There is no exercise that gives you the same total body benefits as a back squat. From strong and powerful legs to a sturdy and stable upper body, the back squat does it all.
If you’re ready to take your athleticism (and overall physique) to the next level, it’s time to push the throttle on this lower-body staple. By increasing your squat numbers, you’ll build more muscle and more strength, which translates to better speed, explosiveness, and endurance.
In this article, we’ll help you squat your best weight ever. First, we’ll start by fine-tuning your form; even if your squat is “decent” right now, enhancing your technique just a little more will help you push more weight. (With better biomechanics, your body will more efficiently transfer energy.)
Second, we’ll give you a program to follow for the next month to take your squat to new heights.
Common Squat Mistakes
By improving your squat technique, you can push more weight than before — sometimes as much as 10 or 20lbs.
- Poor squat mobility. If you can’t do a proper bodyweight squat, squatting your best weight in 30 days is the least of your priorities. (Sometimes people will even say they need a barbell to squat correctly, but using weight to correct a dysfunction is a recipe for injuries.) Instead, work on improving your squat mobility.
- High-bar versus low-bar. The bar position on your back can transform how your squat feels and the muscles emphasized. For greater emphasis on your hips (and a stronger squat), go for the low-bar position where the barbell rests across the middle of your upper back.
- Ditch the squat pad. I shouldn’t have to say it, but yeah, avoid it.
- Use the Valsalva technique. If you want to squat big, use your breath to your advantage. After you unrack, inhale deeply while pushing your belly out; then, tense your belly and hold your breath throughout the entire repetition. This will give your lower back and torso the protection and stability for big lifts.
- Don’t yell. With the Valsalva technique, avoid releasing your air early. Instead, you want to keep it inside until the very end of your rep. Exhale. Then inhale and do it again.
- Swap your shoes. If you want the best squat of your life, pick a shoe with little-to-no cushioning. Shoes with gel soles (ex. running shoes) will absorb your weight making it harder to push through the ground. While weightlifting shoes can help, the powerlifting staple is still a pair of Chuck Taylors — you can also take off your shoes and squat in your socks or barefoot. (That’s what I do.) You’ll notice the difference immediately.
- If you don’t have safety bars, GET A SPOTTER.
- Try other bars. Why let a shoulder injury from 10 years ago mess up your squat? If you can’t handle the extended position of a back squat (your elbows pulled behind your body), try a different bar. Try a Buffalo Bar or a Safety Squat Bar, which come with handles.
- Hit parallel. No quarter squats are allowed. For your squat to count, it MUST be “parallel” or slightly below. It also helps you biomechanically — when you go down low enough, you transfer the force of the barbell to your hips so you can squat safer and stronger.
- Drive as fast as you can. From the bottom position, push the ground away from you as fast as you possibly can.
- Spread the ground apart. As you rise from the bottom of a squat, think about spreading the ground with your feet. Your feet won’t actually move, but by emphasizing that position, you’ll fire your glutes to generate more hip drive.
- Don’t forget your other muscles. The squat is a total-body exercise: everything below your neck needs to tense to handle the weight of the barbell. But make sure you target your core and upper back, not your biceps.
- Dial back your warm up. The key to your squat warmup is to get your body acclimated to heavier and heavier weights, not to do a ton of volume. For example, you don’t need to do 10 reps of 135, then 8 reps of 155, then 6 reps of 175, etc. Instead, focus on good technique and make jumps every 35 - 45lbs with 5 or fewer reps (reps decreasing as weight increases). If your work weight is 275lbs, try this:
You’ll feel fresher and stronger for 275lbs.
The 30-Day Workout
This 3x/week program starts by building your foundational strength and ability to handle volume; then it transitions into pure gains. (Replace your current lower-body routine with this.)
You’ll use a technique called “eustress” training where you do many sets of only one rep while staying as relaxed and calm as possible — this trains your body to handle more and more volume without stressing yourself. You’ll also fix common weak links like asymmetrical leg strength or weak glutes.
FYI, I won’t make you do heavy back squats with every workout. (That’s a recipe for a sore low back, cranky joints, and boredom.) Instead, you’ll incorporate different, joint-friendly exercises to rest your body between back squat days.
Also, eat. This is NOT the time to go on a juice cleanse; this is the time to go on an all-you-can-eat buffet.
One final thing: Increase your weight on every exercise by 5lbs each time you workout. That’s how you make gains. And as the volume drops, you’ll see your numbers continue to rise.
(To compare before and after, estimate your current one-rep max with this calculator.)
A1) Back Squat: 30 x 1*
* Use a weight that feels heavy, but you can lift very smoothly. 60% of your one-rep max is a good starting point. Do one picture-perfect repetition without grunting, slowing down, or struggling. Take as long of a break as you need.
A1) Barbell Hip Thrusts 5 x 5
A1) Bulgarian Split Squats 5 x 5 each leg
A1) Back squat: 40 x 1*
* This should be a weight that feels heavy, but you can lift very smoothly. No grinding, grimacing, grunting, or slowing down — just a comfortable weight where you can do picture-perfect reps.
A1) Barbell Hip Thrusts 8 x 5
A1) Bulgarian Split Squats 8 x 5 each leg
A1) Back squat: 5 x 5
A1) Bulgarian Split Squats 8 x 3 each leg
A1) Back Squat: 8 x 3
A1) Back Squat: 5 x 3
A1) Barbell Jump Squat: 5 x 3 (use 30% of your normal weight and jump as high as you can)
A1) Back Squat: 3 x 1
Anthony J. Yeung, CSCS, is a fitness expert at Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Health and the founder of Unlock Your Fitness.