A Simple 1-2-3 Progression for Learning the Barbell Squat

One of the trickier lifts a beginner lifter might want to learn is the squat.

Since we don’t spend much time sitting in a deep squat position in the western world (at least after we’ve left childhood), we tend to get stiff and lose the mobility to do so.

Luckily, what is lost can be regained, and it usually doesn’t take too long either.

A 1-2-3 Squat Progression

Here’s is a squat progression that I often use with beginners who wants to learn how to squat.

This progression moves from easy to hard in terms of hip and ankle mobility. You can also use heavier loads in each step, which accommodates the beginner’s need for progressively heavier weights.

How do you use this progression?

I suggest you use it as a teaching/strengthening tool. Stay with each exercise for as long as you need to before moving on to the next step.

For some of you, it might mean only doing each step once for the movement to “click”. For others, it might mean spending a few workouts or weeks on each step.

You might even decide that one of the steps is enough for your goals and stay there.

Step One: Goblet Squats

The goblet squat is a real gem when it comes to learning the squat. The weight provides a counter-balance that makes the squat so much easier for pretty much anyone.

Start with a light kettlebell or weight plate, hold it up against your chest, and point your elbows down. If you want to control the depth, squat down to a low bench or box or something. You can lower this box as you gain strength and mobility.

For some, the goblet squat might even be enough. It’s great for increasing mobility and body control, and you can “comfortably” use loads up to about 50% of your body weight. That won’t be enough to break world record squats, but it is more than enough to build strong, functional legs that will be more than able to handle an active lifestyle for the rest of your life.

Do you want more?

Here’s more.

Step Two: Front Squats

The beauty of the goblet squat lies in the fact that the weight is placed in front of you, which shifts your center of gravity forward. This is replicated in the front squat. While the weight might not be as far in front of you as in the goblet squat, this is often compensated because you can use heavier weights in the front squat.

Generally, most people can squat deep pretty easily in the front squat, which means that you can use this as a learning and strengthening tool. Train the front squat for a few workouts or weeks, and you will develop your squat groove while gaining more control, strength, and mobility.

One disadvantage of the front squat is that the grip can be difficult or uncomfortable to hold. Here are some workarounds for this:

  • Improve your grip technique. Shove your shoulders forward (“spread the lats”), and place the bar firmly against your throat. Try to point your elbows up. Do a few warm-up sets and stick with this for a few workouts, and you’ll get better at it.
  • Use a cross grip. You’ll still need to shove your shoulders forward and place the bar against your throat, but crossing your forearms and just resting your hands on top of the bar might be easier on your wrists.
  • Use straps. Same as the two points above, but wrap lifting straps around the bar and grip those instead of holding onto the bar.
  • Use a safety squat bar. If you have one at your gym, you can substitute front squats with safety bar squats. You’ll get the same benefit of a shifted center of gravity but with a much more comfortable grip.

The front squat is a great leg exercise in its own right and enough to build massive quads and tremendous leg strength. But in case you want to compete in powerlifting, handle more weight, or want to work your glutes and lower back at the same time, you’ll want to progress to the back squat.

Step Three: Back Squats

Alright, we’ve arrived at the big gun. Out of the three lifts in this post, the back squat is the lift in which you can generally lift the most weight, and it is a competitive lift in powerlifting.

It is also the style that is most challenging for most people to learn, perhaps because of lack of mobility or because the back squat doesn’t really mimic what we usually do in our day-to-day lives. When we lift heavy stuff in real life, we typically hold it in front of us (like in a goblet squat) or in hanging arms (like the deadlift), not up on our back.

However, with some practice at goblet squats and front squats over the last workouts or weeks, you should be well prepared for the back squat.

What remains is to find the style that fits your body type the best. The main three things you’ll want to experiment with are:

  • Bar position. High up on your shoulders or down onto your shoulder blades? The bar placement will affect your center of gravity, with the high bar position being closer to the goblet squat and front squat in terms of balance.
  • Stance width. Wide or narrow? A wider stance will generally require greater hip mobility and less ankle mobility and shift more work to your hip extensors. A narrow stance will generally require greater ankle mobility and less hip mobility and shift more work to your knee extensors.
  • Toe angle. Should you point your toes straight forward, far out to the sides, or (likely the correct answer for most people) something in between? Most people like to point their toes 10–15 degrees out to the sides. Your knees should generally track over your toes, and you will generally need to point your toes out more the wider your stance is.

If your goal is to squat the maximum amount of weight, know that most people tend to be a little bit stronger with a low-bar, wide-stance squatting style. However, finding the squat style that fits your body type the best is more important than what is true for people in general.

Some Additional Tips on Squatting

If you’re still having problems with the squat, try this.

1. Raised Heels

Pretty much all weightlifters use shoes with raised heels when they squat, and about 50% or something of powerlifters does so.

A raised heel gives you “artificial ankle mobility”, and can thus make it easier for you to squat deep. Typically, weightlifting shoes with raised heels are more useful for people with a high-bar, narrow-stance squatting style (like me). For lifters who utilize a low-bar, wide-stance squat, flat shoes are more common.

To see if shoes with raised heels might be something for you, you could try squatting with your heels on a pair of small weight plates or a wooden plank. If it feels better, you might benefit from getting a couple of shoes.

I generally don’t recommend you do your training standing on plates or a plank, as the risk of something going wrong is higher. Just use it a few times to see how it feels when you squat with elevated heels, and then buy a pair of proper shoes if you like it.

2. Spend More Time Squatting!

Stupid simple, stupidly effective. The simple act of squatting more often will sky-rocket your mobility and technique. I regularly have stints where I do a couple of sets of squats with an empty barbell every day for a few weeks at a time, and my squat mobility always goes through the roof (or through the floor?).

If you don’t have access to a barbell every day, just spend more time sitting in a squat position at home. You’re probably spending hours every day petting your phone, so you might as well sit in a deep squat while you do so. If you have a light weight at home, like a dumbbell or kettlebell, use it to do a few light sets of goblet squats every day, and you’ll improve your squat mobility quickly.

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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.