A Complete Guide to the Back Squat 2023 (covers back pain when squatting, technique, plus more!)

If you have lower back pain when squatting, or if you’re looking to build up your max squat, whether you do martial arts or not, keep reading!

Jiu-jitsu and grappling sports are not dominated by weak bodies. It is an art about maximizing efficiency, yes – But the ceiling for optimizing a strong and healthy body is much higher than a weaker and more fragile one.

Building a minimum threshold of strength is crucial to maximizing your success in jiu-jitsu and grappling competition– and there is no program that would be complete without some form of a squat.

The ability to squat down low, and produce force with the legs and hips, while bracing through the midsection our qualities every grappler will mean win finishing takedowns & escaping bad positions or winning scrambles.

More broadly, almost every human activity will depend on strong and healthy legs that don’t break easily for both performance and general health. With this in mind, it is easy to see why the barbell back squat is considered the king of exercises.

Utilizing and developing your back squat is likely a wise investment for dedicated MMA fighters or jiu-jitsu athletes who wants to win more frequently and get injured less.

A Complete Guide to the Back Squat

How to Increase Back Squat Numbers?

To develop your back squat – several factors need to be considered. Though this article will not cover a specific program to develop squatting strength, we will provide some principles and guidelines that may prove useful in your own training.

Squat frequently and consistently (but not too frequently)

The number one factor that prevents people from improving their swipe is simply not consistently putting in a quality training session. Those summer squad programs for beginners will have you squatting three times a week, this would be excessive for an athlete also.

In order to account for the additional training stress of sports practice and being considerate tonight so frequently that it interferes with skill development, squatting once a week is advisable

However, the quality of that squat session will be impactful.

Please your squat session on a lower body strength training gait and ideally placed this training day between two training days or rest days during the week. you want to avoid your legs already being too fatigued to execute quality squats and also want to avoid a high effort interfering with your more intense sports practices.

Using a Back Squat for Jiu-Jitsu and MMA Strength

Jiu-jitsu and grappling sports are not dominated by weak bodies. It is an art about maximizing efficiency, yes – But the ceiling for optimizing a strong and healthy body is much higher than a weaker or more fragile one.

Building a minimum threshold of strength is crucial to maximizing your success in jujitsu and grappling competition– and there is no program that would be complete without some form of a squat.

The ability to squat down low and produce force with the legs and hips, while bracing through the midsection our qualities every grappler will mean win finishing takedowns & escaping bad positions or winning scrambles.

More broadly, almost every human activity will depend on strong and healthy legs that don’t break easily for both performance and general health. With this in mind, it is easy to see why the barbell back squat is considered the king of exercises.

Utilizing and developing your back squat is likely a wise investment for a dedicated martial artist who wants to win more frequently and get injured less.

How to Back Squat

Though many variations of squats can be performed, this post will focus on how to perform a high bar back squat.

If you are learning to perform a back squat, follow these precise steps and review them multiple times as you practice.

  • Set up a barbell on a squat rack at upper chest height. It should be lower than your shoulders but higher than your sternum.
  • Grasp the bar with your hands evenly spaced and centered on the barbell slightly further than shoulder-width apart.
  • Dip under the barbell and place the bar on top of your trapezius muscles. The bar should not be resting on any of your neck muscles at all. It should fit neatly over your shoulders – for those with less upper back muscle using a cushion pad on the barbell might be useful.
  • You should be underneath the barbell and in a quarter squat position with a slight knee bend squeezing the barbell tightly with your hands, pushing your chest slightly out, looking at the floor 4 feet in front of you, and pulling your elbows to your side slightly.
  • With your feet about shoulder width apart stand up with the barbell and unrack it from the stand. You should now be standing with the bar on your upper back, with your feet shoulder-width apart, squeezing the bar slightly with your hands and gently pulling your elbows down to your ribs.
  • Take one step backward with one leg, ensure you are secure and balanced, and take another step back. Then adjust your feet to approximately shoulder width apart with your toes 10 to 45° pointed outward. (Stance and foot position can vary noticeably between individuals. You can experiment with this on your own but some guidelines will be given below.)
  • Once you are in the proper position with your feet, stack your pelvis under your rib cage (details below) and take a deep breath into your abdomen. You will likely want to have a very very slight bend in the hips while standing fairly tall before you begin a repetition.
  • Begin a repetition by bending at the knees while looking at the floor 4 feet in front of you. Stay tall and sit your butt down between your legs. Knees should be maintained by being pressed gently out so they stay in line with where the toes are pointing throughout most of the movement.
  • You will complete the descent when you reach your desired depth. Add a minimum depth should be where the crease of your hips is parallel to the height of your knee – your thigh should be parallel to the floor. At most depth could be when your knee can no longer bend any deeper (full knee flexion). Your maximum depth should be determined by how deeply you can squat before your chest collapses forward.
  • Once depth is reached, reverse the motion and stand up with the weight by driving your legs into the ground and trying to stand up while keeping your torso as upright as possible.
  • Once the desired reps are complete – step one foot safely toward the rack and push the barbell FULLY onto the pins to secure the bar. Do not let go or drop the bar until you are certain it has been fully and safely held by the rack.

