5 Exercises to Help Improve Your Back Squat

Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT

The back squat is one of the main assistance exercises for weightlifters as overall leg strength makes every part of a lift easier. Strength is a prerequisite to power since one has to be able to produce force before they can produce force quickly. This is incredibly important for beginners since they should focus primarily on gaining strength while they perfect their technique. For more advanced athletes, their progress may be limited by a specific weakness like their leg strength and posture. Having enough strength to hold the right positions is a major determining factor for a successful lift. Here are some useful variations and accessory exercises to help increase one’s back squat if they find themselves stuck.

  • Pause Back squat-

The pause back squat is a great variation on the traditional back squat that helps to create stability in the bottom of the squat. This is a perfect exercise for anyone that loses position as they ascend or descend into their squat. It forces the athlete to maintain their posture while they descend and hold it as they apply pressure on the way up. Coaches can also consider putting a pause slightly above parallel as this is the next most common sticking point.

-Do no more than 4 reps per set with a 3 sec pause in the position of your choice

-Use something between 75-80% of your 1RM

  • Slow Eccentric Back squat-

Similar to the previous one, this is another great variation that increases stability throughout the entire squat pattern. This squat is done by lowering into the bottom of the squat for anywhere between 3-5 seconds and then standing up as quickly as possible. The slow lowering extends the time-under tension which eventually builds specific postural strength and more familiarity with the overall movement. This can be a particularly useful variation for beginners as they need to build up strength and control over new movements. Here are my general guidelines for this exercise:

-No more than 3 reps per set with 3-5 seconds of lowering

-Use between 70-80% of your 1RM

-Make sure to maintain posture and stand up quickly

  • Front squat-

The front squat is actually a great variation for some athletes that focus too much of their squat in their hips and lower back. This is very common for athletes that come from a powerlifting background where a hip dominant squatting style is preferred. Lifters that rely too heavily on their posterior chain will greatly benefit from the front squat as it forces them to be more upright and utilize their quads more. The position is also more specific to a clean so will have a good transfer over to it if the coach notices that the athlete is struggling to stand up from the clean. This variation is also really good to fortify the athlete’s thoracic spine since extension needs to be maintained throughout the lift to keep the elbows up in supporting the bar in the front rack. I would follow these guidelines:

-Do as many as 8 reps per set

- Use up to 80% of your best Back squat

  • Hip Thrust-

The hip thrust is one of my favorite exercises as it specifically targets the hips that I can’t do with a deadlift. The hips act as the fulcrum where both the spine and femurs rotate around. In the back squat, force pass through the hips from the lower body into the trunk. The hips help to resist the forward and backward pull of the barbell as the lifter goes through the squat. As previously mentioned, many lifters have a sticking point right above parallel where the leg extensors and hip extensors are working the hardest. This exercise literally takes care of half the equation. When using this exercise, I recommend the following:

-Do up to 8 reps per set

- Use up to 70% of your best Deadlift

-Hold the top of each rep for 2-3 seconds to make sure there’s full hip extension

-Lower each rep and let the weight settle. This will add extra tension throughout and will yield more benefits for this exercise.

  • Barbell Step up-

The barbell step up is a good single leg exercise to target each leg separately. This can be useful in conjunction with the previously mentioned hip thrust to correct imbalances that the athlete might have in their lower body. This is a particularly potent combo for address twisting or shifting during squats or Olympic lifting. Where the hip thrust help with the back extensors at above parallel the barbell step helps with the knee extensors which is also at a mechanical disadvantage in this position. You can choose to use either a back squat position or a front rack for additional postural benefits. This is my advice for using this exercise:

-The max you should use is 50% of your best back squat

-Do up to 8 reps per leg each set

- Step up to a box that places your knee and hip at 90 degrees of flexion

- Lower each rep under control with most of the weight concentrated on the step up leg