Low Bar Back Squat Troubleshooting

14 Feb

There are a lot of different squat variations. Each one offers a different benefit, and each one is different mechanically. A common problem I see with the low bar back squat is what people do with their hips in the descent, the hole, and right out of the hole. Additionally there seems to be some confusion on the acceptable amount of forward lean, or angle of the back.

When the bar is positioned on the spine of the scapula and the stance is moderate to wide many people have a tendency to come forward in the squat. It may be that they are quad dominant, or that they have mobility issues somewhere in the chain (ankles, hips, upper back / shoulder girdle). However, I think that many times the lift is mis-coached and or misunderstood.

One thing you need to come to grips with right away is the difference between obtaining a lot of hip flexion and therefore “leaning” forward, and dumping forward because of a lack of thoracic extension or improper placement of the weight back on the heel to mid foot.

In reality when the back squat is performed correctly it does seem as though you are leaning quite a bit, the back angle is about 45 degrees or more. Check out this picture:


Notice that the chest is virtually in the lap of the girl pictured above. Although you hear all the time that back angle should equal shin angle, that really isn’t true. The Olympic style high bar squat would be the closest variation to achieving equal angles. In the “lower” bar back squat the back angle will generally be greater than the shin angle. Opposite let’s say to the front squat, where the shin angle generally exceeds the back angle. The bottom line is that the bar needs to be over the mid foot / heel to keep the resistance over the mid-line of the body.

Here’s the often seen drawing of the front squat and high bar back squat which you can use in comparison to the picture above:


In the lower bar position you are able to effectively leverage against the weight and recruit the muscles which are largely responsible for extending the hips (ie hamstrings and glutes). Yes the quads are working hard, but hardly working alone in this squat pattern. The hips become a much bigger player in this squat than other variations. Are the spinal erectors working hard, yes they are, so what. If everything is in line (technique and health wise) then you are building a stronger back, and I see no issue with this.

I find a lot of the people I work with have misinterpreted cues from other coaches, received poor instruction and / or don’t understand the leverages in the low bar back squat. They associate cues such as “keep the chest up” or “get tall” to mean keep an upright as possible upper body position. When you couple this with hearing cues to “sit back” or “push the butt out” the two begin to work against each other. As they push the hips back and begin to flex the hips and extend the low back as much as possible the pelvis moves into a forwardly tilted position. As the pelvis tilts forward the angle of the torso will also change relative to the position of the pelvis. As the squatter resists the urge to achieve a safe amount of forward lean the hips are unable to flex and inorder to reach depth they must shift the weight forward, and inevitably this make the knees the predominant lever; the quads begin to take over.

The upright torso position is not what we are after. Similar to the deadlift, what we want instead is to maintain extension in the lumbar and thoracic spine while the angle of the torso increases keeping the weight over the mid-line of the body. When the bar is positioned lower on the back this equates to a more predominate forward lean, let it happen. I find that a lot of descent issues can be cleared up by having people arch the lower back hard, opening the hips, and flaring out the glute meds (outward pressure on the feet) all before starting the descent. Some people try to do all of that and initiate the descent at the same time and end up throwing themselves forward or never achieving enough lumbar extension.

Many times people will do an adequate job of getting to the hole correctly and this shift in weight won’t occur until the concentric (upward) portion of the lift. I think Rippetoe talks about this in Starting Strength when he uses the image of a string attached to the tailbone. He wants people to imagine someone pulling straight up on the string as the tailbone essentially comes straight up out of the hole, not forward.

Often times I will actively push my fist into someones lower back and tell them to push against my hand as they come out of the hole. If they stay tight in the back as they push my hand this will teach them what it feels like to have the hips and shoulders move up simultaneously as opposed to the shoulders moving up first (causing the knees to come forward). When I first understood this concept, and many of the people I train have agreed, it almost feels as though you are pushing the hips back out of the hole. This is because you are initiating the lift out of the hole from the hips, not the legs (knees). For someone like myself who was introduced to low bar back squatting after years of front squatting this can be a tough concept. When you / they have that AH HA moment the low bar back squat begins to feel better, make a lot more sense, and dare I say get easier. Here is a video of Jim Wendler using the cue I am talking about at a seminar held at Total Performance Sports.

I think the low bar back squat is a great exercise when done correctly. All to often the confusion comes from how much lean of the torso is appropriate. This squat variation turns the squat into a much more equal movement in terms of the hips and knees sharing the load. It is a great option for those who can safely perform it, especially people (and there are a lot of them) who are quad dominant. I hope this clears up some confusion on the technique. I’ll leave you with this video of Wendler taking 505 for a triple. Watch for everything we just talked about. Pause at 0:19 to see where his hips are right out of the hole.


3 Responses to “Low Bar Back Squat Troubleshooting”


  1. Approaching The Bar: Part 2 « Greg Robins - March 15, 2012

    […] 3. Hips back out of the hole […]

  2. Squat Better – 3 Things To Think About « Greg Robins - May 8, 2012

    […] Low Bar Back Squat Trouble Shooting […]

  3. 3 Strategies For Squatting With Cranky Knees « Greg Robins - May 28, 2012

    […] back squat and allow your hips to do more. I have done a couple posts on squat technique: here and here. In the same frame, minimize or scrap more quad dominant squat variations (mainly front loaded […]

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