Notice above the lifter maintains a fairly upright posture.

Many will have slight differences in their squat depth, squat stance, and cues they use to execute the movement effectively. However, the following steps above are the basic foundational model for executing a back squat effectively.

Back Squat Benefits

The barbell back squat truthfully works – to various degrees – almost the entire body from your ankles to your upper back.

Done properly, the dominant working musculature and benefits of a back squat are for the quadriceps & glutes. However, other territories of the body gain benefits as well.

Benefits of Back Squats for the Ankles

The ankles bend deeply at the bottom and while the calves are not worked muscularly, they are stretched and lengthened which can be beneficial for those with immobile ankles.

Benefits of Back Squats for the Low Back and Core

The lower back/core is also called upon to stabilize you as you lift the weight, and your upper back contributes to this as well.

Benefits of Back Squats for the Adductors

Depending on your squat stance and personal anthropometry, the adductors on the inside of your thighs/groin also contribute massively to the squatting pattern. This is an underrated aspect of squatting which directly benefits lateral movement & grappling positions where the legs must squeeze and control opponents.

Benefits of Back Squats for the Overall Strength of Knee & Hips.

When squats are performed through a full range of motion, the heavyweights and powerful stimuli are effective at building up the connective tissue throughout the body as well. Squats do an amazing job of slowly building up passive tissues in the body from head to toe to become more resilient and able to withstand impact. This is an extremely underrated part of strength training that Grafling athletes benefit tremendously from. The ability to train longer and harder without breaking down or becoming injured is invaluable to the developing jiu-jitsu athlete. Back squats provide this throughout the legs and hips as well as the midsection.

Strength & Power

High Bar back squats have also been shown to help athletes develop power very effectively simply because they allow the body to be loaded up heavy and forced to contract a large amount of muscular force to overcome heavy resistance. This – along with its muscular and connective tissue benefits – is beneficial in speed and power athletes that want to run faster and hit harder in all sports.

A back squat developed to approximately 1.8 to 2x body weight can be a major game changer in the injury resilience and power potential of a grappler.

Heavy strength movements, like a back squat, force the entire body to learn to contract large muscle groups together and operate under strain – this will be necessary for most contact sports and especially grappling to complete or escape maneuvers where high force outputs that require several seconds of sustained effort are necessary.

While many muscular actions in sports occur in less than one second, The ability to continue to apply explosive force under high resistance for 1 to 3 full seconds at a time Will be tested during crucial make-or-break moments in a match.

In addition to the fact that a higher ceiling for absolute strength makes opponents feel lighter, developing strength as a back squat is a no-brainer for any contact or grappling athlete.

How to Increase Back Squat Numbers?

To develop your back squat – several factors need to be considered. Though this article will not cover a specific program to develop squatting strength, we will provide some principles and guidelines that may prove useful in your training.

