I never understood what the obsession was with the question, “how much do you bench?” Bench pressing is a great exercise and all but when it comes to evaluating the full strength capacity of the body, there are few exercises superior to the Squat.
Whether your goals are purely aesthetic, athletically inclined, or in the constant pursuit or longevity and resiliency, the squat can be the vehicle that gets you there.
“Wait, aren’t squats bad for your knees?”
If that is the quest that came to mind for you, it’s imperative that you finish the entirety of this article to gain some more context on the situation. The squat is no more dangerous or risky than other exercises, but because of its highly variable interpretation, we see people mislabeling an entire category of exercises based on the sole reason or poor execution.
The simple fact is if you are looking to make some serious changes in your life – or progress from your current state of existence – the squat is going to get you there. Like a shoe, we just need to find the size that fits you.
There aren’t many exercises that take a largely collaborative effort in the body in the way squatting does. Contrary to what old-school exercise practices tell you, building the body up is going to be amplified and more efficiently tapped into with compound movements. Trust me, all of the most powerful people in the existence of sports and bodybuilding built the foundation of their programs on squatting. For some reason, the public eye only paid attention to (and committed to) the isolation work.
Why is that?
Well, squatting is TOUGH.
It’s in our human nature to shy away from things when they are difficult. Our system is based on finding efficiency and sticking around for the long haul. When feedback trickles up the body from all parameters (heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen levels, etc) stating we are in a situation of difficulty, the brain pushes us to try and abandon ship. Unless, we override that thought with disciplined action.
Synergistically calling on the musculature of the legs, in combination with your postural stabilizers – as well as upper body muscles – is a true team effort act of exertion for the sake of strength. The squat is in a select group in the exercise hall of fame.
As I alluded to earlier, the squat is so widely accepted in different cultures of the fitness industry which really backs us all into a corner. It would be one thing if all clients had a different interpretation of the squat (which they do), but to make matters worse, we as an industry can’t even get on the same page.
Read one blog and you’ll hear if you aren’t squatting ass to grass you are spitting in the face of your primitive ancestors. Read other outlets and you’ll hear why squatting below parallel is horrible for the joints and the structural integrity of the body.
To combat all this back and forth lets get a couple of things out on the table:
- Squatting is no different than other exercises from a RISK : REWARD ratio.
- Squatting doesn’t hurt you. Poor mechanics and poor coaching in squatting hurts you.
- If you have obvious contraindications make the appropriate adjustments for exercise selection.
- Squatting proficiently is independent of your squat PR (you don’t need a 500lb squat)
THE PROWESS OF THE SQUAT
We use our legs a lot. It’s not going to take a detailed article to break that down. Most of the exercises we perform inside of the gym are in an attempt to build bulletproof legs. And it’s not for the sake of not believing in squats, but more often it’s the fact that we haven’t found the squat that best fits our body.
In everyone squats we’re going to see varying degrees of flexion of the femur, dorsiflexion at the ankle, and some variation of torso lean based on the load and where it sits in relation to our body. All highly sensitive variables, but in combination, will test all of the muscles in our lower bodies to different varying degrees. More front-loaded squats will give us higher activity through the quadriceps while loading from the center of mass and back will create more emphasis through the glutes and hips. With the shift in joint emphasis, we need to take into consideration the muscles that we are looking to activate and if they are truly prepared for the task we are asking them to take on.
Muscular recruitment variance can be the best thing you can add into ta program or the worst concept you ever introduced into your life. There are too many conversations I have with coaches debating the minor detail differences between movement variations and if they can get 1% more out of exercise A vs. exercise B. Talk about finding the easiest way to collapse into exercise selection purgatory.
Tweaks in exercise selection should be primarily based on osteokinematics (bone movement) and arthrokinematics (joint movement). Muscles work around those areas so if we want to build a bulletproof plan for our clients, we need to start at bone and joint structure first and work our way out. There may be some aesthetic differences from one choice to the other but in the end of the day we need to choose what is best for the longevity of the person in front of us.
