How To High Bar Squat: Your Guide To Proper Form

By Steve Hall

February 27, 2014

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Squats are the grandaddy of all lifts. If you are not squatting, you are totally missing out big time. The squat is one of the most important exercises you can do. Along with working your legs, squats engage the whole body. Learning to squat is essential when beginning any training program.

This guide will cover the basics of a squat and how to begin doing them.

First and foremost, I would like to explain that there are three variations to the actual squat itself. All very useful yet, different in their own rights. The three squats are the olympic squat (high bar), low bar back squat, and front squat.

Each of the three squats has different variables which affect how they are performed. The obvious difference between the front squat and the other two back squats would be placement on the back or placement on the shoulders. And the main difference between the Olympic squat and the low bar back squat would be the placement on the back.


As in the diagram, the bar position of the squat determines the angle of the back and the overall geometry of the movement. The positioning of the hips and knees changes, but one thing that remains the same is that the bar travels in a straight up and down vertical path, balanced over the middle of the foot.

The variation of the squat we will focus on is the high back squat or simply put Olympic squat.

The Benefits of the Squat

Squats require the use of every muscle in the body. The back and arms hold the weight, your core stabilizes the body, and the legs drive the squat back up from the bottom position. Each time you load the bar and get underneath it you can expect . . .

Gains in Size and Strength—There is no doubt you will be getting stronger. You’re putting your body under a heavy load it is not used to and you’re calling for all the various muscle groups to work together. Stronger squats means the ability to gain more muscle.

Improvements in Flexibility—In order to squat, you need to have some degree of flexibility and mobility in your joints and ligaments. Squats help to improve this over time, proving that lifting weights will not make you stiff and rigid.

Better Posture—Perfecting form will not only help with increasing your strength it will also help in your posture. Many of our daily functions are in a chair at a desk. With proper form, our muscles will become stronger and more stable; thus helping to reduce any posture infractions as well as carry over into a healthier life.


Common Squat Myths and Misconceptions

Many gym goers and lifters of old commonly reference the squat as being the culprit responsible for their now shotty knees as well as aches and pains. Improper form in any exercise will lead to aches, pains, and serious injuries. The squat is not responsible, the lifter is responsible.

Your knee joint is strongest in a fully flexed/extended position, not in-between. Partial squats only strengthen your quads. All full range of motion squat will work your entire leg including your glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Always squat with proper form and always squat to proper depth. Partial squats and limited ranges of motion do have their place. However, they are for more advanced lifters and are in place for specific reasoning. Your efforts should always be to squat to depths of parallel or below.

Squatting incorrectly and performing partial squats repeatedly will result in muscle imbalances and probable cause for injuries.

Proof is in the pudding, it’s not called the deep knee bend for nothing.

  • Children and babies sit in a squat position time and time again without any problems. Just because we lose this ability over time does not mean deep squats are wrong, it just means we have work harder at regaining the flexibility we once had.

  • Weightlifters, powerlifters, and even some bodybuilders squat to much lower depths than parallel with much heavier weights. Compared to any other sport weightlifting has a lower rate of injury overall.

Avoiding injuries while squatting can be very simple. Use common sense. Practice proper form. Always use a power rack. When you are just learning to squat this can be your saving grace. There is nothing like getting too tired to push back up and just dropping the weight on a safety bar as opposed to being stuck with a couple pounds on your back.

olympic squat high bar squat

A Lesson In Squat Form

Learning to squat can be very intimidating. It shouldn’t be, however. There are very few people that do it correctly and very few people who will take the time to show someone how the proper squat should be performed. And since there seems to be such a misconception as to what a squat really is, it can get rather confusing.

This lesson will cover the proper form used for a high bar back squat.

The items we will need in order to complete our squats will be a barbell and a power rack.

I cannot advocate enough the importance of proper form. Learning to squat correctly without any weight will instill the correct motor patterns in our body and will assist in our efforts.

Note: Smith machines are great inventions and have their purpose. However they are not beneficial for us during this workout. Squatting on a smith machine puts the body in a fixed path and does not allow the stabilization muscles to engage. Always squat with free weights.

Squat Setup

Many things will come into play while squatting, so start squats with the proper setup.

  • Approach the barbell in the power rack and dip underneath it.

  • Position the bar high on your back just about the bottom of the traps.

  • With as narrow a grip as you can manage, set your chest by adding a slight arch in the back.

  • Squeeze your upper back muscles together and keep your back tight at all times.

    • This will allow for a stable upper body and will help to hold the heavy loads as you progress.

  • Keep your head in line with your body and find an area in front of you. Focus on that.

    • If possible avoid squatting in front of a mirror, rely on the feeling. Focusing on the mirror enables you to become dependent and can actually throw you off.

  • Plant your feet firmly underneath you,  slightly wider than shoulder width. Press up from your legs, not your back. You have now un-racked the weight.

  • Take one step directly back with your foot and the follow with the other foot.

    • If you step back and your feet are not slightly wider than shoulder width you can make a slight correction with your second step by making one small step out, putting your feet in the optimal squatting position.

Standing firmly with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and your toes pointed no more than 45 degrees from the body, your are now set up and ready to squat.

Beginning to Squat

With the proper setup in place you are ready to squat. Remember to keep your back and core tight. You need a solid base while squatting and your core is it.

  • Take a deep breath causing you to fill the lower part of your lungs and hold it, causing your abdominal muscles to tighten.

    • To know if you did this properly it will feel like your sticking your gut out but in reality you aren’t.
  • Begin the movement by bending at the knees.

    • Because this lift has more of an upright back position the high bar squat starts with a bend at the knees.

  • Keeping tension in your muscles slowly continue to bend at the knees pushing the hips down, trying to sit in between your legs.

    • Do not be afraid to fall, it will feel like your going to but you won’t. Continue to sit down between your legs, squeeze the glutes, push your knees out and inline with the outside of your foot.

  • As you lower the weight aim to keep your knees out and glutes tight. The outside of your quad should line up with the outside of your foot.

    • A good way to always ensure this happens is to envision spreading the floor apart with your feet you want to get the pressure to the outside of your foot where you are most stable.

  • Go parallel or below. Over time you will be able to judge the proper depth. It will help if you can get a training partner to give you subtle cues.

    • When you reach full depth it will look like your sitting on your calves.
  • At the bottom of the squat,  you will be in what’s called the hole. With your breath still held and your muscles tight, push hard and drive back up.

    • Never let your shoulders lead. That is the incorrect way to squat. Power comes from the ground up . Your shoulders and upper body will follow-suit naturally.

  • Drive upwards, slowly releasing the air until you reach midway, then exhale to force the rest of the air out as you reach the top.

  • Lock out the movement with a deep squeeze of the glutes.

  • Take a big breath and repeat.

There you have it. You just learned how to do your first squat. And you’re well on your way to building some serious size and strength.

It took me many attempts to learn to squat and with much research and trial and error I figured it out. Once you get the proper form, squatting is very rewarding and fun.

As a resource some great videos on learning the high bar back squat are “How To Properly Do An Olympic Squat Correctly” by Aaron Lipsey and “High Bar Back Squat (HBBS) Coaching Cues” by CrossFit Ireland.

How To Properly Do An Olympic Squat Correctly

High Bar Back Squat (HBBS) Coaching Cues

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Steve Hall

Steve is a strength training fanatic who geeks out over the best, most efficient workouts, nutrition and gear to help get you stronger and healthier!

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