Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Teach the Squat from the Bottom

There are a lot of ways to teach people how to squat. These include books, DVDs, articles, and videos.

Here is another one.

Most of the articles and videos start from similar point - start from standing, squat down, stand back up.

However, not everyone has the strength, balance, and body awareness to successfully and safely squat down and come back up. The body awareness is especially difficult for new trainees - they can't feel what is a correct squat or correct depth.

First, figure out where the bottom is. Tony Gentilcore's article, linked yesterday, is a great place to start. First identify how deep you can go.

A quick substitute, is to simply sit on a bench or box that puts you at the same height you would be on a chair or sofa at home. It's practical alternative since you will need to get up from that height as part of daily life.

Next, start at the bottom. Almost everyone can sit down. Start from the box/bench/chair. Get down however you need to. From there, you can get your feet placement the proper width for a squat, tighten up your hips and abs, put your chest up, and drive your feet down and stand up.

Really, all a squat is, is standing up. You do it under a load, and you generally start and end standing, but you're standing up.

Your goal is to get with without having to use your hands, grab onto anything, shift your weight to one side, or push off your legs with your arms. If you have to, do it as little as possible. Try to increase the number of reps you can get without assistance.

What are the upsides to this approach?

You take away any fear of falling which commonly cuts squat depth and discourages people from sitting back into the squat.

You can adjust the bottom position without being under a load. You can correct chest position, foot position, starting motion, etc. at the most critical point in the squat - the bottom aka the hole. That is where your barbell back squat will either succeed or fail, so you can get it right first.

You can do this with even extremely de-trained clients. Even the most elderly client will sit down and get back up during the day, and if you can get them doing it without any assistance you are given them their life back. If they fail to get up due to fatigue or old injuries creeping back, you can stop the set with ease.

It will also result in less soreness, since the motion is all concentric (muscles contracting/shortening), not eccentric (muscle lengthening.)

It's easy to get used to what a squat depth feels like.

Almost no one gets up on their toes when they stand from a chair - they drive with their heels and keep their feet flat.

It's easy - and safe - to put a band around the knees to force the squatter to push their knees out.

Progression - how do you progress these?

Move up to goblet squats.

Add a weight vest.

Hold dumbbells.

Use a lower box (great in conjunction with mobility drills to increase range of motion). Whenever you do this, start unweighted in case the person can't keep a proper back arch in this position.

Work up to a barbell.

Start doing single-leg squats (lift one leg and stand).

I find this approach very simple and easy - young and fit people can move right up to the bar the same session; older and injured people can stay at this until they build up the strength to progress to the bar. Plus it's safe, intuitive, and it's clear when progress is made - if you can go from "stand up with a cane or using your hands" to "stand up unassisted, with a load" you know you have made progress.


  1. I've used something similar. Take for example JW, a 65yo deconditioned guy, quite tall and solid. He had the raw muscle mass to do squats, but didn't have the strength, mobility or control. His first "squats" were sitting down on and standing up from a chair. "Okay, now put your feet on the outer edge of the supports, knees out," etc. Then a high bench, then a lower bench, and finally the bench was taken away, only after that did we add a load.

    One of his main reasons for doing PT was to be confident on his own in the gym. For this reason, as he comes twice a week I have him do the same workout 4 times in a row, then we change a couple of the exercises. The idea is to emphasise how things are similar, like barbell and dumbbell bench press.

    His workouts relevant to being able to squat went like this, omitting the obvious warmup sets etc - which are still important since they grease the groove

    2012.11.27 Goblet squat to bench 10 reps for 3 sets, plus leg press 10kg 20x3 supersetted with planks 10" 3x3
    11.30 GS-bench 12x4, LP 20kg 20x2, plank 15" 3x3
    12.04 GS-bench 15x4, LP 30kg 20x2, plank 20" x4
    12.07 GS-bench 20x5, LP 40kg 20x2, plank 25" x4

    He then continued with leg press and planks, and progressed to unweighted goblet squats, thus,

    12.11 GS 10x6, LP 50kg x20, plank 30" x3
    12.14 GS 12x6, LP 60kg x20, plank 35" x3
    12.18 GS 15x4, LP 70kg x10, plank 40" x3
    12.21 GS 18x3, LP 70kg x10, plank 45" x3

    I didn't believe there was any need to leg press more than 60-70kg (the plate on our 45 degree leg press is 30-40kg itself) or do a plank for more than 45".

    Thus his next cycle has included goblet squats with a light dumbbell, no more leg press, and the planks have become side planks. He's goblet squatted 7.5kg for 12x3 and held a rough side plank for 15".

    The goal is to get him to 10kg for 10-20 decent reps, and a good side plank of 30". This is sufficient squatting and back strength to get him through an ordinary day of housework, shopping and so on.

    And if necessary and he wants it, we can with that level of strength go on to barbell back squats. Probably not, though, as he's got an increase thoracic kyphosis - so the bar would hurt him.

    However, after some time developing the hip hinge pattern with cables and dumbbells, he's now doing pulls from the rack, just below knee height. The long-term goal would be getting him to deadlifting his bodyweight. This may improve his posture slightly, perhaps just enough to make a bar comfortable. But if he never does it that's okay.

    1. That's exactly the kind of approach I'm thinking about here.

      The reason I start people on the bottom is both ability and the the difficulty in teaching the squat top-down as opposed to "stand up, but now with weights."

      A better coach than me might be able to get these people to squat from the top immediately, but with the de-trained and injured, it's easier for me to start them seated and work them up before I work them back down.


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