How to low bar squat for strength training and powerlifting
This article is a complete and detailed guide on how to low-bar squat efficiently. By following the technique points outlined in this article, you can maximise the weight you can squat and minimise injury risk.

How to to low bar squat for strength training or powerlifting

All the technique points in this article are everything I teach to my face-to-face and online clients to help them achieve a perfect squat. If you practice and follow the steps outlined in this article, you can achieve an efficient squat and will have more knowledge than most people about how to squat correctly. 

However, if you need more help speeding up the learning process, improving your squat, or getting stuck applying the cues presented, feel free to contact me using the contact form. I can assess and correct your squat either online or in person. As some of the technical points may be confusing to understand from text alone, images and videos will match the text, making it easier to comprehend and interpret so you can better apply the cues during training.

As a personal trainer specialising in strength training and powerlifting, I bring expertise in addressing these areas both online and in-person. This is an example of the evidence based coaching and training that I provide either face to face in our gym in Taren Point or online.

What makes an efficient squat

To begin learning how to squat properly, it’s important to understand what makes an efficient squat. Efficiency, in this context, means using the least amount of energy to complete the task of squatting a mass up and down for one or more repetitions. By focusing on the end goal of what makes an efficient squat, the steps leading up to that goal will make more sense, and their importance will become clearer.

An efficient squat involves moving a barbell (or mass) in a straight vertical line over the middle of the feet.  The midfoot is the most balanced position, and maintaining the barbell over the midfoot is the most efficient path for the bar to travel.

If the barbell deviates from the middle of the feet, either moving forward or backward, it requires additional energy to maintain balance by pulling the bar back towards the midfoot. If balance is not maintained and the bar continues to move horizontally, we risk losing balance and falling over. As gravity only works vertically, our aim is to keep the bar moving in a vertical path, and all of our energy should be focused on this. Any horizontal movement of the barbell increases the distance the barbell needs to travel from its vertical path and results in energy wastage, thereby decreasing movement efficiency.

Focusing on the squat’s end goal can cause the multiple individual body movements that contribute to the squat pattern to happen ‘mostly’ automatically while squatting. However, the technique points presented in this article will break down these individual movements that combine to achieve an efficient squat. Understanding these individual components will assist you in identifying movement errors and how to correct them on your own. 

Breathing and bracing

Proper breathing and bracing are very important for improving squatting efficiency and maximising how much weight you can lift. Breathing and bracing help to increase stiffness in the spine and torso to minimise movement of the upper body, such as the shoulders rounding and collapsing forward or the spine flexing while squatting. 

Imagine having a heavy barbell on your shoulders without a rigid torso. As you descend into the squat, your upper back will probably round, causing your shoulders to roll forward and the barbell to shift horizontally towards your toes. Now, energy is wasted as you must pull the barbell back towards the middle of your feet to avoid losing balance and falling forward. 

As such, you always need to maintain a braced midsection and a stiff spine to help keep the barbell travelling in a vertical path over the middle of your feet. Furthermore, a rigid torso improves force transfer throughout the body, which may enhance squat strength.

How to breathe and brace correctly

Breathing involves sucking in air through the mouth and not just the nose. Mouth breathing generally results in more air being received into your diaphragm versus breathing in through the nose. Breathing in a large amount of air pushes the diaphragm downward, which expands the abdominal (belly area) and increases intra-abdominal pressure (pressure within the abdominal area). High intra-abdominal places pressure on the spine, which increases spine stiffness. Since stiffness results in less mobility, increased intra-abdominal pressure through breathing into your belly can help maintain a rigid torso and reduce spinal flexion whilst squatting. 

Breathing
(Picture – Pressure increasing within the abdominal cavity from deep breathing which pushes against the spine)

Take a big breath through your mouth and focus on filling your abdominal area so the sides and front of your stomach push outward. Once your stomach is full of air, close your mouth, hold in the air and then flex your abdominal muscles as if someone is going to punch you in the stomach. Now you have breathed in air combined with flexing your abdominals to brace your midsection.

