Squat Progressions for Athletes

“What happens when they’re too weak to squat?”

After looking at a lot of the questions on the Q&A at EliteFTS, as well as answering them, this is one of the most common questions I’ve come across. It’s also something I deal with every day.

First, when it comes to these athletes, they’re not weak. They may not be able to barbell squat yet, but you absolutely cannot look at them as weak. If you do this with a high school or younger athlete, not only will you sell them short, but chances are good that you’ll be perceived as an asshole. Not something you want if you’re working as a physical preparation coach and they’re paying you, and not good for business! Remember this: if you don’t squat, you don’t win, and I don’t care what Mike Boyle says!

One of the things I’ve done from day one – even before I was a coach and we just had powerlifters coming into the gym – was use a progression-based approach. I’d start small and work them up to using a barbell on their backs full-time. I’ll say that this does take some time, and that some will take longer than others. The fastest we’ve had it happen is about two weeks, and some have been at it six weeks or more. You’ll just have to find some indicators with your athletes to know when they’re ready.

The progression I use is a four-step process. It starts with the initial assessment of the athlete. As part of the assessment, we do a bodyweight squat test. It’s simply a pass/fail 10 rep bodyweight squat. I like it a lot because it lets me see where the athletes are at in strength, and it gives me an idea of how they control their bodies in space. All squats are done to the appropriate depth, and I’ll call the athletes up at each rep. A pass consists of 10 reps to the appropriate depth without a large amount of effort. A fail consists of less than 10 reps, the inability to get to depth, or a great amount of difficulty to get all of the reps. I realize this is completely subjective, but if you can’t tell when someone is putting in a ton of effort, you don’t need to be coaching or training anyone. Athletes who pass start with the second step of the process, while those who fail will start at the first.

Before I get into the progressions, I want to include this addendum, if you will. Once they start with me in the gym, they have SOMETHING on their back, and we do technique work all of the time. For some, it may only be a one-inch piece of PVC pipe. Others may start with an empty bar. Some may need to simply work on their setup under the bar, while others may use unloaded or lightly loaded sets with an Olympic bar. Regardless, work technique immediately. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and shouldn’t take more than five minutes. The best part of this is that you don’t have bad technique to try to teach over, as they’ve probably never done the exercises! Just make sure you’re hitting technique first in the workout. I do it as part of an extended warm-up. Remember, it’s short, but effective.

After the technique work is finished, we have to remember there’s still work to be done. You have to get them to the barbell eventually, right? Exactly. That leads to the first step in the progression: bodyweight squats to a high box. This will require a bit of trial and error on your part, as some will be able to squat deeper than others. Some may need a VERY high box, while others will be closer to depth. Once they can get 10 solid reps to a parallel box, get rid of it. I firmly believe that while box squatting is good for powerlifters, it cheats athletes out of a lot of quad and glute development they will need on the field or court. This is especially true for younger athletes. Once they can hit two sets of 10 to the same standard, it’s time to move them to the second step.

The second step I use is front squats with kettlebells and dumbbells. I like kettlebells more, as they seem to be easier for the athletes to control, gets the weight out in front of them and helps improve their upper and lower back strength. However, the progression between sizes in our gym is big – about five kilos per set. Sometimes you’ll have to use both. The progressions here are close to the same as they were for the bodyweight squats, except that you don’t move the box height up! Remember, these are progressions, not regressions! The loading is a bit different here as well. Although they may not be ready to squat with a bar, they still need to get stronger! Depending on what phase of their training they’re in, the rep scheme can be anywhere from 4 – 12. Get them strong and off of the box!

Once they become proficient at the front squats, move along to the dumbbells. You can really start to up the weights, if you’re getting indications that they’re ready. When they get to this point, coaching becomes paramount, as they’ll do whatever they can to get the reps. I actually coach these the exact same way as I do the back squat. I tell them to keep their head and chest high, their back arched, and their upper back tight and shoulders back. The one exception here compared to the other two steps is that I won’t use a box. When the athletes start to fatigue, it seems that they also tend to not keep their hamstrings tight at the bottom of the movement, making a sort of dive bomb out of the last one to six inches. The box isn’t really conducive to safety in this regard. Something else I try to be mindful of is that the set needs to stop when the form breaks, regardless of whether they’ve met the rep range or not. Remember that this will have direct carryover to their barbell squat, and you don’t want to reinforce bad technique here that could/would transfer to their squat.

Here are a couple of other things to remember.

-         You don’t have to adhere hard and fast to the progressions. I’d recommend you work between them. That being said, where you have them at is where the bulk of their squat work should happen. It takes some time to get all of the intermuscular and intramuscular coordination down, and you don’t want to injure a kid doing something he isn’t ready to do. Remember that the end goal is to get them squatting, but the first goal is to keep them healthy.

-         Something else you should remember is that you need to be coaching these kids ALL THE TIME – not only on technique, but remind them what the end goal is and why they’re doing these “stupid exercises” ( I’ve actually heard that one from a kid!). Make sure that you’re offering enough mental support to get them to the point where they’ll be squatting with their buddies and teammates. If you have earned the trust of the athlete, you’ll find that these arguments fall off quickly, and that the kids will work like dogs to get better. That’s all we really want anyway, isn’t it?

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About the Author

Jason is a powerlifter from Muncie, Indiana. He squats high in the IPA and trains at DC Barbell. He currently lives in Rhodestown. View Jason’s Training Log HERE