Monday, June 27, 2011

Tips on Teaching a Beginner to Squat

There are many ways to perform a squat, and at IFAST, most of our clients are performing some variation of it.  This is because it is a great exercise and movement that can be tailored to fit almost any client’s goal.
Today, I want to go over how I teach most beginner clients to squat.  This is not always an easy thing to do so I hope this will be beneficial for coaches and trainers.  I want to point out that not all clients will squat this way and not all clients will even perform a squat variation initially - it all depends on the assessment.

So with that said, let's get to it!
When teaching a beginner to squat, I will typically start him or her off squatting to a box with a kettlebell or dumbbell held at chest height (a goblet squat to a box) or squatting facing a wall (a wall squat). I have found that both of these options better teach a person to push their hips back and rely more on their posterior chain versus their quads and adductors.

The wall squat is mainly used when someone will just not sit back to a box or has a hard time keeping their torso upright.

Here is a video demonstrating a wall squat:

The goblet squat is a good variation because the weight is held in front of you so it helps to counterbalance you as you sit back.  It is also a good way to help you get some extension in your upper back (i.e. keep your chest out, but I do not like that cue - I will explain why below).  If you have a client who is not able to hold a very heavy kettlebell/dumbbell at their chest in a goblet squat, then I would most likely have them hold a plate straight out in front of them at chest height (plate squat).  This will allow them to sit back easier with a lighter weight.  Otherwise, a light weight at their chest will not be enough load to offset their weight moving back as they squat.
-Begin with “soft knees”. 
-Initiate the movement by pushing hips back and knees out.  Tell them to think about sitting between their legs.
-Pull shoulders back to get chest out.  I will not usually tell them to “get chest out” however because it usually causes them to extend their low back to do this.
-Beginners often have a hard time pushing their knees out so I often put a band around their knees to give them something to push out against.  I only resort to the band if they are unable to keep their knees out after I try to coach them to do so.

The video below demonstrates a failure to push knees out (first two squats in the video), as well as proper knee and foot alignment (last two squats in the video). 

-“Ribs down”- I had a blog post on this cue a while back called "Correcting Excessive Lumbar Extension-"Ribs Down'".  Basically, many people like to stabilize their “core” by extending their back and relying on passive restraints versus keeping an erect/“long” torso.  Telling someone to keep their ribs down is a good way to get them out of this extension stabilization pattern.

-Tripod foot (or Janda short foot).  If you are not familiar with this concept, then check out these two posts:
      Mastering Tripod Foot by Mike Robertson
      Short Foot Posture by Patrick Ward

I just explain to my clients that I want their foot to maintain three points of contact with the ground, and then I show them on their foot these points.  This little cue can make a big difference in you or your clients' ability to squat well.
-If performing a box squat, you can block a client’s knees with your hand to prevent them from coming too far forward.  How far forward is too far will depend on the person’s body proportions. 
-Also, with a box squat, I tell the client to imagine the box is covered with glass because I do not want them to relax on the box.  Relaxing on the box will usually cause lumbar flexion (lower back rounds), which is not what I want.  You always want to keep tension as you descend into the squat.

As you can see in the video below, when I relax on the box I get lumbar flexion (first two squats in the video), but when I keep my tightness on the box, my lumbar spine stays neutral (last two squats in the video).

If a client is more advanced, I will cue them to think about pulling themselves down with their hip flexors, which will allow them to keep a neutral spine longer and build tension in the bottom of the squat.

That is all for today.  How do you teach beginners to squat?  Any other cues or tips you guys can think of?  I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section.

Have a good week!!


  1. I actually prefer to utilize a sit-to-stand and essentially work from the bottom up as my very first progression. After they stand up, I basically tell them to sit back down without moving their feet...and of course, I cue them on "sitting back" and pushing the knees out, etc.

  2. Thanks for the comment Chris! Are most of your clients able to stay out of lumbar flexion in the bottom when utilizing a sit-to-stand squat? How do you get them into the sit position to start the squat? Thanks!

  3. They are (able to stay out of lumbar flexion) if I cue them out of it and/or sit them up high enough at the beginning of the motion to account for any ROM deficits. I literally just sit them down on a chair or bench, position their feet such that they'd be about hip width or slightly wider with a little toe-out, instruct them to brace the core, put the arms in front as a counterbalance, and tell them to push their heels to stand up. I had a lot of trouble getting people to sit back when I'd use a top-down approach. They would immediately "break" at the knees. A couple of years ago at my lab we were doing an ACL study and this was one of the functional tests being analyzed (sit-to-stand) so I thought that it'd be a great way to begin teaching someone the squat pattern. It was particularly useful with the older clients that I had.

  4. Awesome-thanks for the tip!

  5. These are my progressions for newbies:

    1. Swiss ball squat to box w/ bands pulling into forward flexion under armpits (I hold in front)
    2. As above minus bands
    3. Squat to box w/ bands
    4. As above minus bands but pushing lightly on clients upper back as they sit so as to cue not relaxing as they sit.
    5. Goblet squat to box using light (ie 4kg)
    6. Increase load till able to get at least 20kg in goblet squat.
    7. Front barbell squats to box
    8. 1-leg squat variations

    Of course, I make sure that the client scores a 2 at least on the FMS Deep Squat test before I chuck squats in their program.

    Great blog btw :o)

    Cheers mate!

    Chris Bellette

  6. Thanks Chris for the detailed progression! How often do you have to start newbies with the very first progression? I mean do you always start newbies with that progression if they score at least a 2 on the deep squat? And by a swiss ball squat are you referring to a squat with the ball between the back and the wall?

  7. Hi Zach, I started doing squats 4 weeks ago and have developed knee pain. The trainer session which came with my gym membership weren't so helpful, 'keep your weight back' is what the trainer kept on saying! I feel unstable and afraid to fall backwards. After following your vids to the best of my ability the pain has improved significantly but there is still a slight twinge there. Do you suggest I stop them for some time to let any wear and tear damage heal before resuming. Is there anything else I can do? Im fit and healthy otherwise. Many thanks in advance!