A drill to check if you’re doing this right is to get your first and second fingers of each hand and push hard into the side of your abdominals so your fingers sink into your body. When doing this drill, people generally press into themselves too softly, so make sure you’re pressing in hard enough that your fingers sink into your body.

From here, take a big breath through your mouth and expand the sides of your abdominals so your fingers are pushing outward. If your abdominals are not expanding and your fingers are not pushing outward, you’re likely breathing into your chest and not your belly

If this is the case, fully breathe out and repeat the process—take a new breath through the mouth and focus on filling your abdominals with air, not your chest. If you initially can’t expand your abdominals and keep breathing into your chest, keep practising by taking new breaths in and out. Eventually, you’ll work out how to breathe into the abdominals and won’t have to mentally think about how to do it.    

How to breathe and brace during squats

Before descending, take a breath at the top of the squat, hold it, and flex your abdominals. Hold your breath throughout the entire squat repetition. Do not breathe out on the way up. Only breathe out once you reach the top of the squat. Once you have completed the repetition, breathe out and take in a new breath before descending for the next repetition.

Barbell height

The correct barbell height is important for squatting. Setting the barbell too high will make it difficult to un-rack it from the squat rack, as you may need to stand on your toes to lift it. Setting the barbell too low results in quarter-squatting it off the rack. Both scenarios waste energy.

The correct barbell height will have the barbell approx. in line with the upper portion of your sternum.

Correct bar height

bar too low

bar too high

Bar grip

When gripping the barbell, the thumb should be on top of it and not around it. Your palms should be on top of the barbell, and your wrists should be straight and not flexed backward. Having the bar rest on your upper back and your palms on top of it creates a ‘barbell sandwich.’  

  • Palms on top
  • Barbell in middle
  • Barbell resting upper back

Avoid gripping the barbell too high in the palm where the bar is at the base of your fingers. This grip position will result in the wrist flexing backwards, and some of the load will be received in your wrist, which may result in wrist pain. Additionally, this grip position may not be optimal for pulling the barbell down hard into your upper back (more on this in the pull-down into the back section.)

Grip width

Grip width is individual-dependent. Some people prefer a closer grip, and some prefer a wider grip. The width of the grip will also depend on someone’s upper body flexibility and mobility.

Barbell grip is a range and multiple grip widths can be used between –

Holding the bar too close—Holding the bar too close can create a see-saw action, as the length of the barbell from the hands will be long, creating a large lever between the hands to the end of the barbell. Likewise, people with restricted upper body mobility might struggle to get their palms on top of the barbell if gripping it too close. 

Grip too close

Holding the bar too wide—Holding the barbell too wide may cause the hands and arms to be in a poor position for retracting the upper back muscles and creating upper back tension. A lack of upper back tension may result in the upper back rounding while squatting, which can cause the barbell to deviate forward towards the toes / fall forward while squatting.

Grip too wide

Your grip width should fall within a range between the two extremes explained above. 

 

Correct grip

Bar placement

During a low-bar squat, the bar sits on the top border of the scapula (shoulder blades). The bar should not be placed on the upper traps (this is a high-bar squat, and the technique differs from a low-bar squat). A high-bar squat is not inherently bad. More so, this article focuses on the low-bar squat technique, which differs a bit from a high-bar squat. 

bar too high back

Correct bar height back

On the other end of the extreme, the bar should not sit too low to rest directly on the scapula. Having the barbell too low generally makes the bar feel like it’s falling down your back. It can also cause excessive forward torso lean (the torso will lean more forward to maintain the barbell over the middle of the feet).   

bar too low back

Walk out

Once the barbell is on your back, it’s time to walk out of the rack to prepare to squat. You want to avoid taking too many steps when walking out of the rack, as this wastes energy. Instead, you want to use as few steps as needed, which can be achieved by using a 2-step or 3-step walkout.

 

Two-step walkout

One foot moves backward, and the other foot moves backward, so you’re at your desired squat stance width in two steps.

Three-step walkout

One foot moves backward, and the other moves backward to get some distance from the barbell rack. The third step is a side step to move you into your desired stance width. 

