Barbell back squats an excellent compound exercise that primarily targets the lower body but also engages several muscles in the upper body. Here, we’ll cover all the muscles that squats work and how for optimal muscle growth and strength gains.
Back Squat Muscles Worked
- Gluteal muscles
- Spinal Erectors
Here’s Dr. Gains with a quick overview of the muscles worked by the squat. For the most effective muscle growth it’s essential to perform the squat with correct form.
The glutes are one of the main muscles worked by back squats. The glutes are primarily responsible for hip extension, which is the main motion of a back squat. Back squats target both the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles.
When lowering into the squat, the glutes control the movement and decelerate the body. Then, as the weight rises back up, the glutes contract to extend the hip joint and drive the body back to a standing position.
Check out our list of the best cable glute exercises for some accessory and isolation work to strengthen your glutes for back squats.
The quads are the largest leg muscles and one of the main target muscles of the back squat. The quadriceps work during a back squat to create leg extension and stabilize the knee joint. The outer quad, or vastus lateralis, is particularly important for stabilizing the knee joint. Here’s our list of the best outer quad exercises to strengthen this muscle group.
The hamstrings are an essential muscle group worked by back squats. The hamstrings control knee flexion when lowering into the squat and hip extension when standing back up.
Weak hamstrings can lead to compensations, such as excessive forward lean or a breakdown in technique, increasing the risk of injury and limiting progress. Check out our list of the best way to grow underdeveloped hamstrings to improve strength and stability when performing back squats.
The back squat targets the adductors, specifically the adductor magnus, responsible for hip adduction and extension. During the back squat, the adductor magnus contracts isometrically to stabilize the pelvis. When rising from the bottom of the squat, the adductor magnus contracts to help extend the hip joint and return to a standing position. The adductors are engaged more during a wide stance squat, where the feet are farther apart than in a narrow squat stance.
During a back squat, the calf muscles are engaged to provide balance and stability. As the body lowers into the squat, the ankles flex and the calf muscles contract to maintain an upright position. When pushing back up to standing, the calf muscles extend to assist in lifting the weight. This motion activates the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the calves, resulting in increased muscular strength and growth.
The spinal erectors are important stabilizer muscles that work isometrically during back squats. These muscles lay on either side of the spine and contract to maintain an upright torso and stable posture. The spinal erectors also contract to extend the spine when returning to a standing position during the concentric phase of the back squat.
The core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis, engage to maintain a stable spine and upright torso position during a back squat. Keeping the core tight prevents excessive forward or backward leaning during the exercise. Weak core muscles make it hard to keep the torso upright and can limit the ability to transfer force from lower to upper body, limiting the weight progress.
Strengthen the core to improve the back squat by visiting our list of the best ways to grow underdeveloped core muscles.
The traps are a secondary muscle group that the barbell back squat works indirectly. During a back squat, the traps stabilize the weight across the upper back muscles. Weak traps can prevent you from maintaining an upright posture during back squats, causing form breakdown and increasing the risk of injury. Check out our list of the best ways to grow underdeveloped traps to improve confidence with back squats.
Back Squats Muscles Worked FAQs
The back squat is among the best squat variations for engaging multiple muscle groups throughout the upper and lower body. However, experimenting with various squat variations can help target the muscles differently, create a balanced and resilient physique, and keep your program fresh and exciting.
Some effective squat variations include: front squat for loading anterior leg muscles and engaging the core; goblet squat, perfect for limited equipment access; split squat, a unilateral variations for improving muscular imbalances and stimulating balanced muscle growth; bodyweight squat, excellent for beginners to learn the movement pattern and for experienced lifters as a dynamic warm-up.
Both barbell back squat variations are highly effective for building strength and size in the lower body muscles.
In general, the low-bar squat emphasizes the posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, due to the bar position being further down on the back. This position requires a greater forward lean, which engages the hamstrings to a greater extent to help control the movement and decelerate the body during the descent phase.
The high-bar squat typically places more emphasis on the quadriceps, with less activation of the hamstrings than the low bar back squat. The high-bar squat position is higher on the back, which allows for a more upright torso position and places more stress on the knee joint and quadriceps.
The activation of specific muscle groups during a barbell back squat varies depending on individual biomechanics, technique, and training status.