Are you ready for the Barbell Back Squat?
In the early 2000's I managed a high-end health club in West London and, as someone who enthused about weight training, remember being frustrated at the lack of free-weights and a squat rack on the gym floor. So when the time came to re-furbish the gym, I submitted a business case for investing in some proper iron. Despite my efforts though, the club owners chose instead to purchase a brand new suite of top-end fixed resistance kit - explaining that it was 'safer', and that the kit I wanted would attract the 'wrong crowd'. Heartbroken, I spent some petty cash on a set of heavy resistance bands and did my best to sell the benefits of these to the ever increasing number of prospective members that wanted to lift proper weights. Yes, those dentists, doctors, lawyers and journalists that were clearly just the wrong crowd.
Now the situation above was not uncommon back then, when, as a legacy of the fitness boom era of the 90's, many emerging club chains chose not to furnish their gyms with heavy plates and racks - associating these with bodybuilding gyms (already well established) or more specialised training. The best you could probably hope for was a rack of 2 to 20 kg dumbbells and a Smith machine - if you were lucky. But 15 years later, oh how times have changed: Go and look in any top-end health club today and you'll not only find squat racks, platforms, barbells and bumper discs, but probably chains, ropes, hammers and tractor tyres to boot. Yes, the world has woken up to 'functional' movement thanks to certain popular fitness trends and the presence of personal trainers forever praising their virtues.
Given my passion for lifting weights, surely this is a good thing then? Well yes, and no: Yes, in that it's great we're addressing the need to get people moving as god had intended; and no, in that many folk are just not coached sufficiently to gain the full potential of exercises that were once the preserve of athletes and strong men. Then there's the benefit versus risk equation, and when taking into account client profiles and the complexity of some lifts, the latter often outweighs the former. So while it pains me to admit it, I can sometimes see where the club operators of the 90's were coming from.
Now I must stress to those reading from a professional fitness background, that this article is aimed at the general gym user; and yes, I know the many benefits of the exercise in question, and that there are any number of lifters and athletes making genuine gains from it, after being coached to perfection. So with this said, I'll move onto specifics, and the subject of this post: The Barbell Back Squat. Or, as its known to the many who see it as the only variant of the primal movement from which it's derived, just 'Squats'. Popularised by endless articles in fitness magazines, social media, and an ever increasing number of 'functional' fitness professionals, the Barbell Back Squat is now being practised by even the most novice exercisers - often from the outset of their training, and without first learning the prerequisite progressions of the Squat movement.
The squat, even in its most basic unloaded forms, remains one the most poorly executed exercises I see when screening new clients - even experienced gym users. And for those that are keen to build strength and muscle, being too eager to step into the squat rack will not only risk injury, but is likely to lead to limited results through poor execution.
So who should back-squat and who shouldn't? Well the answer isn't simple, and maybe more a question of when rather than who, but at the heart of the issue is something every PT learns during their training: progression. And in the case of the back squat, I'm not talking about progression as in starting light or with an empty bar; because even replacing the barbell with a broom handle creates postural challenges that are too difficult for some. What I'm talking about is progression that starts with simple body-weight squats, then moves onto loaded variants as technique and strength improves. In my practice, I generally like to see clients performing 30 good body-weight squats with a neutral spine, full-foot placement, and at least 90 degrees of knee flexion (shown below), before including loaded variants such as suitcase squats, goblet squats, and kettlebell front squats. I view barbell variants as advanced progressions, so will not move clients onto these until they demonstrate good form and control ,whilst holding at least half their body weight for 20+ reps.
Knowing when to progress to the barbell squat is easy if you have a good coach, because they'll be deciding for you. But for those thousands of gym members that, having watched a well-worshipped online strength and conditioning guru, are now precariously balancing the equivalent of their body-weight or more on their backs, such progression is often bypassed. This is because today the barbell back squat is seen by many as the only route to real herculean legs, and anything else simply isn't going to cut it! And this is where things can go so very wrong: Just look up 'squat fail' online, and a 5 minute browse of videos will confirm that the world is sometimes not ready for the barbell back squat. Some may make you cringe - be warned.
So unless you are confident that your back squat technique is fully up to scratch, the best way forward is probably to take a step back and work on your basic squat technique before you venture back into the rack. A good coach or PT will be able to iron out any issues in your technique through effective cues, muscle activation and mobility work. Even during this process, with relatively lighter loading, I have achieved excellent gains with clients in terms of strength and muscle development.
Unfortunately though, not everyone will ever be ready for the barbell back squat, a fact which coaches and clients must both recognise. Lower risk variations of the squat, or other lower body alternatives may better suit those with structural posture problems, a history of back pain; or those who are just too tight in the hip and/or upper torso, and don't want to waste session time on the necessary mobility work when their primary goals are not performance related.
So if you can, avoid following the crowd into the rack until you are ready and feel comfortable performing the back squat. The journey there will bring you noticeable gains, especially for beginners; but more importantly, it will help you deliver the goods with good form once you finally get that barbell on your back.