If there's a question I get asked a lot by up and coming fitness coaches it's how to squat.
From squat stance, to squat depth
From knees going forward or staying behind the toes, to how to sit back.
From backs rounding to butt wink
It's a seeming quagmire of information, movement dysfunctions and confusion.
So, lets simplify it.
There are a lot of opinions on this, but here's a really simple start point:
Set your feet between hip and shoulder width, have your knees pointing in the same direction as your feet.
If you want to get a little less instructional and a little more self discovery, which I highly recommend, then try this:
Do a two footed jump and land. Stick the landing, however you're feet are when you land, this is your squat stance. What kind of jump, either a forward jump (Broad Jump), a jump from a box (depth jump) or jumping over low hurdle. The jump should require some effort be low enough intensity so as to minimise any injury risk, particularly in an untrained adult.
I mentioned self discovery. In all my years of teaching and coaching, 15 years as a fitness coach, another 20 as a martial arts instructor, the fastest learning journey is always when the student "discovers" the answer themselves. A good coach sets up the lesson to put the student is such a scenario that they "discover" the answer without specific instruction, after the fact we can deliver the details to reinforce this discovery.
That said, we can dial in squat stance by simply playing a little game with the client.
Have them do body weight squats, but they are not allowed to squat the same way twice!
So for example, we ask them to do 15 reps. But each rep will be different. They may do a wide stance on rep 1, narrow on rep 2, rep 3 maybe on the toes, rep 4 will have the feet turned out and so on and so forth. I have my guys do a set of 100 often as a finisher, with the option to change the style of squat every 10 reps, no repetition other than to do a one sided squat (Split squat as an example) on the other side.
Newer clients appreciate the variety from a fatigue management stand point, but unwittingly open up their movement vocabulary, discovering their preferred squat style in the process.
More experienced trainees find nuances to the squat that they may have missed before, how a slight change in the squat helps them or hinders them, reveals a line of tension they'd been working around or a weakness they'd not noticed.
This experiential learning very quickly carries over into their other training.
This varied stance squatting also answers the question of depth.
Because how deep should a person squat? As deep as they can squat well.
I know there are "experts" out there saying only to squat to certain depths because....reasons... They may well be right given their specific context. But for the everyman client, squatting to their full range, or the range in which they gain the greatest muscle loading, is vital. Once we have the best squat, then we can talk about a wider stance for a powerlifting meet, or a quarter squat for a runner or kettlebell sport athlete, or deep squats for a wrestling / grappling athlete.
Finding the squat style that allows them the greatest mobility is the start point for all this, and the varied bodyweight squatting helps the person discover this.
What about the knees? Should they go forward over the toes? Should they track the 2nd toe?
Again, the multi variant bodyweight squat set will provide answers.
In short, to squat deep, the knees must travel over the toes. As for the 2nd toe thing, ignore that, just have the knee and foot point in the same direction and you'll be fine. When you have an understanding of foot mechanics and how that relates to hip rotation, the 2nd toe argument disappears outside of competitive squatting, ie powerlifting. I don't train powerlifters, and none of my athletes have ever expressed and interest in powerlifting.
How to Sit Back
What we do have to help people with though, is finding their hips.
Posterior chain strength, is the hamstrings and glutes, is a problem area in many athletes and non athletes alike. As is knee pain.
Both issues can often be "fixed" with the simple box squat. Here's how to teach it to a beginner, or if you are a beginner, how to do it!
Find a box/bench/chair/rock/person that you can sit on that gets you to approximately 90 degrees of bend at the hip and the knee and your feet are flat on the floor.
We will call whatever you are sitting on a box, just for simplicity. Perch yourself on the edge of the box, feet are flat on the floor, shins are vertical, the knee and hip are both flexed to around 90° Now press the heel down through the floor, keeping the head up, eyes forward, press those heels down! You should stand up. Pause a brief moment. Now, WITHOUT looking, and without moving the feet, sit back to the box!
You will have just discovered why I have you "perched" on the box, not sat back on it comfortably. Most folk struggle to find the box because they are not used to sitting back into their hips.
But as soon as they do find the box, the motion smooths out within just a few sets. We may have to adjust the box, raising it most likely, but in just a few sets, the person can box squat with vertical shins.
This is a great video on the topic:
Why vertical shins?
Because we are focussing simply on the sit back element and bringing the glutes and upper hamstrings into the game.
This is how we want the box squat in out Beginner Kettlebell Sport Program to work, and the way we have it many of our rehab based programs.
Once a decent level of competence is reached on the box squat, which can be in terms of loading, or depth, or pain symptoms, or speed, or control, the we may test a free standing squat to see what happens. In most cases their free standing squat is significantly improved on whatever it was before introducing the box squat.
So where does that leave the heels elevated squat? If the box squat introduces you to your hips, the heels elevated will show you your knees, more specifically the quads.
Heels elevated gets people immediately deeper in their squat and puts more of the load on the quads. I'd normally introduce this if the squat itself is pain free but the person is struggling with depth. Maybe they're a long limbed athlete and need a little help achieving the deep positions.
The who squat?
One such stage in the squat journey might be the Amosov Squat. Named after Nikolay Amosov, this is an unloaded squat, where you hold onto something, a suspension trainer is perfect, but a doorframe, the squat rack, anything that will support your weight and allow you lean back. Now, keep leaning back as you bend the knees sitting into a deep squat. You are only lifting a portion of your bodyweight here, so it often allows the lifter to move more fluidly and freely essentially oiling the joints. With enough repetitions we may build up the tolerance level of the knee and we may find a free standing squat becomes an option once again.
For years I called this the Asomov squat, but Asomov is a Sci-Fi writer. Amosov is a russian surgeon known for his physical prowess into old age.
What about Buttwink and Rounded Backs?
To be fair, you've probably already eliminated these issues already. We're still not really sure as to why buttwink occurs, it was long thought to be hamstring flexibility, but that's nonsense. The simplest way I've found to reduce it as an issue is to have the client "discover" their best depth and best squat style. Guess what? the multi varied bodyweight squat rears it's head again. But there is another player we can introduce, the Face The Wall Squat. Simply face a wall, as close as you can get to it. Now squat. Be sure to have some clear space behind you, many fall over the first time they try this.
The wall becomes your coach, you MUST keep the back extended.
You MUST find the pull, ie the muscles that are shortening to drag you into the squat. You will have to open the chest as the back extends. You will have to sit back as the wall prevents any forward motion.
Essentially, the face the wall squat helps you find all the weak elements of your squat. It'll even help you find your squat stance as you will play about with foot position until you discover the foot position that give you most control, not necessarily depth.
So here's a wee thing I like to do with folk: Watch them squat, watch them deadlift. If they can't sit back, put them facing a wall. If the knees shoot forward, get a box If their backs hurt, face the wall If their knees hurt, get a box. If they are just a bit "out of shape" get them to vary the squat, no two reps the same. What I don't like to do with people:
Force them to squat in a manner that looks like what you see online or in books.