It’s also not revolutionary to distinguish that every human on this planet varies in some shape and form. Not just from emotional and intellectual aspects, but from the more obvious, we are all very different people. That means rather than feeding ourselves to a one-size-fits-all program where we decide one specific exercise has to rule them all, we can decide what variation of this exercise fits US.
The goblet squat is one of the most fundamental patterns from a squatting perspective. Unfortunately, for most people they skip this fundamental step and go straight to barbell back squatting. This can be a costly mistake for many reasons primarily just in squat mechanics. The front load of the goblet squat allows you to sit more vertically and access a different range of motion according to your body type.
HOW TO: Hold the weight in both hands tucked against the body with the weight at the top center of your chest. Sit back through the heels and descend into the squat while maintaining a tall posture. From the bottom position, drive through the heels, extending the legs until back at starting position. That is one rep.
The front squat is the heavier progression of the goblet squat. Like mentioned earlier, with extra weight comes extra responsibility. The front squat is heavily loaded through the barbell resting across the front of the shoulders which demands higher access from the arms, scapular region, and mid back to remain upright. This will not just be a leg exercise but a full body barometer on how much weight you can handle.
- Weight should be distributed on the frontside of the body and resting on muscle tissue – not boney prominences. The quickest way for your client to hate doing front squats is to have a 200lb bar resting on the clavicles and AC joints.
- Posture is key but be careful of excessive extension at the back. This may lead to overcompensation of butt-wink at the bottom from too much tension on the posterior side.
- Start lighter to begin – your back squat weight is generally heavier than your front squat weight. Choose accordingly and begin with higher repetition sets to start.
Most people’s first step is the back squat. This variation should be the most advanced simply on how it mechanically loads the bony structures of your body. Whether it’s a low bar or high bar position, balancing the bar vertically undoubtedly forces your body to adjust how to share balance perspectives. This is the ultimate leg move but it’s important to hit earlier versions in order to see positive benefits rather than negative consequences.
- Like the Front Squat, don’t allow for too much extension at the back pre-eccentric movement. This can lead to extra stress on the posterior chain and compensatory movements without you even realizing it.
- Foot Contact MATTERS – Watch your clients feet when they are doing the lift. When you are doing the lift, watch your feet in the mirror. Its not only a great cue to maintain a neutral neck position but it will allow you to make sure you are maintaining full foot contact through the entirety of the movement pattern.
Most people skip the Zercher squat because frankly, it looks Savage. Holding the bar on the inside of your elbows it’s not a comfortable feeling, so necessary adjustments may have to come to play ( or just suck it up and hold the bar in your elbows). The weight being front-loaded and at your Center allows for a more stable base of support when going through the squatting motion.
- Begin with lighter load when introducing yourself or someone else to this move. The weight on the inside of the elbows is a new feeling for most people and you don’t want them running for the hills before they make any progress.
- Maintain the arms tucked along the body. Allowing the bar to travel in front of you will create a lever almost impossible to overcome with safe and effective form.
This is one of the beginner squats that most people don’t access because they simply think it’s too easy. Well let me stop you there because dumbbell squats are one of the most transferable movements we can see into our everyday lives. Not to mention it’s not going to take a bunch of equipment that specialized in a commercial facility to complete this.
- Full Range of motion is a difficult ask when you have the dumbbells in hand. The key is the focus on lower body activity and less about depth.
- Neutral hand position is going to allow a much more sturdy movement pattern without all of the spinal compression and stress of a barbell loaded squat.
BONUS: TOP LOADED DB SQUAT
ADVICE – This is one of the most easily accessible and underutilized variations we have available. The stigma of not getting a sick workout in because you don’t have a decked out gym at your disposal is complete bullshit. Use this method more often with yourself and others to get more out of the options that are readily available.
SINGLE ARM RACK SQUAT
It’s important to load the body asymmetrically at certain times. This is going to increase the demand on how your muscles need to acclimate to weight distribution as well as preparing you for real life situations. Let’s be clear, you’re not always going to be able to bilaterally load in the real world.