Foot position and width

The angle of your toes and the width of your feet are individual-dependent. Some people will feel comfortable with a narrow stance, and others will prefer a wider one. Additionally, some people will prefer the toes pointing forward, and some will prefer the toes pointing outward.

Foot width and toe angle are generally affected by the makeup of someone’s pelvis and femur shape. For those interested, more explicit details on pelvis and femur shapes are explained in this article

For a brief summary, some people have narrow or wide pelvis sockets where the femur (upper leg bone) inserts. People with narrow pelvis sockets may naturally have a closer stance width, while those with wide pelvis sockets may naturally have a wider stance width.

Likewise, some people’s femur heads are straighter, and some are more angled. Those with a straighter femur head will likely naturally stand with the toes pointing forward, while those with angled femur heads will likely naturally stand with the toes pointing outward.

As such, the variation of your pelvis and femur shape can affect which squat stance is most comfortable for you. Thus, there is no ‘one best stance’ that fits everyone.

For a starting point, a general recommendation is to have the feet approximately shoulder width with the toes angled by approximately 45 degrees, which works for ‘most’ people. However, some people will be outliers and will need to deviate from the general recommendations according to which foot position is comfortable for their individual constraints.

Squat sequence

Your squat stance should be selected based on what feels the most comfortable, doesn’t cause pain, and allows you to squat to the required squat depth (just below parallel). Stance width should not be selected to target specific leg muscles, as there appears to be little difference in muscle activation between different foot stance widths.  

Setup

After un-racking the barbell from the rack, the squat can be broken down into 3 phases

  1. Setup
  2. Downphase
  3. Up phase

 

The setup refers to the phase where you stand in preparation to descend into the squat. This phase is very important because if done poorly, the rest of your squat will likely be poor. For example, if you are imbalanced with a rocking barbell before you come down to a squat, the rest of your squat is likely not going to be very balanced.

It is extremely important to take your time in the setup and ensure the following cues have been completed before squatting down. Your setup cues should be repeated before every single repetition. Think of it like a pre-squat checklist; you can only descend into your squat if the setup checklist has been completed. 

Pull bar down into back 

You should already have a good grip on the barbell (thumbs and palms on top of the barbell with a neutral wrist). The next step is to pull the barbell down hard into your back. Imagine you’re trying to bend the barbell by pulling the bar into your upper back. Not only will you pull the barbell hard into your back during the setup, but you will also continuously pull the barbell into your back for the entire squat repetition.

Pulling the bar down hard into your back achieves two outcomes –

  1. Minimises the barbell rolling up or down your back during the repetition
  2. Retracts your upper back muscles, which keeps them contracted to minimise the upper back rounding forward during the repetition
 

If the barbell rolls up or down or the upper back rounds (or a combination of both), all scenarios will likely lead to the barbell moving horizontally outside the mid-foot position, which will cause movement inefficiencies, as explained earlier in this article.  

Every time you finish a squat repetition and stand back at the top of the movement, re-pull the barbell down hard into your back when preparing to squat down again. The barbell-pulling cue should always be done both before and during all repetitions. Your upper back may get tired from doing this movement, which is a good sign that you’re pulling the barbell down hard. If your upper back fatigues, don’t worry; you will adapt to this cue over time, and it will not be so tiring.   

Breath and brace

The correct way to breathe and brace was already described earlier in this article. During your setup, either before or after pulling the barbell down into your back, make sure to breathe and brace your midsection during your squat setup before coming down for a repetition. Breath out and take in a new breath between each repetition

Midfoot balance

It was explained that an efficient squat involves the barbell travelling in a vertical line directly over the middle of the feet. Balance should always be kept in the middle of the feet when squatting to maintain movement efficiency. During the squat setup, take the time to move your balance in the middle of the feet before descending into the squat. If you’re imbalanced during the setup phase of your squat, you’re likely to be imbalanced during the rest of the repetition.

When you have completed a repetition and are standing tall, preparing to come down for your next repetition, ensure you have come to a complete standstill, the bar has stopped wobbling, and your balance has moved back into your midfoot before starting your next repetition. 

