How do we get from no experience in the weight room to being comfortable and skilled with a barbell? How do we take a new athlete from moving their bodyweight to moving a bar?
We use a pretty simple approach to squatting when it comes to beginner athletes. Especially for newcomers who have zero weight training experience, I've come to find a pretty simple approach to training the squatting movements which has worked well for almost every athlete I train (there are no perfect solutions, but this one works well).
Before I dive fully in, I will say this article will stop at the Front Squat, because at large we don't do as much Back Squatting with the athletes I have unless they are competing in lifting sports such as Powerlifting or Weightlifting. For those who are Back Squat enthusiasts, know this progression can include the Back at the tail end, we just prefer the Front Squat for the athletic and younger population.
To start off, when I assess a new athlete, I will often have them lunge or split squat to get a sense of strength and stability levels. For each athlete, the time spent on each progression is relative to this assessment and their ability to learn skills. But as an athlete masters each progression, we integrate a new movement into the mix over time.
Our progression is as follows:
Counterbalance For Form, and Split Squat For Strength: We always start with Split Squats loaded with Dumbbells. While the actual movement of a Bilateral Squat can prove to be more difficult, the younger athletes can easily pick this up. And it can easily be assisted or loaded for additional challenge or to drive output; this being our main lift. While we do this, we often pair or alternate workouts with a counterbalance squat in order to teach a proper bilateral squatting pattern. We'll utilize this approach until an athlete can consistently demonstrate squat form with decreasing load on the counterbalance squat.
Goblet Squat for Form and Output: Once we start to implement the Goblet Squat, we will either do it with a raised heel (usually for those who collapse the arch and internally rotate the tibia), or flat footed. This is dependent on an athlete's mobility. As we begin to express output, we use a variety of tempos to increase the amount of time an athlete has to learn and master positions. This allows them to drive output over time. For athlete's who struggle with the sequencing of the hips and knees, we prescribe a longer eccentric tempo in the range of 3-5 seconds, and an isometric tempo for similar durations for those who fold or lose tension at the bottom.
Front Squat For Form and Output: Once we've mastered the Goblet Squat and can consistently hit proper positions with a 45lb Dumbbell, we begin to use the Front Squat. I use 45lb Dumbbells as the Gauge for the Goblet Squat less for the actual weight and more the immediate emotional/cognitive response to "the bar weighs 45lbs." Essentially, we want athletes to have prior experience to the bar weight being comfortable, even if they could easily hand more just based on how the weight is held.
And this is it. I could try to break down in more depth the time frame, but with adaptation being largely relative to the person or individual, to set time frames on each phase would do individuals a disservice on either end of the spectrum. Some athletes may have greater acuity to learn skills, and others not. Some may have more preferential structure of the legs and hips to perform Bilateral Squatting motions while others may struggle. The main goal, however, is the simple glimpse at the overall progression into the barbell this provides.
Now, if you wanted to take this progression up a notch, you most certainly could advance it to a Back Squat or Safety Bar Squat, or beyond. While we don't Back Squat often, we usually master the Front Squat before teaching an athlete to Back Squat for mere ease of learning the Front Squat.