I heart squats, so how about a little #squathaiku to get us started:
How I adore you
Give me Gains
The reason squats are considered the “king” of all exercises is that there are no better exercises for developing lower body strength, mass, and power like squatting.
Want to run faster, jump higher, and outperform the other team?
Want to make daily living much easier, even as you age into your golden years?
Want to develop a strong, healthy, and aesthetically pleasing lower body?
Squatting is damn good for you, regardless of goal.
Squatting is one of the fundamental human movements that everyone should do, and do often. You already do it every day: anytime you sit down on the couch or office chair or go to the bathroom, you’re performing a squat.
But which squat is best?
It’s really a silly question because no squat is best for everyone all the time. I don’t really care which squat you do. JUST DO THEM!
I’m going to show you a few of my favorite squat variations, from the easiest to the most challenging, and discuss the pros and cons of each one.
Take note of your current abilities and test yourself. See which one of these variations feels and looks good, and roll with it for awhile. When you’ve made progress, move onto the next variation.
1) Body weight squat
Pros: This is the easiest place to start for just about everyone. Since it’s unloaded, a bodyweight squat tells you a lot about how well your hips, knees, and ankles move. If this variation is tough for you, imagine what it would look like with weight! As a general rule, own the pattern first, then load it.
Cons: The human body adapts quickly to exercise, so you’ll outgrow this one fast. Assuming you don’t gain 20-50 lbs in one month, the bodyweight squat will quickly become too easy and you’ll need a new challenge.
2) Counterbalance Squat
This is a lateral progression from the bodyweight squat in that it’s not necessarily harder than the bodyweight squat, it’s just different. I find this one improves squat technique for those learning to squat for the first time (or relearning!)
Pros: sometimes when you squat, your torso will lean every which way to try and balance the whole movement. Sometimes you’ll feel a little wonky. Your hips don’t want to bend and you feel off-balance. Enter the counterbalance. As you squat down, press a 5-10 lb plate out in front of you. This will shift your center of mass, making your squat look and feel more comfortable. Often you’ll find that you can squat deeper between the legs this way.
Cons: you’ll quickly outgrow this one, too. Use it to help you learn the proper mechanics, and then move on to the next variation.
3) Goblet squat
The goblet squat is one of my favorites because it works really well for everyone, regardless of abilities, and with a seemingly endless rack of dumbbells, can be used for a long time to reinforce technique and build a great squat.
Grab a dumbbell and hold it in the “goblet” position, then squat down between your knees. Drive through your midfoot and stand back up. Easy peasy!
Pros: this squat variation is super simple to grasp in terms of technique: grab a dumbbell, hold it close, and squat. As you get stronger, grab a heavier dumbbell. Many people lack the requisite shoulder mobility for barbell squats, so the goblet squat works wonders for them because your arms and hands stay out in front.
Cons: you’ll eventually run out of heavy dumbbells. My gym, for example, carries up to 75 lbs max. I can squat 75 lbs quite a few times, so I can’t get stronger because I’ve adapted and plateaued at 75 lbs. Second, heavy dumbbells can be really challenging to lift into the goblet position. They are awkward and you risk dropping it on your foot. Lastly, heavy dumbbells are hard on those wrists, so keep that in mind as you make progress with heavier dumbbells
4) Barbell High-bar back Squat (HBBS)
You can only make so much progress with goblet squats because eventually, you’ll run out of weight that you can hold. To continue getting stronger and build more muscle, you need more weight.
Sidebar: “progressive overload” is what drives adaptation and makes us stronger/better/faster. To continue building muscle and strength, you must do more in terms of overall workload. That means squatting more weight, doing more reps, or some combination of both. If you stop pushing weights and reps, you’ll halt progress.
The barbell “high bar” back squat is where the bar sits on your upper traps or that meaty stuff on your shoulders. “High bar” is relative to “low bar.” (see pics)
Pros: theoretically unlimited in terms of how much weight you can put on the bar, which means you can make progress for months and years. The only thing limiting your progress at this point is how much weight you can actually move. But, of course, that’s why we’re here! So load up the bar, squeeze out some reps, recover from your workout and do it again next week.
Cons: some people find the pressure of the bar on their upper back to be uncomfortable at best, and downright painful at worst. I don’t have an answer for that other than “deal with it” or “let’s find another way to do this.”
As a coach, I’m of the “let’s find an alternative” mentality. However, there’s nothing much better than this squat variation to get strong and build muscle, so…suck it up!
The last con with HBBS is that it requires some shoulder mobility in order to control the bar. If you have mobility restrictions or have a history of shoulder pain then the HBBS may not be a great option for you. Work on your shoulder mobility and revisit this squat type occasionally to retest your abilities.
5) Barbell Front Squat
This is my personal favorite.
As you can see, the barbell on the front squat sits in front of your body. This variation requires a more upright torso and a great deal of core strength to rack and stabilize the bar.
Pros: it’s arguably safer than the back squat because if you run into trouble, you can drop the bar in front of you and save yourself. With back squatting, if you fail, you fail with a bar on top of you. OUCH! Second, because the weight is shifted further away from your hips (your center of mass) you can’t load the bar as heavy as you could if it were on your back. That said, you can still make significant progress with front squatting alone, as long as you keep adding weight to the bar when you can. Oh, and did I mention abs? Because holy hell, Batman, front squats will light up your abs like you’ve never felt before!
Cons: the “rack” position is much more challenging on your wrist mobility. If you lack wrist mobility, you can try the “crossover” technique. Once you’ve racked the bar, you MUST keep an upright torso and elbows up high. If you don’t that bar will start to slide and fall right off your body. If that’s the case, jump back as hard and far away as possible!
6) Low Bar Back Squat (LBBS)
As the name suggests, this squat variation racks the bar the lowest on your back, somewhere between your shoulder blades. This one also requires you to lean further forward in order to stabilize and leverage the bar (watch my torso position as I squat)
Pros: this variation has the greatest load-ability of all the squats. The front squat must remain lighter because it sits far away from your center of mass (hips), but the LBBS can get super heavy because it sits closest to your center of mass, making it the heaviest variation you can do. Because you can continue loading this one ad infinitum, there’s no stopping the strength and mass you can attain by using the LBBS
Cons: the high bar squat variation already required some shoulder mobility in order to rack the back. The LBBS requires even more shoulder mobility to not only rack the bar but to keep it from sliding down your back. If you don’t have the shoulder mobility just yet, this squat variation isn’t for you.
These squat variations reside on a sliding scale of progression and regression, with bodyweight squats being the easiest, and low-bar back squats being arguably the most challenging. None of them are greatly superior to others all the time, it just depends on your current abilities and what you want to accomplish.
Because the human body is incredibly adaptive and physically capable of many amazing things, I’d encourage you to try them all at some point in your training career. However, your current abilities, goals, and injury history should dictate which variation you do and when, but keep them all in your back pocket for times when you need them.
ALWAYS try and make progress, regardless of squat type. That means grabbing a heavier weight, doing a few more reps, doing a couple more sets, or some combination thereof so that you don’t just ask, but demand that your body adapt and make progress.
Pick your squat and get after it! If you need some help troubleshooting your squat technique, contact me and we’ll get you sorted out. Or if you want to take your fitness to the next level, apply for my Online Coaching, where you’ll receive customized workouts, nutrition guidelines, and 16/7 support (because I like to sleep sometimes!)