Now we’re getting serious about training. The squat is probably the top dog when it comes to lower body training and it can be a little challenging to learn how to do well, if you’ve let your natural baby inclination slide for the last twenty years.
A great deal of this book is inspired by my work in re-teaching seemingly basic but lost skills to adults. Usually about 35 in age, and coming out of a extremely career focused time in their lives, all that time at a desk usually takes it toll after ten years of being fairly sedentary.
Ironic, considering you have to squat down to that chair and squat to stand back up. The idea in this section of the book is to give you a skill that will be useful for the rest of your life, as you will probably need to squat down to a toilet until the day you die. I’m big on helping people maintain an independent lifestyle and muscle loss (sarcopenia), strength loss, explosive power loss and mobility loss are all real concerns for the aging human being.
Luckly the squat trains all of these qualities, keeping you independent for years to come and is especially effective when you add load to the mix.
Trainers like the squat because its so applicable to every day life, but there are a variety of other things to consider:
- The most load a human being can lift according to the sport of powerlifting is the squat movement
- The squat requires some activation of almost all of your 600 muscles (minus some of the front trunk muscles), so it recruits probably the most muscle out of any compound movement
- The squat is remarkably effective for muscle mass gain because it’s very elastic/eccentric by nature and because the time under tension is quite high
- This same quality makes it a wonderful exercise for fat loss, because it’s very metabolically stressful
- The squat places a great deal of load on the skeleton, leading to significant bone density improvements but without the injury risk of many sports
- The squat is extremely complimentary to the vertical jump, one of the best assessments for explosive muscle power
- The squat, and it’s many variations works incredibly well for improvements in athletic performance by increasing force production to the legs in a vertical path of movement
I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the idea. The squat is one badass exercise that everyone should know how to execute.
Finding The Right Stance
There is no one size fits all stance for squatting, the same way I often advocate for lunges. It really comes down to body shape, some people have ideal structures to be monsters with the squat (they usually have short femurs). However, there are also a variety of hip structures, widths, femur head shapes and stability issues that really make finding your ideal squat stance pretty unique to you.
You’ll often see powerlifters set up quite wide, only narrow enough to let them get to parallel but no deeper. This lets them lift a maximum amount of weight through the required range of the sport, but not necessarily through their maximum range of motion. This potentially limits any mobility improvements the squat can yield for the average person. Lift through partial ranges of motion and your body will conform to those ranges of motion. Research also indicates that full range squats lead to better improvements in things like vertical jump.
Olympic lifters on the other hand, often need to catch a bar in a very deep squat position, so they tend to set up a little narrower. Too narrow and you lose stability, too wide and you lose depth. I tend to favour more of an olympic weight lifter style stance for most people because it more adequately hits everything I think is important for general health and wellness. If you have ambitions of powerlifting or squatting the maximum possible load there is no doubt that a wider powerlifting stance is eventually the way to go. Your stance will eventually be a product of your skeletal shape and your objectives. Using different stances as you groove your squat pattern can also be a useful way to mix up your training later in life, but not today.
That being said, it makes more sense to at least start with more of a medium width olympic style stance and go from there. Here’s how I help people find their ideal squat depth based on their skeleton structure. We start in six-point crawling position from before:
It’s important to make sure that you’re on the balls of your feet for this assessment, so you get an accurate range of movement. From here try your hand at rocking your hips down towards your ankles slowly but the key is that you have to be able to maintain neutral spine. Your spinal position shouldn’t change at all actually, remember the concept neutral spine.
You’re trying to find the stance that permits the best technique. I’m not one for pointing out errors in this book because I’d rather you focus on the things you should be doing correctly, rather than worrying about what mistakes look like, but in this instance you need to look for the mistake to make the best assessment of your squat depth ability. It’s best to have a partner assess you actually, as turning your head to look in a mirror might throw you off.
If your spine breaks or tucks under your butt you’re either going too deep, or this stance is the wrong one for you. In the photo above you notice that I lose neutral spine and you see a visible bump as I allow my spine to tuck under my hips. This is called hinging at the spine and you definitely don’t want this when you have a load in your arms. This could be an indication of a squat that is too deep for me, or that I don’t have adequate stability through my torso to reach this depth quite yet. If the former is the situation, then you simply shorten the range of motion and work on improving mobility with a drill like 4-Pt Rocking from the crawl position. If the latter is the situation, then you probably need to improve the stability of your torso with drills like bird-dogs, dead-bugs and planks.
