When it comes to utilizing barbells for strength training, many folks tend to fall into one of three camps:
Camp A: "Barbells are King. I've even heard they can cure cancer. If I'm not going to use them, then why even show up to train?"
Camp B: "Barbells are either dangerous, unnecessary, or they'll make you too bulky."
Camp C: "I can see the merit in utilizing barbells, but I've never used them before and I'm worried I may injure myself if I try."
Camps A and B are of course extreme ends of the thought spectrum, and neither mindset is helpful. Camp C is understandable, especially for someone who is new to training.
Are barbells helpful? Absolutely. Good luck finding a more practical, versatile, and economical piece of training equipment (outside of your own body, perhaps).
Can barbells cause injury? You bet. Many useful things should be handled with care - knives and electrical outlets, for instance.
It's also worth mentioning that many people (primarily males over the age of 12) tend to think they're ready for barbell training, when the reality is they're still on the "crawl" end of the crawl-->walk-->run-->gladiator-->Jedi end of the movement spectrum.
I can't tell you how many guys have insisted that I move them to a barbell as soon as they begin training at SAPT, but when I give them the benefit of the doubt (which I usually don't), and have them demonstrate a few reps of a barbell squat, it resembles something more along the lines of a newborn giraffe learning to walk than it does a proper squat pattern.
So yes, barbell lifts are more complex than many people give them credit for. However, most individuals can learn to do them with proper coaching and diligent practice.
Today, we'll cover the barbell squat. Over the next couple weeks, we'll tackle the deadlift and bench press as well.
Note: This article is by no means exhaustive, in fact it's only the tip of the iceberg; however, if you take these steps, you'll be well on your way, whether you're a lifter or a coach or works with lifters. It also assumes you're a healthy individual with no prior injury history.
1. Quad Rocking
The number one rule of happy squatting is doing so with a neutral spine. (Neutral spine = your spine maintains it's natural curve throughout the lift.)
If your back looks like the photo on the right during your squat, then that is not a neutral spine, and you shouldn't be barbell squatting yet.
A fantastic way to learn to "groove" the squat pattern while maintaining a neutral spine is through quadruped rocking:
You'll notice, as Kelsey described in this article, the quadruped rockback is the squat pattern, albeit rotated 90 degrees. [See Kelsey's article to understand the multifarious benefits of quad rocking.]
Practice rocking your butt back to your heels, without allowing this to happen on the way back.
One of our former coaches, Jarrett Brumett, helped me realize this is probably the best exercise for teaching the squat pattern, bar none. It looks seemingly-useless at first glance, but it's brutally effective.
I also use them myself during my warm-ups and off-day circuits, as they do wonders for maintaining range of motion in the knees and hips, along with providing a number of neuromuscular benefits.
Once you learn to do a proper quadruped rockback, you can add band resistance like in the video below. This variation helps you learn to "pull" yourself into hip and knee flexion (since the band is trying to push you into hip extension), just like you'd want to do during a squat, and it also causes a reflexive firing of the deep core muscles to boot.
2. Goblet Squats
Learn to goblet squat. If you can't goblet squat, then you won't be able to barbell squat.
Next to quad rockbacks, goblet squats are the best way to groove the squat pattern: the placement of the kettlebell/dumbbell forces the core to engage (to keep the torso from falling forward), and the load placement also helps the athlete to remain in an upright/stable position.
Another reason they're so utilitarian is that they can be used with both amateur athletes and seasoned trainees, simply by scaling the load, tempo, and rep scheme. Beginners can learn to goblet squat with a 15lb kettlebell or dumbbell and be golden, and I've seen professional athletes get smoked by 100lb goblet squats.
See the video below for a quick snapshot of form, and see this article for how to use goblet squats with dumbbells, and ideas for sample progressions.
3. Spinal bracing
Once you can keep a neutral spine, and perform a goblet squat with sound technique, you're almost ready to move to barbell squatting.
The next step is learning to brace the spine.
While there are a myriad other "checkpoints" to hit on the way to barbell squatting, bracing the spine is arguably the most important to nail down.
If you don't protect the spine via intra-abdominal pressure, then it doesn't really matter how many other little things you do correctly.
Why? To put it scientifically: if the spine goes, then you're pretty screwed regardless.
Also, by bracing the spine, many of the other things - neutral spine, force production, solid joint mechanics - will clean up purely by cause and effect.
See this article by Tony Gentilcore on a sound primer for bracing during the squat.
Also, see the 0:17 mark of this video to see the WRONG way to breathe in before you squat, along with some visuals on how to take in your air correctly before squatting.
4. how low should you go?
Even if you can squat to parallel without experiencing pain, that doesn't mean you should squat that low.
Here's the rule of thumb: go as low as you can without losing neutral spine, and/or without allowing the knees to collapse inward.
For some people, this may mean stopping the descent before hitting parallel (parallel = top of thigh parallel to the ground). For others, it may mean they can go down beyond parallel.
Have somebody film you from the side and front, to keep yourself honest. Often you may think you're keeping a neutral spine all the way down, but the reality is otherwise.
5. Which variation should you use?
At SAPT, we often start people off with barbell front squats before moving to back squats, because, similar to goblet squatting, it's easier to maintain a neutral spine all the way down, and it's easier for athletes to keep from falling forward.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all for squatting, and you need to experiment with what feels best for you: how wide your foot stance is, bar position, etc.
In general, I recommend a "moderate" foot stance position of feet just outside shoulder-width, as too narrow tends to make people fall into a very knee-dominant squat, and too wide will often shred the hips (not in a good way) over the long run, depending on the individual's anatomy.
You can see this article by Bret Contreras to reference a number of different squat variations, along with some good cues to remember for good technique.
Always remember to fit the individual to the lift, rather than the other way around.
Squats are awesome, and the world would be a better place if more people did them. But not everyone needs to (nor should), squat with a barbell on their back, nor does everyone need to squat all the way to parallel.
Taking care of your physical health and performance is a marathon, not a sprint. Work with what you have, and as long as you're progressing in some form or fashion - improved movement quality, more load lifted, higher number of reps completed, increased training density, etc. - you can rest assured knowing you're on the right track.