The squat is the king of lower body exercises. However, the barbell back squat has a steep learning curve, and you might need weeks of practice before you can perform this exercise with a picture-perfect form.
You could stick with the barbell squat until you drill the movement or use its variations to quicken your learning process.
Let’s be honest; the barbell back squat is an intimidating exercise, especially for beginners. The idea of failing a rep with a heavy barbell on your back can be scary. This is one of the reasons most lifters use a limited range of motion (ROM) on the squat. However, restricting your ROM on the squat also caps its benefits.
The bench squat is a happy medium between a full range of motion squat and half-ass squats. It is one of the best exercises to improve your squat form while developing a big and strong lower body. The bench squat primarily targets the quadriceps.
In this article, we go over the correct bench squat form, its muscles worked, benefits, common mistakes, and the best variations and alternatives. This exercise guide contains everything you need to know to improve your squatting performance and build a meaty lower body. So, sit tight and read on.
What is a Bench Squat?
The bench squat is a barbell back squat variation that is great for beginners and advanced lifters alike. Newbies can use the bench squat to ease into a full range of motion back squat, whereas veterans can use it as an accessory lift to work toward bigger weights.
Besides a barbell and weight plates, you also need a sturdy elevated surface like a flat bench for this exercise. Alternatively, you could use a soft or hard plyo box. I recommend using a flat bench that doesn’t have protruding foot platforms or wheel legs, as it will affect your foot placement.
If the flat bench in your training facility has oversized footrests, consider using an incline bench set at 45 degrees, as the feet of these benches don’t usually extend up to the top of their back pad. Alternatively, you could use a square object, like a hard plyo box, and place the edge of the box between your feet.
The bench squat involves lowering your hips to the bench and returning to the starting position. Although this exercise is less daunting than the conventional barbell back squat, most lifters use a sloppy form while performing the bench squat, which limits their growth potential and increases their risk of injury.
How To Do a Bench Squat
You must set up correctly for the bench squat to maximize your gains and limit your chances of getting hurt. This is the step-by-step guide to performing the bench squat:
Step One — Setup
Place one end of the flat bench in the center of a squat rack. Rack the barbell at shoulder height with an appropriate weight. Beginners should use 50 percent of their barbell squat 1RM on this exercise.
Position the barbell across your shoulders, grab it with a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width overhand grip, and walk back. Assume a shoulder-wide stance; the edge of the bench should be under your hips. Turn your toes out slightly.
Pro Tip: The height of the elevated surface can vary for every individual. Your upper legs should be parallel to the floor at the bottom of the range of motion. Taller athletes might need a 20-inch high surface, whereas average-height lifters usually work with an 18-inch object. Feel free to experiment with different benches until you find what works best for you.
Step Two — Descent
Lean forward slightly by hinging at your hips and maintain a slight knee bend. Your back, neck, and head should be neutral and in a straight line.
Take a deep breath and brace your core. Begin the descent by bending your knees and pushing them out slightly while focusing on lowering your hips back and down between your feet. Maintain your back at the same angle throughout the range of motion.
Your thighs should be parallel to the floor, and your bum should touch the bench at the bottom of the range of motion. Remember, you don’t want to sit on the bench and transfer your weight from your legs to the bench. Resting on the bench can transfer the pressure onto your lower back, increasing your risk of injury.
Pro Tip: I recommend using a weightlifting belt for this exercise. A weightlifting belt can help lower your risk of injury and can help generate thoracic pressure, leading to more powerful and stable lifts.
Step Three — Return To The Starting Position
As soon as your glutes touch the bench, drive your feet into the floor, extend your knees and hips to reverse the movement, and return to the standing position. Breathe out sharply during the concentric phase to power through the sticking points.
Lifters that sit too far behind their heels end up pushing them into the floor during concentrics, which can lead to their toes coming off the floor and a loss of balance. You want to stay close to your feet and keep the bottom position tight.
Take a deep breath and repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: Focus on driving through your whole foot for optimal force generation. Spread your toes for a better grip.
Bench Squat Tips:
- Remain as upright as possible throughout the range of motion. It will help reinforce good mechanics for the conventional barbell back squat and keep all the tension on your quads.
- Avoid crashing onto the bench on the eccentric phase, as it can increase your risk of groin strains and injury.
- Do not reset while seated on the bench by transferring the weight from your legs to your glutes and lower and upper back.
- Avoid locking out your knees at the isometric contraction point at the top, as most lifters combine it with fully extending their hips and arching their lower backs. You must maintain a slight forward lean throughout the range of motion.
- Taller athletes might want to use a slightly wider-than-hip-width stance to limit their range of motion.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Quads
- Type: Strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Barbell and Flat Bench
- Difficulty: Beginner
- Best Rep Range:
- Hypertrophy: 8-12
- Strength: 1-5
Muscles Worked During Bench Squat
The bench squat works the following muscles:
Since this exercise involves a limited range of motion, the quads do most of the work in the bench squat. Your upper legs must be parallel to the floor at the bottom of the ROM to target the quads.
The bench squat involves hip flexion and extension, resulting in gluteus maximus stimulation. The glutes are the biggest and strongest muscle in our body and play a crucial role in stabilizing the upper body and pelvis, aiding in movement and hip extension. Also, you will experience a greater gluteal engagement if your thighs break parallel with the floor.
The hamstrings help bend and extend the knees. However, the hamstring involvement in the bench squat is limited as these muscles mostly kick in after your hip crease is below the knee crease during a squat.
