If you read Why We Don’t Back Squat, you may be under the impression that no one in our program squats with two feet on the ground – that’s not true. While we removed back squats from our program because of a number of reasons (read the article) I still think that bilateral squatting is both necessary and beneficial. The squat pattern is a fundamental human movement and not training and maintaining it would be a mistake.
That being said, in lieu of barbell back squats, our main bilateral squat movement is the double kettlebell front squat. Front squats are a good compromise because with the weight in front of you, you have to maintain a more upright posture. An upright posture requires less hip flexion (seriously, read the article) and reduces lumbar spine stress. Plus, holding the kettlebells on your chest helps your “core” fire automatically, which has a tendency to clean up a lot of otherwise ugly looking squats. Because of that, the double kettlebell front squat is our go-to bilateral squat movement.
While the double kettelbell front squat is definitely more user-friendly it’s still important that the lift is performed and progressed properly. Any movement performed incorrectly can lead to injury, no matter how user-friendly it may be. Here’s our progression for building a strong bilateral squat, without irritating lower backs and hips.
The goblet squat is our first progression in learning to squat. The great thing about the goblet squat is that it has a ton of uses; it’s the single best teaching tool I’ve found for teaching people to squat properly, it’s a great warm-up exercise, and it can be loaded enough to make it a respectable strength exercise for beginner and intermediate lifters.
When first teaching someone to goblet squat I like to start with the prying version. For one, most people have really tight hips and the prying goblet squat helps to open them up. Second, pushing the knees outward with your elbows is a good way to show new squatters that the knees stay out during the squat. This seems counteract the valgus (inward) knee collapse you see with so many first time squatters. Then in our later phases we use the prying goblet squat in our warm-up to improve and maintain hip mobility.
Whether you’re performing the prying version or the regular goblet squat there are several key points. First, take a shoulder width stance with the toes slightly turned out -find a stance that’s comfortable, foot placement will vary with leg length and hip structure/mobility. Second, it’s important that you maintain a neutral spine – imagine sitting up tall as you squat down, trying to make your spine as long as possible. Third, squat down until your elbows are between your knees, this will ensure you’re reaching a good depth and that you’re not allowing your knees to collapse inward.
Single Kettlebell Front Squat
The single kettlebell front squat is our next bilateral squat progression. It’s going to look similar to the goblet squat except that you’ll be holding a single kettlebell in the rack position instead of by the horns. Having the weight offset will teach you to stabilize through your core to avoid twisting. A flat back is still a priority and try not to let the upper body sway or rotate as you’re performing the movement.
Set up and foot placement is the same and squat depth depends on your ability to maintain a flat lower back. Go as deep as you can as long as there is no pain and your tailbone doesn’t tuck under. If you can’t hit a thighs-parallel squat without your tailbone tucking and your lower back rounding, go back and work your prying goblet squats a bit longer until you improve your hip mobility enough to allow a parallel squat with a flat lower back.
Double Kettlebell Front Squat
So the goblet squat teaches you to squat and helps improve hip mobility. Then the single kettlebell front squat adds some stabilization demands to the movement, teaching you to brace through your midsection to avoid swaying, twisting or rotating. By now you should have a pretty solid squat pattern, so it’s time to load it up and get strong.
The trickiest part of the double kettlebell front squat is getting the bells in place and putting them down. You’re going to take a wider than usual stance and clean two kettlebells into the rack position. Once the kettlebells are in place, take your usual squat stance – feet about shoulder width apart and toes pointed out about 10-15 degrees. After the set, when you put the kettlebells down, move your feet out so you have room to “catch” the kettlebells between your knees before putting them on the ground.
Squatting is a fundamental movement that needs to be trained, for both strength and performance purposes. Just remember that progression is the key to long term gains and long term health. First pattern the squat with a goblet squat. Then iron out any left to right asymmetries with the single kettlebell front squat. Once you’re proficient there, move on to the double kettlebell front squat where you can start to some add load. For some, after you’ve built a solid double kettlebell front squat you may move on to a barbell front squat (a post for another day) where you can really start building strength. But it all starts with proper progressions and good quality movement. Start at the beginning and progress appropriately and your strength and performance will improve dramatically.