SWEAT trainer Kelsey Wells demonstrates how to safely progress to this advanced lower-body strength exercise.

By Kylie Gilbert
June 21, 2019

So you want to barbell squat. It's easy to understand why: It's one of the best strength exercises out there and considered essential for anyone who wants to feel like an expert in the weight room. Since it requires a lot of hip and shoulder mobility, and the confidence to load typically heavier weight than some other squat variations, it takes some baby steps to get you ready. But when you get there you can expect some serious results. The barbell squat is a compound exercise, meaning it uses multiple joints to perform, and it recruits all your big lower-body muscles in one swoop (er, squat)—quads, glutes, and hamstrings. (More on that here: Why the Barbell Back Squat Is One of the Best Strength Exercises Out There)

Problem is, most people can't just pick up a 45-pound barbell right off the bat. (And that's just the bar without any weight plates.) That's where this progression sequence, demonstrated by SWEAT trainer Kelsey Wells comes into play. It'll get you confident and strong so you can safely and effectively work your way up to doing a barbell squat. (Related: This Mini-Barbell Workout from Kelsey Wells Will Get You Started with Heavy Lifting)

Barbell Squat Progression 1: Bodyweight Squat

This is a great unloaded compound move you can do anywhere—and nailing proper form is crucial before taking things to the next level by adding weight. (See: 6 Ways You're Squatting Wrong)

How to Do a Bodyweight Squat

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, with toes turned slightly outward. Brace abdominal muscles to engage core.

B. Inhale and initiate the movement by hinging at the hips first, then bend knees to lower into a squat position until 1) thighs are parallel or almost parallel with the floor, 2) heels begin to lift off the floor, or 3) torso starts to round or flex forward. (Ideally, in the lowest position, the torso and shin bone should be parallel to each other.)

C. Exhale and press into the mid-foot to straighten legs to stand, hips and torso rising at the same time.

A few form tips to keep in mind: Pull your shoulder blades down and back to engage your core, but be sure not to arch your low back. Hinge at the hip, pushing glutes back and maintain neutral spine as you squat bringing thighs parallel to the floor (or further if you have that range of motion). Keep knees in line with toes. For more, see: How to Do Bodyweight Squats Correctly Once and for All

Barbell Squat Progression 2: Goblet Squat

Once you've mastered the technique of a bodyweight squat, you're ready to add some load, which can be done with anything heavy and compact, like a dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball. In addition to helping you work up to the barbell back squat, a goblet squat great total-body move on its own since it works your quads, calves, glutes, core, and arms.

How to Do a Goblet Squat

A. Stand tall with feet shoulder-width apart. Cup one end of a dumbbell with both hands vertically in front of chest.

B. Keeping back straight, squat down until crease of hips drops below knees and tops of thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

C. Extend hips and knees to return to starting position.

A few form tips to keep in mind: In addition to what you've learned with the bodyweight squat, you'll want to make sure your chest stays lifted and elbows stay tight to your sides while holding the weight during a goblet squat.

Barbell Squat Progression 3: Barbell Back Squat

Once you're comfortable goblet squatting with 30-40 pounds, you're ready to swap that front-loaded free weight for a back-loaded barbell.

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. Fix your eyes in front of you on the ground to keep your neck in a neutral position.

C. Keeping back straight (be sure not to arch or round your back) 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.

A few form tips to keep in mind: The width of your grip will depend on your shoulder and back mobility, so start wider if that's most comfortable to you. A narrower grip and of the squeeze shoulder blades will also help ensure the barbell does not rest on your spine. If it's hitting the top of your spine, adjust your grip so that it's rest on your muscles instead.

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