The Benefits of the Barbell Back Squat
The barbell back squat
The back squat refers to an individual placing a barbell across the shoulders behind the neck and squatting to or below the point where the hips break parallel with the knees. There are two common variations of the back squat, the low bar squat often used in the sport of powerlifting and the high bar squat, used to train for athletic sports such as rugby, olympic weightlifting and all jumping sports (Long jump and hurdles).
The back squat is considered by many to be the "king of the lifts', only to be challenged by the deadlift. With its benefits being so highly regarded, the squat often forms the foundation of strength and conditioning programmes. The benefits of the back squat will be discussed in this article, these will include: Strength development, hormone release, bone density, range of motion and injury prevention.
If you compete in the sport of powerlifting, the low bar squat is considered the best option due to it allowing the individual to load it with more weight. However, if you train for a sport, or simply to keep fit and healthy, I would suggest the high bar to be the way to go. Reasons for this include it being a more functional movement, the individual can keep the chest up and follow a deeper range of motion. It also mimics the natural sitting position more accurately than a low bar squat.
A selection of popular back squat programmes will also be highlighted. I will categorise these into beginners, intermediate and advanced. All programmes I have personally run. A video demonstration of the back squat is also further on in the article.
Compound lifts such as the squat, deadlift and bench press have always been known for their ability to increase overall strength and muscle growth due to the use of multiple joints and large muscular groups throughout the movements. It can be argued that an efficient strength programme can be made up of purely these three movements. The use of further accessory movements is a bonus.
An article published in the Journal of Sports Science Medicine titled "Effects of loaded squat exercise with and without application of superimposed EMS on physical performance", aimed to use electromyostimulation (EMS) to monitor the effects of a 6 week 10 rep max back squat programme on both EMS results and 10 rep max squat gains.
The results showed a significant increase in electrical stimulus intensity and 10 rep maximum lift in just 6 weeks. It's worth noting that no significant bodyweight change was noted, highlighting that the increase in strength wasn't just due to an increase in body mass but rather a physiological process within the muscle as a response to continues back squat stimulus.
The increase in strength is a result of a mixture of adaptions including muscular hypertrophy, the process by which the muscle is broken down via resistance training and rebuilt with added fibres to ensure the same disintegration doesn't occur again. The release of certain hormones which we will explore in the next section, and the increased efficiency of the movement itself as a result of simply repeating the movement. One huge advantage the back squat has over other exercises when looking at strength and muscular increases is that it requires the largest muscles of the body (gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings and erector spinae) to work together as a unit. A 1% increase in size and strength of these muscles, results in a much larger measurable gain when compared to a 1% increase of a smaller muscle using a more isolated exercise e.g. biceps during a standard bicep curl.
The effect of hormones such as Testosterone and Human Growth Hormone (GH) on the body are widely known and most commonly associated with cheating in sport. An individual increases his or her normal levels of these and other hormones through injecting or ingesting the hormones or synthetic replicas acquired elsewhere. However, the body naturally releases these hormones in different levels, depending on the individuals ethnicity, age, sex as well as factors such as stress and sleep.
One of the most efficient ways of increasing these naturally occurring hormones, is by weight training, particularly using the biggest of lifts (squat or deadlift). A theoretical explanation for the release of hormones after a session of large compound lifts, is an evolutionary survival technique. The body is quick to realise that it just exerted maximal or sub maximal force upon or against a very heavy object and therefore uses the hormones to make itself stronger, in order to prevent the same struggle if this happens again. For example if an individual spent years moving large rocks around a quarry for work, or carrying wood from tree trunks on their shoulder and the body was unable to adapt, the stress on the body would cause it to fatigue and struggle continuously and eventually prevent it from being able to carry out the work. By releasing hormones like GH and testosterone, the body adapts, and those heavy rocks soon begin to feel a little lighter due to an increase in the size and strength of the individuals muscles.
Wilk, M et al explored this phenomenon in an article titled "Endocrine response to high intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume". The study recruited 28 experienced powerlifters and split them into 3 groups. Each group had to perform 3 repetitions of their 90% 1 rep max back squat for either 3, 6 or 9 sets over a period of 3 consecutive weeks. Blood was taken from the athletes before and after each squat session. Findings concluded that 6 sets were most optimal in driving levels of GH, IGF-1 and cortisol. Interestingly, the group performing 12 sets, released no more than the group performing 6 sets. This information might benefit you when designing your own programmes or following the chosen methods further on in this article.
Bone density is absolutely crucial to being healthy and creating healthy longevity both in sport and life. Bone density peaks at around 25-30 years of age and holds this peak for around 10-15 years. After this peak, around the age of 40, our bone density slowly begins to decrease. The biggest disadvantaging factor concerning the decrease of bone density is being a woman. The menopause causes Oestrogen levels in women to fall fairly dramatically. Bones depend on this hormone to promote growth. In the 1960's post menopausal women were given Oestrogen as part of a hormone replacement therapy course. However, a few decades later it was noted that the increase in breast cancer prevalence caused by this treatment far out weighed the pros of its effect on bone density. It is therefore important that alternative natural solutions are found to increase the bone density of women before they hit the menopausal bone density downward curve.
