Romanian Deadlift, Bulgarian Split Squat, Pallof Presses, German Volume Training, Viking Warrior Conditioning, based on all these names, a lifting newbie might be led to believe that Europe was ground zero for the Encyclopedia of Weightlifting! Well, what about the Goblet Squat? Where did it come from, and who created it, why, and how has it evolved since then?
Well, perhaps unlike many of the named examples above, as well as countless others, the Goblet Squat can actually be traced back to its origin. It all started about 18 years ago, with a guy named Dan John. If you don’t know Dan, Google him. Dan is an accomplished Track and Field thrower, Olympic Weightlifter, and Highland Games competitor, and has been playing with weighted implements longer than most trainers have been alive. He teaches religious studies and has authored a shelf-full of books. He speaks and teaches at events around the world, and if you’ve heard him talk at Perform Better Summits, you walked away with a different perspective on training. He is a talented Strength Coach and has an uncanny ability to take complex topics and break them down for the lay-person. We even had the pleasure of hosting Dan as the keynote speaker at our FitRanX World Conference last October, and no one even left the room for as much as a bathroom break for the 3 hours he kept us waiting on his every word. Really – if you don’t know Dan, you’re missing out.
Dan started doing Goblet Squats himself about the year 2000, and wrote the first article published on them in Mens Health in 2003.
Anyway, Dan was teaching at a Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) Certification in 2008, and he was demonstrating a way to use a kettlebell to help stretch and open up the hips at the bottom of a squat position. He flipped the kettlebell upside-down and held the body of the bell in the palms of his hands, with his fingers wrapping around and up towards the ceiling. Hence, as if you were to hold a giant “goblet” full of wine.
He then sat down deep in a squat and pushed his elbows out against the vastus medialis muscle on the inner part of the knee. The kettlebell acted as both leverage to push against with the hands and a resistance wedging the torso down between the legs, enhancing the stretch. An additional benefit to using the kettlebell was its ability to act as a counter-weight to the body-weight, allowing one to sit more upright with a flat back without fear of falling over backwards. So, the original Goblet Squat was actually a flexibility and mobility drill. But, it wouldn’t be the fitness industry without taking a movement that was designed originally for one thing, and then completely changing it (Burpees are another great example of this – if you are wondering why, Google Royal H. Burpee)!
At some point, someone flipped the kettlebell back upright, and discovered that if you held on at the base of the “horns” (where the handle attaches to the body) and squeezed the handle as if you were trying to snap it in half, it engaged the upper back and assisted in keeping the shoulders back and spine in alignment. Not only was it more effective, it was also easier to pick up, and safer, as the body of the weight was no longer sitting directly in front of one’s teeth (there may or may not be a story behind this). Performing a squat holding the kettlebell in this fashion provided the benefits that a front-loaded squat does, among them the ability to challenge the core’s stability and load the legs sufficiently while using a lighter weight. Also, it differs slightly from a Double Kettlebell Front Squat in that the weight is not compressing the chest as much, and one does not need to have mastered how to hold the kettlebells in the rack position while squatting. If you are not grasping what I am talking about, the next time you do squats, do a set of Goblet Squats with one heavier kettlebell, and then do a set of Double Front Squats with two kettlebells that are half the weight (but add up to the same weight as the single, (i.e. a 32kg for the Goblet Squat, and two 16kg’s for the Double Front Squat).
For a while, the Goblet Squat was taught in a fashion that said that one must squat down until the elbows contacted the vastus medialis muscle. While I appreciated this method’s unsaid need to keep the elbows pointing down towards the ground, other elements of the mechanics made me wonder about other variables at work. You see, it requires a great deal of flexibility to touch one’s elbows to their knees, let alone slide their elbows between their knees. One of the requirements of any safe squat is the need to keep the spine in alignment, and not to round any part of the back – upper or lower. If someone lacks the hamstring and glute flexibility to achieve a deep squat, the lower back is going to round and the butt is going to tuck under the hips, or “wink” as some say. Or, if one’s hips are tight and their depth is limited, they may round the upper back as they reach the elbows down to the knees.
On top of both of these restrictions, are differences in body type. If someone has a short torso and long legs (like me), it will be very easy to touch my elbows to my vastus medialis, as my short torso already needs more forward angle during squats and the reduced distance requires less hip depth achieved. This is opposite what occurs with someone with a long torso and short legs, who’s elbows are farther from their hips, and so they must sit much deeper in order to touch their vastus medialis. Their long torso also allows them to sit much taller in the squat, which is good for squatting form, but further exaggerates the depth required.
So, one must think about what their personal intention is when they are performing a Goblet Squat. If their goal is to use it as a flexibility/mobility drill, and they have the requisite hip/glute/hamstring flexibility to achieve the full depth with a flat back, then by all means touch those elbows inside the knees. But, if you are using the Goblet Squat as a strength exercise, as we do during the FitRanX Level Tests, then full depth by our standards is when the crease of the hips is equal to or lower than the top of the kneecap.
Using the hip/kneecap as the determining factor for full depth that allows for a qualifying repetition, takes body type out of the equation. One must still have the flexibility and strength to maintain a flat back throughout the movement, and if someone wishes to squat lower they may, but it is not a requirement.
I have seen countless Instagram and Facebook videos showing people doing very heavy Goblet Squats, and they lack any resemblance to Dan’s original intent. Sure, they are impressive, and I’ve done my share of them as well, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to call them “Single Kettlebell Front Squats,” instead?! I doubt that name will catch on, as it is double the length and lacks the sexiness, and besides, when I teach my students the Goblet Squat it doubles as a history lesson, because I have to teach them what a goblet is in the first place!
The next time you do your squats with kettlebells, play around with the variations, and really “feel” the differences. You’ll find what works best for you. And in the mean-time, remember, It’s All in The Name!
Tim Peterson, Chief FitRanX® Instructor