Squat Frequently and Consistently (but not too frequently)

The number one factor that prevents people from improving their squat is simply not consistently putting in a quality training session. Most squat programs for beginners will have you squatting three times a week. While this may work for a pure lifter, this would be excessive for a grappling athlete with an active schedule.

To account for the additional training stress of sports practice and being considerate tonight so frequently that it interferes with skill development, squatting once a week is advisable

However, the quality of that squat session will be impactful.

Place your squat session on a lower body strength training day and ideally placed this day between two training days of rest days during the week. You want to avoid your legs already being too fatigued to execute quality squats and also want to avoid a high-effort squat routine interfering with your more intense sports practices.

In some cases with constrained schedules, it is also acceptable to place a squat training session earlier in the day before a jujitsu/grappling training session. With 4 to 6 hours of rest in between sessions they should not deeply interfere with one another and by performing your squat session 1st you will ensure the strength training is of adequate quality if developing strength is a priority in your training at the moment.

Rep Ranges

Most commonly – many squat programs may have you perform sets of 5-8 reps across.

Such as a 5×5 format.

This is fine in a pure lifting context with a beginner. As they need to keep practicing repetitions to learn the skill as well as prevent things from becoming too complicated for them as they are initially learning.

However, this may not be ideal for a grappling-focused trainee or someone with basic control of the movement already developed. At this point, beginner jiujitsu athletes would benefit from 3-4 sets across instead as they learn to squat. Once the movement has been comfortably developed – they can move on to exploring superior approaches.

One common approach with sets of “5” is they are designed to “build strength”. As mentioned previously the most effective way to get stronger is to build both muscle size AND muscle recruitment ability.

The issue many fall into is that muscle recruitment is best built with lower reps below 6 and muscle mass is often best built with rep ranges 8 and above. This often leads to many spinning their wheels and getting nowhere in either direction as athletes focused on performance try to chase both goals poorly.

There is a simple and very effective method for achieving both of these goals and training qualities that can be performed near the beginning of any strength session with any compound movement.

Squats in particular work very well here.

You essentially lift one set that is in a lower rep range (1-5) and then utilize a certain percentage of that weight for another 1-3 sets for higher reps (6-12)

You can read a detailed breakdown of EXACTLY how to do this here.

Check Technique & Setup

For many athletes, a back squat will need to be somewhat individualized. This means altered stances and perhaps novelty bars or other modifications as well as a refined improvement to your technique which almost everyone needs at some point.

We will cover a few of these briefly below – including other variations you can utilize if a back squat is unavailable or not ideal for you.

Stance

This can vary between individuals of different shapes and sizes as our anthropometry & hip structure can make how we ideally squat similar to our own “fingerprint”.

However, most can use the following insight to improve their squad by altering their foot position:

To find your ideal foot position during a front spot, on the rack and an empty barbell (or a smaller/lighter barbell if necessary for you) so that the resistance is extremely light. Follow the steps as if the bar was loaded heavy.

Initiate a single squat repetition as deep as you can and squat back up. Try spacing your feet 1 to 2 inches wider with your toes facing the same angle and repeat. Assess the depth of your squat and how easy it was to remain upright while getting your knees forward and hips down.

Repeat the same process by instead experimenting with turning your toes out another 10° or in another 10°. Assess how comfortable and smooth that movement felt once more.

The goal is to find a position where you can squat to your minimum depth while keeping your chest tall so the barbell is not at all tempted to roll forward. Your butt should essentially be sinking between your heels.

Begin to experiment with the toe angle and distance between your feet as you add small increments of weight to the bar.

For most people (especially men) your most comfortable distance will be around shoulder width with your toes pointed 20 to 45° outward.

Stacking the Ribcage & Pelvis

It is important to properly call position over the pelvis beginning a squat. If the pelvis is tipped forward too far this will cause you to lose proper drive and movement quality as you descend. Frequently, individuals think “buttwink” (spinal flexion at the bottom of a squat) is due to poor mobility but often it is simply because they began the squat from a position where the spine was bent too far backward. Then at the bottom position, it simply bends forward to the ideal position.

You should be posteriorly tucking your pelvis so that you maintain a slight curve in the back of the spine and you can feel the front of your lower abdominals slightly engaged.