The biggest contributors by far to increasing this are good nutrition and resistance training. Bone responds to stimuli through "lines of stress", by laying down a supportive and connective tissue known as trabecula that corresponds with the lines of stress. The pattern of these trabeculae can be seen below.
Astronauts who operate for large amounts of time in 0 gravity receive very little stress and weight upon their bones, so much so that they have to find ways of exercising (strap in treadmills) in space to increase it and create some impact. Positive correlations have been observed between resistance training and an increase in bone density. The back squat is the best overall exercise for this, partly due to where the barbell is positioned. Placing the barbell on top of the shoulder, means that all the bones below it are loaded with resistance, and must take the strain of the weight as the squat is performed. The massive pull of the connective tissues during the large compound squat movement also causes bone to develop where the tendons attach directly. Observe the pictures below showing the menopausal curve in bone density and the trabelucae difference between young and old, sedentary and exercise trained individuals. Notice that exercise actually contributes more to the change in bone density than age.
Range of motion & injury prevention
The squat in general is a primal, functional movement. Real life application of the squat includes sitting, going to the toilet and picking something up off the floor. Current research into mobility and stretching is quickly moving away from static stretches and the typical primary school football team warm up practised 10 years ago. Now the focus and evidence tends to point to loading of the joints and soft tissues through a range of motion in order to increase it. At the bottom of a back squat, also known as “the hole”, the gluteals, quadriceps and calf muscles are all put under a large stretch, whilst taking the heavy load of the barbell above. This is a fantastic way of increasing extensibility and tendon resilience through multiple muscular chains.
Common stretches used in manual therapy such as muscle energy technique (MET) and proprioceptive neuromuscular fascilitation (PNF) incorporate active use of the muscle followed by a passive stretch. Multiple published articles have found that these active stretches are more efficient and long term than passive stretching alone.
The weight of the barbell can also be used as a tool to increase range of motion. It pushes the body into a deeper position and forces the individual to use muscular contraction to get back out. This is the main reason I’d always recommend the high bar back squat over the low bar variation.
It’s not only the muscles that are stretching! The sciatic nerve running from the nerve root of L5/S1 at the base of the low back runs all the way down the back of the hamstring, wraps itself around the head of the fibula and into the lateral side of the foot. As we squat, the nerve is stretched and elongated within its neural sheath, increasing the nerves tolerance to stretch and encouraging It to allow the muscles to lengthen further. The nerves rule everything! A common misconception of movement, is the concept of ”warming up”. It is believed that by moving we are warming up the muscles and tendons which allows them to become more flexible and loosen up. Whilst this is true to a certain degree, the biggest benefit comes from repeatedly tethering the nerves which in turn grant the muscles more freedom of movement. Try doing 1 loaded squat with a light kettlebell or barbell. Follow this by performing the neural stretch shown in the video below 10 times on each leg. Then repeat the same loaded squat. You’ll notice that you haven’t really “warmed up” but the squats efficiency has increased, feeling more comfortable to perform.
Strength training is massive for injury prevention. Studies show that increasing the force applied to a tendon and muscle over time increases its ability to take force, respond to fast movement and decreases its susceptibility to tearing. Every joint of the body is also pulled together with soft tissue structures called ligaments. Their primary role is to prevent movement in unwanted planes, such as excessive lateral movement of the knee. However, another equally important role the ligaments play is known as proprioception. This refers to the feedback loop between the ligaments and the spinal chord that work together to provide information and actions to keep the joint in a normal range of motion. This can be seen when performing a back squat. As we descend, we don't look down at the body to know where we are or when we hit the bottom, or whether we are rolling forward on our toes or backward on our heels. The ligaments are doing this for us, and they are solidifying their connections and tensile strength each session. When we apply this movement into real life, such as sitting down, getting in and out of a car or picking something up, the ligaments use those same connections they’ve built whilst squatting and apply them automatically, thus decreasing the likelihood of injury. Older people should therefore be encouraged to lift weights in a sensible manor in order to build these connections up gradually and prevent injury.
Programmes to attempt
All of these programmes are available to access online. Do a little personal research and have a look at the sets and reps scheme and see what might suit you.
Candito 6 week strength programme
Tim swords front and back squat
The Russian squat routine
Boris Sheiko‘s numbered programmes (there’s loads)
Candito 9 week squat programme
Ones to avoid unless on copious amounts of steroids or wish to get old quicker:
The Bulgarian method
High bar back squat demonstration. 140kg x10
- Wirtz et al. (2016). Effects of Loaded Squat Exercise with and without Application of Superimposed EMS on Physical Performance. J Sports Sci Med. 15 (1), 26-33.
- Wilk M et al. (2018). Endocrine response to high intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume. Neuro endocrinology letter. 39 (4), 342-348.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.