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How to barbell squat: Beginner Guide [Article, free download]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Apr 4, 2019 9:30:00 AM


How to barbell squat: Beginner Guide

This is a guide for beginners who want to barbell squat on how to set their equipment up and execute the movement. We will also go into which programs are key effective for beginners. 

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What is your why 

Before we go into the details of how to barbell squat, let me ask you a couple of questions: 
  • Why do you want to barbell squat
  • Why do you want to get stronger 
  • Why do you want to build muscle 
  • What happens when you do 
  • What happens if you don’t 
These questions are simple, yet very effective. They will help you to dig deeper and exercise your mind. The mind will produce the real world outcomes which you seek. Fitness is simple yet lives of consistency. Being consistent in your life is hard. Sitting down to reflect on these questions will prepare you for the times when things get in your way. Without discipline and meaning, you will drop the ball. With it you will achieve your long term goals. Most people go through their life like this: 
  • What do I want 
  • How do I get it 
  • Why do I want it 
This is a recipe to get stuck in the same routine without getting anywhere. What you want changes hundreds of times a day. It depends on where you are, whom you talk to and how you feel on the day. If you react to these impulses you will be chasing your own tail. The result can be frustration and disillusionment because you feel like you do not feel progress. 
When you flip the order of these questions on their head something interesting happens:
  • Why do you want something 
  • How do you get it 
  • What do you need to do to get them
If you go about your thoughts and actions in this order it more likely that you will be successful. Successful in this context means that you reach the goals which you have set out for yourself. Starting with the question of why will make your thoughts and actions more connected to your innermost desires. This will have a positive effect on your energy levels and how others perceive you. 
Once you flipped your thought process to the question of why track your days in the best self journal. This is the most effective tool in my arsenal to get more done in less time. 

The barbell

For the barbell squat, let us talk barbells first. Barbells come in various forms and shapes depending on which gym you are training in. Most common designs are
The 20kg standard barbell is what you will find most often in regular gyms. York fitness is especially popular in n Europe. They work fine and often bear the marks of years of overuse. More often than not barbells are bought once when the gym opens. After this, they just sit there. If you have multiple gyms in your area check the wear and tear on the barbells. This will be a good indicator of how new the gym is, how much they care about their customers and how well they are doing financially. Women have to take care that the 20kg is supposed to be for men. For general fitness, it does not make a big difference. If you intend to compete I recommend looking for a 15kg barbell.
15kg barbells are a lot less common. These lives up to the standards for female competitors in powerlifting, weightlift, ng and CrossFit. If you find a gym which stocks these and makes a point about educating you about it when you join, you probably have found a serious establishment which is interested to n your success. 
There are also various barbells used in fitness classes. These are usually smaller in diameter and lighter than the standard barbell. These also usually go with plastic or smaller plates that have been fit for purpose. These non-standard barbells are fine, just be careful that you use them for the purpose they are intended for. Avoid loading a flimsy barbell with 200kg to test your one rep max. 
Some gyms have shortened barbells with fixed weights on them. These are great for lunges and curls. For squatting you usually face the challenge that they do not fit into a power rack. Avoid placing a shortened barbell in a rack. If you miss to rack it you usually get in trouble. 

The barbell squat

The barbell squat is a staple of weight training for decades. Powerlifters, weightlifters, Bodybuilders, and Crossfitters use it to make their legs stronger. Although it is a great exercise it can be very intimidating when you start exercising. Many starters lack
  • Mobility
  • Strength 
  • Confidence 
  • Knowledge 
To perform the barbell squat well and default to the leg press. There is no need to be intimidated as you can address these points one by one. Also, general fitness goals can be achieved with the barbell squat. More often than not the goal is weight loss or getting ripped. Both goals are a lot more diet than exercise related. 
If you lack the mobility to barbell squat do yoga in the mornings. This helped me to improve my problem of shortened tendons. When you do the barbell squat the first time you will probably find it hard to squat very deep. Ease into it and squat as low as you possibly can without among yourself to uncomfortable. It usually takes years to improve on this point gradually. 
You might lack the strength to start with a 20kg barbell for the back squat. In this case, the leg press or air squat can be alternative options to get started. Dumbbells or kettlebells which are lighter can also be used. Hold them in front of you and keep them close to your body. Gradually increase the weight over time. 
Some people lack the confidence to squat as they are afraid to get trapped under a bar. If this is the case for you to learn how to use a power rack and safety pins. Set up the safety just slightly below the point of your lowest possible squat. In case you fail a lift, lower the weight as slowly as you can to the safety. Once it is on the safety exit under the bar. This is safe as long as you avoid dropping the bar uncontrolled. 
The mat point is a lack of knowledge around the squat. Nothing replaces the impact of a personal trainer who knows what he or she is doing. If you can not afford that I recommend the following sources: 
These are all powerlifting heavy sources. If you want to do the barbell squat for Olympic weightlifting start with 
To learn more and feel confident with the movement. 

