How To Perfect Your Squat

 
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For our September blog we focus on the illustrious Squat. What is the Squat and Why as gym goers/athletes do we recruit it to our training armoury? We’ll then walk you through a detailed step by step guide on how to set up and perform one variation - the Barbell Back Squat. Finally we’ll look into the various but equally popular versions of the squat and why one may use one version vs the other, giving you a clear idea of what level of squat suits your current training needs.

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“The squat is a proven exercise with a compelling body of literature that support its inclusion in both sports performance and recreational exercise programmes.”

 

What is the Squat and Why Use it?

The squat or the weighted squat, is often regarded as the backbone exercise of a strength training regime for a variety of different individuals utilised at various stages during ones training year (1).

The objective of the weighted squat, typically performed with a dumbbell or a barbell, is to overcome a preset load on the bar via a flexion/extension of the hip and knee joints (2). Due to these actions, it is very relatable to a large number of sporting and functional day-to-day actions (sprinting or walking up stairs, respectively). The squat is a proven exercise with a compelling body of literature that support its inclusion in a both sports performance and recreational exercise programmes.

The exercise has many popular variations for the purpose of improving lower limb strength and speed. These include the barbell front squat, the barbell back squat and the barbell overhead squat. All these forms compliment a number of key physiological adaptations including maximum strength, sub-strength, muscular endurance, muscular hypertrophy and early neuromuscular adaptation.

 

The Squat: A Step-by-Step Guide

So whether you’re new to the squat or just want to check in on your technique, below I have explained how you can set up-start-descent-execute your bottom position and finally ascent to the finish position of a barbell back squat. Although there are small and intricate differences from one format to another (back squat vs front squat) the fundamentals remain the same with regards to what's happening in the back, hips, knees and feet.

Squat Preparation

Inline with the SFE steps, before performing any squat exercise it is important to enhance the body's biological response to such a stimulus, therefore a short but appropriate sequence of exercises are listed below for you to use.

  1. MOBILISE – To improve our joint range of motion specific to the action.

Example: Everest climbers (video demo)

 
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Use Our Full 5 minute Warm-Up Routine to Prepare Yourself for Every Training Session

2. ACTIVATE – To innervate appropriate muscle groups linked to mechanical action.

 Example: Band Abductions (video demo)

 
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3. POTENTIATE -  This might not be something you’ve come across before. It’s purpose is to excite appropriate neuromuscular demand to optimise fast twitch fibre contractual quality.

 Example: Eccentric Squat Jumps (skip this one if you aren’t allowed to any jumping due to injury)

 
 

Now you have primed you body for lifting, let's make sure you set up your apparatus accordingly. Check out the diagram below of a step by step guide on how you enter the rack and un-rack a barbell in an approach to successfully squatting.


The Set Up:

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* Appreciate that taller or less mobile trainers may benefit from a wider stance to facilitate the depth you wish to acquire (coming up next). Now you're ready to get squatting.

The Squat Execution

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Remember to re-rack the bar back safely by stepping forward, checking either side of the rack to ensure you dock safely and can freely step away.


FINDING THE RIGHT SQUAT FOR YOU

Below is a brief description of each popular and proven version of the squat and a brief overview of its merits and where it fits in the training progression pathway.

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Body Weight Squat (Video Demo)

Ideal for : Beginners

The body weight squat is our most purest of squats as it quickly identifies what our capabilities are. Some of us are going to be new to this so this movement is going to be our go to for seeing where we are at.

This movement is performed with no weight or load other than our own body. Finding a free space and practising your squat couldn't be simpler and better practised as it doesn't require a gym or equipment.

Struggling with getting low enough? Work on your Squat Mobility

 
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Dumbbell Heartbeat Squat (Video Demo)

Ideal For : Wanting to perfect your technique

This exercise is performed with either a light kettlebell or dumbbell which you horizontally extend as you descend into the bottom position of the squat. This allows you to distribute your body weight through the back on your heels and create a more vertical spine position.

 
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Kettlebell/Dumbbell Goblet Squat (Video Demo)

Ideal For : The Advancing Novice (before the Barbell)

The goblet squat is similar to the heart beat squat in that it allows you to squat deeper with your centre of mass over your base of support, thus promoting a more advanced squat and ultimately maximising strength development.

The difference comes with the position and load of the weight. The load is positioned inline and in contact with the chest. Due to the load being a lot closer to the body you can lift a heavier load and challenge your ability to perform with excellence.


 

Barbell Back Squat (Video Demo)

Ideal For: Moving onto using a Barbell

The back squat is the pinnacle of all the squat variations. Technically less complex than the front squat and racked posteriorly, with the bar resting between the upper traps and the shoulder musculature. Due to the position of the bar, with the added support of the back musculature, you can maximise on the load lifted (assuming vertical posture is flawless in the bottom and ascending position).


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Barbell Front Squat (Video Demo)

Ideal For : Targets more quads & core, great variation to alternate with back squat.

The front squat is technically challenging but, with practice and familiarisation, can be mastered quickly. The most testing facet of the front squat is the ability to rack the bar anteriorly, in between the base of the neck and the shoulder musculature. All while the fingertips rest in between the bar and shoulder with elbows up and directed forward, allowing the upper arms to be parallel with the floor (you will likely lift less on the front squat compared to your back squat).

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Barbell Overhead Squat

Ideal For : Advanced lifter as requires greater mobility throughout the body, especially upper thoracic.

The overhead squat is the first of three in the territory of technically advanced versions of the squat with a barbell. The overhead segment challenges you to maintain alignment of the bar over the top of your head while performing the entire process of the squat.

Key aspects to promote during this lift include keeping the armpits and elbows up and visible in front of you, keeping the elbows fully extended as well as keeping the bar directly above your head to ensure a stable position throughout the movement. (key prerequisite to grasp a vertical spine under load).

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A little about the Author - Jack Davies

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Bristol based Jack is an ex-elite level rugby and field hockey athlete who naturally transitioned into the role of Coaching. Joining the SFE Coaching Team in 2019, he has a Degree in Sports Coaching, a Masters Degree in Sports Strength and Conditioning and is accredited by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association. When he’s not coaching here at the studio or watching rugby, Jack loves to write - looking to bring the latest literature to life, providing practical applications to optimise your programming and performance.


References

(1) Williams, M. J., Gibson, N. V., Sorbie, G. G., Ugbolue, U. C., Brouner, J., Easton, C. (2018). Activation of the gluteus maximum during performance of the back squat, split squat and barbell hip thrust and the relationship with maximal sprinting. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 00, 0-9.

 (2) Escamilla R. F., Fleisig G. S., Lowry T. M., Barrentine S. W. , Andrews J. R. (2001).  A 3 dimensional biomechanical analysis of the squat during varying stance widths. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 33, 984-998.