The squat is a foundational exercise that should be found in just about every program. As one of the most basic human movements, it can be responsible for massive increases in lower body strength, hypertrophy, and athleticism. That being said, it must be done properly in order to elicit these benefits.
Along with being one of the best exercises in the book, the squat is quite possibly the most butchered lift in the gym. From quarter squats with 150% of a person’s actual max (done for “reps”), to knocked knees, rounded backs, and pseudo-good mornings, the squat can get really ugly. This comes from a combination of ego and improper coaching (or no coaching). It’s great when somebody wants to start learning how to squat, but the last place a person should start is with the barbell back squat. The squat is a skill just like anything else. In baseball, you first learn to hit off a tee. Nobody steps out to the plate against Major League pitching the first time they pick up a bat. For whatever reason, lifters never got the memo and they end up doing just that with the squat. So what should the first step to learning how to squat be? If the barbell back squat is a 95mph fastball, then the Goblet box squat is tee-ball and that is precisely where we will begin.
The Goblet squat is the easiest form of the squat to learn because the positioning of the weight almost forces you into a proper deep squat. These are performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell, with the weight held up against the chest, while the elbows are driven in tightly under the hands and weight. Most people find starting with their feet shoulder width apart or just slightly wider to be a comfortable position.
To begin, take a deep breath into the belly and squeeze the abs to brace the entire abdominal region. Descend down as low as possible, pushing the knees out, while maintaining a neutral spine (with the chest up). Once the bottom is reached, drive through the heels and mid-foot, while continuing to push the knees out, and stand up.
For individuals with very little leg strength, coordination, prior knee and or lower back injuries, it is best to do these to a box first. The box can be a tool used to teach proper depth, or can be set up to a height that limits the range of motion of the squat. A limited range of motion is one of the most effective ways to build leg strength in an individual with knee pain. The objective here being to decrease the height of the box each workout until a full range of motion squat can be performed.
Goblet squats work great for moderate to high reps, both for beginners as a stand-alone squat variation, and for more advanced lifters as an accessory movement to target the quads. The biggest limiting factor to the goblet squat is the weight that can be loaded. When you find yourself struggling more to get the weight up into position than to actually do the goblet squats themselves, it’s time to move onto the next variation of the squat, the barbell Front Squat.
Note: I often progress trainee’s from the goblet squat to the front/back squat once they can successfully perform 10 reps with 40+ pounds.
The Front Squat is nearly identical to the goblet squat, except that now we are loading a barbell across the front of our shoulders. This will allow for much greater weight to be used, but it also presents a few new challenges. What is greatly apparent the first time someone tries to front squat is just how awkward and uncomfortable it feels to load the bar up on the front of your shoulders. Getting accustomed to the bar in this position will take some practice, but after a while it will become second nature.
Holding the bar in the front squat can be done a few different ways. The first is the front-racked position. Grab hold of the bar and push the elbows directly out in front of the body so that the upper arms (biceps/triceps) are parallel with the floor. This is the same positioning an Olympic lifter catches the bar in the clean. This position requires a great deal of mobility in the shoulders and wrists, otherwise the elbows will be pointing towards the floor and the weight will be very hard to hold upright. If mobility is an issue, then the bodybuilding method for holding the bar can be used. Find the front shelf of the shoulders to rack the bar on (you know it is in the right position if you can lift the bar out of the rack while holding your arms straight out in front of you). Cross the arms over the top of one another so that the hands are touching the top of the bar. Take a deep belly breath, bracing the abs, and unrack the weight. Front squat technique is going to be the same as with the goblet squat, with one extra cue: KEEP YOUR ELBOWS UP! This is by far the hardest part of the front squat. Once fatigue sets in it is very easy for the elbows to sink and the upper back to round, causing you to lose the bar forward. Extra focus will be placed on the mid and upper back to maintain thoracic positioning and you may find your upper back to be quite sore the day after front squatting. When a lifter has successfully nailed down the front squat (proper depth, abdominal bracing, elbows up) they can finally move onto the back squat.
Note: Transitioning from the Goblet Squat to the Front Squat is very similar in nature, however there can be a steep learning curve with the technique required to load the bar on the front of the shoulders. Back Squats tend to be a little easier to get the grasp of in that respect. This article is focusing more on the similarities of the biomechanics in each movement to dictate progression. There are plenty of instances where transitioning from the Goblet Squat to the Back Squat is perfectly fine too!
The Back Squat is the variation that allows the most weight to be used. This is key for overall strength, and benefits overall hypertrophy and athleticism to a point. Transitioning the barbell to the back of the body places a lot more emphasis on the lower back, hips, and hamstrings (whereas the front squat is much more quad dominant). Much has been written on how to properly back squat and which version is best (Close stance vs. Wide stance & High bar vs. Low bar). The fact of the matter is there is no one best version of the back squat. How you choose to perform it will be based solely on your goals and your bodily proportions. Different people will have differently shaped hip sockets and although it is beyond the scope of this article, the genetic shape of the hips will play a huge role in whether you should be squatting wide, medium, or narrow. Femur and tibia length also dictate proper width, as well as the distance the knee travels throughout the movement. The ideal positioning for you will be whatever stance feels good (no hip/knee pain), allows you to reach proper depth, and generates the most power.
Where you position the bar on your back also has an effect on the exercise. High bar squats position the bar on the top of the traps, while low bar squats position the bar lower on the back, across the rear delts.
High bar squats lend themselves well to Olympic lifters and bodybuilders looking to focus on quad size and strength. With the bar positioned higher on the back, the torso remains more upright, which causes the quads to be emphasized to a greater degree. Low bar squats are better suited for powerlifters and those looking to move the most weight. The low bar positioning causes a greater forward lean in the torso and creates a shorter moment arm about the hips. The angle of the torso allows for the recruitment of the low back, hips, and hamstrings to a greater degree, allowing for the most weight to be moved. That being said, you may find someone who is genetically built to squat with a close stance and high bar position that can squat more weight that way than by switching to a wide stance, low bar squat. Regardless of the type of back squat you choose, it is wise to occasionally switch it up and perform the opposite stance or opposite bar position, to engage muscles from a different angle and attack weak points.
No matter what iteration of the back squat you choose to perform, the cues are all substantially the same. Start by grabbing the bar equidistant from the center on each side, squeezing hard. Pull yourself under the bar, while squeezing your shoulder blades together and making your upper back as tight as possible. With the bar now locked in over your back, engage your lats by pulling down with your elbows as if you were trying to break the bar across your back. Take a deep belly breath and brace as with every other version of the squat. Simultaneously sink the hips back as you bend the knees and squat “between your legs”. Depth is defined by the crease of the hip joint dipping below the top of the knee. This is a bit more difficult to achieve in the back squat than in the front and goblet squats, which is why those are learned first*. When depth is achieved, drive through your heels and mid-foot to “push the floor away”, and drive your hips forward by squeezing your glutes until you reach lockout. The entire time you are performing the squat you want to keep your torso as upright as possible (to avoid turning the squat into a good morning). As stated earlier, if you are choosing to low bar squat, you will naturally have more of a forward lean. This is perfectly acceptable. If, however, you find your butt shooting up out of the hole before your shoulders move and you have to grind the weight up with your back, drop the weight down and focus on keeping your torso upright so that you perform the movement with your legs.
*If you are really struggling to reach depth in the back squat, a box can be used as described in the goblet squat section for learning how low you need to get before standing back up.
Taking the time to learn to squat properly is hugely important in using the exercise to achieve the greatest benefits in strength, hypertrophy, and athleticism. Stick to these basic guidelines week to week and you will see massive changes in not only the weight you move, but the way you look as well.