Programming for the squat

There are many programs out there and it can get quite confusing to choose the right one for your needs. The first thing to know is what you actually want to achieve. Do you mainly want to get 
  • Stronger 
  • More muscly 
  • Both 
In my opinion, a beginner only needs to know three programs and only do one of them well for a year or two. The programs are: 
If you want to build muscle and strength at the same time use Starting Strength or Stronglifts. Starting Strength has a bit more of a bias towards weightlifting and football while Stronglifts 5x5 leans a little more towards powerlifting. The main difference in exercise selection is the power clean vs the barbell row. Starting Strength works with the power clean while 5x5 uses the row. I personally prefer 5x5 for absolute beginners with little to no supervision. The instructions are easier to read and understand, the app is better and the row is easier to master than the power clean. If your coach prefers starting Strength go with that, as long as you have a coach. You won’t get on the team if you keep the challenging the coaches recommendations for training. 
If you don’t care about strength and you want to pump yourself up go with German Volume Training. You will do 10x10 on this program for the three big lifts. These will be done at 50 to 60 percent of your one rep max. This is the program which has me the most pump. A word of caution on muscle growth. The limiting factor here is your diet, not your training. Be prepared to shovel 5000 to 7000 calories a day into your face to make it as a bodybuilder or look like the rock. 
Admittedly, there are better programs out there which are more individualized which will get you better gains over a shorter period of time. However, these require active adjustments during the program based on performance. You most likely have not the experience to do this effectively yourself. Stay away from it. Every time I did it i ended up with a lower back injury because of overreaching. 
As a beginner, your main goal is to establish consistency in your training. This is why I recommend an easy to understand cookie cutter program that takes the thinking out of your training. This holds true as long as you train by yourself. 
If you can afford a personal trainer, find a good one for strength and muscle and do exactly what they say. 
Click these links to learn more about Stronglifts 5x5 and German Volume Training 
Stronglifts 5x5
German Volume Training 

Rack setup for the squat 

Before you start to squat it is important to set up your rack in the correct way to start squatting. This depends on two factors 
  • Available equipment 
  • Your body 
There are different variations of equipment out there to squat. Which ones you have available depends on the type of gym you will join. The most common setup is a power rack in a commercial gym. Here is a list of the options you may find 
The power rack is the most common set up you will find. A power rack is a cage of four metal pillars which are connected with beams at the bottom and top. You can either squat inside or outside of the rack. If you are a complete beginner I recommend that you always squat inside the rack. Once you are more familiar with the movement you can also squat outside the rack in case the gym is busy. As squatting outside the rack is less secure be a bit more conservative on how you pick your loads. Especially in tight setups with people around you. Even better, maybe start with accessory exercises until a rack is free to use. 
The squat rack has j cups and safety pins. The j cups are the hooks which you can to the rack to rest the barbell on. The safety pins are the steel rods which you put in the rack. Set the J cups up at a height that makes you slightly bend your hips when you are under the bar. The goal is to only have to pop your hips forward to unrack the bar. The setup for the safety pins is slightly below your lowest squat position. In case you fail a rep lower slowly to the pins and lean forward. That is the most secure way to exit. Dropping the bar is not a good idea with pins as you will get a bounce and get hit in the back. 
If you squat outside the rack because it is taken, make sure the area around you is free of plates and people. The only option for safety is to drop the weight. For dropping the weight get as high as you can when you feel like failing the rep. Best case scenario you complete the rep and drop from there. Worst case scenario you get a bit more distance between the bar and floor before you make the exit. This is far from ideal so rather stop a set early than exposing yourself to the risk of a failed rep without a safety setup. 
A squat stance is different in setup. Some of the squat stances are joined at the back, some are not. This is a less common setup. You will find it in weightlifting focused gyms or home gyms. Squat stances usually have no safety pins or spotter arms. There it is important that you have a lot of space for safety to drop the weight and make a run. Weightlifting facilities usually acclimate for this. Basements not so much. If the squat stance is not joined at the back, take care that you have the right amount of space between the two pillars. Make also sure that they are set up in a straight line. If they are joined this is taken care of. The good thing about the squat stances is that they cost less. The bad thing is that they add complexity for beginners. If you are a beginner go to to a local gym first to get used to the barbell squat. Then consider a squat stance to work out at home. If you have the funds and space, go for a rack.
The gold standard of setups is the monolift station. This is a machine which saves you the walkout for the squat. You will only find it in specialized powerlifting gyms. You need at least one spotter to operate it for you. The good thing about this is that it minimizes time under tension. If you have 900lbs in your back you might appreciate this. It is very unlikely that you will reach the levels which requires mobility unless you dedicate yourself for decades to lifting.

