Many trainers, coaches and lifters believe that the basic Barbell Back Squat is the ultimate lift. They’re not necessarily wrong, but some issues can arise when the Barbell Back Squat is your one and only Squat. If you fall into this camp, it’s time to broaden your vision and realize the usefulness of some other Squat variations.
These options can help improve leg development, speed, athletic performance and strength much like the Barbell Back Squat, but without as much of a toll on the spine. With that in mind, here are four Squat variations you should know and love. You don’t have to utilize all of them in your program simultaneously, of course, but a little variety can go a long way.
As outlined by Coach Mike Boyle in the above video, the Goblet Squat is a perfect way to train or clean up the squat pattern in a low-risk environment. By shifting the load to the front of your core, the Goblet Squat allows for a more upright torso position, which is easier on the spine. Adding plates under the heels and/or a band around the knees can help an athlete who is challenged by some common movement deficiencies feel what a good Squat is supposed to feel like.
A dumbbell is the optimal implement to use here, as maintaining two points of contact on the dumbbell with the chest and sternum throughout the movement is a sign of proper form. The elbows touching the knees is another good sign. A kettlebell isn’t quite as ideal, but it will work in a pinch. When used with lighter weight, Goblet Squats can also be an effective form of cardio or warm-up. However, don’t be afraid to go heavy once you’ve mastered the movements. You’ll ultimately be limited by how heavy the dumbbells you have access to are, but feel free to challenge yourself.
Single-leg strength matters for athletic performance, and the Split Squat is among the most effective exercises to target the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
Once an athlete can perform at least 15 consecutive reps with body weight only, they can switch to a weighted vest. Once they’ve mastered that, they can advanced to having dumbbells or kettlebells in their hands. The Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat, as shown above, is a variation of the basic move that sees the back foot elevated (typically on a bench). The big advantage here over Barbell Back Squats aside from less stress on the spine is that you train each leg individually, helping destroy asymmetries. Don’t be afraid to load these up heavy and go for lower reps.
This is a solid one for any athlete looking to jump higher. Jump Squats help achieve many of the same benefits as Olympic lifts, but with a fraction the complexity.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that “loaded jumps seem equally effective as weightlifting derivatives for improving lower-body power in experienced athletes. Since loaded jumps require less skill and less coaching expertise than weightlifting, loaded jumps should be considered where coaching complex movements is difficult.”
To perform them, stand with your feet slightly wider than hip width and your arms at your sides (with hands either open or holding trap bar/dumbbells). Squat to the desired depth, keeping your core tight and back straight. Explosively extend your hips, knees and ankles to jump off the ground. Swing your arms up to generate extra momentum if you’re using just your body weight or a weight vest (this won’t be possible if you’re using dumbbells or a barbell). Land softly with bent knees over hips and ankles, but be sure they do not collapse inward. Some variations call for athletes to jump again immediately upon landing, but this does increase the risk of injuries to the achilles and calves, so I wouldn’t recommend it for a drill like this.
A vest is the best option of weight to use for this one, but a trap bar or dumbbells are also acceptable. You don’t have to go too heavy for this to be effective. Use no more than 10 percent of your Barbell Back Squat max. Stick with sets of 3-6 reps to keep the focus on power development.
Pause Front Squat
Holding the weight in front of you instead of on the back of your shoulders challenges the anterior core more, relieves stress on the spine, and places more focus on the quadriceps. If your athlete needs to improve the ability to generate power out of the hole, the Pause Front Squat is a great option. They’ll first want to master the Front Squat, for which STACK has a definitive guide.
Once they lower down with the weight with the thighs parallel with the floor, they should hold that position for a count of one before returning to the standing position as quickly as possible. Make sure the athlete can maintain proper front rack position and keep their feet flat on the ground during the pause. Once they return to the standing position, repeat.
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