22 Dec 6 Killer Squat Progressions: A Practical Guide For Advancing The Squat

BBSquatIs there anything more debated in fitness than the squat?

Is there anything more fundamental in fitness that the squat?

The squat and it’s variations are regarded as one of the most effective , if not the most effective exercise, to build total body strength and enhance functional and athletic performance.

When I started training years ago, the squat was always one of my favorites and still is.

I was a “squatter” for as long as I can think of, basically as soon as I had access to a barbell and a squat rack.

I remember back in the old gym where I started training, there were lots of big guys, but they either ignored or didn’t focus on leg training and I never really understood why.

I was fortunate to actually enjoy training legs and fortunately my legs responded well.

Back then, I did squats primarily for muscular hypertrophy, it had nothing to do with movement or performance.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know “jack squat” about the squat.

My understanding of the movement today is completely different.

It’s one of the most fundamental and important movements a human performs, but what’s interesting is that we seem to lose the simple ability to perform a full range of motion deep squat as we get older.

Squatting is the ultimate performance measure of mobility, stability, quality of movement, and strength (when we load the movement pattern).

Before I cover my progressions, I want to dive a little deeper into the benefits.

MOBILITY

As I just mentioned, squats are incredible for mobility, specifically the hips, the knees, and the ankles.

If there are any mobility or flexibility issues in the lower extremities, they’ll be revealed in the squat pattern.

This is one reason why the FMS is such a valid screening tool for movement and mobility, as the first part of the screen includes an unloaded overhead squat.

Joint restrictions and tight muscles will limit the ability to perform a full functional squat.

Full range of motion and the capacity to perform quality movement is essential.

Unfortunately, people do have restrictions with joint mobility or muscular flexibility that limit the ability.

However, one of the great things is that the squat and squat related drills can help to restore mobility, if done in a systematic and progressive approach.

The squat is incredibly valuable for maintaining, restoring, and improving mobility that is required for optimal performance and daily living.

MOTOR CONTROL

Motor control is the process by which humans use their neuromuscular system to activate and coordinate the muscles and limbs involved in the performance of a motor skill.

Think of it this way, it’s the communication between the brain and the nervous system to enable us to properly move through a movement pattern, exercise, or lift.

Sometimes the challenge with a squat is not necessarily a mobility or flexibility issue, but a motor control issue, meaning we haven’t figured out how to move properly.

This becomes a challenge as we have to learn or re-learn how to move and fire the muscular system appropriately.

Again, this is something that can be learned, developed, and improved, if coached properly.

The bottom line is that the squat teaches us how to move more efficiently, which is motor learning.

If we improve our motor control with a squat, we improve our function, performance, and minimize risk for injury.

MUSCLE ACTIVATION

Muscle activation is different from motor control, but they are related.

Let me explain what I mean.

Depending on the type of squat that’s being performed the muscle activation (or firing) will be different.

Let’s take back squats compared to overhead squats, for example.

In a recent published studythe EMG (muscle activity) and kinetic comparison of these two squats were evaluated.

Surprisingly, this was the first study done to compare these two different squat types on muscle activation.

What this study found was that the overhead squat demonstrated greater activity of the anterior trunk muscles (the rectus abdominis and  external oblique) during the eccentric phase of the overhead squat, but the magnitude of difference was relatively small.

In contrast, the back squat displayed significantly greater muscular activity in the posterior aspect of the spinal musculature and all lower body muscles during the concentric phase.

Additionally, the back squat had much greater peak force compared to the front squat.

Is this surprising and what does this really tell us?

It tells us that the muscle activation will be different depending on the squat variation that’s being performed.

In the progressions below, each is a little different in terms of muscle activity.

When you look at the different progressions, there is different muscle activity for each aqua type.

While the muscle activation may be relatively small, there are differences and this is something that can be experienced by performing each squat type.

PERFORMANCE/FUNCTION

The simple bodyweight squat is an important way to assess function and performance.

If we can’t squat well in an unloaded movement, we certainly won’t be able to squat well under the bar or with a kettlebell.

Again, we need to be able to squat on a daily basis to perform normal activities, such as getting up out of a chair, getting in and out of a car, etc.

Think about how many times we squat every single day, transitioning from sit to stand.

And, the ability to effectively squat is also essential for athleticism and almost every sport.

If we don’t have the ability to squat, our bodies are not operating at full capacity.

You could say that it’s the “gold standard” for functional performance, which is one reason why it’s so heavily discussed in the fitness community.

What is important to realize, however, is that there are different squat styles and variations.

What is universal is that there are certain basic mechanical principles that should never be violated.

