Want to teach someone how to squat properly from scratch? Don’t use a bodyweight squat- add some front loaded weight instead. It’s a far easier and more effective way to diagnose the limitations on good squat patterning with more carry over to sports performance.
This article covers how to teach someone to squat from scratch using the Corrective Theme of the Exercise Encyclopedia where a Bodyweight Squat features at level 4 after some decent loading opportunities at levels 1-3.
Using load to teach Squatting to a beginner sounds counterintuitive and Crossfitters the world over will tell you an Air Squat is the simplest form of a squat and where coaches often start with a lot of newbies. There’s a far easier way, which uses external load as a positive constraint on movement to teach the correct mechanics of a squat.
Being able to demonstrate a sound BW Squat is important, but not for training purposes:
Body weight squats are pretty useless as a training means as there’s little adaptive load or options aside from volume to progressively overload.
In saying that, it is important to be able to demonstrate a good body weight squat:
1. Many athletes will tell you they squat better and deeper with load on their back. I’m not a massive fan of using load to force athletes through joint ranges of motion that they don’t have unloaded so if I’m going to use squats to get strong I want to see that you can do a BW Squat.
2. Most sports are undertaken as a body moving unloaded in space without external load. It’s important to be able to perform well balanced squat motions (and it’s many derivatives) with minimal external load at various paces.
3. Squatting is a foundationary skill for many plyometrics which are mostly performed unloaded at rapid speeds. Freedom of movement without external load (see point 1.) is essential if you expect good postures at speed with plyometrics.
Use the Squat Category progression to teach squatting
The Exercise Encyclopedia lays out a progression for squatting organised by movement complexity. Each Exercise Category is organised into 12 levels. Level 1 is the most simple variant of the Squat Category and Level 12 is the most complex expression of that same category.
The Squat progression provides a coaching method that developing practitioners can follow to scaffold their coaching skills and develop movement competency in their athletes.
So with a complete beginner or a youngster with access to good range of motion, where should you start?
Exercise Progression Level 1: Dumbell Goblet Squat
Front loading a squat is what I’d call a positive constraint on movement. It encourages the movement that I want. The external load encourages the athlete to stack and stiffen the lumbar spine in a good position. The load being in front of the torso also encourages a more upright posture which is what we want with our more complex loaded squats and plyometrics.
By applying a constraint on the Squat pattern (i.e., the dumbell), we have a positive effect on movement. This is a constraints based approach to coaching which features throughout the Exercise Encyclopedia for it’s many benefits to motor learning.
Let’s review the Bodyweight Squat through the same lens of exercise constraints and examine why it’s not a good choice for beginners:
Without external load in place (i.e., a BW Squat), newbie athletes in particular lack the awareness or the feedback to know what shape their spine is in and often round in the lower back (flexion) or fold over forward.
We can try and coach them into a different spinal shape (e.g., “Chest Up a bit) but that often leads to overcompensation the other way into over-extension. The athlete is now dependent upon our words as feedback for quality movement.
With no constraints to drive positive movement the athlete is often lost in a sea of options.
The Dumbell Goblet Squat (or any front squat derivative for that matter) is effective because it forces the athlete to prioritise Lumbar Spine posture, that is- it removes one of the handful of options available to the athlete. Intuitively, as humans when we hold a load in front and on our shoulder our lumbar spine and pelvis will fall into an optimal alignment- whatever that is for us. This is really helpful for coaching as it’s tricky to talk people into this position.
The more challenging the load (to a point), the stronger this constraint is. If you pick a 2.5kg dumbell it’s not going to work so pick something like a 5-10kg for a 10-15y/o and more like a 12.5-15kg for a beginner adult (I’ve often worked up to ~25-30kg with adolescents in entry level training blocks, such is the rate of progression with this simple exercise.
Investigating any restrictions at the earliest stage:
Because the spine is so mobile in the saggital plane (flexion or extension), we often see compensations in spinal posture in athletes as a compensation for hip, ankle and shoulder dysfunction.
With spinal posture constrained, prioritised and locked into a good position by the load, we now expose hip mobility in deep flexion and ankle dorsiflexion range of motion that would have derailed a Body Weight Squat. It’s worth working these issues out as they not only create an obstacle in Long Term Athletic Development but also present a modifiable risk factor for many injuries seen in sport. You could break out from here into targeted mobility methods (e.g., knee to wall testing, hip internal-external mobility drills in deep flexion).
Why can’t we use a Bodyweight Squat to diagnose movement restrictions?
The reason we can’t use a Body Weight Squat to do the same is that the Lumbar Spine is able to reorientate itself to compensate for, or hide these issues by flexing or extending.
Given that my absolute Number 1 priority for any athlete is lumbar spine posture I really don’t want to proceed with training knowing that my athlete’s got ankle and hip restrictions that compromise lumbar spine health and performance.
Next Steps for your coaching:
The Exercise Library is about layering motor control on top of excellent technique one step at a time. You could progress straight from a DB Goblet Squat to a BW Squat test but there’s some value in progressing through these 2 exercises on your way.
Much like a BW Squat, a Dumbell Goblet is pretty limited for loading opportunities so it is important to progress to more complex options so we can load with more weight.
The Encyclopedia shows you the way by layering movement challenges one step at a time. In order to retain authentic quality movement with exercise progression, an athlete can only really attend to one new coaching cue at a time.
Exercise Progression Levels 2 and 3: Barbell Goblet Squat & Double Kettlebell Squat
2) Barbell Goblet Squat– a touch more shoulder range of motion and a helluva lot more loading opportunities.
We ask the athlete to balance the bar on the ridge formed by the anterior deltoids when the elbows stay high. Compared to a DB Goblet Squat grip (i.e., cupping the DB with elbows under wrist) this is a more challenging position for the shoulder but still not particularly difficult for most people.
The barbell affords for much more load to be added to create a challenge that way. This is probably the main benefit- while you are teaching someone the basics of squatting, you can get them stronger at the same time and I use this exercise all the time to do so.
It’s not a particularly fashionable exercise, but it allows me to effectively load the lower body safe in the knowledge that lumbar spine health and performance is prioritised for.
3) Double Kettlebell Squat– a more upright torso and a touch more shoulder range of motion again
Here we have the shoulders in a position that resembles the front-rack position of a front squat yet it is made less demanding by the wrists being in a neutral position. With the Kettlebells being much wider in diameter than a barbell their centre of mass sits further away from the body. This is another positive constraint that requires a more upright torso and greater range of motion demand on the hips and ankles as a result.
The load isn’t particularly adaptive with this exercise compared to the Barbell Goblet Squat so this is more suitable as a warm up drill in more mature athletes.
… And then you might test that Squat pattern with no load
So once you can do all these squat derivatives, there’s a very strong possibility that you can do a very competent Body Weight Squat. Use it as a test. Can they do it? Yes or No? If No, choose another Exercise Category to get your maximal loading from and keep working on Corrective Strategies. If yes, move on to more intense loading and open up a world of plyometric progressions…. or if you really fancy it you can do 200 of them EMOM, in a circuit with kipping sit-ups if the spirit moves you 😉
Front loaded squat derivatives prioritise lumbar spine posture providing a coaching window to examine hip and ankle function in a deep squat. This creates an advantage over Bodyweight Squats for beginners by constraining some of the many movement choices available and forcing range of motion deficiencies to emerge for you to tackle directly.