- Resisting lateral flexion is one of the key components to this move. Start with a lighter weight as integrity to the pillar is the most important task.
- Keep the Bell tucked to the body. Its a common miss to have the kettlebell travel away from the body and create a heavy torque on the shoulder joint. Keep it close and keep it tall!
DOUBLE RACK SQUAT
The double rack squat is more similar to a goblet squat with increasing demand through the upper and mid back. Holding a kettlebell (or dumbbell) in each hand is going to increase the amount of stability needed from the scapular region as well as a more active thoracic region. This front-loaded squat will give you a much higher emphasis through your back extensors leaving you with a really good movement.
ADVICE – The front-loaded style of the lift is going to upregulate tension in the shoulders and mid back extensors. Don’t go overboard with weight when you reintroduce these. These may be the most difficult of all of the squatting patterns, specifically when you get up in weight.
Instead of progressing straight to lunges it’s best to start off with split squats. With staggered legs front and back you’re going to increase the need to resist lateral flexion while becoming more competent in different foot positions.
- The primary focus of the split squat is the front side leg. Don’t get caught into pushing your front leg back into the middle position at the top. This is going to add to front-side knee stress you don’t need. Think about standing up straight, not back.
- Balance is important for this and controlling the downward motion is important. Don’t skip on using an Airex pad under the knee if you need to. Blunt force trauma to the knee generally isn’t a good thing.
FRONT FOOT ELEVATED SPLIT SQUAT
Progress the split squat by elevating the front foot. This front foot elevation is going to increase your range of motion while eccentrically moving down through the pattern, ultimately putting more effort on the front leg.
ADVICE – Make sure you are comfortable with the extra range of motion from the front foot being elevated. This isn’t a contest to see how high you can get that front leg, its only going to take a few inches of height to make a major difference.
REAR FOOT ELEVATED SPLIT SQUAT
Also known as the Bulgarian split squat, this is a more common split squat we will see in our everyday gyms. Placing the back leg on a bench allows the point of contact for support while emphasizing more demand on the active leg.
How to: Standing in front of a box or bench, rest your back leg on the elevated piece with the top of your foot in contact with the box or bench. Bend your front knee (your back knee will bend too), lowering your torso until your front thigh is parallel with the ground. Press back up to standing. That’s 1 rep.
Box squats get a really bad rep if you don’t know how to use them the proper way. We all have varying depths in our Squat and it’s important to own and replicate that depth. Box squats are a great way to limit the range of motion and minimize risk of moving into unchartered depths demanding compensatory movement.
- The Box Squat can be performed by either tap and go or full seated transitions. Find out whether the person needs to focus on getting back into the squat (full seated) or just simply needs a touch point for depth (tap and go) on which one is most appropriate.
- Find your ideal depth but ideally you can start with a bench so you get to just before parallel.
Don’t knock the bodyweight squat! When done properly, this is a much more challenging move for most people. We get so accustomed to squatting with weight in our hands that we forget how to properly squat without weight in our hands. Make sure to add this into your routine so you can access specific ranges of motion without the need for external load.
ADVICE – Drive the hands away as you descend into the bodyweight squat. This counterbalance is a key assistor in allowing someone to gain range of motion in the squat and not remain static is areas they shouldn’t!
REAR LOADED KB SQUAT
We always think about loading a kettlebell on the front side, but what about the rear side? Real loaded kettlebell squats do two things: mimic the mechanics of a back squat and passively pull the arms up into ranges of motion parallel with the ground.
- Only use the amount of weight you can halo around your head or a partner can hand you. Don’t try to be a hero with heavy weight. This is a tension drill, not a potential PR.
- This move is a great way to help increase shoulder mobility – specifically through active motions.
The landmine squat is a superior movement for a few reasons. This move is going to replicate the front-loaded nature such as a front squat or goblet squat but instead asks you to stand up from a slight angle. This light angle is going to allow you a little more range of motion through your squatting pattern ultimately leading to more muscle activation.