Benefits of Bench Squat
Adding the bench squat to your exercise arsenal entails the following advantages:
The bench squat is a versatile exercise that can be used by beginners and advanced lifters. The limited range of motion of this exercise makes it suitable for beginners. Experienced exercisers usually use it as an accessory lift to build a bigger barbell back squat.
Helps Drill the Barbell Squat
Your hip crease should be below the knee crease to register a squat rep in powerlifting and strongman competitions. The bench squat stops you right before this point, allowing you to drill the movement mechanics safely. This can help build your confidence to go deeper while keeping your balance.
Suitable For People Undergoing Rehabilitation
People dealing with lower body or back injuries usually have to cut out barbell back squats from their training regimen. The bench squat can come in handy here as it involves a limited range of motion. That said, folks dealing with injuries must consult their healthcare provider before starting a new training program.
Common Mistakes While Performing Bench Squat
Avoid the following bench squat errors to get the best bang for your buck while minimizing the risk of injury:
Taking Feet off The Floor at the Bottom
Many lifters tend to release the tension off their legs and transfer the weight to their hips and lower back at the bottom of the position by sitting upright on the bench. The lifter then leans over and returns the tension to their legs before getting up. Some people also take their feet off the floor while seated on the bench to ‘reset’ the rep.
However, this is entirely unnecessary and significantly increases your risk of injury. You must maintain a slight forward lean throughout the exercise and keep your legs tense. Plus, the bench should be used as a cue to reverse the movement. You should not sit on it. Begin the upward movement as soon as your bum touches the bench.
Going Too Heavy
As the bench squat involves a restricted ROM, some exercisers load the bar with more weight than they can handle. It leads them to crash into the bench, and they lean forward excessively on concentrics to pass through the sticking points. Remember, this is a squat variation. You shouldn’t combine it with good mornings.
Crashing into the bench and leaning forward can lead to spine compression, increasing your risk of injury. Use the bench squat to drill the barbell back squat form and as an accessory lift to train through the sticking points.
Rounding Your Back & Leaning Forward
You must keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down and your chest proud while performing this bench squat. Mimic an Olympic weightlifter performing a barbell back squat with an upright torso.
Small Range of Motion
The ideal height of the bench will vary for each individual based on their height. Shorter athletes should avoid using a bench bigger than 20 inches, as it will limit their range of motion and stop them before their femurs are parallel to the floor. Conversely, taller athletes shouldn’t use shorter benches, as it will lead to greater glute and hamstring engagement.
Variations & Alternatives of Bench Squat
Use the following bench squat variations and alternatives to spice up your workouts:
Dumbbell Bench Squat
This is an excellent bench squat variation for lifters who are uncomfortable with the idea of squatting to a bench with a heavy barbell on their back.
- Stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance before a flat bench while holding a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral (palms facing each other) grip. The dumbbells should be resting against your thighs.
- While keeping your arms straight, lower your glutes toward the bench by bending your knees and hips, leaning forward slightly, and pushing your hips back and down.
- Reverse the movement as soon as your bum touches the bench.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: Keep your shoulders pulled back and down during this exercise. Also, you must avoid leaning forward as you rise off the bench.
Pistol Bench Squat
This is a bodyweight bench squat variation. The pistol bench squat is a unilateral exercise and will lead to greater core activation than the conventional barbell bench squat.
- Stand upright before a flat bench.
- Extend your arms in front of your body so they are parallel to the floor.
- Lift your left leg off the floor and hold it in front of your body.
- Lower your bum to the bench by pushing your hips back and down. Lift your non-working leg higher during the eccentric phase.
- Drive through your whole foot to return to the starting position as soon as your butt hits the bench.
- Repeat for recommended reps before switching sides.
Pro Tip: Beginners should start this exercise will a taller bench. Use a smaller bench as you gain more experience.
Smith Machine Squat
The Smith machine squat is an incredibly effective exercise to learn the movement mechanics of the squat. It helps maintain an upright torso and has in-built latches to limit your range of motion, like the bench.
- Adjust the safety latches of the Smith machine to a height so your upper legs are parallel to the floor at the bottom of the range of motion.
- Stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance and grab the barbell shoulder-width apart.
- Unrack the barbell.
- Slowly lower toward the floor by bending your knees and hip.
- Reverse the movement as soon as the barbell touches the safety latches.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: You could also perform this exercise without the safety latches and follow a full range of motion while keeping an upright torso to focus on your quads.
Can I replace the barbell squat with the bench squat in my training regimen?
Exercise like the bench squat can help you get comfortable with the conventional barbell squat and can be used as an accessory lift in powerlifting programs, but you cannot substitute the barbell squat with the bench squat.
What is the ideal depth for the bench squat?
Your upper legs should be parallel to the floor at the bottom of the movement. You can rig up a bench of an appropriate height by placing weight plates on top of it.
How much weight should I lift on the bench squat?
Although many lifters lift close to their barbell squat 1RM on the bench squat, you don’t need to go this heavy. Use anywhere between 70-95 percent of your conventional barbell squat 1RM and aim for 8-12 reps per set to bias hypertrophy. (1)
The bench squat is a versatile exercise that can be used by beginners and advanced lifters. The limited range of motion of the exercise can cozy you up to the conventional barbell back squat by helping you learn the movement mechanics and build lower body strength and musculature.
Use the bench squat as an accessory lift in your lower body workout after training the conventional barbell squat to reinforce the correct movement pattern. Avoid going too heavy on this exercise, and utilize the form cues listed in this guide to maximize your gains. Best of luck!
- Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports (Basel). 2021 Feb 22;9(2):32. doi: 10.3390/sports9020032. PMID: 33671664; PMCID: PMC7927075.