No matter what squat type is performed, things to AVOID would include:

  • Forward flexion of the spine 
  • Valgus knee collapse (knees caving in)
  • Knees traveling too far forward in relation to the foot
  • Bad foot position (ex. excessive pronation, supination, or heel rise)
  • Improper breathing technique

When I was a physical therapist we would spend a significant amount of time in the rehab setting working on the squat pattern because of the functional carryover to daily living and also athletic performance.

There’s no one that wouldn’t benefit from the ability to better perform a fundamental squat.

And, many corrections may be coachable, learnable, and correctable for most people.

This is why it’s important to get checked out by a quality coach, trainer, or movement evaluator.

STRENGTH

Now, that we established a better understanding about the value of the squat movement, we can start to discuss the squat continuum.

Once we have the ability to perform a efficient, safe, quality squat pattern, then we can start to load the pattern and progress into different loaded exercise progressions, which I’ll discuss below.

When under a heavy load, as performed with barbell training, everything is firing and working, that’s why I’ve always been such a huge fan of the barbell squat.

If a goal is to get bigger and stronger, one of the best ways to do that is with a barbell back squat.

But, I can’t stress the importance enough of having the ability to perform an effective squat pattern and understanding the mechanics of a proper squat.

To get strong we must train strong, but we must have the prerequisite baseline movement prior to loading the movement, this point should be clear.

THE CONTINUUM: The 6 Squat Progressions

A continuum is a sequence or progression.

Let’s talk about the squat continuum.

One more time, it’s essential to begin with a quality unloaded squat pattern.

That means full range of motion and a good demonstration of mobility, stability, and quality of movement.

If a squat is limited due to mobility issues or a motor control issue, extra time will be needed to attempt to correct the pattern, but let’s be honest, not everything is “fixable.”

That’s the skill of assessing and addressing deficits or limitations in movement patterns and being able to determine if the limitation is, in fact, correctable.

And, this is the coach’s role in proper assessment.

Assuming a satisfactory squat is established through regressions, biomechanical changes, or correctives, there are certain progressions in the squat exercise.

Here’s my preferred continuum for the squat based on a systematic progression from a lower demand to a higher demand under load.

This certainly could be altered depending on available tools and specific training goals.

SquatProgressionLet’s take a look at the squat continuum.

1-THE GOBLET SQUAT

The kettlebell goblet squat is the most accessible starting point for loading the squat pattern.

Using a single kettlebell, The goblet squat allows a lighter load in the front of the body and is fairly easy to perform for most that already have demonstrated a good quality movement and full range of motion.

The picture below demonstrates a slightly different variation, as what I’m doing here is a “prying” goblet squat where I’m working on increasing hip and ankle mobility at the bottom of the squat.

Goblet

One of the great benefits of the goblet squat is that it can be used to maintain and further improve mobility.

The goblet squat and the “prying” goblet squat are exceptional for mobility.

Performing the goblet squat with a “tall spine” is critical to the effectiveness of the exercise.

Remember, going back to things we want to avoid, we want to avoid any forward flexion or rounding of the spine.

If good movement is present, the goblet squat is the first step in the squat continuum.

Key Benefit:

Movement and mobility. Excellent general strength and conditioning exercise, but limitation is the ability the use maximal load.

2-THE ZERCHER SQUAT

The zercher squat is a very effective squat variation that’s extremely underutilized, in my opinion.

If you asked most people what a zercher squat is, they probably would have no idea.

And, I didn’t know either until just a few years ago, to be completely honest.

It was only in recent years that I became aware of this squat variation and much thanks to Pavel Tsatsouline for teaching me about the benefits of the zercher.

The zercher squat is a barbell front squat where the barbell is placed in the folds of the elbows, as shown below.

Zercher

What is the rationale for this?

Well, it’s a very self-correcting squat and it’s very easy to perform for most people.

Most people that I teach this to, they will demonstrate excellent mechanics because of the way you have to hold the bar, you’re almost forced to perform a good squat pattern.

The challenge that most people have with it is that it can be uncomfortable with the barbell loaded in the crook of the arms, but this simply takes some getting used to in the initial stages of learning.

If the bar pressure bothers you, wear long sleeves if you must, but don’t use a towel as the towel can slip out of position.

The abdominal contraction is unbelievable as the load is increased anteriorly with the zercher.

The great thing about it, as I said is that it’s self-correcting – which means it’s difficult to do incorrectly.

Key Benefit:

Helps to build a strong squat pattern, self-correcting, easy to learn, and effectively targets the anterior chain. Also helps build strength in other key lifts.

3-DOUBLE KETTLEBELL FRONT SQUAT

The double kettlebell front squat (DKBFS) is another progression that can be learned fairly easily once a good goblet squat pattern is established and loads are sufficient.

This is, of course, providing the individual has proficiency with double kettlebells as you will have to clean the kettlebells to the rack position.

An alternative to the DKBFS would be the single kettlebell racked squat, although this would be different in terms of load and muscle activation.

