Despite the significant benefits of this exercise, performing barbell squats incorrectly can result in serious injury. Before adding any weight to the bar you must first carefully study and practice the correct technique.
Barbell squats have been the subject of controversy for a long time. Performing the barbell squat incorrectly can place excessive loads on the lower back and your knees.
This can lead you to overload your lower back, knees and other soft tissues of the body.
Because of this, barbell squats are often associated with lower back and knee injuries. However, many trainers and coaches advocate the barbell squat as being one of the greatest exercises for increasing muscle size and strength when it is included as a part of an effective weight training programme.
This stance is further backed by numerous studies and reviews. It has been shown that deep barbell squats do not lead to increased rates of knee or back injuries when performed with correct technique. However, a large review done in 2013 found that shallow, incorrectly performed squats lead to knee and lower back injuries in the long term.
The Benefits Of Barbell Squats
Barbell squats are extremely important for the complex and harmonious development of the human physique. This exercise strengthens the buttocks, legs, and core (known as your posterior chain) all at the same time. This is also known as a compound exercise. Another benefit of a compound exercise besides the simultaneous activation of many muscle groups is the development of neuromuscular communication. Activating multiple muscle groups at the same time helps to ‘coordinate’ the mind-to-muscle connection. This also plays a role in hormone production, triggering the release of necessary muscle building hormones and synthesising nutrients.
Preparing To Squat
You should prepare your body prior to doing barbell squats by doing a warm-up. This will prepare the tissues of the body for the load that is about to be placed on them. Studies have shown a dynamic warm-up to be effective so you may choose to do 1 or 2 sets of simple bodyweight squats followed by a set with an empty bar.
There are also several static stretches you can do as a part of your warm-up, however, studies have shown static stretching to be more beneficial as a part of your cool-down routine. You can read about different types of static stretches and how to do them here:
How To Squat Correctly
The correct technique for a barbell back squat can be broken down into 6 steps. The key to increasing muscle size and strength and decreasing pain and the risk of injury is correct body positioning.
1. Place your feet shoulder-width apart
The starting position of a basic barbell back squat is with your feet positioned shoulder-width apart with your toes slightly pointing outwards (around 30° from your feet pointing straight forward). Wide stance squats (also called ’Sumo Squats’) allow you to have your feet wider but are considered an advanced technique and often not recommended for beginners.
2. Retract Your Scapula
In human language, this simply means squeeze your should blades together. You should place the bar on the top of your back, across the scapula. Bring your hands in closer on the bar to squeeze your shoulder blades together, which will make your trapezius muscle contract and ‘create a pad’. This position should not be causing you discomfort. If you experience discomfort you should reevaluate your technique by looking at your elbow position – they should be pointing downwards at a slight angle instead of directly vertical. Your hands should be supporting the bar but never holding the weight of it. Push your chest out and lean slightly forward. It is worth mentioning that if you cannot support the bar whilst being in this position, then the weight may be too heavy for you!
3. Squat Down To 90°
Shallow squats have shown to be damaging to your knees and lower back in the long-run, therefore make sure that you squat down parallel to the floor. Make sure that your knees are not further out than your toes!
4. Think About The Position Of Your Spine
At the lowest point of this movement (when you are at a parallel level), you should aim to maintain a straight position for your spine. This will avoid negative compressive force being placed on your spine, but rather this load will be distributed across an array of supporting muscles. Aim to keep a neutral spinal position as if you are looking at the floor about 1 meter in front of you. You should always avoid trying to turn your head in an attempt to see your form as this can easily lead to injuries and neck pain. Instead, you could always video yourself performing the exercise or have someone else do it!
5. Don’t Push From The Knees
When you are pushing the bar back up to the starting position, you should start this movement from the hips, pushing from your pelvis and only then the knees as you begin to straighten out your lower body. Many people make the mistake of beginning the movement by pushing up from the knees – this is mechanically incorrect! Pretend that a rope around your hips is pulling you upwards with your knees extending to finish the movement.
6. Keep The Tension
Once you have returned to the starting position, aim to keep the weight in your lower body. A common mistake that people make is transferring the weight by leaning forward too much. Also, do not forget to focus on maintaining a steady rhythm of breathing. Breathe in on the eccentric phase of the exercise (going down) and breathe out on the concentric phase (coming up)!
Squatting With Knee Problems
Barbell squats are often used in physical therapy to increase stability in the muscles during rehabilitative activities. Still, it is important that you consult a professional prior to doing this exercise if you suffer from knee pain. Many studies have shown barbell squats to be beneficial during the rehabilitation of knee injuries, however, should never be attempted without proper guidance as the strenuous nature of this exercise can easily aggravate the injury.
Using fixed-movement machines, such as Smith Machine or Leg Press may prove to be a safer option for those with knee injuries, however, it should be noted that these machines can only complement your leg training routine, but not replace it entirely. The main disadvantage of using machines is that they fail to work certain muscles by isolating the larger ones. Small muscles that provide support across a joint (known as stabilisers) are trained during functional movements rather than fixed.