Referred to as the king of barbell exercises, the back squat can help you get stronger, muscular, and leaner while improving performance.
In this blog post, we will discuss what a barbell squat is, the benefits of squats, and how to squat correctly.
We'll also cover lesser talked about squat topics including the difference between high bar vs. low bar squats, the best squat variations, and the best mobility exercises for squats. Let's get started!
What is a Barbell Squat?
First, what is a barbell squat. More specifically, what is a barbell back squat?
The barbell back squat is a compound exercise that is considered a total body movement, but it primarily targets the lower body.
It is ideal for a variety of fitness goals including strength, hypertrophy, power, and performance.
The back squat is also considered one of the big three of powerlifting with the other two exercises being the deadlift and bench press.
Squat Muscles Worked
What muscles are worked when squatting? As mentioned above, the squat is a compound exercise, which means it targets several major muscle groups and numerous secondary supporting muscles.
The barbell back squat works the following muscles:
- Quadriceps (top of leg)
- Hamstrings (back on leg)
- Glutes (butt)
- Calves (lower back of leg)
- Hip adductors (inside thigh)
- Hip abductors (outside thigh)
- Core (lower back, obliques, and abdominals)
What are the Benefits of Squats?
This one exercise is ideal for most fitness goals, especially when you want to improve your performance.
Let's review the most common benefits of squats.
When you go heavy with perfect form, the barbell squat is a great exercise for increasing lower body strength.
Studies show that the strength gains from barbell back squat transfer over into other exercises including the squat jump and countermovement jump. 
- Set: 4 to 7
- Repetitions: 3 to 7
- Intensity: 75% to 90% of your one-rep max
- Tempo: 3 / 0 / 1 / 0 (time in seconds for lowering, pausing, lifting, pausing)
Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth)
This exercise is also great for building muscle mass in the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Studies show that the barbell squat is one of the most effective exercises for promoting muscle growth, even more effective than the hip thrust.
The hypertrophic benefits of the squats are amplified when it’s followed by a secondary lower body movement such as a leg press or lunge. 
The trick is to use the correct acute variables:
- Set: 3 to 6
- Repetitions: 8 to 12
- Intensity: 65% to 75% of your one-rep max
- Tempo: 2 / 0 / 2 / 0 (time in seconds for lowering, pausing, lifting, pausing)
When taken to the appropriate depth, the squat can also help to improve your mobility.
While partial squats can be effective for certain power-based goals, the key is to move through a full range of motion to reap the benefits of improved mobility.
Improved Joint Health and Bone Density
The barbell squat can help to improve joint health by strengthening the connective tissue around the joints.
On that same note, the squat is ideal for increasing bone density in the lower body. This is critical because bone loss is a natural part of aging.
However, you can stave off or halt bone loss altogether with impact exercises like the squat. Pairing the barbell back squat with the jump squat is an excellent way to improve bone density.
The squat is also a great exercise for burning fat. It does this in two ways:
First, the squat is going to increase lean muscle tissue when performed consistently. Lean muscle mass burns more calories at rest than fat tissue
Second, given the number of muscle groups involved, the squat boosts the body’s natural metabolic response, burning more calories and fat.
Finally, no matter what your goal is, the squat can improve your overall performance. It’s the reason why so many athletes use the barbell squat.
The only difference between goals is how the squat is performed and the way you change up the acute variables as discussed above.
So, whether you’re trying to get back into fitness or you want to crush the Army Combat Fitness Test, the squat can help you get there.
How to Squat Correctly?
Now that you know what a barbell squat is and what benefits it provides, let's discuss how to do this move correctly.
Here’s a complete breakdown of how to squat properly.
With the barbell in a squat rack, you want to dip under it and position it so that the bar is resting across your traps – NOT your neck.
Flexing your upper traps beforehand creates a shelf for the barbell. Once it’s resting on that shelf, you can adjust your hands.
Once you’re under the bar and it’s secured on the trap shelf, place your hands outside of shoulder width with an overhand grip.
You’re not pulling the barbell down as much as you are ensuring it stays in place throughout the movement.
We are all built different, so you might need to adjust depending on your height and hip structure, but in general, you’ll want to stand with your feet at or just outside of shoulder width.
The toes should be pointed out slightly, and this will help with tracking the knees as you push them out during the descent.
Breathing and Bracing
Once you’re in a squat stance, you’ll want to do one more thing before lowering yourself.
Take a deep breath in, filling the belly. At the same time, contract the abs. This will create a “wall” to push off of as you’re coming back up from the bottom of the squat.
Breathe and brace your core as you lower yourself. We’ll address this next part again below, but at the bottom, continue to brace as you breathe out and stand up.