As the name suggests, the DKBFS is obviously more load using double kettlebells, therefore, it’s more challenging.

DKBFSQ

It would be interesting to see the muscle activation as measured with EMG with the DKBFS.

Those who have done this know how intense it can be firing the anterior muscles just holding the double bells in place.

Similar to the zercher, but the bells are held higher, therefore we could speculate there would be more anterior muscle activation if comparing similar loads.

There’s no question, this is a very intense and effective exercise.

Key Benefit: 

More load and more demand that single kettlebell work.  Effectively builds anterior chain strength. Added benefit of strengthening the arms and delts.  Taxing total body exercise.

4-THE BARBELL FRONT SQUAT

The barbell front squat (FSQ) is the next logical progression (*pictured at the top of this post).

The barbell allows you to use much heavier loads than using kettlebells and the front squat builds monster quad strength.

As in the previous progressions, the torso is in a very upright position during the barbell front squat.

There are a couple of different ways to do a barbell front squat in regards to the hands and arm positioning, however the position of the bar will remain positioned on the anterior deltoid.

My preference to have people perform the FSQ is with the elbows up and out slightly, although this can be challenging on shoulder, elbow, and wrist mobility.

There are many great mobility exercises to help improve the front rack barbell position.

As compared to the back squat, which we cover next, the torso will remain much more upright due to the position of the barbell in the front of the body.

You cannot lean forward in a front squat without losing the barbell, so in that sense it is also self-correcting and will keep your body in a more vertical position.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of the barbell front squat.

Key Benefit:

Strong developer for quad strength and all anterior chain musculature. Teaches good squat mechanics. Translates to improved performance in other lifts (ex. Olympic weightlifting). Easy to learn, providing good mobility.

5-THE BARBELL BACK SQUAT

The barbell back squat is arguably the king of strength exercises.

The primary reason to perform the barbell back squat is to get bigger and stronger.

There are significant differences between the front squat and back squat, most notably is the different emphasis on anterior chain vs posterior chain, which the back squat being more posterior chain dominant.

There are different styles, for example there is a low bar technique or high bar technique depending on the goal.

BackSquat

The low bar technique is more of a power lifter style and is more hip dominant.

The high bar technique is more Olympic weightlifting style is is more quad dominant.

It will also keep the torso in a more upright position.

There are many details and technical aspects of the loaded back squat, however if a good unloaded squat pattern is present there will usually be a good loaded squat pattern, as well.

To fully understand the biomechanical principles of the back squat, I highly recommend reading Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.

Foot position, spine position, and knee position are just some of the critical components of a safe loaded squad pattern (as previously mentioned) and these are key things to really be aware of when doing loaded barbell squats.

Also, we want to minimize pelvic motion, we do not want excessive mobility in the pelvis when performing heavy barbell back squats, we want this to be very stable.

Proper breathing is also critical to stabilize the trunk and pelvis and maintain a “rigid cylinder” (or abdominal brace) when squatting.

Again, there are many details beyond the scope of this article in regards to the technique of the back squat.

Key Benefit:

The barbell back squat is considered to king of all lifts.  For total body size and strength, the barbell back squat is essential and a pillar in any program. 

SNATCHbar

6-THE OVERHEAD SQUAT 

Finally, as I mentioned, the overhead squat is an excellent developer of the trunk musculature and will maintain continuous isometric contraction that is required throughout the overhead squat movement.

The overhead barbell squat is also outstanding for mobility, as well as strength.

You could make a case that the overhead squat could be earlier in the continuum, however, the overhead stability and mobility demand is typically much more demanding for people in a loaded position, which is why I have it last in this continuum.

If we go back to performing squats from low demand to high demand, this is the most challenging, without question.

The mobility required for the shoulders, trunk, and wrists make the lift a high level challenge.

It is an essential component in Olympic weightlifting as demonstrated in the catch position of the barbell snatch.

And, it’s important to note that the wider the grip, the less shoulder mobility is required, but the more demand on the wrist.

The more narrow the grip, the more demanding on the shoulders, but less stress on the wrists.

You should understand how the grip position impacts the overhead position.

Spinal stabilization and the actual work required just feels much greater with the overhead squat exercise.

It’s a wonderful exercise, but a very demanding and challenging one.

Key Benefit:

A high level of mobility, stability, and strength required to perform the lift.  Of all the squat variations, the overhead squat is the one that offers the most mobility and core strength.

As I wrap up this continuum, there’s one final point.

As with any exercise, understand why you are doing it and make sure it will help you move closer towards the goals you’re working to achieve.

Questions? Let me know.

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Scott Iardella writes about strength training methods to optimize health and performance. If you enjoyed this article, join a strong and growing community of passionate fitness enthusiasts and subscribe below to get a ton of cool, free stuff!
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