Strength Performance Network

The Learning Benefits of Using Squat Variations

It is widely accepted that the Back Squat is the "king" of all lifts.....or to be fair to the ladies we train, the "royalty" of all lifts. In other words, if you were only allowed to do one lift, the back squat would be it. In just the one movement, it provides major athletic benefits (speed, power, flexibility, balance, and of course strength). In just the one movement, it provides major health/wellness benefits because it develops the biggest concentration of muscles in your body, thus increasing lean muscle, thus increasing metabolism, thus increasing fat burn, thus making one "healthier".

(Before I go on, I know there are people who can justify why another lift is "king", (perhaps the Olympic lifts), but my opinion and  purpose for this piece, relates to back squat. So if you disagree with me, no problem, but I'm not looking to start a debate on which one lift is the best.) 

But as we know, especially if you work with kids, the back squat is hard to master. Teaching it forces us to use clear and concise coaching points like "chest up", "butt back", "feet flat", "sit tall", etc. Sometimes, the simple repetition over time of doing the back squat itself can help a kid learn the proper technique. We can use lighter bars, PVC pipes, benches, boxes, and physio balls to aid in the learning process. Supplemental lifts like lunges and box step ups are also good to develop the hip strength and flexibility needed to back squat well. I have used all of these methods in working with the high school kids I do.

Recently though, and this may illicit a big "duh", but I have been using the front squat and dumbbell squat as means of training for the back squat. I've learned in many cases that kids are better front squatters than back squatters and that dumbbell squats prevent the load on the low back and force the kids to only use a certain amount of weight because they can only hold so much in their hands. Along with teaching depth and hip flexibility, the front squat also prevents too much weight from being used because they just can't hold as much in the front of the body as compared to the back. I make the poundage point specifically, because I have several 15/16 year old boys that try to increase weight faster than their technique allows. It can be challenging to keep control of their weight increases, even if we work off percentages. These variations keep them safe while teaching good habits.

How long I use the squat variations before having kids back squat depends on the individual kid. Even after the back squat is introduced, we go back to the variations for the training effect of those lifts themselves but also as a way to reinforce the mechanics we want in the back squat. 

Again, all of this may seem pretty obvious to most of us but, I've been a working S/C coach for 9 years and have just fully realized this. If it took me this long, then I'm sure there are others as well.

I hope this helps someone. 


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Comment by Dave Schall on May 24, 2013 at 1:32pm


Comment by Matthew Bergdorf, BS, CSCS, USAW on May 24, 2013 at 12:36pm

I agree with your post fully. I love teaching the front squat as a progression for the back squat, but also for the hang clean progression, and core strengthening. 

Comment by Dave Schall on May 16, 2013 at 12:46pm

Thanks for the variations. Your question is one I wrestle with all of the time. Here are things I've tried but am not sure if one is better than the other.

1. From the very beginning of teaching the squat: requiring the kids to use minimal weight (PVC pipe, 15 lb or 45lb barbell only) and have them literally concentrate on engaging the glutes and hamstrings in the squat movement. I would watch them as they complete the set and if their weight shifted forward, I give them the prompt "sit back" so they'll shift the weight back on the heels more. I want them to "feel" the difference.

2. Using lunges, box work, RDL's to strengthen the glutes, low back, and hamstrings.

3. Place a swiss ball/physio ball/big ball/etc behind them in the rack. Prompt them to begin the decent towards the ball and then sit on it. I'll then give a prompt for them to rotate the hips backward and then have them try to stand up w/o leaning  forward. Again, use minimal weight.

4. If the style of rack you have allows it, wrap rubber bands around the catches so that when they back out to perform the squat, the back of the knee pushes against the rubber band. The knees should push on the bands throughout the whole movement forcing the posterior muscles to stay engaged. You have to have good rubber bands too otherwise they pull on the leg hair which is not fun.

Again, I'm not sure if one is better than the other but this is stuff I've done. No matter what I do though, some kids become good at squatting and some don't. 

Comment by John Mikula on May 16, 2013 at 10:22am

Coach, enjoyed your blog.  I'd like to add a couple of other squat variation which I've found success with, the balance-disk squat and the TRX Squat/Lunge.  Both make good sense functionally prior to any load being added before back squatting.  Also, much dynamic balance and strength contained within both exercises.  I'm not too keen about adding load to the BD squat, but the TRX version could be extended either up or down.  Extend down by adding a spotter to provide balance support.  Extend up by adding a weighted sand-ball on the work-side shoulder.  A word of caution, though, once  you try these squation variations, you may be tempted to never go back to the barbell version.

Coach, what would you recommend to counteract the front-load activation with the squat to support posterior chain muscular balance?


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