Barbell setup for the squat 

Depending on your 
  • Size 
  • Mobility 
  • Preference 
You might want to high bar or low bar squat. The high bar squat is usually preferred by weightlifters while the low bar squat is generally preferred by powerlifters. 
The low bar squat makes more use of your lower back and creates a bigger shelf for the barbell to rest on. This activates more and bigger muscles at the expense of leverage and speed of contraction of the involved muscles. This is why powerlifters like it. You move bigger weights at a slower pace overall. 
The high bar squat places the bar nearer to your neck. The advantage is that you get better mechanics from the bottom of the squat and speedier movement. The disadvantage is that the shelf you create on your back is smaller. This makes the barbell squat a favorite of weightlifters. Weightlifters generally prefer speed over max strength for the barbell squat. The reason is that you mostly can not move the weight over your head which you can squat. As a result, weightlifters want to spent as little time as possible to move the weight from the ground to overhead position. The less time this takes the more energy is left to move the bar to the end position. 
How to set up for the high bar or low bar squat depends on your size. Personally, I am 185cm tall and weigh 80 to 85kg depending on the day and time of the year. For me, the high bar squat setup is a half a thumb in from the inner knurling. The low bar squat is a thumbs length from the inner knurling. 

Plate setup for squatting 

The plate setup might be something that you think is trivial and obvious. There is more to it than meets the eye, especially when you go very heavy. The following things should be considered: 
  • Symmetry 
  • Collars
  • Sleeve space 
  • Type of plates 
The most important thing about plates is that you load them symmetrically. It even happens at high-class powerlifting events that the barbell gets misloaded. Make sure that you have the same weight and plates on each side of the barbell. Also, pay attention that the biggest plates go on first and the smallest last. This makes your life easier. You can add and remove weight quicker and the bar has fewer unpredictable imbalances. 
Collars are debatable. Most collars can be put on and off easily so I would prefer to use them. The collars you will most commonly find are glorified metal springs. Especially beginners tend to dislike them as they are hard to open for them. If that is the case, maybe help yourself to a nice pair of plastic or Aluminium collars. Anyone can open and close these. The more repetitions you do per se or the heavier you go the more sense it makes to apply collars. You can leave them off for warm-up sets. If you have huge imbalances in your squat, definitely pit collars on. Otherwise, the plates might slide off. 
Depending on how heavy you want to go you have to take care of the available sleeve space in the bar. The sleeves of a barbell are the ends on which you put the plates. Some bars come with shorter or longer sleeves. The elephant bar from Rogue being one of the most extreme examples. You usually can get more weight on a bar by using steel plates. These are thinner for the same amount of weight compared to bumper plates. This is especially important for a home gym. 
There are many plates out there. To simplify I will go for three  main types, even though there is definitely more:
Plastic is the cheapest and lightest version of weight you can get. This usually is a main component of the plates and weights you can get down at Wal Mart or Tesco. The good thing about plastic is that it is easy to maintain and also a bit more forgiving to the floor when you drop it. The bad thing is that you need a lot of plastic to accumulate 100kg or more on the bar. The only exception from this is technique plastic plates. These are full-size plates to practice weightlifting which weigh 2.5 or 5kg each. 
Bumper plates are plates which you often find in weightlifting or CrossFit gyms. More often than not also in your local commercial gym. Cheaper bumper plates are usually made of old tire rubber. What you see in the Olympic weightlifting competitions are high-quality bumpers with a metal core. Bumper plates are great for overhead lifts as they can take the abuse of being dropped often. If you intend to exercise on concrete they are also a great choice. The only downside to them is that they take up a lot more space on the bar than steel plates
Steel plates are most often used in powerlifting. You will also find them in commercial gyms who like to save money. Uncalibrated steel plates are usually quite cost-effective in terms of dollars per pound. Steel plates allow you to put more weight on the bar while using less sleeve space. 
If you are in the market to buy plates, be aware that you get what you pay for. The cheaper the plates the more likely it becomes that the plates do not weigh what it says on the label. 

