Without a doubt, the squat is in the top two all-time-best all-around exercises. There’s a reason it was #1 in my series of exercise essentials. It’s a great overall muscle builder, as well as a stellar fat loss tool when programmed correctly. See aforementioned post for more of the “why.” Today is about the “how.” Squatting well isn’t easy. Most people can’t just throw a bar on their back and bang out good reps the first time they try, for several key reasons.
Why You (Probably) Can’t Squat Right
Poor Hip Mobility – Let’s face it, if you live in America, your hips don’t have ideal mobility. This wreaks havoc when you’re dropping into a deep squat with weight on your back. You tuck your pelvis, lean forward, lose your low back arch, etc.
Poor Ankle Mobility – Same as the above, particularly for females (heels are horrible for ankle mobility. If your ankles wont dorsiflex correctly (shin moving toward toes) , you won’t be able to squat to depth without a massive amount of forward lean. If you hip flexors are also tight (which they are), you are now in a world of trouble.
Weak Core & Glutes – Even if you do have the required mobility in the hips and ankles, without core strength (both abdominals and lower back) and active glutes you will still turn into a pile of mush with a bar on your back.
Poor Technique – Poor technique is usually more a result of compensations to the above issues. You can’t flex at the hips, so you squat forward on your toes. You can’t dorsiflex at the ankle so you have excessive forward lean. Even when you start correcting your mobility issues, you have to address the poor technique habits you may have developed.
How To Get Ready For Squatting
First things first, you have to attack your mobility issues head on. All of the mobility issues (and glute activation) I mentioned above are addressed a prior mobility post, and I’ve talked about training your core before too, so I’ll leave you with that, as it would take up too much space to cover it all again. Start working on your hips, ankles, glutes, and core before every workout. The mobility circuit I outline in the above post makes a great warm-up.
So, assuming you are addressing your, um, deficiencies – where do you go now to get ready for that big squat?
Cues For Good Squatting
Before we get to the actual squat variations and progression, there are several key cues to recall while you’re doing any squat.
- Feet shoulder width or wider – Except in special cases, your feet should be set at shoulder width or wider with your toes slightly out; go with what’s comfortable.
- Sit back – You sink into a squat like you sink into a chair, by taking your hips back, not just down. This will keep your bodyweight centered over your mid-foot to heel. You do not want to end up leaning forward with your weight on your toes. This also helps engage your posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) and not just your quads for a stronger squat.
- Sit between your knees – Think about sitting down between your knees, not on top of them. This goes hand in hand with the next one:
- Knees out – Make a conscious effort to push your knees outward as you descend into your squat. This helps them track better over your toes and activates your glutes to a greater extent. Knees caving inwards is a major fail – and an indication that your glutes are too weak for what you’re trying to do.
- Chest proud – Keep your chest up, facing forward. You should be able to read what’s on your shirt.
- Back tight – Your shoulder blades should be retracted (pulled together) and depressed (pulled down towards your butt) hard at all times. This will help with the above too.
The WAsh Squat Progression
That’s WAsh, not wash. Rhymes with cash. Get it right. Now use it to learn how to squat. The purpose of this progression is to use various variations of the squat to practice good form and get into the habit of using the cues before you move on to more advanced variations. If you don’t sit back doing a goblet squat, you’ll be garbage at barbell squats… And let’s be honest here; it’s not really my progression. Plenty of coaches use these same movements to teach people to squat right.
- (a) Plate Loaded Front Squats & (b) Goblet Squats – These are your starting squat variations. By putting the weight in a central position on the front of your body, both variations literally force you to sit back and between your knees. If you have more trouble sitting back, start with the plate loaded front squat. If you have more trouble dropping between your knees, go with goblet squats. You should be proficient with both before moving on.
Plate loaded front squats:
- Barbell Front Squat – Once you’ve mastered the two variations, you can think about moving on to barbell loaded front squats. Due to the weight still being on the front of your body, these still retain some of the “force you to sit back” properties of the plate loaded and goblet variations. There are several possible grips for these, so pick the one that feels best to you (hands crossed over bar, clean grip, etc). Some trainees may never progress beyond this point for various mobility reasons, which is fine. You can get everything you want out of squatting without ever putting the bar on your back. See below for a front squat to a box. More on box squatting in the next point.
- Back Box Squat – Finally, you get to put a bar on your back. By squatting to the box, you give yourself a target depth and also a cue to sit back, which makes it the final step before a traditional back squat. You should only very gently put a small amount of weight on the box. No slamming or sitting all your weight down. Just touch and go.
- Back Squat – You’ve finally made it. The bar is on your back; the box is gone. Keep following the cues you’ve practiced with the other variations, and you’ll be a back squatting machine. To recap much of this discussion, I highly recommend this video from Bret Contreras. A must for anyone looking to move past goblet squatting: