The back squat is one of the most important exercises you can perform in the gym. However, most people won't be able to perform it properly on their first day, due to mobility restrictions caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, this article will provide a path of progression, starting with squat variations that reinforce proper technique and require minimal joint mobility, and eventually progressing you the full back squat. Each exercise builds on the next, so that by the time you reach the barbell back squat the movement will feel completely natural.
What to do when your back squat looks like this?
#1 - Counterbalance Squat
This exercises reinforces the upright posture and balance over the midfoot that is required for a proficient squat. Any deviation from this will result in the plate beginning to dip. Obviously upper back strength will quickly become a major limiting factor as the weight increases, so this variation is generally only necessary for the first couple sessions to learn the correct movement pattern of a squat.
#2 - Goblet Squat
Similar to the counterbalance squat, the goblet squat will encourage upright posture and appropriate balance over the mid-foot. The main advantage of the gobelt squat however is that it will allow you to use more weight, because the weight is now being hugged into your body. Generally, I will stick with the goblet squat until the athlete can lift about 20 - 24kg for reps.
#3 - Front Squat
The front squat with a barbell allows you to lift heavier loads, as plates can now be added, and the bar can be held securely on top of the shoulders. The front squat encourages an upright posture as any significant rounding of the upper back would cause the bar to slip. Most athletes will need to begin with the cross grip (pictured) due to wrist/shoulder mobility. For some athletes, the front squat will become limited by upper back strength (particularly when performing reps of 5 or more). This is when it's time to make the final progression to the back squat.
#4 - Back Squat
The barbell back squat allows more weight to be moved than any other variant and is therefore an ideal choice when training for strength. By the time you reach this stage, keeping a tight upright back and flat feet should feel like second nature. Note: The back squat requires a decent amount of shoulder external rotation, which may not have been addressed by earlier exercises, so some extra time working on mobilisation exercises may be required.
This article is aimed at those of you who really struggle with squat technique. It's important to remember that although these exercises will encourage good technique, it is strongly advised that you seek out a coach who can cue you and give you feedback about whether you are performing the squat correctly or not. They will also be able to identify if there is a significant mobility restriction holding you back that you may need to work on with additional stretches or strengthening exercises.