The Safer Back Squat

 Michael Darter

In terms of exercise, many of us soldier on valiantly in the face of physics and good sense, but the traditional back squat requires a level of flexibility that most people simply do not have. It turns out that any forward bend during a traditional squat puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the spine and lower back, which is a bad thing. And that’s the beauty of the trap bar deadlift.

The trap bar deadlift has long been a tool to safely and effectively strength-train professional athletes, and now it’s starting to become popular among us regular folks as an alternative to traditional squatting. “Because the bar is running through the body, the load stays center and requires less of a posterior load on the hamstrings and lower back,” says Gregg Bertsch, NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist. And since the weight isn’t loaded on your shoulders, you’re less likely to round your back and put yourself at risk of a serious back strain. “I can have an athlete who has limited ankle and hip-mobility trap bar deadlift almost immediately,” Bertsch says, “but with an injury, you simply can’t back-squat like that.”

We’ve completely substituted our squat routine with the trap bar deadlift, and the results have been phenomenal. We haven’t had a sore lower back in weeks, our quads and glutes are growing, and we’ve noticed some thickening of our upper-middle back.

Here are the steps to a proper and safe lift:

Step One
Step inside the hexagon and get a proper stance. “I always say your feet should be placed as if you’re going to do a standing broad jump,” Bertsch says. “Usually that’s about shoulder-width, but it varies.”

Step Two
With a flat back, bend at the waist to grasp the handles of the bar. The handles are at a fixed distance, welded to the frame of the hexagon, so proper arm placement is ensured.

Step Three
Flex your legs to descend into a squat, bringing your butt back and down (as if you are about to sit on an invisible chair) until your thighs are parallel with the floor.

Step Four
With eyes straight ahead, press through the heel of the foot to come out of the squat in one fluid motion, arms locked at your sides, so that the handles of the trap bar are hovering just below hip height. “At the height of the lift, make sure your scapulae are retracted,” says Bertsch. In other words, your shoulder blades should pinch together, as if you were trying to hold a pencil between them.

Step Five
With a flat back and contracted abdominals, return the weight to the floor by once again sinking your butt back and down.

“If you are going for athletic enhancement and are trying to increase maximal strength and speed, then stick to the five-to-eight rep range,” says Bertsch. “With high-performance athletes, we go to technical failure, not muscular failure. As soon as your technique starts to break down, you’re done.” As with any exercise, the first time you execute this lift, you should begin with a load that you are certain you can handle for at least 12 reps. Slowly increase the weight and decrease the reps over several sets to determine your technical limit. Then, work on obliterating that limit each week.