There is no one size-fits-all with any exercise, and this truism couldn’t be more evident than with the squat. The squat has so many variations that coaches can spend years in the industry learning and forgetting the myriad of options that could fit into a client’s program.
The key for a successful coach is knowing which variations are always an option.
It all starts with properly assessing a client’s squat and identifying their strengths and weaknesses, as doing so is critical to the success and safety of a training program. We’ve previously written a detailed guide to assessing a client’s squat, which dives into the anatomy and function of the client and the squat itself (click here to read How to Correctly and Properly Assess a Client’s Squat). Once you know how to set your client up to squat safely and effectively, the next step is to find out an appropriate starting point for your client.
Before your client squats, ask yourself this question.
There’s an important question to consider:
Which squat variation would be best suited for your client’s long-term success?
For example, a goblet squat may serve as a great teacher for handling load and weight distribution. A TRX-assisted squat can get someone who goes on their toes to move more into their hips. This just means that no one squat variation is better or worse than another. In fact, one exercise might be great for one person, but horrible for someone else.
It is therefore important to judge the validity of a regression, progression, or modification against the needs and abilities of the individual and not against other exercises.
At the same time, each variation has its benefits and compromises on safety. A successful coach understands the positives and negatives behind all possible squat variants, as well as when and why a particular squat form or modality is appropriate for a client.
Prior to jumping into the myriad of variations of squats that exist, it is important to refresh your knowledge on what a squat is, what it isn’t, and what universal coaching techniques are applicable, regardless of which modality you choose.
If you don’t know squat about squats, you have no business coaching it.
A squat is the basis of human movement. Its benefits go beyond the gym and have the potential to improve one’s quality of life through better, pain-free movement. Squats can be used for any training goal and for any population, as long as the correct variation is selected for and taught to the client. Everything from hands to feet should be considered as potential areas of improvement.
Depending on the variation, nearly every muscle in the human body is activated during a squat. The dominant muscle groups that drive a traditional squat, loaded or unloaded, are the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, anterior core, and spinal erectors. The abductor and adductor groups, internal and external obliques, the pelvic floor, gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior, lattisimus dorsi, rhomboids, lower trapezius, and tyrannosaurus rexius are all critical stabilizers and assistance muscles, too.
Everyone will have a squat configuration that is unique to him or her, just like a fingerprint, so it’s imperative to pay very close attention to its execution. Even a strong squatter can present deviations that limit performance or put their body at risk of injury. A great coach understands why people must squat differently. (For a more complete guide to assessing the individual client, check out our article where we go over in excruciating detail the finer points of the squat.)
6 essential squat cues for you to steal
There are certain things that should and shouldn’t occur during a squat pattern, regardless of variation.
1. Weight should be pressed through the midfoot toward the heel. Moreover, this application of pressure should be focused on the outside of the foot and not the instep, aiding in abduction of the knees.
a. Cues: “Press the floor down” or “ Corkscrew into the ground with your big toe, pinky toe, and heel”
2. The knees should be over the toes for most, slightly behind the toes for others, and could be in front of those with longer legs. For the longest time, the focus was on keeping the knees behind the toes to protect them from injury. But some individuals, like those with short or long femurs, present different biomechanics in their squat, making this okay and safe for them.
a. Cue: “Sit back and down.”
3. The knees should abduct, or move away from the midline of the body, during the squat. This does not endorse excessive opening of the femurs away from each other. Rather, the goal is to maintain as close to neutral as possible and avoid valgus collapse. As a side note, some may present a minor “jerk” inwards under load, but remain relatively neutral throughout the movement. These individuals may need abductor strength, or this may be how they translate force. In either case, just lend a careful eye.
a. Cues: “Rotate your knees out” or “Open the floor with your knees”
4. The hips go back, but should not overreach as they would in a hinge or deadlift position. The pelvis should only tilt so far as to allow enough space for the client to descend safely. Overreaching of the spine can cause the lumbar spine to overextend, which over time can lead to injury or discomfort for most clients.
a. Cue: “Reach for a chair behind you, but don’t knock it over.”
5. The spine should stay long and as upright as the form of squatting will allow. For example, a powerlifter will have more forward lean on a 1RM back squat than someone performing a bodyweight squat.
a. Cues: “Chest up, butt back”, or “Proud chest, proud booty”, or “Tall and tight”
6. The client should face forward and stare about forty feet in front of him. Arms will adapt to modality, but scapula should always remain as retracted and depressed as possible.
a. Cue: “Eyes forward, chest up, tight back”, or “Poke your head out of the tall grass”
Here are 5 squat variations you’ve probably never tried.
Let’s look at some of the exercises that I and other great coaches have worked into our programs to successfully help clients achieve their best results. Remember, no exercise is better or worse in isolation–only different.
1. Bear Squat
The bear squat is the safest variation a client can execute. Done from the quadruped position, it creates an opportunity to coach foot position, hip abduction, core stability and tension management, and proper tempo.
