We’ve got a great article today by Cody Plofker, co-founder and Performance Coach of Adapt Performance & Rehab.
Mistake Number 1
The first mistake that athletes and coaches make is thinking that the back squat is the only way to squat. The squat is not an exercise. The back squat is an exercise, but the squat is a pattern. Some variations exist depending on who you ask, but the fundamental patterns of general physical preparedness are squat, hinge, push, pull, carry, locomote, and twist. It can be argued that every exercise you can or should do in the gym is a variation of one of those movement patterns.
This mistake leads to coaches putting individuals under a barbell far before they are ready, which leads to some nasty adaptations which we will get into later. For some reason, strength and conditioning and fitness culture has led many to believe that the only way to squat is with a barbell on ones back. This had led to many cringe-worthy looking squats from athletes who do not have the requisite levels of mobility and motor control to get into and control the positions needed to attain a properly loaded squat free of serious complications and compensations.
The squat is essentially about controlling ones center of gravity as they descend and flex through the ankles, knees, and hips. An individuals center of gravity can drastically affect how much global flexion and extension they present with.
We find that most individuals, especially good athletes, have centers of gravity that are far forward of center. If you draw a line straight down from their Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (ASIS), or the middle of their pelvis, it lines up forward of their head. When we see this, we can expect to see a pelvis that is tipped forward and a spine that is extended. These athletes usually have relatively “weak” anterior core and hamstrings relative to their spinal erectors and hip flexor muscles. As a result of these strong extensor chains that extend down to the ankles, they also often present with ankle dorsiflexion limitations.
As I mentioned, maintaining balance or equilibrium is important as one descends, or they will fall over. When we put a bar on somebody’s back whose center of gravity is already forward, it will push their center of gravity even further forward. The posterior position of the barbell, in addition to their lack of ankle mobility, will leave an individual with no choice but to maintain equilibrium by coming to their heels and falling backwards, which can then lead to them hyper-extending their spine to avoid falling backwards. What we’re left with is a trainwreck attempt at a squat that no longer resembles a squat and places more stress on the back extensors than the quads and glutes. We’re left with athletes who can load 5+ plates on the bar but can no longer get into the necessary positions to get in and out of cuts on the field because they’ve lost the ability to flex and internally rotate in all of the major joints in the body.
Mistake Number 2
The second mistakes that coaches make when programming the squat is coaching it terribly. I apologize if I sound overly critical, but I really believe that the way the squat is most often coached makes athletes stiff, immobile, and often times injured. Most coach it in a way that was passed down from their mentors and heroes in the field despite overwhelming theoretical and empirical evidence that there is a better way to do it. Specifically, I mean that most coaches believe that the best and only possible cues for the squat are chest up, arch, sit back, and drive your knees out. They cue this way because they think that any flexion of the spine, ever, is a bad thing. They think that any inward movement of a knee is a terrible thing, and that the knees should never pass the toes. What evidence their beliefs are based on, I am not sure, but there is some strong faulty logic at place here.
Cueing chest up, knees out, and to sit back as hard as possible only drives people into extension. Most people come to us in extension. We drive more of it without giving a way to get out of it, and things will eventually break down. I’ve seen it time and time again with college football players and NFL prospects. As I said before, we’re left with athletes who can load 5+ plates on the bar but can no longer get into the necessary positions to get in and out of cuts on the field because they’ve lost the ability to flex and internally rotate in all of the major joints in the body.
When we squat, there will always be some flexion. It might not always be present to the naked eye, but it is there. It is more of a conversation about when and how much than it is about saying it is a bad thing at all times. I could even make the argument that cueing “arch” at the start could lead to more flexion at the bottom of a squat.
Coaches tell athletes to sit back as far as possible because they believe that every athlete is weak in the posterior chain and loading quads is the quickest way to place undue stress on a knee. Driving the knees forward, as long as hips are loaded as well, does not place undue stress on the knees, and it can be argued that doing this with a neutral pelvis (not arching hard) can actually significantly decrease stress on the knees.
I don’t want to get started on the knees out debate, but let’s just say that the flexion and internal rotation coupling must happen in order to get into the bottom position of the squat, and it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that forcing excessive external rotation to occur during flexion in a squat can restrict available amounts of internal rotation, for a number of reasons.
I will say that arching, sitting back, and driving the knees out can be a great way to squat if your sport consists of squatting, aka Powerlifting. But if you are just using the squat to improve force production for your sport or for general fitness purposes, please stop coaching the squat like a powerlifter.
I refuse to be somebody who points out problems without offering solutions, so here’s how I go about avoiding the mistakes I mentioned above.
The first step is to perform a thorough assessment of all the major joints involved in squatting. Compare passive vs active values to know if they require mobility or motor control. If they require mobility in any joints, fix that first. It doesn’t matter what you use. Many techniques and systems work. Don’t be dogmatic, just get people better.