The idea is to gradually set up wider and wider with your legs until you find the width that allows you to get as deep as possible without losing neutral spine.
Typically what you’ll notice is that as you get wider you probably get more range of motion at first until you hit a threshold. At that threshold going wider with your stance will make your depth shallower and shallower. We don’t want that right now, we want the squat to enhance your mobility, not lock it up.
Admittedly I didn’t really want to go sticking my butt in your faces, but it’s really the only way to visually demonstrate what I mean by changing your width.
Pick the width that is the widest but still permits for a full range of motion and you’ll have the width that in theory gives you the most stability while still permitting for the most depth. Here the second width is close to my ideal width for maximum depth and stability.
The width you find yourself at in the crawling position test, is the position you should attempt first when you try squatting. It might not be perfect at first and you might want to adjust a little bit as you progress, but it’s usually the best place for everyone to start.
Like the lunge before it, use a dowel to make sure you can maintain neutral spine during the squat at first.
Don’t be surprised if you can’t match the depth you used the crawling position to find once you are in the standing position. The assessment is just to give you your theoretical max range of motion, things change once you have gravity acting down upon you. In the standing position you need to stabilize very differently from the crawling position, which means learning how to engage your hip flexors and torso musculature to maintain neutral spine all the way down. It’s harder than it sounds. The four-point crawling position squat is a nice go-between if you have a great deal of trouble with bodyweight squatting.
The dowel is in place for this variation to really help you assess what your actual end range is. You’ll feel your tailbone tuck under and push out on the bottom point of the dowel position. A slight flattening of the spine is somewhat normal as your spine braces to absorb compression forces, however the spine should not bend forward. Don’t expect to be able to maintain the exact same curvature as you did when on all fours. We’re just looking for some curvature still and no prominent bulging or tucking at a specific segment of the spine. We’re trying to get the forces as evenly distributed as your body type and setup will permit.
The second reason for the dowel squat is to help you with the neutral packed neck position discussed earlier in the book. Learning to maintain this position as we discussed, will help you get stronger, faster. One of the best initial warm up movements you’ll use.
This is also an opportunity to change your stance from the initial crawling position assessment a little to make things more comfortable if you want. Try the initial position, try a tad wider and a tad narrower and go with whatever allows you to move through the best possible range the most comfortably.
The bodyweight squat or air squat or prisoner squat, or however else you’d like to alter your hand position to facilitate it, is often the starting point for anyone learning to squat. Often learning it is more about movement and motor control than it is about pure strength. Once mastered, many people are quickly capable of doing fifty, a hundred or more in one sitting with ease. It’s a great warm up exercise, can be a great conditioning exercise and is the most basic variation of the squat if you have no equipment.
Unfortunately, you quickly reach a limitation on it’s ability to contribute to strength improvements after a while, so you’ll have to add load eventually. You can continue to use it for other adaptations for the rest of your fitness life, but those adaptations will mostly be cardiovascular or muscular endurance related. Travelling and want to stay active, the bodyweight squat can be done anywhere with zero equipment. Have no access to cardiovascular equipment, and no space to go for a run, the bodyweight squat can help you elevate your heart rate up with only a few square feet of space.
Knee positioning is extremely important. Notice how I’m pressing my knees out to track over the ankles, my left knee might even be a little exaggerated here.
Bodyweight Squat to Bench
Like the lunge before it, you might start to notice trends for learning these movements. One such trend is starting from the ground up. Admittedly I don’t have much in the way of science to back this up, other than correlations with motor development in children and anecdotal experience. It just seems to help people obtain the balance and understand the depth they need to achieve to effectively squat.
It’s also a great tool for forcing yourself to go to maximum possible personal depths. As I may have mentioned, when you add load, it’s common for people to start reducing the range of motion so that they remain confident in completion of the lift. So you can use a bench or a box later with loads to ensure you are going as deep as you’re capable of with each repetition. This is also a precursor to a great assistance lift: the slightly different ‘Box Squat’ — once more I’ll leave that for a future book. Shorter ranges of motion are easier, but don’t have the same overall training benefit.