It uses a Swiss ball which is placed behind the hips, on top of the heels, and against a wall. The Swiss ball provides a gradient of tension for a client to sit into, which can help demonstrate the effects of load upon their muscular system. This same effect can be created with a resistance band that has been attached to a power rack.
Place the client in the quadruped position (palms, knees, and toes on the floor). Coach the clients to abduct their hips and slightly move their feet inwards, which places their knees wider than their toes, like how a baby would crawl.
Starting from just north of a 90-degree angle at the knees, coach the clients to sit back into their heels, and load their hips. This movement should create a feeling in the hamstrings, glutes, and hip musculature.
The hands stay firmly braced with attention toward maintaining tension within the lats, core muscles, and spine. Remaining tall and tight is the goal.
2. Two Kettlebell Offset Squat
The offset two kettlebell squat from Andy Van Grinsven serves as a progression from the traditional kettlebell goblet squat that doesn’t force someone under a bar. Additionally, this squat tends to be more wrist friendly than some barbell squat variations because the weight is shifted, or “offset,” to one side.
This variation emphasizes properties of anti-rotation, which makes it great for any program. It also provides a rotational/lateral flexion core stability component. Andy is quick to point out that “it works your abs” to those clients who love to feel their core challenged on every move. This way the coach and client both win: the client’s abs get worked over while the coach reinforces a good squat pattern.
Using two kettlebells of different weight, squat between the knees until elbows pass the inside of the thighs. Drive through hips until your client locks out.
Complete 5-8 repetitions before swapping the kettlebells so that each side is worked equally and repeat.
Coach the client to stay “tall and tight” when doing this squat with weights. This will prevent any lean toward the heavier kettlebell or the lighter one to compensate for instability.
3. Landmine Squat
The landmine squat by Travis Pollen is much like the goblet squat. It is a great alternative for lifters who can’t tolerate loading across the collarbone or need to learn how to brace their core against an anterior load.
There are several ways to include this in a program: Place the landmine squat at the beginning of workouts and go heavy, use it later in the workout with lighter loads for hypertrophy, or include it as part of a landmine complex for conditioning.
Jam a barbell into a landmine (also called an extreme core trainer) or into the corner of a room. Pick the barbell up at the opposite end and clean it up into a front rack position at about chest height.
Instruct your client to go down to parallel (or slightly below it) while keeping a fairly upright torso. Pause in the bottom squatting position and “push the floor away” to return to standing.
As you add more and more weight to the bar, it may become unwieldy to get it into position. Jam a bench between your client and the wall to prop the bar up so that your client doesn’t have to pick it off the floor every set.
Keep an eye on a client’s ability to sit back and avoid letting her “lean” into the barbell for leverage.
4. Hanging Squat With Elevation
The elevated hanging dumbbell or kettlebell squat by a colleague of mine, Whitney Kling, is great for those clients who may not have the upper body strength to goblet squat a load, or have trouble holding kettlebells in the racked position. This variation accommodates a greater load to stimulate progress in the lower body without putting a client in discomfort.
Elevate both feet onto separate risers, like an aerobic step or stack of weight plates. There should be enough space to fit a kettlebell or dumbbell on the floor between their feet. The purpose of the added elevation is for the client to achieve full depth without the weight hitting the floor.
The client should grab the weight with long arms, a tall spine, and neutral neck. Cueing the client to squeeze his arms into his body to create tension in the upper torso helps resist kyphosis of the spine, or internal rotation of the shoulders.
He may feel compelled to go into a hinge as the weight gets heavier or further away from the center of mass. Ensure that the client is aware he should keep an upright torso and sit the hips down until the knees are 90 degrees. Another way to cue this is to put him in front of a mirror and tell him to make sure he can see the front of his shirt in the mirror at all times.
5. Hatfield Squat (with Safety Squat Bar)
Lastly, Chris Cooper provides an awesome barbell variation to the traditional back squat, the Hatfield Squat. This variation requires a safety squat bar. The upper body assistance helps push past plateaus in lower body strength while keeping the squat form in check. Moreover, it serves as a great lateralization for the barbell back squat by also creating a significant training effect and letting clients refine the pattern under load.
Set and load a safety squat bar as you would normally set a barbell for squatting in a rack. Have your client back out of the rack with the loaded safety bar and grab the rack for assistance. It is best done by grabbing around hip height.
As your client descends, tighten the core and open the hips. Coach this as “pushing the knees apart” or “spreading the floor.” The core should be braced and sturdy to prevent spinal flexion.
Once your client hits appropriate depth, have them pull on the rack to assist in the upward drive. This assistance helps train the vertical drive necessary to successfully complete a barbell squat while utilizing assistance to manage load and safety.
Coach a controlled repetition to eliminate the bar from bouncing without support on a client’s shoulders.
In summary, whether you’re grooving the squat pattern or looking for new ways to apply load, there are a bevy of options that you can tinker with. Remember, know your client and what they want to achieve, then understand how the squat pattern and its many variations can help get them there safely. Lastly, have fun and coach your heart out.