The squat—the king of all exercises. We've all heard the excuses from weak gym goers, something along the lines of leg pressing because squatting hurts their knees. If this is the case, they aren't squatting correctly.

For the past three years, I've been working with many young athletes and have introduced the squat hundreds of times. A simple body weight squat is the very first movement I have any new member perform. While having these athletes squat, I look at foot position and whether or not their heels are coming off the floor or their knees are buckling. I also see if they are leaning forward or rounding their backs. This will help me determine what imbalances we must fix to prevent injuries in the future.

A major mistake trainers make is having athletes squat with weight on the back way to soon. My athletes will perform thousands of body weight squats before progression up toward a back squat. Below is how I progress my athletes toward putting heavy weight on their backs.

Body weight prison squat

Based off the assessment on the very first session, I determine what needs to be fixed in the technique. For the first four-week mini cycle, the athlete performs a ton of body weight squats with me hounding him for every rep on perfect form. If the client has trouble shifting the hips back and driving through the heels on body weight squats, I start him off with body weight box squats, emphasizing hips back. Once the athlete shows that he's proficient in body weight squats, I throw a 25–50-lb vest on him and have him perform the same exact movement but with slightly more resistance.

Goblet/Zercher squat

I've found that the major issue most people have with squatting is keeping the hips back and driving through the heels. If this is done with 400 lbs or more on your back, you will be in some serious trouble. I've found that the easiest way to force an athlete's hips back is to load the front half of the body with weight. If the hips don’t drop back and the athlete isn't driving through the heels, he will fall forward. Realize that many athletes are quad dominate and this will continue to build quads, so it's crucial to hit your swings, glute ham raises, and posterior chain exercises.

At my gym, I have sandbags weighing 50–125 lbs and kettlebells weighing 35–75 lbs. Over the next few months, the athletes will build up there sandbag and kettlebell squats to the point where they can rip out sets with the heaviest of both objects. This will assure me that the hips are dropping back and the core is strong.

Back squat

Depending on the development of the athletes, we put weight on their backs and begin to back squat anywhere from one to six months later. Unfortunately, with more weight on the back, high school athletes tend to cut down the range of motion. This is generally where I hit the fork in the road and must determine which direction we will go over the next few months.

On the first day with weight on the back, I like to hit lighter weight with high volume to get the form where it needs to be. This generally means five sets of ten reps at around 85 percent but always breaking parallel. I tell all my athletes that if they're squatting 250 lbs with their ass to the grass, they will smoke the kid hitting “450” with half reps. This is generally where it can get tough because every high school gym around the country has clueless coaches and kids who load the bar up and barely break a half squat. They will then proceed to brag about the 500 lbs they just squatted at a body weight of 175 lbs.

After the first week of squatting at 85 percent for five sets of ten reps, I have them perform a simple five sets of five reps, pyramiding up and trying to determine their true 5RM. If during any of these sets, the athlete begins to sacrifice range of motion, he is right back to day one with high volume sinking those hips deep. The key with this type of progression is knowing the athletes and determining when to progress or regress in the training. I recently had a 160-lb wrestler back squat 295 lbs for five reps with perfect form the very first time we performed the movement at the gym. Because his baseline squat numbers were so high, I already have him out-squatting local kids his age who have been powerlifting for years!