The squat: Technical points and exercise progressions
The bilateral squat (hereafter referred to as the squat) is a fundamental movement pattern and is a commonly prescribed exercise to enhance lower limb strength and power. The stability and mobility requirements through the whole kinetic chain make it a go-to in many programs, whilst it is easy to load to elicit desired adaptations through variations of the movement (for example, the jump squat). It’s transference to sporting activities such as sprinting and jumping, as well as everyday actions such as sitting and standing, make it a training staple for athletes and the general population. However, before progressions of intensity and volume are introduced, an individual must be able to display technical competency during unweighted versions of the squat. This blog post will outline the key technical points for completing the squat movement, as well as provide an exercise progression and regression framework for the squat movement pattern – ideal to use with a variety of populations.
Although the squat is a whole-body movement and technique variation may exist within individual contexts, it can be broken down into body parts to understand a recommended technical model. Head position during a squat is important, as deviations from the recommended neutral position and gaze may result in increased trunk flexion or extension during movement, although there is a lack of research concerning head position and squat kinematics.
Thoracic and lumbar flexion and extension are commonly reported as flaws during squatting movements, however differing degrees of anterior knee displacement can be a method to amend poor trunk posture.
Hip mobility also plays a role in determining correct technique, due to potential movement in all three planes at the joint and the need for transference of force between the pelvis and lower limbs.
The knee joint allows flexion and extension and tolerates minimal anteroposterior or mediolateral displacement. Misalignment of the knees between the hips and feet may compromise the integrity of the knee joint, exposing the stabilising ligaments and tendons to potential injury.
Ankle mobility is essential to the performance of a competent squat, with a lack of dorsiflexion an initiator for compensatory movement patterns in the knees, hips and trunk. Furthermore, dorsiflexion directly effects squat depth and knee flexion due to the biarticulate nature of the gastrocnemius, crossing both the knee and ankle joints. Consequently, manipulation of dorsiflexion during the squat can affect the whole kinetic chain, causing changes in anteroposterior movements in the sagittal plane at the knees, hips and trunk.
Mobility and stability are needed in varying degrees at each region in order to allow correct actions during the squat (table 1). A summary of recommended movement criteria for the squat can be seen in table 2, along with basic cues for each body region.
Table 1: Primary function and movement of each joint/region during the squat
Table 2: Recommended movement criteria and basic cues for the squat
Progression and regression framework
Different variations of movements can provide different movement challenges. Movement skill ability, training age and limitations in function and symmetry (for example, anatomical, mobility and/or stability constraints) may cause limitations for an individual in any given pattern. Therefore, an appropriate starting point should be selected before progressing based on technical competency. The rationale is to progress or regress exercises based on the athlete’s performance, with the athlete ‘earning the right’ to move to more advanced movement patterns that will promote a higher technical demand. This encourages methods to facilitate control of abnormal joint motion, including kinesthetic and proprioceptive information to the central nervous system and motor unit activation of agonist, antagonist and synergist muscles involved in a movement pattern. As movement is characterised by inherent variability, providing additional variability within a given movement pattern will facilitate motor development and retention of skills specific to the movement.
The use of a progressive sequence of exercises will ensure safe and effective individualised progressions and regressions, with variation encouraging continual development of athletes and a reduction in training monotony. Technique should always be prioritised over load. An example progression for the squat movement pattern is as follows:
1. Box squat
Encourages basic squat mechanics. Sit the hips back and pause on the box. Start with a high box and reduce height with competency.
2. Bodyweight squat
As with the box squat, with higher stabilisation demands.
3. Goblet squat
Further progression through load, encouraging tension through the thoracic and lumbar spine to maintain correct form.
4. Zombie squat
Higher challenge to maintain posture through the torso. Preparation for a front squat/front rack position. The bar should sit across the anterior deltoids whilst the shoulder blades are pinned back.
5. Front squat
The same posture as the zombie squat but with the hands under the bar to allow greater loading (note: hands don’t grip the bar; they just guide it). Drive the elbows up throughout the movement.
6. Back squat
Greater challenge to maintain good torso and whole-body stability. Allows for higher loading capacity.
7. Overhead squat
Highest challenge to maintain postural integrity. Greatest stability demands due to load overhead.
The squat is a fundamental movement pattern requiring variations in stability and mobility throughout the kinetic chain. It is a staple in many training programs for athletes and general population alike due to its transferability to sporting movements and everyday life. Although recommended technical points can be amalgamated to present a technical model, these will be general guidelines with small variations for individuals as appropriate. The squat has many progressions and regressions that can be used with progressing technical competency to provide different challenges through movement variation.
Visit @TRperform on Instagram to see the infographic and videos of squat progressions.
Earle, R. W., & Baechle, T. R. (2008). Resistance training and spotting techniques. In Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (eds.) Essentials of strength training and conditioning (pp. 325-376). Leeds: Human Kinetics.
Kushner, A. M., Brent, J. L., Schoenfeld, B. J., Hugentobler, J., Lloyd, R. S., Vermeil, A., ... & Myer, G. D. (2015). The back squat part 2: Targeted training techniques to correct functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 37(2), 13-60.
Myer, G. D., Kushner, A. M., Brent, J. L., Schoenfeld, B. J., Hugentobler, J., Lloyd, R. S., ... & McGill, S. M. (2014). The back squat: A proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength and conditioning journal, 36(6), 4-27.
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