If the bodyweight squat is beyond your starting point, you have difficulty finding the balance to sit back into a good position or you have difficulty going from the lowering phase of the lift to the lifting phase of the lift then this is the option for you.
You’re going to sit back to something secure that is at an appropriate height for your ability to maintain neutral spine. Usually a chair, a bench, a stack of plates, or a box of some kind. The standard gym bench is about 18″ high (46 cm) but you can put plates on it to make it higher if you need to. Remember you’re looking for a depth that allows you to maintain neutral spine throughout the range of motion.
I suggest working down from the lowest tolerable position until you can get your hips at least level with your knees or ideally slightly below the knees. Most people with training can get to that position but if you have an exceptionally long upper leg or have a long history of knee pain it can be difficult. So maybe you start with a bench and a couple of thick plates. After a couple of weeks you remove a plate. Then after a few more weeks you’re down to the bench. Don’t stop there, chances are good you can get deeper, just refer back to your crawling position depth assessment for your theoretical max depth. Find a lower chair or start stacking several plates on top of one another until you can hit appropriate depth.
I bring up this version of a squat for four reasons:
- It’s a great warm up drill (especially if you can’t do 25+ bodyweight squats)
- It’s the best way to learn the squat if you can’t do a few solid bodyweight squats
- It’s another good way to check your ‘max theoretical depth’ according to your body structure
- It will allow you to maintain a vertical shin with ease, if you have knee trouble or pain (remember go see someone about that if you do)
In this instance I’m attempting to cheat gravity but using a suspension trainer to take a little pressure off my legs and into my arms. If the bodyweight squat proves too challenging but you’ve mastered the four point crawling position squat, then this is probably your best bet. Everything about the set up and execution is the same as every other squat, you’re just going to use as little or as much help from your arms to assist in developing your squat.
Rely on your arms less and less to progress to the bodyweight squat. You can also resort to one arm over time to challenge yourself rotationally, or to make this more difficult. Getting to using just your fingers on one arm is probably the most challenging way to utilize this variation.
Supported Squat to Bench
The nice thing about supported squats is that you’ll typically be able to max out your depth with ease, however, if you’re still trying to figure out your optimal depth you can use a target as in above. I also wanted to give you an example of a supported squat using something other than a suspension trainer, nearly anything solid that you can hold onto will do as a method of making the bodyweight squat easier to practice.
The bench position here can also altered using the same methods discussed in the Squat to Bench. You’re trying to find the most comfortable depth so that you can practice standing up from that position and you’ll build starting strength at that joint angle. Starting strength is basically your ability to generate force from a dead stop. The supported variations I find particularly useful for those with knee pain as the supported position makes it very easy to maintain a vertical shin, while over variations of the squat will make that more challenging. Vertical shin remember is the more knee friendly position to be in, but is also only a major concern if you have pre-existing knee issues.
Often once you build some strength and control in positions like this with great vertical shin positions you’ll be able to transition into less reliant versions of the squat.
Squat with Punch-Out
Contrary to popular wisdom of utilizing bodyweight only training before adding load for safety reasons, adding load selectively to various positions often enhances the quality of movement. I believe it was physiotherapist Gray Cook, who coined the buzzword reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) but I could be wrong. Fancy jargon for making the body deliberately or reactively act against a specific force placed upon it. RNT is basically any loading method that forces the body to react with a desirable movement pattern. It’s a simple overall technique that can help you attain incredibly quick results with people who have difficulty consciously figuring out their positioning with verbal cues or visual demonstrations.
By using a light load at the chest (5-15 lbs typically) I provide a counterbalance so that a person reflexively sits back into the squat position but stays tall through the chest and shoulders. A load held at the front of the chest also increases trunk tension, so a person will more effectively brace with a little load than they would without. Basically without load, the body will try to conserve energy and often be lazy with movement.
Once at the bottom the load is pushed as far away from the body as possible, shifting the weight even further back and automatically correcting the postural position of the squat in most people. Even though the load is quite low because we’re manipulating the levers of the system it will feel quite difficult. This makes it an excellent warm up drill for grooving the squat position, you won’t tired your legs out all that much, but you’ll prepare the entire body to get neurologically ready for the demands of a loaded squat in the rest of the training session.
