On paper, the back squat is the perfect exercise. It’s a big, multi-joint exercise that calls virtually every muscle in the body into action as either a prime mover or stabilizer.
You can load the shit out of it for strength and hypertrophy or do it fast for explosive power. Squats have direct carryover to athletics and real life. And if you consider these types of things important, you can label it as a “functional” movement or a “core” movement.
In reality, most people have a hard time squatting well. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining an upright position. They either don’t have access to the ranges of motion required to squat correctly, have the type of anatomy that makes it difficult to hit depth, or are banged-up enough that the increase in axial stress isn’t worth the tradeoff.
The result? Most people’s back squats aren’t actually squats at all. Instead, they’re more like deadlifts with a barbell balanced on their shoulders. This hybrid squat-deadlift position might be okay if you have a PR on the line, but it misses the mark as a strategy for long-term success and convolutes your ability to track training volume.
A Distinction with a Difference
Squats are a knee-dominant exercise. The defining characteristic of the movement is to bend your knees to bring the hips closer to the ground. This should occur on a vertical axis, like an elevator traveling down a mineshaft. Anatomically, the head should be stacked over the shoulders, and the shoulders stacked over the hips. The standard is ass to grass, not chest to lap.
Deadlifts are a hip-dominant exercise. The goal is to fold forward at the torso as the hips move backward on a horizontal axis. This stretches the glutes and hamstrings – like pulling back a wind-up toy before launching it across the kitchen floor – and primes them for a concentric contraction forward.
Both moves have their place, but they also require different skills, some of which might not be available to you – at least, not yet. Conflating the two different motions into a single Franken-squat has a number of potentially negative side effects, ranging from reinforcing suboptimal positions, limiting movement variability, and asking your posterior chain and lower back to pull double duty on squat and deadlift days.
Here are three strategies you can use to instantly make your squats more squatty – and give your lower back some time to recover between lower-body workouts.
1 – Elevate Your Heels
People get sanctimonious when it comes to using external aids to help them accomplish a task or achieve a position, as if nothing should interfere with the purity of a movement.
Case in point, elevating the heels to gain more squat depth was historically considered a cardinal sin of the weight room. Some will say it’s cheating, or inauthentic, or unnatural, or building “fitness on dysfunction.”
Although well intentioned, the reasoning always boils down to transferability, tradition, or other mumbo-jumbo about cavemen not wearing Nikes or how three-year olds look like Olympic medalists when they squat.
Let’s clear this up: First, if you’re willing to place the entire weight of your body onto a bench to allow a larger range of motion for your shoulders to move through during a bench press, you should also be willing to do the same for your hips, knees, and ankles to gain more depth during a squat.
Second, there’s no scenario in life or athleticism – other than powerlifting – that you’ll find yourself carrying the equivalent of a mid-sized car on your back. All movement is context specific. Every exercise you do in the gym is contrived to one degree or another. Use them for what they’re good for – giving you a bigger engine with more horsepower, rather than mistakenly thinking they also make you a more skillful driver.
The good news? Fixing your squat need not be a long-term project. It’s simple geometry: changing the position of the ankle changes the angles of the joints above it and, with no other fuss, unlocks an entire world of movement instantaneously.
Here are your options:
The quickest, easiest way to keep your upper body upright and get your hips to drop below parallel in a squat is to elevate your heels. This shifts your center of gravity, allowing you to maintain a more vertical upper body as your knees and hips bend.
The best tool is a metal ramp, sometimes called a Russian Step. It inclines from the floor at a 30-45-degree angle. But if you don’t have access to one, elevating your heels on a board or two weight plates also works well.
The higher the incline, the easier it is to squat deeper. As you get better, you can decrease the height of the lift to bring your feet flatter to the ground.
Some people love “gear,” others hate it. Strategically applied, it can be a powerful tool for breaking plateaus or working around a limitation. A good pair of squat shoes with a heel lift in the back is probably the simplest way of getting yourself into position. It removes the problem of finding a gym with a ramp or board to elevate your heels on.
2 – Put the Weight in Front of You
Weight lifting is nothing more than a physics problem. Put a weight behind you and you have to lean forward to keep balanced. Put a weight in front of you and you have to get more upright to keep from being pulled forward.
If your goals are to remain upright, target your quadriceps and abs rather than your hamstrings and lower back, and reinforce vertical squat mechanics, then these variations will do the trick:
Holding the weight on the front part of your body serves as a counterbalance for getting you to squat deeper. You can use a barbell, dumbbell, or two kettlebells. All accomplish the same thing.
Goblet Front-Foot Elevated Split Squat
This is a split squat variation that literally pushes your center of gravity back. If that sounds confusing, think of how much more comfortable it is to lean forward when you elevate your back foot for a Bulgarian split squat than it is to stay upright. Elevating the back leg pushes your upper body forward.
Here, elevating the forward leg pushes your upper body backwards, making it easier to stay upright as you drop into the lift.
Here the weight is held in the fold of the elbow. This position puts the weight in front of your body by the bottom of your chest, about a foot below where the weight is positioned during a front squat.
This position puts the center of mass and the base of support in near-vertical alignment, making upright stacking of the torso over the hips easier.
3 – Push Your Knees Forward, Seriously
Walk into any gym in America and you’re bound to hear a coach imploring their athletes and clients to keep their knees behind toes when squatting – a cue that, without question, shifts the bulk of the work away from the knees and the quads and toward the hips, glutes, and hamstrings.
So why is this cue so pervasive?
Firstly, it’s because the strength and conditioning world has a tendency to overly extrapolate concepts that originate in the rehabilitation world, taking data from injured populations and projecting them onto healthy ones.
Pushing your knees forward does lead to more shear force on the knee than keeping the knees back, but wouldn’t you expect that moving a loaded joint through a larger range of motion would increase the amount of force transmitted through it?
This is one of the ironies of the strength and conditioning profession: Transmitting force through your body is a fundamental trait of training with weights, and compression, torque, and shear are features of the system, not bugs.
On the one hand, we tacitly embrace this concept every time we hand someone a weight to lift. On the other hand, we condemn it when it’s presented to us in the context of injured populations. The truth is that your knees are loaded to a higher-degree while running and walking down stairs than has ever been shown in a study looking at squats.
Secondly, the knees-behind-toes cue is pervasive because most people can squat more weight when they adopt a knees-back, squat-dead hybrid position than they can with a more upright stance.
Knees back is another way of saying hips back. It’s a powerlifting cue that worked its way into popular fitness culture because getting your hips way back allows you to lift more weight in absolute terms, which is why people generally can deadlift more weight than they squat.
Like a lot debates, the knees-back argument seems to be driven by fear, fear of injury or fear of missing out on being able to lift the most weight possible. Fear makes people do things that aren’t in their best self-interest. This includes adopting practices that don’t always suit our particular needs or goals.
The Closing Argument
Back squats are a great exercise, but they’re hard to get right and easily conflated with deadlifts. You can clean up your mechanics and drive tissue-specific adaptations with a few simple tweaks to the exercise rather than spending a lot of time on corrective exercises or soft-tissue treatments.
Differences in anatomy, training status, injury history, and goals mean that traditional back squats might be the right exercise for some people, but not for others.