How Are You Teaching the Squat?

drawing courtesy of

drawing courtesy of

You have a young athlete who walks into your weight room for the very first time. He has never participated in exercise other than his youth football games a few times a week, let alone any sort of weight training. You decide you want your athletes to squat today, so you grab a 25-pound kid bar, have the athlete put it on his/her back and instruct to squat down and come back up.

You notice it looks terrible. The athlete’s body flies all other the place, knees are caving in, and heels are no where close to the ground. What do you do now?

The real question is, what should you have done first?

At Performance Edge in Lansdowne, Virginia, Dave Mikel and his staff take each athlete (and adult) through an initial evaluation. Not every person moves the same, so why do the same thing?

As a strength coach, this assessment is key in observing how well athletes move, their training age, and knowledge base of training. Determining each individual’s strengths, weaknesses and deficiencies drives how we begin and progress each individuals programming. Simply sitting down and standing up may seem simple, but for an athlete who doesn’t have these patterns ingrained in them, you will need to figure out how to cue, coach, and progress and regress the squat.

Owner J.L. Holdsworth from The Spot Athletics, in Columbus, Ohio utilizes a very simple yet effective process in teaching the squat that we at Performance Edge believe in as well.

“The programing should adhere to the needs of the individual, not the individual meeting the needs of the program!”
J.L. Holdsworth

Wall Squats 

The first progressions that JL will have an athlete do are wall squats. These squats use an internal cueing method that makes an athlete conscious of keeping their chest up and sitting their butt back first to avoid “eating” the wall.

“Not all athletes need to start here, it is just a good drill to put them into if they are having trouble grasping the pattern.”
J.L. Holdsworth

Cues: What you will see with a lot of young athletes is that they break at their knees before the hips. Continue to tell them “hips back first” and “hips back”. Another big issue is that athletes often keep their chests down. Yes, you can say “chest up, look up”, but some kids still won’t understand it.

“Let me see your logo” is a great cue for athletes. This will keep their chest up by thinking about having to show you the “TROPHIES STACKIN” logo on their shirt (or whatever logo is on their shirt that day). “Knees out” and “spread the floor” are also some good internal and external cues to get kids to keep their knees out, especially when coming up from a squat.

Box Squat

Box squatting is an excelling squatting drill to get your athletes to think about “hips back.” JL starts his athletes here before they move on to a free squat to really engage that posterior chain when squatting. Coaching points for the box squat include a wider stance, toes pointing out, hips back first, knees should not come over their toes, nice controlled descent to the box, don’t “plop” on the box, and stand straight up without the knees shifting forward.

If an athlete is still unable to grasp the concept of controlling themselves to the box, build the box height higher. This means that their hamstrings and glutes are so weak that they won’t let them descend without falling down. If they can do a great box squat, load it goblet style with a dumbbell or kettlebell.

Getting to depth: Weak glutes or poor hip and ankle mobility will stop any athletes from hitting depth in the squat. So how do we fix this? One method is putting plates under their heels. This automatically puts them into a hinge, so it is a smoother transition into the squatting pattern. This also helps with ankle mobility as well.
Another good drill is to have an athlete put plates under their heels and stand in front of a box while holding a light plate out in front of them. Then they must squat down until the plate hits the box and hold. Make sure the box is an appropriate height, and keep the athlete down in that position to feel what it is like for their glutes to be working hard at the bottom of a squat.

Depending on your standards, proper depth is the most difficult aspect of squat technique to ascertain. As a coach, this simple fact is why the goblet, front, or even box squat is such a valuable progression and regression. Depth will be the most prevalent discrepancy when transitioning to the [back] squat.
– Mark Watts

Free Squatting

Box squatting is a great drill and very good for athletes, however, it still won’t make you better at the squat. Take away the box and move into a kettlebell goblet squat. JL recommends starting older athletes and adults with at least a 35-pound kettlebell to progress up to that 45-pound barbell. Young athletes will start with a 20-pound kettlbell, because his athletes will start with a 25-pound barbell.

Front Squat

Front squats are great because they force an athlete to use all of the cues that have been engrained in them by coaches. If they don’t keep their chest up, the bar will drop forward. If they don’t keep their knees out and break at their knees first, the chest will usually fall forward, hence the bar falls forward again. Just make sure you teach the athletes to get into a position of comfort, either rack position or the cross-over position. Elbows have to be up.

Teaching is Learning Twice

Teach your athletes to coach each other. The more you teach them, and have them to teach other fellow athletes, the better they will be. Tell them what to look for in a squat. When an athlete is squatting, ask an athlete watching, “what could you say to make this squat better, what do YOU see wrong?”