The Squat is one of the core lifts for the Cincinnati Bengals. And rightfully so. It’s an essential compound movement that’s essential for building lower-body strength and power. It’s also a foundational movement pattern that every athlete should be able to perform.
Chip Morton, head strength coach for the Bengals since 2003, prioritizes the Squat but he’s cautious with his approach given that he’s working with multi-million dollar athletes including A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.
You won’t see any of the Bengals players walk into the weight room and immediately throw a heavy bar on their back. At the 2017 Cincinnati Hammer Strength Conference, Morton explained his three-step process that gradually prepares his athletes to squat so they can get the most out of the exercise while limiting their risk of injury. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Train the Pattern
The Squat is a foundational pattern, meaning it’s a movement that everyone should be able to perform. For football players (and others), doing the same thing over and over again—along with sitting—can create tight hips and mobility issues that make it difficult to perform this basic movement.
So the first step for Morton’s athletes is to relearn and improve their squat pattern. “So we’ll train the pattern first to make sure we’re checking with our body there, checking with the movement and kind of restore that pattern,” he says.
Morton’s go-to exercise is the All-Fours Squat. To put it simply, you assume a table-top position with your knees slightly elevated and your feet on the ground. From this position, you push your hips backward as if squatting, but horizontal.
“We’re tying together the shoulders and hips, making sure they’re moving in synchronization and opening the groin and adductors,” he says. “If we framed this position and flipped it vertically, it would be a Squat.”
How to: Assume a table-top position with your hands directly under your shoulders with your arms straight and knees positioned under your hips. Dig your toes into the ground and raise your knees about an inch off the ground. Tighten your core and keep a flat back. From this position, slowly rock backward as if squatting as far as range of motion allows. Briefly hold this position before pulling yourself to the starting position.
Step 2: Load the Pattern
Now that the squat pattern is reinforced, Morton has his athletes stand up and start squatting. Goblet Squats are the ideal choice for this step of the process because they start to load the body with weight, are great for activating the core and further reinforce proper squat form.
In fact, the Goblet Squat is considered one of the best exercises for teaching athletes how to Squat properly. You can see a demonstration of this in the video at the top of the article.
“The Goblet Squat allows about 95 percent of athletes to learn how to squat effectively,” adds Morton. Those who struggle with the Goblet Squat won’t move onto Step 3. If you can’t do this basic version of the Squat correctly, you’re by no means prepared to put a bar on your back.
How to: Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell vertically with your hands underneath the top of the weight. Hold the weight against your body so it’s touching your sternum and stomach. Keeping your core tight, back flat and dumbbell or kettlebell in contact with your body, bend your hips and knees to initiate the Squat and continue until your elbows touch your knees. Drive your heels into the ground to stand up to the starting position.
Check out this article for more Goblet Squat form tips.
Step 3: Build Strength
Now the body is prepared so it’s time to build strength with some heavy or explosive Squats. First and foremost, you need to choose the Squat variation you want to perform for that workout. You can choose from a Back Squat, Front Squat, Bulgarian Split Squat or one of the many other variations of the lift.
Next, determine the number of sets and reps you plan to perform, which will ultimately dictate how heavy you lift. Popular set-and-rep schemes include 5×5 or 5×3, either using the same weight for every set or working up to a top set where you lift the heaviest amount of weight possible for the number of reps you’re doing.
You can also back off this weight and focus on speed to develop explosive power. Two sets of eight reps with a weight that’s 50-60 percent of your max is a common explosive squat workout.
Regardless of what exercise or volume you choose, make sure that your technique is on point. As an athlete, it’s simply not worth sacrificing technique when your health is the number one priority.