You might notice that I get a little deeper with the arms straight out, my position is a little taller and my pursed lips are an indication of the increase in abdominal pressure. High amounts of abdominal pressure will allow you to squat bigger loads so this is an excellent preparation drill for teaching yourself how to increase and maintain abdominal pressure. That abdominal pressure also protects the spine.
This momentary pause at the bottom of the lift also improves your perception of end range in your squat over time. This helps you groove the same squat pattern to the point of being unconsciously executed. With training, you’ll no longer have to think about how deep you should go, your body will know. It takes 1-3 seconds to punch the weight out away from the body and return, so you’re holding a momentary isometric or static muscle contraction while you do that. This pause eliminates some of the elastic energy your muscles stored on the way down, forcing them to contract harder than they would without the pause. This slight pause teaches you how to more effectively overcome what is often a ‘sticking point’ in the squat — the very bottom.
Most sticking points are a result of lever systems and thus joint positions combined with limb lengths. When the hips are below the knees the lever is at a slight disadvantage and big muscles like the hamstrings can’t help much. Most people will have another one just before the half way up point. Everyone has the potential for one or several unique sticking points for every lift. Understanding them in future is a good way to overcome training plateaus.
Long Lever Squat
I use the Squat with Punch-Out and the Long Lever Squat fairly interchangeable as they only differ slightly. The benefit of adding load perpetually out away from the body is the forced abdominal stiffness it creates through the entire range of motion. Instead of just grooving the bottom range of the movement, this variation will teach a more constant amount of abdominal pressure for lifting heavier loads. This not only teaches you how to breathe around a tight core, it challenges the stability of the shoulders to a much greater extent than the punch-out.
With my freakishly long arms I find this movement fairly challenging. If you have trouble staying tall during the entire range of the squat, this is the variation for you to practice, particularly in your warm ups. I also love using a set or two of it in warm ups for people who can do many bodyweight squats with ease, or have now started to add appreciable load to their squat. It gets the core, shoulders and legs going more effectively than a bodyweight only squat.
Unfortunately it’s really unlikely that you can hold more than 15-20 lbs out away from your body for very long, so you can’t really significantly load this variation or the one before it. It doesn’t tax your legs nearly as much as the trunk and shoulders.
I probably first heard about the goblet squat, as I now refer to it, through strength coach Dan John. I had been getting people to grab plates and dumbbells close to their chest for a while but I didn’t really have a name for it. I discovered later at a seminar, Dan was trying to use whacky names for many of his exercises to see who was ripping his ideas off, so I’m giving credit where credit is due. Dan really pushed the name home, and also started me on the path of utilizing kettlebells for more than just the kettlebell swing.
Dan John was a high school strength and conditioning coach. He found that many a young kid would struggle to learn good positioning for a squat (barbells as I’ll discuss in a future book), so putting a load in front of the chest was an ideal way to reactively force them into the proper position. It also allows you to load them fairly well, though you will be limited by your arms still. This is the first squat variation you’ve seen so far that will allow you to start really loading the squat.
Kettlebells aren’t a significant tool in this book, but I wanted to give you a bit of a taste all the same. Down the road you may want to consider adding them to your training. If you are using a kettlebell, you can hold it as I am with the horns up, bell down, or the easier way for many people is to hold it horns down, bell up. With the method you see above, I’m clamping down on the bell with my forearms which allows me to create more abdominal pressure. Notice also that the bell is right against my chest and my arms are under and inwards. I’m trying to clamp my shoulder blades to my rib cage, or squeezing some towels in my arm pits. For this position to work, your legs need to be wide enough that your elbow can between between your knees at the bottom, or you’ll probably short the range of motion by hitting your knees. Lastly I find this variation valuable for teaching the knees out position.
However in sticking with a dumbbell theme, you can just use this position instead. This makes the elbows a little less of a worry overall.
One of the limitations of using only the punch out or the long lever squat position was that you could only add so much load before it becomes too much for such a long lever to handle. Most of my male clients use the maximum sized dumbbell (100 lbs) or kettlebell (36kg) in our gym for these at higher repetitions (greater than 10-12). While many of my female clients can usually handle upwards of 60-65 lbs for the dumbbell and 20-24 kg for the kettlebell in a similar rep range but we’re talking after a minimum of 6-12 months of training.
