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From Goblet Squats to Zercher Squats: What Type of Squat is Best for You?

Understanding the intention of the training session and your individual physical capabilities, limitations, and overall goals should determine what squat to use at any given time.

One of the shortcomings of group fitness classes is that they generally generically program specific movements across the board for everyone in the class. 

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a goblet squat, a front squat, a back squat, an overhead squat, a box squat, a zercher squat etc, this also doesn’t make any one of them the appropriate tool for all of us in any given training session. 

A different way to train that addresses this issue is to start with a programming template that includes a movement pattern—in this case the squat pattern—as opposed to selecting a specific squat variation.

This way, coaches can select a specific squat for any given client depending on that person’s individual abilities, limitations, goals and the intention of the particular training session.

I digress. 

tia toomey reaps back squat benefitsSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

How do you know what type of squat is best for you or any given client?

While the answer is invariably, it depends,there are certainly some principles and guidelines that can be followed to help determine whether a goblet squat, a back squat, a front squat, an overhead squat, a zercher squat or a box squat might be the best movement for any given individual on any given day (And while there are tons of other squat variations out there, today we’re going to look at those six).

Ultimately, in order to understand which squat is right for an individual client, you need to understand the benefits of each movement—i.e. what any given type of squat is useful for. Once you understand that, it’s easier to decide how each one might help an individual fix unique limitations or reach goals they might have. 

Goblet squat

Useful for: Goblet squats are a great way to develop motor control and efficiency in the squat pattern at relatively higher loads and allow for high time under tension, thus they tend to be a good way to introduce loaded squats to novice athletes.

Further, goblet squats are great for developing upper back and shoulder strength, as the load is positioned well in front of your upper body, and for clients who tend to lose their core positioning and end up either leaning forward or overextending, having the load in front of their body helps them engage their anterior core.

  • That being said, this doesn’t mean they’re not useful for more intermediate and advanced athletes. For more experienced athletes, they’re helpful for accumulating volume in the squat pattern, for building muscular endurance, and during deload weeks, they can be used to deliberately lower intensity to help with recovery. 

In practice: If the goal is to build absolute strength, goblet squats likely aren’t the right tool, as it’s often tough to load heavy enough for absolute strength development. 

  • In this sense, if you had a client who trains twice or three times a week and your priority is to gain strength, then choosing the goblet squat for strength training might not be the best choice. 
  • On the other hand, if you have a client who needs to improve his ability to handle high rep squats, then using the goblet squat for volume-building and muscular endurance will be very effective. 

Front Squat

Useful for: Front squats are particularly useful for clients who tend to lose their core positioning by leaning forward, as the front squat will encourage bracing. In this sense, front squats are helpful when trying to promote a more upright position in the squat pattern.

  • Second, front squats are helpful for building upper back strength at a much higher intensity than the goblet squat. 
  • Further, they have the ability to elicit max contraction dose-response, meaning they can be a useful tool to build absolute strength. 
  • And finally, front squats are particularly useful for weightlifting, as building a strong, stable front squat is essential for the clean. 

In practice: If you have a client who wants to improve his clean and can currently power clean more than he can squat clean, then improving their front squat is likely a key component for this person to improve their clean. 

  • On the other hand, if your client’s program doesn’t involve weightlifting and their goal is simply to be able to gain the strength to squat their bodyweight, then chances are a back squat might be the better choice for them to develop absolute strength in the squat pattern.

Back Squat

Useful for: Generally speaking, the back squat is a great way to build absolute strength, as it’s usually the squat variation that allows you to lift the heaviest load. 

  • Further, for those who struggle with range of motion issues in their wrists or shoulders, a back squat is generally more comfortable for them than a front squat.

In practice: If you have a client who tends to be more quad dominant in their squat—or if their front squat percentage is very close to their back squat percentage—the back squat might be the better tool for helping them use more hamstrings and glutes during their squat. 

Tip: Regardless of your goals, being familiar with your one rep back squat can be useful in figuring out if and where an individual has imbalances: For example, in a balanced individual, their deadlift is approximate 125 percent of their back squat, while their front squat is approximately 85 percent of their back squat, and a power clean should be around 70 percent of their back squat. 

Overhead Squat

Useful for: The overhead squat is useful for developing shoulder strength and stability, as well as upper back strength and overall balance. They’re also useful for weightlifters, who require a strong, stable overhead squat in order to snatch effectively.

That being said, the mobility required for an overhead squat makes it a good exercise selection for a very specific type of client: more experienced athletes who have mastered the squat pattern and likely have weightlifting goals. 

In practice: If your client cannot pass a shoulder flexion test—i.e. they cannot put their hands straight overhead without compensating by extending their spine or bending their elbows (or some other compensatory pattern)—or this client can’t move near perfectly during a front squat and back squat, then the overhead squat is likely to do more damage than good for this individual. 

  • On the other hand, if your client is looking to improve their snatch proficiency, then including loaded overhead squats is likely going to help them. 

Box Squat

Useful for: A box squat is very useful for improving posterior chain strength—hamstrings, glutes, lower back. And like the back squat, they’re also incredibly useful for building absolute strength.

  • Further, the box squat, which asks you to stop at the bottom of the box, is also a great way to build strength coming out of the bottom of the squat, as it takes away your ability to “bounce” out of the hole, and instead forces you to pry yourself out from a dead stop.

In practice: If you have a client who is quad dominant on their squat, the box squat might be a great tool to help them use their glutes and hamstrings more when they squat. 

  • Or, if you have a client who struggles with consistent depth on their squat, having them squat to a box helps develop this body awareness and depth consistency. 

Zercher Squat

Useful for: Like the front squat, the Zercher squat is useful for building upper back strength, as well as thoracic spine integrity and quad strength. 

  • Also like the front squat, Zercher squats are useful for promoting an upright torso during the squat pattern.  

In practice: If your client finds the front rack position uncomfortable on their wrists or shoulder, the Zercher squat is a good alternative to have them load in the front without aggravating their wrists or shoulders. 

  • On the other hand, if your client is comfortable in the front rack position and simply wants to improve their front loaded absolute strength capabilities, the front squat is probably more useful as they’ll be able to load heavier in the rack position than in the Zercher position. 

The best squat: the big picture

Like many questions in fitness, the answer isn’t always black or white. Often, it’s gray. That being said, when it comes to movement selection in the squat pattern, if we understand the intention of the training session, as well as the individual’s physical capabilities and limitations and overall goals, it becomes a lot easier to decide what squat should be used at any given time.

To learn more about personalized fitness coaching, check out the OPEX Coaching Certificate Program.

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