Squatology, Your Guide to Squat Success: Part II
Part I is here. Now that we have covered how to prepare the body for performing the squat, we can examine squat technique. We will also look at the main progressions and variations of this movement that I like to use with people of different levels.
Due to the many arguments over the proper execution of the squat, what many have failed to see is that the squat is at its core a movement pattern. The squat is one of the fundamental movement patterns, along with the hip hinge, lunge, push, pull, gait, and twist. A person's anthropometry will dictate how each of these movement patterns look. However, each of these movement patterns has a specific set of positions that must be achieved in order to be recognized as that particular movement pattern. A lunge must be on one leg, the hinge must initiate at the hip, etc... Somewhere along the way the squat has been combined with the hip hinge and turned into something it's not. This isn't an attack on low bar back squats, rather a clarification that the squat should be taught as what it is, a movement pattern as opposed to an exercise.
The squat as a movement pattern is NOT hip dominant (that isn't to say the hip musculature doesn't benefit form performing squats). I cannot stress that enough. A hip hinge and a squat are two entirely different movements. When we look at the images below we see that each of the squat variations shows similar positions at the bottom of the repetition.
The angles at the hips, knees, and ankles are very much the same in each picture. The only thing that changes is the load placement (front, back, overhead). Torso is relatively upright, knees are tracking over the toes, hips are lower than the knees, and toes are slightly turned out. This position simply cannot be achieved safely and efficiently if the hips are initiating the movement. In a deep squat the hips should remain under the shoulders as best as possible in an effort to minimize trunk lean (this will vary from person to person). This position requires that the hips descend with minimal backward displacement. The more the hips shoot back the greater the shear stress is placed on the low back. Initiating with the hips also creates an additional problem for many people - instead of really using the hips many people start by anteriorly tilting their pelvis. By “sticking” their butt out instead of hinging their hips back, the movement becomes a recipe for low back pain.
Starting a squat like this is probably not a good idea.
THIS is a hip hinge. Notice the position of the hips and chest relative to each other.
Many might scoff at my suggestion that a deep squat is initiated with the knees opening up and driving forward allowing for the hips to sit deep while maintaining a stiff upper back. If you don’t believe me, here are 3 Olympic Weightlifting Gold medalists squatting deep (and heavy). Notice that each rep is initiated at the knees.
And if you were still not sure...
Variations & Progressions
After addressing technique with a new trainee, I will typically prescribe some type of squat into their program granted they do not display a physical limitation that does not allow them to squat safely and pain free. Again, I am merely showing the main variations I use with healthy individuals - if you suffer from previous knee, hip, back, or ankle injuries or have restrictions in any of these areas you're much better off getting those issues resolved. These guys can definitely help you with that.
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My go to squat exercise is the goblet squat. Goblet squats are fantastic because they are very easy to teach, carry very little risk, and only require one dumbbell. Goblet squats can also be progressed significantly before other more advanced options are required - adding weight, changing tempo, or alternating set/rep schemes offers plenty of variety and challenge. Regressing a goblet squat isn’t that difficult either. If a client has a hard time with the movement providing them with a target to sit onto will often times resolve the issue.
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Although goblet squats are a great exercise, they too have limitations. Doing goblet squats with a 100 lb. dumbbell might create an unwelcome risk to reward ratio and is generally something I don’t recommend for most people. Not only is dropping it dangerous, but you will also be fatiguing your upper body much more than your legs. That’s where barbell squats come into play.
When a trainee has exhausted progress on goblet squats I look to the squat rack for a training effect. Teaching someone how to front squat should be a breeze if they've mastered the goblet squat. It's the same movement - the only thing that's changed is the implement. When it comes to achieving a phenomenal training effect, the front squat is right up there with the best. Granted an individual scores at least a 2 on the FMS overhead squat test (http://graycookmovement.com/downloads/FMS%20Scoring%20Criteria.pdf), I will more often than not pick the front squat as the next progression. I do this for 3 big reasons. #1 - Front squats offer a greater anterior core stimulus than back squats, #2 - Missing a front squat is much safer than missing a back squat, and #3 - you achieve a similar training stimulus with a smaller load.
Setting up for the front squat requires that you position the bar in a place where it will be uncomfortable, but only at first. The two primary options is using the “olympic grip” or the “cross-armed” grip.
As long as the bar is placed properly atop the clavicles behind the front deltoids either grip will suffice. However, the "olympic" grip will require significant lat, and wrist flexibility.
The technique used in the goblet squat carries over to the front squat quite nicely. You initiate the movement by “breaking” at the knees allowing them to move forward, open up the hips, keeping the chest up, and lowering the hips past the knees.
Back squats are the last stop in the squat progression train - at least in my book. If I wasn’t allowed to perform any other exercise besides back squats for the rest of my life it wouldn’t faze me in the least (or front squats for that matter). Back squats are more versatile as an exercise. They can be used for higher reps and higher loads, and different tempos. Precisely because they can be used for higher loads is why I consider them more advanced than front squats. Additionally, people with long femurs will have a much tougher time keeping an upright torso - these folks are usually (but not always) better off front squatting for a while before putting the bar on their back.
Bar placement is key when it comes to back squatting. Keeping the bar up high on the upper trapezius muscles will allow for the safest deep squat. Hand placement is dependent on your shoulder flexibility. Ultimately whichever hand placement allows you to keep your upper back the stiffest while keeping the shoulders pain-free is the best option for you.
Again, just like the goblet and the front squat, the same technique applies (see the pattern here?). Knees break first, knees travel forward and open up to allow the hips to sit deep - all while keeping the upper back stiff and chest upright. The speed of the repetition is always dependent on the prescribed tempo.
|“Ideal" Rep Range||5-20||1-6||1-20|
|Limiting Factor||Arms/Upper Back||Upper Back||Low Back/Core|
Taking someone from zero to performing back squats proficiently takes time. A person’s current level of flexibility, mobility, and experience plays an important role in determining where to start and how long it takes to progress. Severe restrictions in mobility might limit a trainee to only using goblet squats for an extended period of time until those issues are resolved. Keep in mind that movement is a skill. Becoming proficient in the squat requires many repetitions; it certainly does not happen overnight. However, it goes without saying that squats (in all of their wonderful variations) should hold an important part of a properly designed training program for the many reasons stated in part I. Squat well, squat deep, squat often, and you'll reap the benefits of a stronger, and fitter body.
If you're wondering if I actually squat, I do. I encourage you to make squats a staple in your training this 2015 as well!
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