Did you know….
Vikings actually never wore horns on their helmets? This belief stems from an old scenography and it stuck ever since.
Gum, although mostly indigestible, doesn’t take 7 years to pass through your system? It takes the same amount of time to digest as everything else you eat.
Bulls aren’t actually enraged by the color red? Bulls are dichromats (type of color blindness), and it’s more likely that the guy waving a friggin’ cape in their face is what pisses them off.
Christopher Columbus didn’t actually discover America? He discovered a bunch of Caribbean islands but never set foot in North America.
And squats don’t actually hurt your knees? The way you perform squats and move in general hurts your knees.
Seriously, if I had a nickel for every time I had someone tell me they can’t squat because it hurts their knees, only to discover that they actually can squat pain free, I could buy a burrito with extra guac AND double meat.
Squats are not the problem. You just 1) lack the prerequisite mobility and strength to actually do a quality squat, or 2) just don’t know how to squat.
Well good news, I’m here to lay out some guidelines to help you craft a squat of the highest quality. Squats that make onlookers say, “Daaaaaamn gurl…”
But first things first. Does your mobility suck? If so, don’t even worry about squatting just yet. We’ve got some issues to work on before you start loading up that squat pattern with any type of heavy weight. Here’s some simple tests to see if you need to work on your mobility.
Get into a half kneeling position with your front toe about 4 inches away from a wall. Keeping your front foot completely flat, push your knee forward. Can it hit the wall in front of you or does your heel come off the ground?
If you can’t get your knee to hit the wall, you might need to address ankle mobility (which is pretty important for establishing a good squat). Here’s a quality link to help with that.
Next up, grab a dowel rod, broom stick, band, dead snake (JUST KIDDING YOU WEIRDO) and perform an overhead squat with your heels elevated by about 2-3 inches (two 10 or 25lb plates will work just fine).
Does it look like this?
Then you’re good to go!
A for effort, but there’s room for improvement.
Just go home. Give up. There’s no hope. (just kidding)
Now if your squat looks like the last two examples, there’s room for improvement in terms of how you move. First things first, hop on that foam roller and give your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and adductors (groin) some love. Then, try incorporating these drills into your warmup or daily routine to help groove a better squat pattern.
Place a foam roller (or something of similar width) in between your legs and squeeze it so it doesn’t fall. Elevate your toes on a 2×4 (or two plates, something 2-3 inches high) and reach down and touch your toes 10 times. Repeat, but this time elevate your heels. This drill will help you learn how to shift your weight appropriately and establish a better hip hinge, both of which are pretty important to squat well.
Next, try this resisted overhead squat. Set up two light bands or a TRX, grab them and reach overhead. Walk back until you feel the need to actively stay upright (otherwise the bands/TRX will pull you forward). Once you’ve got this feeling, drop into a squat. This will help you ‘activate’ your core, improve motor control, and help you learn to stay upright during a squat. This can also help improve butt wink (when your hips tuck under you at the bottom of a squat). Butt wink isn’t necessarily a good thing as it causes your low back to go into a bit more flexion, which is a no-no under heavy loads.
If done consistently and properly, these two drills can help improve your squat pattern. Now onto the fun stuff…
These are the squat progressions I typically run through when training my clients. The first ones are lower level variations with more of an emphasis of crafting a quality movement pattern. As you progress down the list, it’s expected you already squat pretty well and you’re ready to bump up the intensity.
Squat With Counterbalance
This is a staple in my programming whether it’s part of a warmup for a client who’s been with me for years or done for working sets for a brand new client who has no idea what they’re doing. Contrary to what you may think, the counterbalance doesn’t make this move hard, it actually makes it easier. I love this variation because the weight you push forward forces you to push your butt back. This in turn forces you to use your glutes more and takes a lot of the stress off your knees.
A majority of time when squats hurt your knees, its because your weight is shifted too far forward. This overloads your quads, which attach to the patellar tendon, which then excessively pull on your kneecap, which causes pain. Learn how to shift those hips back and alleviate that knee pain.
You can also perform a squat with a counterbalance to a box/seat to really hammer home the point of driving the hips back. Not only will the counterbalance shift the hips back, but now you have a ‘seat’ to aim for and provide some physical feedback. Adding a box to sit on can be a terrific teaching tool for beginners.
