats can help strengthen and tone the muscles in your lower body. When these muscles are in good condition, you are likely to find that you can move more comfortably and with less pain when it comes to exercising.
Although calorie burning is often associated with cardio such as running or cycling, performing high-intensity, compound movements like the squat can also burn a fair few calories.
Reduces the risk of injury
Incorporating back squats into your workout can actually reduce the risk of injury. When you strengthen the muscles in your lower body, you’re better able to carry out full-body movements with correct form, mobility, balance, and posture.
Guide on how to do a CrossFit back squat
Getting your form right is crucial if you want to get the most out of your back squat. Additionally, when heavy weights are involved, it’s incredibly important that you know how to perform the exercise with the correct form so that you’re not at risk of injuring yourself.
Below is a guide on how to perform a back squat correctly.
- Approach the bar making sure that you place your hands at an equal distance on the bar to ensure that the weight of the barbell is evenly distributed across your back. Step under the bar and safely load the barbell behind your head, resting it on your traps.
- Push the bar up and take a few steps back to clear the rack. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointed out, and chest up. Make sure that your core is engaged and your feet are planted firmly on the ground.
- Begin to sit back in your hips, bending your knees and dropping your butt toward the floor. Ensure that you push your knees out and that your gaze stays ahead.
- When your thighs reach parallel to the ground, pause, then stand back up, pushing through the balls of your feet back to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired amount of repetitions.
Common back squat mistakes
Incorrect bar placement - Placing the barbell incorrectly on your traps or placing it off-center can cause shifting and cause balance issues in your back squat. You should always make sure that your hands are placed evenly on the barbell.
To do this, make sure that you’re using the markings on the bar to ensure your hands are equally spaced out from the center and the weight is evenly distributed along your back.
Knees collapsing inward or moving too far forward - Making sure that you correct your knee placement is key to performing a squat properly. Your knees should be in line with your toes and should never go over your toe line.
Your knee collapsing inward during the squat, in general, is an issue that can lead to a knee injury, suggests hip and/or ankle mobility issues, and often indicates a lack of glute engagement.
Chest dropping - Letting your chest fall forward disengages your posterior chain, which is key to a back squat. To combat this, you need to roll your shoulders back and down and keep your gaze forward. A proud chest is the key to ensuring your form is correct as you squat down.
Excessive lumbar extension - Proper spinal and pelvic alignment is fundamental to squat strength and hip and lumbar health.
A common mistake people make is that they go into lumbar hyperextension as a means to stand up under the heavy load of the weights. Instead, they should pull their core tight and keep the spine neutral.
Lack of depth - When you lower yourself into the squat, your thighs should reach parallel to the ground. If you limit your range of motion, you won’t reap the full benefits of the movement and could risk injuring your knees.
That being said, if you’re recovering from an injury or are experiencing pain, it’s important that you listen to your body and don’t push yourself further.
Hips shooting back - A common mistake to make in the back squat is to allow the hips to shift back and shoot up, resulting in the back angle moving closer to horizontal.
While some squat variations utilize a greater horizontal back angle than others, the hips shooting up is generally a mistake that must be addressed to optimize leg growth, squat strength, and lower back health.
Tips for back squats
Only lift what you can handle - Start slowly! Avoid loading the barbell with a tonne of weight if your form can’t handle it, as it’s much better to get the form of the squat right.
You will benefit much more from the squat if you execute it with proper form than you will if you lift with too much weight.
Additionally, lifting too much weight can strain your lower back, hips, and knees, which puts you at a higher risk of injuring yourself. You can’t run before you can walk, so don’t try to!
Only lower yourself as far as you can comfortably go - When it comes to back squats, you should only lower yourself as far as it feels comfortable. Knowing your own limits are incredibly important to ensure you don’t injure yourself when carrying out a back squat.
When you begin to feel discomfort in your hips or knees, don’t push yourself further. Speak to a CrossFit coach and ask if they can help you accommodate for your injury or discomfort by modifying the exercise slightly.
Make sure you have a solid base - The majority of squat exercises require you to start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, providing you with a solid base to balance the weight and perform the exercise without losing your balance.
Although using a narrower stance allows you to target the outer thigh muscles, it also decreases the stability of your base and puts extra pressure on your knees.
Keep your posture upright - When performing a back squat, you need to be mindful of keeping your posture upright and need to avoid rounding your shoulders or back. Focus on keeping your spine straight and in a neutral position, with your head neutral, not looking up or down.
Keep your eyes forward - While it may seem natural to look down when performing a squat, you’ll want to keep your gaze straight ahead as this helps to maintain a good posture.
To help with this, pick a spot in front of you to focus on as you lower yourself down into the squat position. This may help you keep your neck in a neutral position and will also help you to stay focused on your posture.
When can you add weight to the barbell for your back squat?
You need to make sure you learn the proper squat form without more weight before you try to add any additional resistance. A standard barbell weighs 20kg alone, so you need to practice with this weight and make sure your form is right before adding any further weight.
Although it can be intimidating to start incorporating back squats into your workout routine, practice makes perfect! Once you have the form down and you feel comfortable with the motion of doing a back squat, you can begin to add weight to the barbell to up the intensity of your back squat.
The key is to start slowly. You’ll want to ensure that you can complete 3 sets of 10 reps before increasing the weight. If you feel your form break down, you should decrease weight until you can master the form. This will ensure that you avoid injuries and support a higher weight as you continue to train.
Another important reason why you should take it slowly when increasing the weight on the barbell is that the increased load can significantly affect your balance. This is why having a strong base is crucial when performing a back squat.
Remember to keep your feet hip-distance apart and drive the weight through the balls of your feet as you push up to the starting position. Although you can change the position of your feet to target different areas, this becomes harder when you have more weight on the bar.
Additionally, the more weight you add, the harder your muscles will have to work. Although this might sound like a good thing, while your body is adjusting to the new exercise you need to build up slowly.
Even if you feel like you could push harder and hit another personal best that day, I recommend upping your weights gradually as your body will pay the price for it with delayed onset muscle soreness a few days after if you don’t.
This also applies if you’ve taken time off from exercising, as it takes a long time to build muscle and only a few weeks to lose your strength. Bearing this in mind, you’ll want to increase the weight slowly and hit your personal bests gradually. Trust me, your body will thank you for it!
Is there an alternative to back squats for beginners?
If you’re a beginner or don’t yet feel comfortable taking on the back squat, a goblet squat is a good alternative to try. A goblet squat is a squat in which the individual supports a weight (Kettlebell or Dumbbell) in front of their chest – in a position known as a goblet hold.
- To begin, hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell vertically, gripping it with both hands underneath the top of the weight.
- Next, you’re going to bend your elbows and position the weight against your chest. It should remain in contact with your body throughout the movement.
- Begin to squat down, sitting back in the hips as you bend your knees, keeping the core tight and your torso upright.
- Allow the elbows to track in between the knees, stopping when they make contact.
- Once you reach the bottom of your squat, drive up through your heels back to the starting position.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
- Make sure that the hip crease drops below the knee crease at the bottom of the squat.
- Ensure that you reach full hip and knee extension at the top.