If you can use at least 45 lbs in this lift for 8-12 high quality repetitions then you’re probably ready for one of the variations below (that allow you to use more weight) or more than likely you should move onto barbell training (Blue Belt). Of course you can continue to load this as high as you can with the equipment you have but you’ll hit a maximum faster. Barbells will allow you to maximally load the lower body and let’s face it 45 lbs isn’t that much weight, your groceries probably weigh that much sometimes.
Low Cable Squat
The cable stack in our gym goes up to 100 lbs, so like the goblet squat there will most likely be some limitations after a certain point. However, if you don’t have kettlebells or dumbbells and still insist on training at home with bands, then you may as well learn this because at least you can add load somehow.
Coincidentally, the low cable squat is an excellent teaching drill too. Many people when they first start squatting are heavily reliant on their quadricep muscles (front of the thigh) and as a result tend to lean forward or put too much weight on the balls of their feet. That’s part of the reason I encourage an emphasis on bridging, to balance out that relationship. The heels of the foot should always be down, and while you don’t want all your weight there, you probably want more there, than on the balls of your feet; think 60/40 split, give or take. Like many of the movements above, the low cable squat forces you to sit back onto your heels, reinforcing a better upright position with more weight distributed onto the heels. With practice, this leads to a better movement, and will improve all of your loaded squats going forward.
A side benefit here is that this position is not unlike a deadlift with respect to the arms holding the weight. The position is more upright than a deadlift, but you must pull the shoulder blade back and tight to the rib cage to maintain a good spinal posture. Again most people automatically react to this position by pulling their shoulders back and squeezing some orange juice out of the oranges in their armpits. The packed shoulder position is the most strong position to find yourself in when pulling on anything, so learning this movement will set you up for good success in the hip hinge and deadlift movements.
Pick this version especially if you find yourself on your toes, leaning forward or struggling to keep your upper back in a good position. It is also useful for people with tight calves or who have some knee pain and need a more vertical shin. Another trick for reinforcing a good position is to use a wall or put boxes in front of your shins to force yourself to sit back.
Double DB Rack Squat
I’ll be honest, this one is really tricky for a lot of people. Not only do you have to eventually understand a fairly advanced olympic lift technique (the clean) to get heavy loads up into this position, but keeping it there will feel uncomfortable for a lot of people. At least at first. Once mastered this is a great way to add more load to the goblet squat if all you have access to is dumbbells. In the meantime, quickly arm curling the weight up can work for moderate to heavy loads, but it will never be as comparable to a barbell in a power rack.
Why include it? Well it’s probably the easiest way to overload the squat if you’re only going to invest in a set of adjustable dumbbells for home use. Now we can double the amount of load you’d be able to manage with just the goblet squat as your sole form of training with dumbbells. The second reason is because it’s effective at teaching excellent positioning for the squat, and eventually I’d like you to learn the barbell front squat. Without getting into the details of that lift, it requires nearly identical shoulder, arm and elbow positioning. Only the front squat is even more uncomfortable to execute than this one. Practice here, will make the front barbell squat easier 3-12 months from now when you tackle it.
First, distinguish between real pain and discomfort. Real pain is a yes/no answer that most likely results in you dropping a weight or incapable of even holding the weights in this position. Discomfort is fairly normal and expected when you put heavy weights on your shoulders and then squat for the first time. I doubt many of you have tried this before, don’t be afraid to use lower weights at first if you have to.
Give the training an opportunity to toughen your shoulders up a bit and improve your resiliency as a trainee. Many people avoid certain movements because of discomfort, the irony being that if you wait it out for a little while, the body adapts and comfort is no longer a concern. This period of tempering opens up a world of possibilities in everything from barbell training to kettlebell training. If it feels uncomfortable at first, don’t give up right away, you might just have to wait it out through practice. Most of the time your body will just get used to things and your training will evolve because of that. It also builds mental resiliency.
Getting into a good position with this lift is more essential than other lifts. The main reason being you’re under load, but also because it will feel uncomfortable having a weight in this position. So uncomfortable in fact that chances are good you’ll put the weight in the completely wrong position. Notice a few things:
- The load is kind of lightly resting against my head, this makes it easier to balance.
- I keep my hands on the load no matter what.