- The front loaded weight should force you into a forward leaning position to sit BACK into the squat. This option is great on the joints and an awesome skill for squat proficiency. Don’t fight the natural movement of this pattern.
- Meet the base of your palms together to make a V with your hands to hold the bar. You can hold it close enough that your thumb can wrap around the end cap making this a sturdy hold. Again, keep the bar up against the body.
SHIFTING LANDMINE SQUAT
It’s important to learn how to move while we’re squatting down. If we utilize things in our everyday life and can safely train to prepare ourselves for that, we should. This lateral shift in the landmine squat requires you to utilize the hip muscles to assist in transferring you from side to side while the quadriceps and glutes are busy holding up the weight.
ADVICE – Same mechanics as the Landmine Squat. Shifting the bar means simply rotating the humerus externally into the stacked position. You are not putting your shoulder in danger here but simply adjusting the placement of the weight at the bottom of the move. This adjustment is going to make a world of difference with every repetition.
SAFETY BAR SQUAT
If you have a safety bar squat available to you, use it! Taking the arms out of the equation means there’s less pressure through the scapular region. This results in less pressure moving down the chain. We need to accept the fact that the body is highly interlinked and when we allow less stress and specific areas we can increase our availability for movement in other places. The safety bar squat is a perfect variation for that, taking the upper body out of the equation and allowing you to simply squat down.
- For clients with shoulder issues, this is a great option to allow someone to focus more on the lower body aspect and less on their hand placement. The cambered bar gives a different emphasis to the squat.
- Don’t actively pull the handles into the body and don’t actively drive them up to face height. Find the happy medium for yourself with comfort. You don’t want the bar to feel like its falling off your back or cranking your neck forward.
SUSPENSION ASSISTED SQUAT
If you need assistance getting a better range of motion to your squat try using a suspension trainer. Leaning back in a 45 degree angle and sitting down into a squatting pattern will allow you to find your depth is most comfortable for you. From there, you can pull yourself forward until you’re at full foot contact with the ground before standing up under your own balance.
ADVICE – This is a great spot for any lifter of any level. Controlling your weight through time under tension is important no matter what your PR is. The suspension trainers presence is simply to reduce anxiety on the part of the body and focus strictly on the lower body component.
LANDMINE HACK SQUAT
Try loading the landmine up on your back to mimic a hack squat. This variation is going to allow you to sit deeper into your heels and get a little extra range of motion in the same way the hack squat loads on top of the shoulders to move downward.
- Feet are going to feel like they are way further out then they really are. This move will allow you deeper range of motion to hit all the nooks and crannies you may miss in your normal squatting.
- Make sure the landmine is secured in a very sturdy place. The last thing you need when squatting is to sit down into the squat the the landmine slide back along the floor. Safety first!
BAND RESISTED SQUAT
Don’t think you just need external weight to assist in your squat. Using bands are a great way to add progressive resistance to a basic exercise. Fixing the band underneath your feet and wrapping the bands around your shoulders allows you to be hands-free through the movement pattern so you can simply focus on the squat. Let the band focus on the resistance.
ADVICE – Place the band ABOVE the knees. Placing the band lower down the chain will increase torque, which is good, unless that torque is translating directly into your knees. The reason for the band is to train the abductors which primarily reside above the knee. Play it safe and take some of that stress off of the knee.
GOBLET SQUAT WITH SIDE STEP
The landmine squat to lateral step is one way to move in the down position. The goblet squat with a single leg step is a way to shift in the vertical position. We constantly are going up and down and shifting from leg to leg so it’s important to upregulate the musculature for single-sided balance such as gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and adductors that lock in the hip properly.
- Shifting from leg to leg is great for challenging all of the muscles of bilateral and unilateral demand. Control the side to side step. The purpose is to maintain a pause at the top of the rep and feel the glutes and adductors really jump into play.