Eyes down 

It is recommended that you keep your eyes focused on a point on the floor, approximately 0.25 – 1 metre ahead of you, throughout the squat. Avoid changing your gaze, as your chest tends to follow where your eyes are looking. 

During a low bar squat, it is important to keep your chest pointing towards the floor, which will be explained in more detail in the down-phase section. Looking up while squatting can cause your chest to rise too quickly, which can negatively impact your squat technique in multiple ways. The most common effect of looking up and raising your chest too early is back hyperextension, which can add unnecessary lower back strain.

Down phase

Hips come straight down
When initiating the down phase, think your hips are coming straight down and don’t exaggerate sitting the hips backwards. The hips and knees should break simultaneously when descending into the squat. Sitting the hips back too early generally causes the hips to break before the knees and also shifts weight behind the mid-foot. When weight is shifted too far back at the beginning of the squat, the weight will generally compensate by moving too far forward to maintain mid-foot balance, resulting in weight shifting too far into the toes.

So long as the bar is in the correct position on your upper back/shoulders and you’re not trying to forcefully keep your chest high, the hips will generally automatically sit backward on their own unless someone is making the error of squatting too much into their knees. You do not need to think of the cue “sit the hips back” unless it’s to fix a movement error.

Vertical shin/knees in-line with toes
As you come down, your shins should remain close to vertical, and your knees should be approximately in line with the end of your toes. During the first 1/3 of the down phase, your knees will shove forward by some amount. How far the knees shove forward in this 1/3 of the movement should be the maximum distance the knees need to go for the remaining 2/3 of the down phase.

If the knees go excessively forward, this is called ‘knee drift’. This can be seen directly from the side where the knees slide forward significantly past the position they achieve in the first 1/3 of the squat. This error typically happens frequently right at the bottom of the squat when transitioning into the up-phase.

The knees drifting forward will generally cause your weight to shift forward, which causes up-stream effects –

Knees shift forward > hips shift forward > torso shifts forward > barbell shifts towards the toes = barbell no longer in vertical path over the mid-foot = energy wasted trying to pull the bar back over the midfoot.

Losing balance into the toes during the down phase can also cause the knees to slide forward, causing the upstream errors mentioned above.  

Chest falls forward toward floor
When you’re coming towards the bottom of the squat, the chest should be leaning over towards the floor. Looking at the picture below, imagine a laser beam shooting out of your chest, and it’s pointing approximately. 0.75-1 metre towards the floor.  

The chest should not be high, so the ‘laser beam’ out of your chest shoots across the room. 

If your chest is too high, it is likely because you’re trying to keep it too upright and/or the shins are not in a vertical position, which was previously explained. A high chest is relevant in a high bar squat, but in a low bar squat, it’s preferred to have the chest leaned over to keep your body in a position to utilise more of your hip extensors during squatting. 

Furthermore, keeping the chest too high can lead to technique errors such as the chest falling forward when transitioning between the down to up phase, the hips shooting up too early and hyper extending the back too much. 

Squat to below parallel
Specifically for strength, the ideal squat depth is when the hip joint is just below the top surface of your knee. Viewing yourself from the side is an easy way to check your squat depth. The top of your thigh should be in a slight diagonal downward angle. You do not need to squat any further than this unless your goal is to maximise leg size, as muscles tend to grow the best when they’re in the most stretched position. As this article is focusing on squatting for strength gains, squatting ‘ass to grass’ is not required. 

sqaut depth

Focus on the barbell moving in a vertical line over midfoot and keeping balance in your midfoot
Throughout the down phase of the squat, it’s important to keep the barbell travelling directly over the middle of your feet and maintain pressure and balance in the mid-foot. To check if you’re keeping a vertical bar path over your mid-foot, film yourself directly from the side.

Most movement errors occur in the transition from the down to up phase, particularly the bar shifting forward and losing balance into the toes. Be mindful that both the barbell and your foot pressure may want to shift forward at the bottom position, so do your best to counteract this. 

If you continuously struggle with the barbell drifting forward and losing balance in your toes, using a slow 3-5 second tempo during the descent or pausing for 1-2 seconds at the bottom of the movement can help correct these errors.