Walk out for the barbell squat 

There are different variations of how to walk out the squat from the rack. The first choice is to either walk out 
  • Forward Or 
  • Backward 
As long as space allows it I would recommend you walk out backward. The pros do it and there are good reasons for it. Walking out backward protects you when you are the weakest. After your set, you can see where the racking position is and make your way towards it. This gives you more control. When you walk out forward you don’t see what you are doing when you rack the weights. 
When you walk out back you have several options:
  • No steps 
  • Two step 
  • Three step
  • Multiple steps walk out 
The easiest to put to bed is more than three steps. Don’t do this. It is just a waste of energy. You do not need a lot of steps to get enough space to squat safely. You do not need a mile between you and the rack before you start to squat. The more steps you unnecessarily take the more energy you waste. 
The no-step setup is only possible with a monolift station. This is the main idea of the Monolift, that it saves you doing any steps under very heavy load. You will most likely not need this for a very long time, if ever. However, it is nice to know what a Monolift is. 
The two-step walkout is a variation which safes energy of you can execute it well. The two-step is great when you have the right setup. If the ground is perfect and the rack is set up in the right way this works. Still, mostly that is not the case. It is way more likely that you will bang off the rack when you are using the two-step walk out as you are either to close to the rack or touch off the rack because the first step is too big. 
The best and most versatile option is the three-step walkout. The first step is aimed at putting distance between you and the rack. The second step plays your first foot for the squat and the third adjusts the other foot to be readily played for the barbell squat. 

Breathing during the barbell squat 

Breathing is a topic that many beginners overlook for the barbell squat. There are two parts to this: 
  • How to breathe 
  • When to breathe 
These tips will vary for every person. Still, some concepts hold true for most lifters. When it comes to how to breathe during the squat there are different school old of thoughts. One is to breathe into the chest and make it big the other is that you should breathe into the Stomach. I have tried both. The more effective one for me is to breathe into the stomach. 
Breathe out all the air you possibly can so that your lungs and stomach are empty of air. Do this through the mouth. Then take a short sharp breath in through the nose into your stomach. Press your stomach out and to the side. Think of building tension and firm yourself into a solid cylinder. Let your chest fall down so that your core gets engaged. To research this further and get explanations to look into Chris Duffin's instructions on breathing. I found those to be most helpful for me. 
Another challenge to think about is when to breathe. I have set goals on when to breathe on sets. This takes the thinking out of the movement and also gives you an additional indicator of whether the set was hard or easy. The more you need to breathe between reps the harder it is. This are my splits for breathing 
Set of 10
Set of 8 
4/3/1 —> aim for a perfect, explosive rep last rep
Set of 6 
Set of 5 
2/2/1 —> aim for a perfect, explosive last rep 
Set of 3
Set of 2 
This mind set helped me to get better. I hope it will serve you well too.

Weak points in the squat 

The main weak points in the squat are
  • Lack of mobility 
  • Lack of tension 
  • Lockout 
  • Getting out of the whole 
  • Lower back 
The lack of mobility gets most beginners so that they can not squat to depth. The best way to rectify this for me is 15 minute of Yoga each morning. Opt for a hip opener routine rather than a full body. A hip opener routine will take care of your ankles, hips, and knees. These are often the points which keep you from squatting time. Be patient with it. Mobility is one of these things which are hard to obtain and easy to lose. Consistency and patience are key. 
A lack of tension is also a problem that many beginners take a year to spot. Your goal in strength training is to bring your body to maximum tension. The more rigid your body the more weight it can handle. Your grip has to be tight. Your elbows tucked in and straight. The barbell has to stick to your body as you have wrapped yourself around it. This can be uncomfortable at first and will become more and more satisfying the stronger you get. Don’t be like spaghetti, be like an iron rod. 
Many lifters have problems with locking out their squats. This often originates from lack of use of the glutes. You can squeeze your butt cheeks and you should. Squeezing your glutes will make the hips pop forward faster. This will make it easier to complete the lift. You can also use exercises like the box squat to work specifically on your squat lockout. 
Often people struggle in the middle of the squat. The problem usually starts a bit before that when the movement slows down. You are the weakest at the lowest point of the barbell squat. To improve in this position spent more time there. Paused squats are a great way to work on this. You can also use pin squats to become faster. 
Another weak point of the squat can be the lower back. The lower back is hard to train and easily overlooked by beginners make sure to have some of these movements incorporated somewhere: 
  • Good mornings 
  • Back Raises 
  • Romanian deadlifts 
These help to develop the lower back and the glutes.

Pros of the barbell squat

The barbell squat is one of the most effective exercises you can do with a barbell to train your entire body. It especially addresses the quads and glutes. It is a great exercise to build muscle and strength. It will also teach you to be humble and overcome pain. 

Cons of the barbell squat 

The cons of the barbell squat are that it is not a great exercise to lose weight. Start with your diet if that is your goal. It will also take a toll on your tendons and lower back over time. This is why accessory worn becomes important. 

Alternatives of the barbell squat

Alternatives to the barbell squat are
And many more 


Know what your goals are and take execution serious. This is the only well to get satisfying results. Ensure tension, aware breathing and intent during all reps and you will grow stronger and bigger. 

Further reading

Topics: Lift stronger, Squat, Barbell