Why squat? Variations, squatting with weights and the perfect progression

Now that you’ve mastered the plank, it’s time for another exercise from our progressions board!

If you haven’t seen it yet, our progressions board is in the Strength and Conditioning room at Falmer Sports Complex and is a handy way to visualise the progressions for five key exercises: Squat, Deadlift, Push Up, Row and Plank, so you can make sure you’re mastering each of these fundamental movements. Getting the knack of these key exercises will create a robust framework for your strength development.

Our series of accompanying articles focus on each exercise, giving a bit of extra information and pointers on how to build your technique. Next up is the squat!

Why squat?

The squat is a fundamental body movement that strengthens and tones the lower body and core. This functional exercise can be performed virtually anywhere with no equipment and little space, and because it’s such a basic movement the benefits will carry over into everyday life.

The benefits to squatting…

· Build muscle: Squats hit your legs hard but also require multiple muscles to work in unison and stimulates growth, mainly in the quads and glutes as well as many other muscles in the body including your abdominals.

· Increased strength: Squatting will strengthen your legs and the tendons in your knees like no other exercise.

· Improved hip mobility: The exercise builds and maintains mobility in the hip joint and strengthens around the core area.

· Fat burning and general health: Squats are an all-rounder exercise; due to the amount of muscle used to complete a repetition it’s a great exercise for overall health and is important as part of an overall goal of changing body composition.

It’s important for beginners to learn the bodyweight squat before progressing to weighted squats.

This will teach you the correct technique with a safe load. Aim for at least 10 reps between 3–5 sets of successive squats with good technique before moving on to the next progression.

Each progression of the exercise should concentrate on activating the same muscles and should keep the spine in a neutral position (this should feel as though it is in the same position as when standing tall, with a slightly curved lower back and shortened frontal abdominal muscles). This exercise should be challenging but pain-free when performed correctly.

Build your squat technique using the pictures and instructions on the progressions board or from the information below. If at any time the exercises cause pain or you are unsure if you are doing it correctly, find one of our trained staff members to seek advice before continuing.

For guided instructor-led support, you can also join our Small Group Training classes every Tuesday and Thursday at the Falmer Sports Complex.

The body position for the stance throughout the squat progressions is exactly the same, which is why it is best to master the technique of each progression before moving up through them, as the only real reason we do move up through the progressions is to add more weight.

Bodyweight squats

Bodyweight Squat

The value of the bodyweight squat should not be underestimated. The exercise can be used to learn the correct technique before progressing to weighted versions of the exercise. It is also great for building endurance in the legs, can be added at the end of a workout for conditioning and can be performed almost anywhere with no equipment.

1. Set your feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly turned out. Pull in your lower abs, and keep your eyes forward with your chin in a natural position.

2. Slowly bend at the knees and drop your hips to lower your body. Keep your heels flat on the floor.

3. At the bottom of the exercise pause for a moment and strongly push back up to the starting position, mirroring the descent.

4. Push upwards through your heels.

5. Repeat for desired number of reps, we suggest aiming for 10 reps between 3 — 5 sets.

6. If you are finding it difficult to sit back without the feeling of falling over, you can counter balance your weight by holding your arms out in front of you at shoulder height.

7. Keep your back as straight as possible throughout the movement to avoid strain or injury.

Goblet Squats

Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is also a highly effective exercise for the key muscle groups of your legs, bum and tum.

The goblet squat will also improve flexibility around the hips, as well as your lower-body strength and balance.

The setup for the goblet squat is key, in that it makes it very hard for your form to change from the bodyweight squat if you hold the weight correctly. The body position for the stance is exactly the same (and is the same through all the progressions), with just the weight load changing place.

When holding the kettlebell, hold the handle on either side and hold the kettlebell against your chest with the top of the handle at chin height, with your elbows tucked right underneath, almost make it so that the kettlebell is balanced on your vertical forearms and the hands are just holding it from moving around.

As you squat, keep your elbows inside the line of your knees, and the heels of your feet flat on the ground. Go as low as you can in this position or to around a 90 degree knee bend, then come back up, pushing through your heels. Keep your movements measured and your abs tensed as you move.

For those of you who don’t have access to a kettlebell you can use a dumbbell, if you’re using a dumbbell, hold it vertically in the same position as the kettlebell.

Because the weight is in front of you, the goblet squat creates a natural counterbalance, making it easier to keep your torso upright, which is a key coaching/technical point as you move through the progressions.

Aim for 10 reps again for 3–5 sets before progressing, but this time the weight needs to be taken into account. Once comfortable with the weight, you can progress on the same exercise by lifting heavier kettlebells. Once it becomes uncomfortable to hold the kettlebell in this position, it is time to progress.

Double kettlebell front squat

This is a progression as you can almost double the load using two kettlebells! This is one of the toughest types of squat you can do, so make sure you start with light weights.

To perform the double kettlebell front squat, hold two kettlebells with the handles of both kettlebells held next to each other under your chin while the weights themselves rest on your forearms. Attempt to keep your elbows at the same level as your shoulders out in front of you: this is important . Once you have settled in this position and feel in control, lower into a squat as normal, then drive back up.

The placement of the two kettlebells on the front and sides of the chest makes this variation especially challenging for your core, which has to battle to keep your body stable during the movement and this in turn helps the muscle memory for latter progressions.

Barbell Squatting and Rack Position

Once we get to the the front and back squat progressions, knowing how to set up a rack is important. The hooks, where the bar sits, should be positioned as close to shoulder height as possible, this should mean that the bar is lifted and returned without being on tip toes. If in doubt ask a staff member to check the height for you, as we’ll be happy to help. Safety arms/bars should be used at all times to catch any bar that you may lose control of, these should be at the lowest height of your squat depth. If using plates on the bar, then make sure to secure the plates by using the bar collars. When lifting the bar make sure you are facing the rack and only step back as far to ensure that you are within the length of the safety arms/bars.

Front Squat

The front squat is often a much neglected lift but one that we believe should come before the back squat for a number of reasons. While similar to the back squat, by holding the weight at the front, this significant weight position forces your quads to manage and move more of the load, as well as making your core muscles work even harder to keep your torso upright and your upper body balanced. The vertical position of the torso allows for a safer position and reduces the stress on the lower back area. This also creates muscle memory so when we do eventually progress to the back squat, the body position does not get affected as much by having the weight force your shoulders down and forwards. Lastly, the position you’re in for the front squat forces you to stay upright and maintain the correct form, which means you can squat far more safely.

Take the bar out of the rack with your hands either crossed over your chest, supporting it across the front of your shoulders, or with your hands in line with your shoulders. The bar should rest on your shoulder muscles at the front, as you raise your elbows out to the front in line with your shoulders and get yourself comfortable and set before attempting the squat. Once sorted in this position, squat down, keeping your chest up, then drive up through your heels to stand.

Back squat

The back squat is the classic lower-body lift. It packs muscle on your glutes, quads and hamstrings, as well as recruiting your abs and lower back which must work hard to stabilise your torso as you lift and lower the bar. It’s also an effective strength-building move and is the progression which you can lift the most weight.

The bar goes on your shoulders across your upper back and well clear of your spine. Your hands hold the bar outside your shoulder width and you squat as in all other progressions, however, the bar in this position will force the shoulders forwards so you need to concentrate more and you should have built up the muscle memory through the first four progressions to keep those shoulders tall and chest up.

How did it go? Let us know, ask us a question or share your progress with us on Twitter, Facebook or Insta.

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