Be sure to keep your hips back and drive through your heels when squatting.
You don’t want to just kneel down during a squat. You want to image that you’re pushing your butt back as if you’re about to sit in a chair.
In fact, during box squats, that’s exactly what you’re doing. If the form feels odd to you, a box squat might be a good place to start.
Keep your chest up but don’t force it all the way up. This overcompensation movement can actually interfere with the movement pattern of your hips and lower back.
Many people claim that you should keep your knees in line with your toes throughout the entire movement.
This is true, but there’s a better cue you can follow. As you squat, focus on pushing your knees out.
This will ensure that you avoid an internal rotation at the knees, which could result in everything collapsing inward. This also targets the abductor and helps to develop proper movement patterns as you squat.
When squatting, there are different benefits to each depth, but we’ll cover the two most popular.
There’s the ass-to-grass (ATG), which is exactly what it sounds like. You lower yourself to the point where your butt is right above your ankles.
However, this depth should not be performed by newbies as it requires a great degree of mobility and ankle flexion.
The most commonly used squat depth is where your thighs are at or just below parallel with the ground.
Push with the Heels
Once you reach the bottom of the squat, drive through your heels to return to the starting position.
High Bar vs. Low Bar Squat
As you are getting comfortable with the traditional barbell back squat, you might see some guys in YouTube videos with the barbell really low on their back.
What about that cue discussing keeping the barbell across your traps?
Well, the traditional barbell back squat is also referred to as the high bar squat. The high bar referring to the barbell placed on top of the traps.
Another way to perform the squat is to place the barbell across the rear delts.
Now, this position will require you to potentially take a wider foot stance while also starting with a slight forward lean.
Both stances produce the same benefits, and it usually comes down to a matter of preference. But we highly recommend mastering the high bar squat before jumping into the low bar squat.
Best Squat Variations
There are many different variations of the squat that you can do. Not only does this give you a chance to change things up, but you’ll also place greater emphasis on different muscle groups.
For example, while a traditional barbell back squat places some emphasis on the adductors, the sumo squat will place a great deal of emphasis on them.
Here are some of the best squat variations that can be performed with a barbell or dumbbell:
Front Squat: The front squat is a variation of the squat that targets the quads more than the glutes and hamstrings. The barbell goes in the front of your body across the anterior delts.
Sumo Squat: The sumo squat is a variation of the squat that targets the inner thighs and glutes more than the quads. The feet are taken outside of the body past shoulder width. The toes are then turned out and the butt is dropped straight down.
Bulgarian Split Squat: The Bulgarian split squat is a variation of the squat that is performed with one leg behind you on a bench. Depending on how far forward you lean will determine how much emphasis is placed on the quads vs. the glutes.
Overhead Squat: The overhead squat is a variation of the squat that also targets the shoulders, upper back, and core muscles. The barbell is held above your head throughout the movement. This one is considered advanced so we wouldn’t recommend trying this one until you’re comfortable with the traditional squat.
Mobility Exercises for Squats
Once you start squatting, you might notice that you’re not able to get your thighs to be parallel with the floor.
This is usually due to a lack of mobility.
There are many different mobility exercises that you can do to improve your squat. Here are some of the best mobility exercises for squats:
Static stretching is where you want to start. Static stretching is when you hold a muscle group in an extended position for up to 60 seconds. This should be done consistently after your workout.
A few static stretches that you can do to improve your squatting include the following:
- Standing quad stretch
- Touch your toes
- Lateral leg stretch
- Knee to chest
Dynamic stretching is an active type of warm-up. This is when you mimic the exercise that you’re about to do. For example, bodyweight squats are a dynamic stretch before barbell back squats.
Here are some other dynamic stretches you can do:
- Bodyweight lunge
- Bear crawl
- Leg swings
Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release can break up adhesions that are preventing you from reaching a full range of motion.
How to Squat Correctly
Be sure to keep these tips in mind the next time you hit the gym! And don't forget to add some of these variations and mobility exercises into your routine to take your squat game to the next level.
Above all, the most important thing you can do is be consistent. Aim to squat twice per week with time to rest in between workouts. Gradually add weight or alter the repetitions to continuously challenge yourself to improve.
- Wirth K, Hartmann H, Sander A, Mickel C, Szilvas E, Keiner M. The Impact of Back Squat and Leg-Press Exercises on Maximal Strength and Speed-Strength Parameters. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 May;30(5):1205-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001228. PMID: 26439782.
- Barbalho M, Coswig V, Souza D, Cerca Serrao j, Hebling Campos M and Gentil P. Back squat vs. hip thrust resistance-training programs in well-trained women. Int J Sports MedArticle in Press, 2020.