Why the Barbell Back Squat Is One of the Best Strength Exercises Out There

Legs, meet gainz.

There's a reason everybody loves to talk about squats: They're a killer functional movement for hitting your entire lower body and core. There are a million variations, and you can get a great workout whether you add weight or not.

That being said, the barbell back squat (demonstrated here by NYC-based trainer Rachel Mariotti) is the OG squat you need to know (and learn to love). It's one of the three key movements in powerlifting, a bodybuilding mainstay, and an essential for anyone who wants to feel like an expert in the weight room. (See: The Barbell Exercises Every Woman Should Master In the Gym)

"The back squat is one of-if not the-best exercises for developing strength and muscle in the legs, trunk, and back," says Jordan Feigenbaum, M.D., founder of Barbell Medicine and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.

Barbell Back Squat Benefits and Variations

The back squat (either using the high bar position or low bar position) allows you to use heavier weights compared to a front squat, overhead squat, or squat variation using a different piece of equipment (such as kettlebells, dumbbells, or sandbags), says Dr. Feigenbaum.

"Additionally, the range of motion used in the back squat is relatively large," he says. "That, plus the potential to load a lot of weight combine to produce an exercise that effectively trains a lot of muscle mass at the same time." And more muscle mass being recruited equals the opportunity to build more strength, burn more calories, and feel like an overall badass in the gym. (ICYDK, having more lean muscle on your body means you burn more calories at rest. That's just one of many reasons to lift heavier weights.)

For the high-bar back squat, place the bar on top of the trapezius muscles with a thumbs-around-grip (like making a fist around the bar). This bar placement allows you to keep your torso more vertical throughout the movement, says Dr. Feigenbaum.

For the low-bar back squat, place the bar on the rear deltoids (rear shoulder muscles) under the shoulder blade with a thumbless grip (thumbs on the same side as the rest of your fingers). This placement may require you to lean forward a bit more than the high-bar position.

Are your quads excited yet? Ready, set, squat. (But before you try anything, read this beginner's guide to lifting weights.)

How to Do a Barbell Back Squat

A. If using a squat rack, walk up to the bar and dip underneath, standing with feet directly beneath the racked bar and knees bent, bar resting on traps or rear deltoids. Straighten legs to unrack the bar, and take 3 or 4 steps backward until you have room to squat.

B. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and toes turned out 15 to 30 degrees. Keep chest tall and take a deep breath in.

C. Keeping back straight and abs engaged, hinge at the hips and knees to lower into the squat, knees tracking directly over toes. If possible, lower until thighs are about 1 inch below parallel (to the floor).

D. Keeping abs engaged, drive hips forward and push into the mid-foot to straighten legs to stand, exhaling on the way up.

Try 8 to 12 reps, or fewer if working on smaller sets with heavier weights.

Barbell Back Squat Form Tips

  • For all back squats, keep the back locked in normal anatomical position-do not arch or round the back.
  • From the bottom, keep your abs squeezed tightly so shoulders and hips rise at the same rate during the ascent. (Think "drive your butt up out of the bottom.")
  • If your heels come up, your balance is too far forward and you need to sit back into your hips more. If your toes come up, your balance is too far back and you need to push your knees forward more on the way down.
  • Fix your eyes at a point about 3 to 6 feet in front of you on the ground (rather than at a mirror or looking up). This helps keep the neck in a neutral position and gives you a point of reference for balance.
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