Purpose of the squat
The purpose of the squat in training is to develop explosive power and strength in the lower body. This is a bilateral movement that can often hide imbalances which can better be seen in a unilateral lower body movement such as a lunge or a Bulgarian split squat. In nature the full squat is an unloaded movement. You would only have your hips below your knees in a resting position, never under load. I use my son as an example to demonstrate this (kids naturally move perfectly) I get him to pick up a kettlebell that weights twice as much as he does and he performs a sumo deadlift (which is actually a squat pattern and not a deadlift pattern) because most of the power is at the top end range of motion.
When most people think of a squat they think of a barbell ass to grass back squat, which is great for testing or barbell sport specific training, but does not lead necessarily to the best transfer for performance. Unfortunately the classic squat tends to lead to overconfidence in the ability for the legs to produce power in suboptimal positions or with a non perfectly balanced load. This is why many high level athletes such as football players typically only do partial squats as for their sport power is only needed at the top range of motion.
In the lower body you have two basic movement patterns, the squat and the hinge. Easy way to remember each would be thinking of your pelvis as a glass of water, if the water if pouring out it is a hinge, if it is keeping all the water in, then it is a squat. Now, this being said, just because someone is squatting, does not mean they are doing a squat movement pattern. For example a low bar back squat, or an immature squat (when someone leans their torso forward) would be more of a hinge pattern, whereas something like a front squat or a good high bar back squat must be more upright torso so usually a squat movement pattern.
If you are unused to the term, torque is the ability to create tension throughout a joint in the body. This is not the same as rotation, which is the placement of the joint. A common cue always heard in squatting is spread the floor or knees out. This is more of a rotational cue versus a torque cue. Activating the glute med to externally rotate the femur is the goal on the ascent of the squat, this helps the glutes pull the hips under.
Depending on the movement pattern, the torque pattern will vary. A squat pattern is external torque to activate the glutes, whereas a hinge pattern depends mostly on the hamstrings requires internal torque to perform properly.
Depending on the Client, the depth of their squat will not be as important. If they plan on competing in a regulated event such as powerlifting or Crossfit, then they will have to have strength through the entire range of motion. But many of the clients will not be able to achieve proper depth. This is not a problem, depending on their goals. For clients who want to achieve full range of motion they might require either lowering the load or enough time to achieve proper depth and stability
For foot placement their is no standard. This really depends on anatomy. The size and shape of the insertional head of the femur, as well as the size and shape of the hip socket will determine the width required to achieve optimal depth.
There is something called the Thompson Test that will determine the proper depth, but this is unnecessary for most people. Simply get them to start squatting narrow and perform a couple air squats, then gradually move their feet out and see where they can achieve optimal depth. This is more about playing around and listening to the client instead of giving them an arbitrary measurement such as feet under the shoulders. Often people who are not build for it and try to squat narrow will literally feel their femur stopping as it contacts the inside of the hip and experience discomfort (impingement) in the front of the hip.
Modifications / Scaling
The barbell back squat is a great standardized test of lower body power, but for many clients it can be intimidating, or depending on mobility and awareness, impossible to perform properly. This is where modifications can come in handy. These can also be used for clients who want to try a different stimulus. Do not think of modifications as a lesser version of the barbell back squat, just an alternative.
High Bar Back Squat
Called the king of barbell movements, but in my opinion, wrongly so. I believe the deadlift to be a better movement for full body strength, but most people are better at the squat pattern than a hinge pattern so the risk of injury is less with this movement. Unfortunately for people to perform this movement properly, is rarely seen. Also failing this movement is not done easily so risk of injury is higher.
Tight narrow grip on the bar to keep a tight back. Brace your core by pushing your obliques out not your abs out. Reach back with your hips to load your bigger joint, Keep your heels down, chest up. Rotate femurs out to engage external torque in the lower body.
Loss of lumbar tension (butt wink) this can be corrected by having the client use breath to control depth. Tell them to inhale on the descent and as soon as they stop breathing in to start the ascent. Valgus knees (this is when the knees cave in) this is due to a lack of torque in the hips resulting in the adductors being recruited to try and create stability resulting in the femur being pulled inwards. Toes pointed too far out resulting in collapse of ankle, this is a two part problem, lack of ankle mobility (lifters can help) and lack of external torque in the ankle. Chest forward (immature squat) this is usually the result of lack of ankle mobility and can be improved with lifters and some ankle mobilization. Olympic lifting shoes will really help getting the knees forward and maintaining an upright torso.
Front Squat - This puts the body in the front rack, a more disadvantageous position which will require a more upright torso and active upper back. Typically a good lifter should be able to perform 70% of the weight in a front squat that they can perform in a back squat.
Many of the same cues that apply to back squat will apply to this movement. The main difference will be keeping an upright torso to keep the elbows high.
Its almost always going to be elbows dropping. This is a result in a loss of core tension or upper back tension. Fight to maintain position, do not try and regain it after it is lost. Rack position will be an issue for many. This can be increased over time. In my opinion you should always try and keep a full grip on the bar to allow an active upper body. Olympic lifting shoes will really help getting the knees forward and maintaining an upright torso.
Safety Bar Squat - This is a hybrid between a front squat and back squat because of the camber of the bar. This also allows the bar to sit in an easier position due to the arms being in front of you.
All the same cues as a back squat, except because the hands are not in the back rack position it will be squeezing the front of the safety squat bar to help keep the upper back engaged.
This will be a combination of high bar and front squat.
Zercher Squat - This is where the bar sits in the crease of the arm. This puts the bar in a much more disadvantageous position than the traditional front squat and help with upper back development and keeping the core tight. This position forces an upright active torso and automatically results in a hip back movement. Some clients complain that it hurts their arms, to make it a little more enjoyable you can either wrap the bar, or use something a little thicker like an axle.
Chest and hands up. Try to keep tension in the pecs as well as pushing the obliques out. Initiate the movement by moving the hips back and keeping your chest up.
The issue for most will be loss of core tension resulting in a forward lean at mid back. It is very hard to perform this movement with a knee forward action.
Low Bar Back Squat - This will allow most clients to move the maximal load as range of motion in decreased and it increases leverage using the bigger joints. Unfortunately this is very uncomfortable for many and requires tremendous upper body strength and posterior chain strength to perform well. This is also a hinge pattern so I will cover this in a deadlift article.
Anderson Squats - Named after the infamous strongman Paul Anderson who arguably has the best squat in history. These are easiest performed with a yoke, but can be performed with pins or a rack as well. You basically are doing a bottom up squat from your optimal position. You start by moving the bar to a height that the client is able to achieve an active core, upright torso from the start. This is very easy to scale as the movement pattern improves by simply lowering the bar to force a deeper squat. This also requires the client to have tension before lifting the bar. If the hips rise first, the client is hinging and not squatting, so raise the bar until the hips raise at the same time as the shoulders.
Start in an active position. Drive hips forward while simultaneously driving knees back. Start with your ankles underneath the bar. Chest up to keep tension in your core and back. This is all external torque to keep your knees turning out and fire those glutes.
Hips rising (hinging) this is usually due to starting too low. Going into extension in the lower back at the top, this is due to loss of core tension.
Sumo Deadlift - Again, this is a squat pattern, not a deadlift (hinge). This is very similar to an Anderson squat as you are working from the bottom up. You can scale this depending on their ability by starting the client off blocks to raise the bar. The most important part is that the hips just move forward and not raise before the shoulders. The setup is a little more difficult with a sumo deadlift, the shoulders should be on top of the hands to eliminate the hinge movement pattern. Same as Anderson, starting with tension, and just pushing your hips forward. This is a pure external torque movement, so knees, hips, and ankles torqued out, as well as back engaged and the primary mover is the glutes.
Start with an upright strong chest and shoulders always start directly above the bar. Keep entire lower body externally torqued.
All of the same issues as an Anderson squat. Grip is often the limiting factor with this lift, I would prefer the use of straps over a mixed grip as this allows keeping proper tension in the upper body.
Trap/Hex Bar Deadlift - Despite being called a deadlift, this is actually a squat pattern. This makes it easier for clients to move heavier weight as the depth won’t be as low. This also has the benefit of just performing the concentric portion of the lift (standing up) and dropping the bar from the top similar to the Anderson squat. This will also allow grip training at the same time.
Cue this exactly as you would a squat, I actually normally refer to these as trap bar squats to help the client not think of a deadlift. Drive your feet into the group and keep a proud chest.
Grip will be an issue for some, you can use straps if necessary, if you have a great squat you can challenge this movement more by flipping the bar upside down and pull from a lower height.
Goblet Squat - These are excellent options to help teach a client to sit back as the weight in front will allow them to load the hip more because of the counter balance effect of the front loaded weight. For clients with tight hips sitting the the bottom of a goblet squat will allow better positioning than sitting with a back squat.
Chest up and sit back. Weight on the heels, keep external torque with the knees.
Olympic lifting shoes will really help getting the knees forward and maintaining an upright torso.
Sandbag Squat - These are a personal favourite of mine because they require almost no cueing. The weight has to stay on the heels or you fall forward, the core has to stay tight and upright or you fall forward. If you fail the squat, you simply drop the bag, no harm done. These are also very good to feel the glutes activate for clients who often fail to feel their glutes in a traditional squat.
Chin down to help keep your obliques active and use breath control for depth. Push your hips into the bag. Take a slightly wider stance to allow the bag to come between your legs. Breathe in as you descent, out as you ascend.
Going to low and having to hinge the weight up.
Many of the fancy popular exercises such as box squats are often done improperly and have a higher risk of injury. For most movements you want the simplest method that produces the desired result with the least amount of risk. For example to teach a new client to perform a high weight box squat safely might take many sessions whereas a sandbag or goblet squat can be taught in a matter of minutes and has very minimal risk of injury and requires very little cueing on the coaches part. The less thinking that has to be done the better.
Activation / Awareness
Some people are excellent at firing their glutes, many are not. To help clients learn how to fire their glutes in an exercise you first needs to isolate that muscle so they can feel the muscle and understand how to fire it. This is where simple little activation exercises can help. These should be done by all clients regardless of their ability to to fire their glutes. This is where doing simple movements such as glute bridges and banded monster walks can come in.
Mobilizations and Limitations
Belts, I have a love / hate relationship with them. I hate when people use them, and love when people don’t use them. I personally don’t find the use of them unless you are trying to be elite in a sport that allows and requires them. Seeing so many trainers allowing a women to belt up for a 135 pound squat shows a lack of education and reliance on external devices for support. First off if you need a belt, you shouldn’t be using it until over 80% of your 1 rep max. Using it below these weights will miss the opportunity to learn how to brace properly. Too many people have become reliant on a belt where in real life they will not have a belt on them when they perform a squat pattern. This is an opportunity to teach the client how to properly brace. A belt in itself does not give any additional support, what it does is gives you tactile feedback to push against something to better activate your core. Instead, teach the client to properly engage their core without having to rely on an external device. Generally if a client needs a belt to squat the weight they are moving more weight than they can safely brace, they needs to develop the stabilization and structure to properly handle the load.
If your client does not feel the exercise in their glutes, but instead always feels it in their quads, try reducing the range of motion and ensuring a hips back descent and driving from the heels not the toes.
Yours in health,