- The load is right up onto the meaty (muscular) part of my shoulder muscles (deltoids) where it has a fairly flat place to rest
- My elbows are high and to the sky (parallel to the floor)
That last point is very important. As I drop down into a squat from this position, I must maintain a tall upright position and push my elbows up towards the ceiling or each one of these fifty pound dumbbells will end up on the floor. Notice that my upper arm remains parallel to the floor no matter what part of the movement I’m in. The moment something starts to dig into your bones or shoulders, you’ll feel that discomfort I mention above and your natural reaction might be to drop the weights. That’s why positioning is so important here.
Farmer’s (Landmine) Squat
The last squat I’m going to feature is the Farmer’s Squat, or Landmine Squat if you prefer. A Landmine is a trademarked piece of equipment that allows you to stick one end of a barbell into it, thus creating a pivot from which to use the other end of the barbell for various exercises. You don’t need one, all you really need is a good corner to stick a barbell and you can do pretty much any Farmer’s style exercise that will mimic how a landmine functions. A landmine is more of a nice-to-have thing at a gym to minimize the wear and tear of sticking barbells in corners.
I’ve seen it happen, we bore about an inch of plaster out of a wall at a gym I worked at circa 2007. No big deal because it was an old building and a rugged gym, but your gym might not want you doing this, so please be considerate. I highly recommend putting a sweater, towel or some other piece of cloth-like material around the end of the barbell to minimize the rubbing it will cause. In the picture below, I’m using the corner section of a heavy gym bench so that I can show a good angle but we have landmines in another section of this gym.
The reason I’m showing this last is because it fringes beyond the equipment I said I was going to utilize in the book, in that you’ll need a barbell to perform it. However, without a doubt, this method of squatting is one of the best ways to learn how to squat if you have access to a barbell and a corner. Like two previous squats it is also easier to load without really getting into barbell squats.
From the top position there is a little lean forward, making sure you finish the movement with your hips. If you don’t lean forward a little bit at the top, the angle of the barbell will push you too far back and you’ll end up on your butt, so always try this with an empty barbell first to get your positioning right.
The trajectory of the bar on the way down however, forces you to sit back. Sitting back is a major struggle for many people on the squat, so this allows you to train that aspect of the squat better than almost any variation I’ve come across, even the low cable squat. The slight load of the barbell, like the goblet squat, also teaches you to brace and hold neutral spine better. All the while making you more capable of hitting depth.
Lastly, this variation, unlike many of the others will permit for adequate loading until you hit barbell training in the Blue Belt Book. You’re limited only by what you can pick off the floor, or what a partner can help you lift off the floor to get into position. You might be able to use this method to get upwards of 180 pounds into a loaded squat position, enough to truly strength train the squat, without knowing how to back squat or front squat with a barbell. It’s more likely however that most men will top out with this method around 90 pounds and most women around 45 pounds, due to the limitations placed on your arms.
Putting it All Together
More complicated movements become exceedingly difficult to categorize as you’ve seen in previous exercises. This is by far the most variations you’ve seen for any exercise so far. Fundamentally these are all squats, but they are all slightly different and can be organized into four categories:
- Supported Body Weight Squats
- Unsupported Body Weight Squats
- Pseudo-loaded Squats (Lever and Punch-Out Squats)
- Loaded Squats
Where you start will depend on what equipment you have at your disposal and what ability you currently possess. If you have problems with depth, use a method that forces you to check depth such as squatting to a bench. If you have difficulty maintaining a packed neck position or stiff spine then try the dowel squat or a squat with a long lever or punch out to work on developing that stiffness. If you have problems sitting back into a squat, use the farmer’s squat or the low cable squat so that you can practice sitting back and developing strength at that joint angle.
Beyond that you could simply start with supported squat variations and work your way up to test your ability to tolerate load your first time training. For warm ups, I recommend using one below your current ability, so if you can do unsupported bodyweight squats, use a supported squat to warm up and practice the movement. If you’re loading you could use psuedo-loading (light loads via the punch out), or another squat option that helps you develop a quality you might not execute perfectly on yet.
I highly encourage you to keep your focus on one movement for your warm up and one movement for training with load at most for a phase of training. We’ll get into what phases and cycles mean later in the book, but trying to do all of these at once is a good way to make sure you don’t learn any of them particularly fast. Pick one or two, perfect them as best you can for three to six weeks, then pick a new one or two.