Teaching the Squat to Beginners
By Will Haskell

Teaching the squat is an important task for any coach as squatting is one of the best ways to build lower body strength. Kids as early as age 6 can learn to squat, snatch, etc. Teach a 6 year old how to squat…big deal right? Imagine the technique that kid will be able to squat with when they are 16 years old and can really start loading up the bar. The capability to develop lower body strength and explosiveness is seemingly endless because the chance for injury decreases significantly because that athlete can apply force properly.

Squatting is a crucial part of the program because it is a proven way to develop the lower body strength needed to create faster, more powerful athletes. Without question, all athletes need to be trained unilaterally because of the biomechanics of force production but, almost all movements begin and end with a bilateral base making the squat a great exercise to teach.

Here are four simple tips that will help your athletes squat better.

Set your feet

Walk into the athletes weight room at just about any college in the country and you’ll see top athletes squatting incorrectly primarily because they never look down to make sure their feet are set correctly.

When the feet aren’t set correctly it can cause transverse rotation in the spinal column while performing the squat. Not a huge deal when thinking about movement because our jumping/landing patterns as well as other movements are never perfect in respect to where our feet end up. However, when performing a weight loaded squat we want to maintain a neutral spine that is capable of safely handling increasing loads.

The coaching advice that commonly works is to set the feet “shoulder width” apart. It’s amusing when you see athletes set their feet because most athletes know what “shoulder width” means but it rarely happens. Most athletes will position themselves in a stance that is comfortable to them.

The toes should be pointed out if it’s comfortable for the athlete. But, there is a difference between being comfortable and “way too far.” A good way to show the athletes that like to point too far is to halve a small piece of athletic tape and place it right down the center of the back of the shoe. If the athlete can see any part of the tape on the back of the heel then they’ve gone too far. It’s not a great way of reinforcing the position of the feet, but some athletes are such visual learners that they continue to do it wrong until they have a marker they can see for themselves.

Insteps off

I learned this concept about 8 months ago and I’ve adopted it into my method of teaching the squat. Athletes pull the insteps off slightly inside their shoes so they can apply pressure to the outside heel.

Safety is always a concern and any athlete with knees going valgus while performing a squat is setting themselves up for a knee injury. An athlete squatting with the insteps off will have to keep the knees to the outside. Force production is set on the outside heel when we squat with the insteps off which provides greater focus on the posterior muscle groups.

Arch your back

Our spinal column when standing has a natural lordotic curvature that is ideal for weight bearing. Many coaches give the cues to their athletes to keep their back “straight” with no explanation of what that truly means. Straightening out the lower lumbar while squatting isn’t just foolish, it’s dangerous as we have now removed the efficient curve the spine has to bear the load.

It’s easy to teach this to your athletes if you reinforce the concept that the hips have to travel back, not straight down when performing a squat. An easy way to teach this is to have a beginning squatter go through the squat progression (setting the feet, insteps off) with their back facing a wall about arms length away. The idea is that we want the athletes to try and touch their butt to the wall. It’s impossible for them to roll forward on to the toes as the hips and the weight displacement have to fall to the backside.

Set your eyes

The body follows the head so if the eyes look downwards while trying to perform a squat, the body is going to follow that line and sooner or later you’ll see an athlete with a severe flexion in the spine trying to do a squat on their toes.

Secondly, we want our athletes looking even with the horizon or upwards. Our nervous system centers itself with the horizon using our eyes as the guide. It only makes sense that our movements stay consistent with how our nervous system is wired.

We want our athletes to focus on a goal; this case is to ascend out of a squat. Nothing is more satisfying than completing a lift that is a personal best. Focusing the eyes on a particular spot is going to give us a goal that we can reach. It’s not going to be the weight or the lift itself, we want to get our eyes back to where we started from and that’s going to be our goal.

Coaching Tips

Start small and work your way up. Coaches often jump into weight loaded squats with their athletes when they don’t even know whether or not the athlete can perform a simple body weight squat with good technique.

It’s never going to be perfect 100% of the time, but I want my athletes to get pretty close to that. Quite a bit of our time spent isn’t just training but, it’s perfecting technique just as we would want to perfect skill development for a sport. Shooting a basketball is a skill, throwing a baseball is a skill, squatting is a skill. Regardless of the sport, we need to know the fundamentals before we can ascend.