Zero to Hero with the Squat!

If you take your strength training seriously, then one exercise that will certainly feature in your programme (in one form or another) is the Squat. And so it should; the Squat is one of the most fundamental human movements, and something we're all programmed to do from an early age (just watch any toddler squat down to pick up an object from the ground with perfect form). But this primal programming is something that can be lost as we grow - starting once we’re tall enough to reach the chair, on which most of us spend our days. And once we lose the ability to squat well, bending over becomes the easiest way to pick up objects from the ground - placing potentially injurious loads on our spines. 

In my own PT practice, the ability to squat well with one's own body weight is a key functional test when evaluating fitness in new clients. It’s unusual though that I’ll find anyone, even amongst those that are used to squatting heavy external loads, that can descend into a body-weight squat with correct form and good body control. So progressing to any kind of loaded version of the exercise is a big no-no until the basics are fixed - something which can often take time.

So what are the problems, and how do you fix them? And how do those who are tempted to jump straight into the squat rack on day-1 of their training, progress safely to this level whilst still making noteworthy gains in strength.

Well, the problems are many: tight and/or weak hip extensors/rotators, tight calves, weak core musculature, weak spinal extensors, poor thoracic spine mobility, dysfunctional motor patterns - all of which have various corrective strategies that often eat into valuable session time; time that most paying clients would rather use to burn energy and make useful gains in strength/fitness. In fact, I’ve often observed PT’s and gym users spendng the best part of a session doing extensive mobility work with rollers, balls and bands etc. just to perform a single exercise - usually a barbell back squat - when they clearly haven’t even mastered the basic squat movement pattern. My approach is somewhat different though, and often involves the eating of some humble pie for those used to lifting heavy in the squat rack. 

For many new clients, for whom squatting will feature in their programme (most), I start with the very piece of equipment that is probably the cause of so much dysfunction in the first place: the chair. And for the first few sessions, this is going to be the learning ground as far as the Squat is concerned. The use of the chair allows me to add two extra steps of progression toward the simple body-weight squat; these steps being the assisted Mini Squat, followed by the simple 'Sit to Stand'. And only when the client is proficient at both for at least 15 to 20 reps, do I move them onto the unsupported body-weight version - a process which, in my experience, is still quicker than endless coaching and mobilising in an effort to perfect the latter.

The assisted mini squat is an exercise used during hip replacement rehabilitation, and consists simply of a half-range squatting action, whilst the arms are outstretched, with the hands on the back of a chair (or up-righted weights bench). The support of the chair gives exercisers the confidence to execute the correct 'hips-back' squat pattern, without fear of toppling over, and is an easy and quick way to correct the common 'knee-forward' movement witnessed in many novice (and experienced) exercisers. A suspension trainer can also replace the chair for a slightly more challenging variant.

The Chair Assisted Mini-Squat is an easy way to overcome the common 'knees-forward' squat pattern seen in novice exercisers, and can be progressed through greater range of motion as appropriate.

The Chair Assisted Mini-Squat is an easy way to overcome the common 'knees-forward' squat pattern seen in novice exercisers, and can be progressed through greater range of motion as appropriate.

Once 15 to 20 mini squats can be performed with good form, the range of motion is increased gradually until a decent amount of knee flexion is achieved (usually somewhere between 90 degrees and upper legs parallel to the floor), if appropriate for the client. The next stage is the 'Sit to Stand', which simply involves standing and then sitting back down on a bench with good control, and minimal input from the arms; and it's surprising how few people can achieve this in a smooth and fluid action - 3 counts up and 3 counts down.

The 'Sit to Stand', when performed with good control, is a great progression from the assisted Mini Squat. Clients practice relying less and less on the chair, until they are ready to move onto Body-weight Squats, and by then, usually have very good form.

The 'Sit to Stand', when performed with good control, is a great progression from the assisted Mini Squat. Clients practice relying less and less on the chair, until they are ready to move onto Body-weight Squats, and by then, usually have very good form.

Again, once a good set of 15 to 20 controlled sit to stands can be achieved without relying on the hands pressing down on the legs, the exerciser is now ready to advance to the Body-weight Squat - and usually masters the exercise with minimal additional coaching. And the great thing is, throughout this process, the client has been kept moving in some kind of functional pattern and the exercises can simply be incorporated into their regular circuits - achieving a fitness, strength and calorie burning effect without the down-time required for excessive mobility drills. Indeed, I have seen some great gains in strength and hypertrophy, simply through the 'Sit to Stand' and Body-weight Squat progressions, followed by supreme form and control once external loads are added - leading to even greater results in the long term.

Looking at the Body-weight Squat above, and comparing to the Assisted Squat and Sit to Stand, you can see the natural progression from one to the other.

Looking at the Body-weight Squat above, and comparing to the Assisted Squat and Sit to Stand, you can see the natural progression from one to the other.

So if you aren't confident with your current squat form, or with the results the exercise is yielding (or worse still, if your knees or back hurt whilst performing it), try dropping the weight, and taking a few steps back. You'll be surprised how quickly you can correct a faulty squat pattern with the steps above, and how much better you'll respond in the long run.

Thanks for reading.