Tools to fix barbell path or balance issues are to intentionally slow down the squat or pause at the bottom, which can bring your attention to your body’s position in space and increase your awareness of any mistakes you may be making. Thus, using tempo or paused squats can help increase your awareness of when errors occur; you’ll be rewarded with good movement (the squat will feel efficient) and punished with poor movement (errors will feel amplified). 

Up phase

Keep pressure in midfoot
As you come back up from the squat, focus on pushing against the floor in the middle of your feet. Avoid putting pressure on the toes or heels. This will help maintain a straight bar path over your mid-foot.

 

Knees and hips extend at the same time
As you’re squatting back up, the knees and hips should extend (open) at the same time. An issue that sometimes occurs during the initial up phase is the knees extending too early, which causes the hips to shoot up and the chest to fall towards the floor. Try to avoid the hips shooting backward excessively during the up phase. Think of the position the hips came down in is the same position the hips should come up with. 

Stand tall, shoulders, knees, hips and ankles stacked in line
When reaching the top of the movement (the lockout position), focus on squeezing your quadriceps and glutes so you’re standing tall and your joints are fully locked out. Looking from the side, the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulder joints should be directly stacked underneath the barbell.

Lock out position

Preparing for your next repetition

 

Take time between reps to re-setup
Once you have reached the top of your squat and are preparing to come down for the next repetition, take time to re-set up. You will follow the steps again in the setup phase before coming down for the next repetition – 

  • Breath and brace
  • Re-gain balance into your midfoot
  • Pull barbell down into shoulders
 

There should be a pause at the top to allow you to re-set up and re-gain your balance before descending into the next repetition. Take as long as you need to prepare for the next repetition, and do not come down too quickly.  

 

 

Squat cue summary
Cues can be performed exactly in the order presented

 

Barbell un-rack

  • Barbell height set to approx. upper sternum
  • Place bar on top border of scapula
  • Grip barbell to desired grip width and place thumbs and palms over barbell
  • Walk-out rack using either 2 or 3 step walk-out
  • Set foot stance to what’s comfortable. General stance for most people is feet shoulder width apart with toes pointing out by approx. 45 degrees

 

Squat setup 

  • Pull bar down hard into upper back
  • Make sure balance is in middle of feet
  • Eyes looking towards floor approx. 0.5-1 metre in front of you
  • Take in a big breath through mouth and squeeze abs to brace mid-section

 

Down-Phase

  • Hips come straight down (knees and hips break at the same time)
  • Maintain close to vertical shin and knees stay approx. in-line with toes
  • Let chest fall forward towards floor. Laser beam from chest should be pointing approx. 0.5 metres in front of you towards the floor
  • Squat to just below parallel

 

 

Up-Phase

  • Push against the floor in the middle of your feet
  • Extend knees and hips at the same time (avoid excessively shooting the hips back) 
  • Fully lock out at top position – Shoulders, knees, hips and ankles should be stacked directly under the barbell

 

 

Preparing for next repetition 

Take time at the top to re-apply cues during setup before coming down for the next repetition. A poor setup will result in a poor repetition. Take your time to set up  

Paul Attard
Paul Attard

Paul is the founder and head coach of SPC Performance Lab. Paul has been coaching since 2014 and has worked with all different types of people. From first timers learning the basics, all the way up to the experienced power-lifting competitors.

He tailors his approach depending on the needs, goals and experience of the individual. Paul has extensive theoretical and practical coaching experience.

- Masters of Sports & Exercise Science (Strength & Conditioning)
- Bachelor’s degree in Exercise & Sports Science with First Class Honours
- Competed and won multiple natural body-building shows & power-lifting competitions.
- Held an Australian power-lifting record.

Free advice

SPC Performance Lab is a gym in Taren Point in the Sutherland Shire, Sydney NSW. It is a private gym that offers strength training, powerlifting and body building training. The gym is open 24 hours, 7 days a week with membership options that include casual or regular visits.

Paul also provides a choice of personal training one on one or the option of online coaching.

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