What the Squat?

Last summer, I had a meathead's equivalent of a "come-to-Jesus" moment.  It occurred while back squatting, and I can even tell you the day - July 10, 2016.

I can also tell you the weight and rep scheme (300 lbs for sets of 5) thanks to my meticulous record keeping.  That weight is important, because it's where all my secret compensations started to show.  I reviewed the video of my squats and saw that my butt was winking, my hips were shifting laterally, and my left knee continually caved in as I came out of the hole.  Angry and frustrated, I yelled the title of this post but substituted one specific word (sorry Mom!).

After some introspection, I calmed down. Why was I doing this exercise? Was it helping my goals? Was I seeing gainz? Or was it throwing me deeper into my compensations and developing new ones?

Every time someone calls them "kettle-balls," my soul dies a little.

Every time someone calls them "kettle-balls," my soul dies a little.

The answers were don't know, no, no, and probably yes.  The only reason I was back squatting was for vanity. It boosted my ego to see myself squatting heavy(ish) weights, and I thought I was more advanced than I was.  I decided I needed to take it down a notch and work on my squat pattern. But a funny thing happened shortly after - I fell in love with the two kettlebell front squat.

I'd even say that of all the main squatting options, I firmly believe that the two kettlebell front squat reigns supreme for those that are ready for it.  Why?

1. Safety. The two kettlebell squat is much safer to perform without spotters than a traditional back squat.  If you need to bail on the bells, you simply put them down.  On a heavy back squat, you better not fail - lest you become the next gym fail on YouTube.

The two kettlebell squat is also much easier on someone's shoulders than a barbell back squat, as many people don't possess the upper back mobility needed to get into a great position. Specifically, many people can't externally rotate their shoulders enough to set up correctly, and will end up gliding their humeral heads too forward in the socket.  This invites a shoulder impingement, and can explain the "pinching" in the shoulder many people feel when they back squat.

In order to get into a proper position, you need the adequate mobility to "wedge" yourself in.  If you're just putting a bar on your back and not setting your lats, traps, and scapulas with an intense fury, you're leaking energy or setting yourself up for injury.  With the two kettlebell squat, these issues are avoided.

The barbell front squat: a great exercise, but too rough for many desk sitters.

The barbell front squat: a great exercise, but too rough for many desk sitters.

2. Adaptability. For those that don't back squat, many people will select the barbell front squat as their main squat variation.  But this exercise also has some limitations, as the traditional grip can be extremely painful for someone that lacks mobility in their hands and wrists. By holding onto two kettlebells at your armpits, instead of placing the weight on your shoulders and holding it with your fingers, you get the same benefits without the pain.

Further, when you can direct your attention to actually squatting - and not getting into/maintaining the right positioning elsewhere - you can really improve your squat.  One of the largest issues I've had is my lateral weight shift, as I shift to the right coming out of the hole.  I can't tell you how many times I was preoccupied by my grip or elbow position instead of focusing on what my lower half was doing.  By focusing on the actual squat - and not maintaining the right position with the barbell - I've been able to see some pretty noticeable improvement.

3. Difficulty. The irony of the two kettlebell front squat is that while it's probably the easiest "advanced" squat variation to learn, it's probably the hardest to master.

The first reason has to do with the abdominal recruitment and tension needed to properly execute the squat.  When you squat with a barbell, the weight is distributed at the very ends of a 7 foot barbell.  However, the weight distribution with two kettlebells is entirely focused over your center of gravity.  This makes for a much more awkward set-up, increasing your abdominal recruitment during the entire exercise as you attempt to stabilize.  Donnie Thompson - a 1,200 pound squatter - often sang the praises of two kettlebells.  He believed that squatting sets of a 8 with two 40 kilogram bells (88 pounds each) was enough work for him.

Another reason two bells is harder to master is because it offers less wiggle room when performing a squat.  As people come out of the hole with a barbell front squat, one of the biggest faults is dropping their elbows and either rounding their upper back or resembling more of a "hinge."  But with two bells, you need to stay much more vertical or the bells will drop to the ground.  This more vertical position challenges your abs and quads to a larger degree.

There's a reason why most people can't come close to squatting the same weight with two kettlebells as they would with a barbell.  But if we can practice a harder exercise in a safer manner, I will always consider that a win.