I think the goblet squat might be my favorite variation of a squat because it’s a self correcting exercise, meaning it’s damn near impossible to perform a bad rep. Similar to the squat with the counterbalance, because the weight is placed in front of your body, it forces you to stay upright and shift your hips appropriately. The only difference is now you’re able to increase the load to provide an adequate challenge.
You can also perform goblet squats with a heel lift if ankle mobility is lacking or if you still struggle to perform these with good form and technique. Add a ‘pulse’ at the bottom of every rep (you can only do pulses with lighter weights) to really cement an incredible squat pattern, like in the video below.
**Now hold on there, eager beaver. Before you move on to the bigger, sexier lifts that garner all the mainstream attention and likes on instagram, know this. If you can’t perform 25 reps on a goblet squat with an external load equal to 50% of your bodyweight, you have no business performing any higher level progression. This ‘challenge’ will highlight any weak links or deficiencies in your squat pattern (you can’t keep your torso erect, your upper back loses tightness, you can only perform 15 reps, etc). And if you struggle with this lower level progression, you’ll probably really struggle with barbell squat variations.**
Double Kettlebell Front Squat
So this is essentially the same exact thing as a goblet squat except now you hold two kettlebells instead of one. Learning how to hold the kettlebells in this position will be the only learning curve here as this exercise is self correcting for the most part too.
Hands Free Barbell Front Squat
Ah, so we’ve finally worked our way to the barbells. This variation is the next step up from the double kettlebell squat you just read about and is gonna be a bit more challenging because the barbell allows you to add a lot more weight. One of the problems a lot of people can run into with front squat variations is the grip. Do you use a clean grip, crossover grip, use the straps? Each grip has pros and cons but there’s always one commonality. A less than stellar grip can kinda ruin the squat by putting unnecessary strain on the wrists or taking the upper body out of an optimal position.
Well, no worries here as you don’t even grip the bar on this variation. Not gripping the bar forces you to keep the barbell on the meat of your deltoids (exactly where it should be on a front squat), keep an upright torso, and squat like a pro. So again, it’s pretty much self correcting, which is great. If you perform a bad rep here, the barbell will correct you by rolling off of your shoulders and possibly falling to the floor, thus making a scene…likely a loud scene. Then everyone points at you and snickers, resulting in minor emotional and psychological trauma that you may or may not ever recover from.
You can actually load this variation up with a decent amount of weight to really make it challenging. Don’t think because your hands aren’t on the bar you can’t push it a bit.
(Here the traditional/clean grip is showed first, followed by the crossover grip)
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with having the bar on your shoulders, now you can progress to conventional front squats. There’s no major difference here except now you grip the bar which can give you a bit more stability. You can use a traditional/clean grip, crossover grip, or strap grip, all of which have their own pros and cons.
Clean/traditional grip: more carryover to olympic lifts but requires the most upper body mobility
Crossover grip: more comfortable than clean grip but also less stable
Straps: requires least amount of upper body mobility but requires you to have straps (duh)
I feel like when most people think of squats, this is the variation they immediately jump to which is unfortunate because there are precisely 3,593 ways to mess up a back squat. The back squat is a higher level progression, folks. This should not be the first variation you jump to in your training program. Take your time and earn the right to back squat by mastering the prior progressions.
*Personally, I prefer to have clients use a safety squat bar before they use a conventional barbell. It requires less shoulder mobility than the barbell back squat and because of how the weight is distributed on the bar, it also makes it hard to complete a bad rep. Unfortunately, these are not usually available in most commercial gym settings 🙁
Barbell Overhead Squat
Well here it is. The highest level squat progression in my humble opinion. The barbell overhead squat requires a ton of upper and lower body mobility, core strength, upper body stability, and leg strength. If just one of these things is lacking, you’re screwed. There are ways to work around deficiencies with lower level progressions, but not here. This is why I want to jam used prison shivs into my eyes and then run face first into a brick wall when I see beginners (or those clearly dealing with mobility/strength deficiencies) perform 50 of these with loaded barbells just because the WOD says so. #inWODwetrust
Quite frankly unless you’re involved with competitive Olympic lifting, I would rarely load this movement and stick to using it as more of a mobility drill with dowel rods instead of loaded barbells. Unless you’re very diligent with your overall mobility work, the risk just simply outweighs the reward with this lift for a majority of folks.
There’s a ton of squats we didn’t cover, like rack squats, box squats, zercher squats, offset squats, etc. But hopefully this list should suffice for folks looking to decide where they should start off.