Once mobility is cleared, we can work on controlling it. Not everybody needs to start here, but the first stop in my progression is the Squatting Bar Reach from PRI.
Squatting Bar Reach
Most often I’ll skip over that and go straight to a Reaching Plate Squat. I will use this is somebody is really jacked up and needs more of a counterbalance to reverse their hard extension pattern.
Reaching Plate Squat Link
The counterbalance allows one to move their center of gravity posteriorly, which allows the athlete to perform a posterior tilt and decrease the amount of extension at the beginning of the movement. This is not a loaded squat, so we are not worried about any flexion here. Also, I could easily make the argument that creating more flexion at the top reduces the flexion the chance of slipping into flexion at the bottom of the squat.
Here’s a video of how I like to coach the Reaching Plate Squat –>
Once we’ve mastered the reaching plate squat, we have a few options. I’ll list out the full progression, but I don’t always use it. With a more advanced athlete, I’ll most often go straight from the Reaching Plate Squat to a Safety Bar Squat as long as they can maintain position under load. With a younger or more novice athlete, I will usually run the gamut of Goblet Squat and 2KB Front Squat before we ever get to a barbell. As I mentioned earlier, don’t make the mistake of progressing individuals before they are ready. Get what you can out of Goblet and 2 KB before moving on. I don’t use exact standards, but my general rule of thumb is to work the rack in each variation. Meaning I won’t usually progress a youth athlete or general population client to a barbell until they have progressed to using moderately heavy loads with very good technique. Some people progress their clients from a 25 lb Goblet Squat to a Safety Bar Squat and wonder why their technique deteriorated. Instead, work the rack so when they get up to the safety bar or barbell , they will have the strength and motor control to maintain position under increasing levels of load.
Once an athlete has “worked the rack” and can maintain good technique for a heavy (relatively) set of 8-10 then I will progress them to a 2 KB Front Squat.
2 KB Front Squat
For some athletes or gen pop clients, I will keep them here. If maybe they don’t require as much force production or they have a nasty looking squat iunder a barbell after everything we’ve done, I might maintain their squat pattern with 2 KB Front Squats and train true force production with a Trap Bar Deadlift.
Safety Bar Squat
For most individuals, the Safety Bar Squat is the end goal. I used to alternate between back and front squats based on individual factors, but I now find that the Safety Bar Squat is superior to both in most instances. It allows you to load it up more than a front squat, but it usually ends up looking a lot better than a back squat due to the more anterior load placement and less need for shoulder external rotation.
However, the Safety Bar is not a golden fix in itself. It still has to be coached and performed properly. If not, it can begin to look just as ugly as the squats I mentioned in the beginning of the article.
Here’s what I do not coach:
- – Super wide stance
- – “Knees out”
- – Any version of “chest up, “big back,” “arch” or drive the elbows up
- – Sitting as far back as you can
- – “Heels, heels,heels”
- – A wide stance with a lot of external rotation abduction also externally rotates and abducts the pelvis, which throws the athlete into further extension. The femur needs to internally rotate as the hips flex
- – Cueing any version of chest up further drives the athlete into extension, which can drive the pelvis forwards, which will limit available hip mobility
- – Sitting so far back that the toes come up makes an athlete feel like they are going to fall backwards. The only way to combat this is by extending the spine to shift the center of gravity forward
- – I am not worried about the knees passing the toes. In fact, I want them to and can argue that doing so with a neutral pelvis is the best way to take stress off the knees
Here’s what I will coach or cue:
- – Find a comfortable stance, which is different for individuals, but will be near or just outside of shoulder width
- – Knees should track the toes. In specific instances, I may even cue athletes to push the floor together instead of spreading it, but usually I just ask them to track the toes
- – “Feel your whole foot!” Toes and heels should be felt on the ground the entire time
- – One of my favorite cues is “Drive the knees as far forwards as you can while pushing your hips back and keeping your heels on the ground.” As long as the pelvis is stacked underneath the hips, this will maintain hamstring involvement and reduce quadriceps tone.
It is time that we stop forcing athletes to back squat their way onto the injured reserve. First, take the time to assess involved joints and begin training or re-training the mechanics of an unloaded or assisted squat before loading up a bar with horrendous form. Don’t think that everyone must back squat. There are so many ways to get the job done. Safety bar, front, back, Zercher, 2 KB, Goblet, etc. Assess and find the correct variation based on the individuals presentation. Take the time to work your way up through various progressions, and when you get to the final step don’t coach it like a jackass.
If you liked or hated this article, please share it and comment so we can all have a discussion and begin to move our industry forwards. We owe it to those who trust us with their bodies to be constantly re-examining our thoughts on a subject.
Thanks for reading!