If you want to impress your CrossFit friends, there’s one exercise you should learn how to master: the back squat. Even more importantly, though, it’s one of the most effective exercises for strengthening your glutes, while also working your quads and core (yes, your abs too!).
Unfortunately, a couple things can keep you from nailing the perfect back squat. For starters, supporting a weighted bar across your shoulders can wreak havoc on your lower back if you don’t properly engage your core (or have the strength and stability to do so). And second, squatting at full range of motion (thighs below parallel to the floor) can be uncomfortable — if not impossible — when you lack ankle mobility.
These limitations act as roadblocks to performing the back squat safely and successfully, ultimately shortchanging your potential to gain strength and proficiency in the exercise. So to get you to back squat like a boss, Jennifer Blake, RKC, personal trainer at The Movement Minneapolis, offers four must-do exercises. Master these, then move on to bigger and better back squats.
RELATED: 7 Easy Ways to Improve Your Squat
4 Exercises to Improve Your Back Squat
1. Ankle Mobility Drill
If you can’t squat without your heels coming off the floor, it’s time to add some ankle mobility drills to your regular warm-up. Increasing range of motion in the ankle joint will allow you to go deeper in the squat, which then helps you target more muscles.
How to: Facing a wall, kneel down on one knee. Both knees should be bent approximately 90 degrees. You want to be close enough to the wall that when you push forward, you touch it with your front knee, without raising your heel (a). Push your knee forward until it touches the wall, keeping your heel planted on the ground as you move (b). Pause briefly, then return to the starting position (c). Repeat for 10-15 reps, then switch legs. Do two sets.
RELATED: The 7 Best Mobility Exercises You Haven’t Tried Yet
2. RKC Plank
To rock a solid squat, you need a strong core. This will take the pressure off your back and keep your torso upright throughout the exercise, the ideal posture. The RKC plank — which requires a slight posterior pelvic tilt (hips tucked toward your torso), forcing you to contract your glutes and engage more of your ab muscles — is especially effective for training your midsection to work in overdrive. It will also help prevent your back from collapsing under weight.
How to: Lie on your stomach, with forearms and palms flat on the floor beneath your shoulders, and your legs extended (a). Tuck your toes and raise your hips off the floor so your back is flat and your body is in a straight line (aka the perfect plank position) (b). Walk your forearms forward so they are in front of your shoulders. Contract your core, glutes, and quads, and imagine you’re pulling the floor toward you with your forearms (c). Hold this position until your form weakens (about one minute). Add 3-5 sets to your regular workout routine.
RELATED: 3 Plyometric Planks You Need to Try ASAP
3. Box Squat
To get a sense of your current range of motion — as well as gauge your progress leading up to a full back squat — practice squatting to a box with or without added weight. According to Blake, having a surface to hit helps build body awareness in newer lifters in particular, who may not know how low they can (or should!) squat.
How to: Set up a box or bench a few feet behind you. The surface height will depend on how deep you’re able to squat comfortably and with control (a). Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back and bending your knees. Keeping your torso upright and knees in line with your toes, lower yourself with control until your butt taps the box (b). Rest briefly before pushing back to start. Gradually lower the box height until you’re able to squat at full depth (again, aim for your hip crease to go below your knees). Do 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
RELATED: How Low Should You Squat? (And How to Improve It)
4. Goblet Squat
This front-loaded squat variation works as a solid next step to master, before working your way up to a weighted back squat. It allows you to remain more upright throughout the movement, meaning you’ll have better form that will carry into the back squat.
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold one kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands at your chest (a). Bend your knees, push your hips back and lower your butt toward the ground. Keep your torso upright and knees in line with your toes throughout the movement (b). Stand back up and repeat. Aim for 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps.