My love of deadlifts has been well documented. Fact is, were it legal in my state, I’d have married deadlifts long ago and retired to a small farmhouse in rural Massachusetts to raise our pair of glute and hamstring-dominant rugrats, Eleiko and Ivanko.
But if deadlifts are my greatest love, then squats are the hot bridesmaid I keep winking at by the punch bowl. Whether the goal is to improve performance in your chosen sport, build legs the size of Kansas, shed those last few (or thirty) pounds of fat off your frame, or make members of the opposite sex want to see you naked with the lights on, squats are an integral component of any well-rounded program.
This article will discuss some of the different squat variations we use at Cressey Performance given individual’s goals, needs, and contraindications. Because not all squats are created equal, but when performed correctly, they all kick ass.
Popularized by the great Dan John, goblet squats are typically the squat variation I choose first when teaching beginners the basics of how to squat correctly. For lack of a better term, they’re idiot proof, and I defy anyone – whether an un-trained teenager, a mid-20s muscle head, or a desk jockey with the mobility of a pool table – not to be able to perform a crisp goblet squat within ten minutes of proper coaching or cueing.
A proper (full) squat demonstrates good ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, thoracic extension, and glute activation, all of which are crucial when it comes to overall movement quality, and quality of life.
Given their importance, I’m not opposed to people squatting everyday, especially considering the amount of time we spend sitting in front of computers. (Mobility-wise, many of us are massive balls of walking fail.) Stealing from Dan John again, “If it’s important, do it every day.”
Now, this doesn’t mean you should perform loaded squats every day – that’s over-kill. But you can grab a light dumbbell and toss in a few sets of goblet squats daily to not only improve tissue length and quality, but also help groove rock solid squatting technique.
Points to Consider Regarding Goblet Squats
• This is a fantastic variation to help groove picture perfect squat technique, so while I’m always interested in using the concept of progressive overload, it’s not the main emphasis here.
• You’ll learn to sit back when you squat and initiate the movement with hips, not knees.
• It’s imperative to “push the knees out.”
• Maintain a “proud” chest, with the shoulder blades together and depressed (place them in your back pocket).
• Descend to the point where your elbows can push your knees out, trying to maintain an arch in your lower back the entire time.
• Hang out there for a few seconds. “Pry” around a little bit, moving side to side, back and forth, and in a figure-eight fashion to help “un-glue” the hips.
• Finish with the glutes. Many will compensate hip extension with lumbar hyperextension, so it’s important to “stand tall,” and not use the back too much.
Squats to Box versus Box Squats
Before I get into the difference between the two, let’s take a minute to discuss how to properly set up to squat with a barbell on your back as it’s a little more complicated than people make it out to be.
Squatting starts and ends with the setup. How you set up to squat can make or break the entire set, and it’s something many trainees take far too lightly.
• Walk up to the bar, grab it, and shake the shit out of it. Get angry. Intimidate the weight. Trust me, it works. Having a little attitude plays huge dividends in the long run.
• While still gripping the bar (a little past shoulder width apart for most, a little wider for those with limited shoulder mobility – you need to work on that), duck underneath and squeeze your shoulder blades together like you mean it. By doing so, you create a “shelf” on your upper back that the bar can rest on.
• From there, you want to rip the bar apart while simultaneously pulling down as hard as you can across your back, as if you were trying to bend it. It’s going to feel awkward at first, but it’s important as this will help engage your lats, and in turn, the thoraco-lumbar fascia, which will provide stability to the spine.
• I often see trainees taking way too many steps to get set up and wasting a lot of energy in the process. Unrack the bar and take two steps back (one with your left and one with your right foot). We’re squatting, Frodo, not trekking to the depths of Mordor.
• At this point you should be straddling the box, which is located between your feet. Looking straight ahead and with your neck packed, take a deep breath and fill your tummy (not your chest) with air.
• Okay, you’re ready to squat. Keep reading.
Squat to Box (continued)
Most people don’t know how to squat for shit. Their posterior chains are weak as hell so they can’t sit back and they can’t keep their knees out.
The typical individual wants to shift forward too much, initiating the movement at the knees rather than their hips. Ninety percent of people initiate the squatting motion by leaning forward at the trunk, flexing the lumbar spine, and then plopping downward.
Now, just to cover my own butt here: In no way am I saying that having your knees migrate past the toes is dangerous or wrong. In fact, a study published in 2003 by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research [“Effect of Knee Position on Hip and Knee Torques During the Barbell Squat,” Fry, et al] laid this once sacred cow to rest for good.
In it, the researchers noted that letting the knee come forward did result in greater shear stress and torque on the knee joint. However, when they restricted said movement (not allowing the knees to shift anteriorly), there was much more torque recorded in the hips and lumbar spine!
So I’m not opposed to the knees coming forward, slightly. I’m just opposed to people not using their posterior chain and making their squats look like a max-effort knee break ankle mobilization!
A funny thing happens on an almost weekly basis. I can’t tell you how many times someone has walked into our facility claiming to squat 400+ lbs, only to get stapled by 185 because we actually make him squat to proper depth.
I love when this happens, and it just goes to show that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t as strong as they think they are – they’re just really good at cheating.
Squatting to a box differs from box squats in the sense that the main objective is to assure that someone “feels” what it’s like to actually squat to proper depth. It’s more of a tap-n-go than anything else.
I’ll still coach them on proper squatting technique, but my concern is enforcing proper depth – which is why I’m a huge proponent of this variation for beginners.
Conversely, the main objective with a box squat is to teach trainees to use their posterior chain.
Rather than just getting to depth, the box squat emphasizes sitting back and engaging the hamstrings and glutes.
Here’s what I highlight:
• Initiate with the hips. Unlike squatting to a box where I’ll allow a little more of a knee break, with box squats, push your hips back as if I had a rope tied around your waist and I was pulling you back. Moreover, push your knees out (to the left and right) to help open up the hips as you descend towards the box.
Note: For those who have a really hard time grasping the knees out concept, I’ll take a mini-band and wrap it above their knees and tell them to go through the same squat motion while resisting the band from pushing the knees in. Sometimes people just need a little kinesthetic feedback to “feel” what I want them to do, and I find a band around the knees is the perfect solution.
• I’ll be a little more meticulous with making them maintain a vertical shin angle as they perform the lift. This is especially true when I’m working with trainees who suffer from anterior knee pain. It’s amazing how much relief people get from otherwise chronic knee pain when they actually learn to squat with proper mechanics!
• Land softly on the box! Many like to just plop themselves down, which isn’t the smartest thing to do when you’ve got a loaded barbell on top of your spine. Instead, I like to tell people to pretend like they’re sitting on broken glass.
• Another mistake I see trainees make is rocking off the box. Ideally, as you land, you should maintain your stiffness and come to a slight pause on the box. By doing so, not only are you taking the stretch shortening cycle out of the equation, you’re also learning to develop more starting strength.
• From there, fire through your heels, drive the hips up, and snap them through at the top to finish.
And While We’re At It
Back squatting isn’t for everyone, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Although I’ve personally helped plenty of people with chronically bad backs learn to squat pain-free in a matter of months (if not weeks), those with a history of lower back issues should probably refrain from back squatting, at least temporarily.
Secondly, those with limited t-spine mobility (particularly in extension) are going to have a hard time back squatting. Trying to crank someone into maximal abduction and external rotation – especially for someone who doesn’t have it – is a recipe for disaster, and can often manifest into a plethora of other issues in the neck, back, and even the elbow.
If that’s the case, using specialty bars like the safety squat bar or giant cambered bar – both of which are much more “shoulder friendly” – would be an ideal substitution.
For most, however, the likelihood of your gym having access to those kinds of bars is somewhere between not-a-chance-in-hell and Lindsay Lohan winning a Pulitzer.
If that’s the case, it’s time to get your front squat on.
Compared to back squats – which, due to the bar placement and torso angle, produces a higher bending torque on the spine, and as a result, increased levels of shear force – front squats are a more “back-friendly” variation.
In addition, front squats challenge the abdominals more than back squats due to the bar placement and ensuing recruitment of the abdominals (rectus abdominus and obliques) to prevent buckling.
Taking it a step further, because the anterior core is engaged while performing front squats, it’s not uncommon to find it easier to actually get to depth compared to back squats. Simply put, many people are unable to squat to depth because they’re weak and unstable.
When the core musculature is engaged (and hence, we provide the body with the stability it normally lacks), the body’s protective mechanism is told to “take a chill pill” and good things begin to happen.
Collectively, with the decrease in spinal loading, in addition to an increase in core engagement, front squats are a staple at Cressey Performance. Still, they’re not immune to their own set of pitfalls, namely, which grip to use – clean grip or cross bar-grip?
Given that we train a lot of baseball players, we tend to lean more towards the cross-grip, due in no small part to it being a lot less stressful on the elbows.
Likewise, unless someone demonstrates remarkable wrist flexibility and is able to maintain a proper posture throughout the set, we advocate the cross bar-grip with our general population clients as well.
Again, the set-up is key. Some things to consider:
• The bar should rest on the “meaty” part of your shoulders up against your Adam’s apple. Grab the bar tight!
• No matter what, think chest up, elbows up.
• Pack your neck (make a double chin), and find a spot on the wall right in front of you at eye level. Keep your eyes on that spot.
• Get your air, brace your abs, and let er’ rip.
Dead Start Anderson Front Squats
When I really want to make a client or athlete hate life, I throw some Anderson front squats into the mix, starting from the bottom position.
Because there’s no eccentric “pre-loading,” it’s an excellent exercise to develop starting strength, but more importantly it has a general sense of badassery to it. So for those who are a little more masochistic, this could be up your alley like Carson Kressley.
Starting from the bottom position (the bar will be resting on the pins of a power rack), squat underneath the bar at a point where your upper thighs are at or just below the parallel position.
Much like the front squat, place the bar on the meaty part of your shoulders and up against your neck. You’ll most likely have to fidget around to get into proper position, but the key is to make sure you sit back a bit so that the bulk of your weight is on your heels and not your toes.
Get your air, and try to explode off the pins through your heels. Make sure that when you finish at the top, you get your hips all the way through (stand tall) by squeezing your glutes.
From there, lower the bar under control back to the pins and make sure you come to a dead stop. No bouncing!
Reset yourself at the completion of each rep – maybe change your underpants if you have to – and repeat.
Bulgarian Split Squat Variations
I’d be remiss if I wrote an article on squatting and didn’t include at least two or three single-leg variations.
More than any other exercise we use at Cressey Performance, Bulgarian split squats definitely get the most grief, and rightfully so. They suck! (In a good way, of course.)
As is the case most of the time, it’s the exercises we hate the most that generally yield the most benefit.
I won’t enter the on-going single-leg debate, but single leg squat variations should be considered a staple in any well-rounded strength and conditioning program. Not only do they have plenty of functional carryover to athletics and “real world” events, they’re also a fantastic tool to build strength and hypertrophy while contributing to knee, hip, and lower back health, just to name a few.
Rather than bore you with the humdrum variety, here are some badass alternatives.
Offset Bulgarian Split Squats
I’m a huge advocate of offset loading. Whether referring to carries, presses, or single-leg variations, offset loading is an awesome way to challenge the body in ways it’s normally not accustomed to.
Hold a dumbbell on the same side as the trailing leg. So if your right leg is elevated behind you on a bench, you’ll hold a dumbbell in your right hand.
With regards to (offset) split squats, two main advantages come to fruition. One, the “core” must fire on the contralateral side to prevent the body from falling over, and two, the standing side glute max/glute medius receives a significant external rotation “cue,” something that’s vastly important given most people are walking around with woefully weak glutes in the first place.
If you want to progress this variation even further, increase the range of motion by adding in an elevated step or box underneath the front foot.
Anterior Loaded Bulgarian Split Squats
Similar to front squats, anterior (front) loaded split squats provide a significant stimulus to the core to prevent flexion. Moreover, because the bar is now further away from the body’s center of gravity, the exercise automatically becomes more challenging.
Cross-body Bulgarian Split Squats
And finally, for those looking for a real challenge, one variation that I like to use (although rarely) are asymmetrical loaded Bulgarian split squats, where one (heavier) dumbbell is held in the suitcase position on one side of the body and one (lighter) dumbbell is held overhead on the opposite side. The added benefit, among other things, is learning to “pack” the shoulder back, which will help build scapular stability.
While not an exhaustive list by any stretch, I hope I was able to shed some light on some of the squat variations we use everyday at Cressey Performance given different needs, goals, and injury history. Moreover, I hope you’ve learned a few tricks to help improve your own squatting performance.
Squats may not be deadlifts, but a well-performed squat will deliver results few exercises can match. Use the tips found in this article and get under the bar.