However, there should not be so much “tuck” that you lose the “S” curve in your spine. Ribs should be stacked right “on top” of the hips without the ribs sticking forward.

Common Errors of Squatting

Sitting “back” and not “down”

Commonly, those who lack mobility or strength to lift a weight in a back squat will compensate for this by lifting their hips back much more to lift the weight with their back and hips.

We want to avoid this.

One option is to focus on sitting down rather than back. Your stance should allow you to sit your butt mostly between the back of your heels and remain fairly upright thought out the movement.

Consider that your torso will tip forward a few degrees during the moment. It may be useful to begin the squat *already* tipped slightly forward (only slightly. You shouldn’t feel a major strain from hinging at the hips while standing) and maintain that angle of your torso to the ground during the entire squat movement.

Allow yourself to focus entirely on bending your knees and standing up using your quadriceps.

If this is still challenging and you have made attempts to adjust your stance a bit – another option is to try another squat variation that makes it easier to squat upright.

Front squats are a common choice.

Not bringing hips “forward” enough at the bottom OR keeping them under you while standing up

Some individuals need to be encouraged to bring their hips forward. As addressed prior they shoot their hips too far back instead of dropping their pelvis between their legs.

Some movement backward is natural however we do not want the horizontal movement of the pelvis to become more dominant over the vertical movement of the pelvis.

It can help some individuals to consciously try to push their knees forward and push their knees slightly out while bringing the pelvis underneath them. As long as this is done with the torso remaining fairly straight & neutral this will benefit your squatting effect for your legs.

Pushing reps past the point of clean technical failure

Once the legs begin to give out in terms of strength many athletes try to lean forward to allow their back and hips to lift the weight. They turn the squat into a “deadlift” motion with a bar on their back. The telltale sign of this is when the bar is being stood up with and the athlete’s hips shoot up tall before the bar lifts with it.

This results in a squat where you are much more greatly bent over than when you began. (Remember we want to maintain torso angle with the floor)

Besides any other accommodations we make – it can be wise for athletes to understand that their muscles have already “failed” the squat at that point and it may be time to rack the bar. Quality reps are more important than grinding out reps you bend over with your butt in the sky on.

Heel Elevation

One of the most common remedies for those who struggle with deep and clean squat techniques is to elevate the heels on a wedge, plate, or slant board. This makes a squat easier as it removes any ankle and many hip mobility restrictions from the movement.

Anyone using heel elevation will squat more upright automatically.

You can do this by placing 2.5 to 25lb plates underneath your heels when you squat or use a wedge/slant board you may have at a gym or could purchase online.

Olympic weightlifting squat shoes also do this for you as well so consider your favorite option.

Should You Back Squat with Knee/Back Pain?

It’s important to note for those that may have nagging issues from jiu-jitsu – you should only do exercises you are comfortable doing and not exacerbate existing problems. If you cannot back squat comfortably or it is exaggerating an orthopedic issue it is wise to do 2 things:

  1. See a clinician if the issue is serious or debilitating
  2. Hire a qualified coach to problem-solve for you and adjust your programming & technique

You shouldn’t be taking strength training decisions into your own hands as an inexperienced strength trainee.

When performed and programmed correctly an athlete should benefit from squatting and back or knee pain should be lessened – but if your pain is greater than usual it is a sign something else needs to be done first or you need direct help.

Be sensible and seek it out as a good strength coach, especially one that understands the needs and demands of grappling will make all the difference in your training results.

Wrapping Up

The barbell back squat is a staple and often the main strength exercise in elite athletes’ strength routines. It is the foundational builder for strength and power as well as keeps the body durable and mobile when down properly. Whether you are training to stay in shape or for your next fight, this guide will help you master the back squat.

Images provided by Grapplergraveyard.com

About Drew

MMA, Fitness & Marketing enthusiast from North Wales, UK. A Stoic Hippy with no hair. Not to boast but - 1st Class Degree in Sports Science from Loughborough, MSc in Nutrition from the University of Liverpool. 20 years experience of weight & fitness training.
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