One of the very first things I wrote about when I started this website was an article teaching you how to squat in 3 simple steps. I was pretty happy with the brevity and simplicity of it all. Seemed like I had distilled squatting down to its most basic parts and I had hoped that tutorial made learning to squat well a bit easier. While the coaching cues I wrote about in that article all still hold true I could have made it so much easier for people by just talking about the goblet squat.
The goblet squat wasn’t unfamiliar to me back then, I had read a few articles from Dan John about it. I just hadn’t invested a lot in learning just how useful it really was. I discredited it as just another method of squatting for beginners or when you only had minimal equipment. Fortunately, I’ve come to realize that goblet squats are much more than just a regression or minimalist alternative to barbell squats. Because it has so many benefits to offer, it’s become a strong staple in my personal training programs for clients as well as my own lifting.
Teaching the goblet squat
Goblet squats are indeed a great teaching tool. It is now one of the first movements I teach new personal training clients. The same cues from the 1-2-3 squat tutorial still work well.
- Push yours knees out a bit
- Sit back and sink between your legs
- Keep your chest up and abs tight
But the difference isn’t so much in the coaching cues, its in feeling the movement. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell out in front shifts your center of gravity so that you’re forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to tighten up your trunk and abs to brace the load. This allows you to really sit back onto your heels when you push your hips back into the squat. Then just make contact between the knees and elbows to find the bottom position before standing back up. Simple enough for even the most proprioceptively challenged out there.
The bottom position of the goblet squat when your elbows touch your knees is going to vary from person to person. You may sit into the goblet squat with your butt next to your ankles and someone else may just manage to hit about parallel. Most people get to parallel or lower though. I think it's important to not be overly dogmatic about this position, and focus on meeting people where they're at, but many will benefit from getting the elbows on the inside of the knees. This position allows you to pry open the hips and groin by pressing the knees apart. Pulling the elbows back against the inside of the knees with the lats and upper back can help to pry the chest up for a more neutral spine position. This inside the knee elbow position is a great way to reinforce the feeling of the bottom position of the squat for future repetitions. But if you are really tall or have a long torso it may not always be worth forcing the elbows inside the knees so long as the knees and toes are tracking and your spine stays neutral and tight. Nonetheless, most people will at least make contact between the knees and elbows in some way.
Training Wheels For Mobility and Activation
When you have a weight in your hands, all the cues of a squat are much easier to accomplish. Rather than just trying to follow verbal commands, the weight acts to guide you into a good position. Sort of like training wheels when you are getting started or for those with mobility and activation issues. For example, one of the big reasons people fail to squat to a decent depth is because they lack the hip flexor strength to keep their center of gravity over their feet. It’s that feeling of falling backwards when you squat too deep. This is only compounded when people have poor ankle mobility, but the forward position of the weight acts as an assist for the hip flexors and allows you to keep your center of gravity better balanced over your base of support (your feet). Once you’ve gotten yourself into these deeper squat positions, you can then begin working on the pull you need from your hip flexors to control your center of gravity and balance without the weight. This becomes increasingly more important if and when you choose to switch to a barbell squat variation.
In addition to being a great prerequisite to barbell squatting variations the goblet squat can also benefit those that lack decent shoulder mobility. It’s not uncommon for someone to simply lack the shoulder mobility needed to rack a barbell well in either position, front or back. The goblet squat doesn’t have this same requirement in terms of shoulder mobility. That’s great news if you’re looking to start increasing your lower body strength, but suffer from the mobility woes of being seated at work all day. Everyone can hold their hands up front so if you can keep a flat back while you goblet squat you’re probably good to start progressing with your loading while you also work on those pesky mobility issues.
Goblet Squat as a Strength Standard
Because the goblet squat is so accessible for so many, it’s also become one the first things that I use as a strength assessment for personal training clients. The amount of time it takes to teach someone how to goblet squat competently enough to test is quick compared to a barbell version. Once someone is goblet squatting with acceptable confidence and form I’ll have them make incremental jumps up in weight for sets of 5 repetitions. When the individual can no longer maintain a strong torso position or other point of form, I can quickly and easily have them end the exercise. I often end up with a 2, 3, or 4 RM and that’s fine by me, because it gives us that simple baseline to measure their leg and trunk strength against in the future. The most common reason I’ll have a client stop is when they fatigue through their upper back and core and start to lose that big chest and tall spine position. When that happens the test is done and the dumbbell or kettlebell can be set down from whatever position they are in be it the bottom or the top.
Many people are often quick to move on from the goblet squat as quickly as they learn to make the adjustments for a barbell variation. The value in the goblet squat, though, is not just that it’s quick to learn, but as you progress in weight it continues to reinforce the need for trunk stability and bracing. While goblet squatting with 35 pounds may not require much bracing for some, there are few people that will goblet squat upwards of 75 pounds or half their bodyweight without a strong bracing of the midsection. This is why you should continue to use the goblet squat as a main lift until you are able to reach a particular strength level. I often use 75 pounds for 10 repetitions as a strength standard before switching someone’s main lift to a barbell variation. This just ensures me that individual knows how to effectively brace their midsection as they progress to larger loads with a higher center of gravity in barbell variations.
Continuing With the Goblet Squat
When you’ve already moved on to larger loads and barbell variations the goblet squat is still a great tool to keep in your arsenal. It’s a great movement for loading the legs but keeping stress off of your neck and shoulders. Increased demand on your upper back and core make it a great exercise for adding volume to build work capacity or conditioning in circuits. It’s also a great way for you to kind of do a bit of self assessment. When I’ve been travelling, slept funny, or just feel somewhat off, warming up with goblet squats allows me to sit in the bottom of the squat to move and pry my hips open. You can take your time to feel out what’s tight or funky and then resolve it with some foam rolling or mobility work.
Putting it all together
The goblet squat offers numerous benefits to people of all strength levels. It’s easy for you to learn or teach. The lift practically coaches itself once you know what you’re looking and feeling for in the movement. If you’ve got access to a full rack of dumbbells or kettlebells you can continue to load the movement heavier and build a great base of strength before moving onto barbell variations. You can use it to assess your movement readiness and figure out what’s tight or needs work. The position of the weight creates a challenge that is very similar to the way we might have to move or carry an object outside the gym and builds your overall work capacity. For all these reasons and more, give this simple lift a little more space in your training program.
The goblet position of a dumbbell is great for all sorts of lower body movements. From split squats to shuffling. How do you use the goblet squat and other goblet variations in your workouts?
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