“I don’t squat, but I leg press” is running rampant through gyms everywhere lately and I would like to let you guys in on a little secret. Shut up and squat. I’m not saying this to demean anyone, I was guilty of not training squats for about a year and a half. Once I started training squats, every lift has gone up and I feel stronger than ever. Get over your fear or excuses and just squat!
Keep a Log
Keeping a log is very important in building up strength in any exercise. If you do the same amount of weight and the same reps each day or do “what feels right” each day, you’re not going to grow and get stronger. A log doesn’t have to be some extremely intricate layout detailing every little bit of your workout, a simple weight with reps and sets is fine. Just know you are going to have to add reps or weight to the bar to progress.
Don’t 1 Rep Max Frequently
Testing your 1 rep max frequently is going to do more harm than good. You ever attempt your 1 rep max each week and after a while you start getting weaker? This is because your nervous system is basically what strength training works off of. Your nervous system is going to become more efficient in that move and learn to recruit more muscle fibers for that exercise. Your nervous system has to recover in order for you to get stronger. This is why you need to get enough food, get plenty of sleep, and recover properly. Just because you aren’t sore doesn’t mean you aren’t recovered.
Set up even under the bar (High vs Low)
There is way too much debate over high bar vs low bar squats, I’m not going to get into that debate here but I will tell you to try both ways and see what works best for you. Elite lifters have to make adjustments to their form to work towards perfection, you need to try different things and see what works best for you.
Mind Over Matter
You have to be confident in your form and just do the weight. Too many people psyche themselves out before they even try the weight and it’s already over. These big weights are a mental battle so if you are going to worry about anything, keep thinking about your cues and just hit your form the best you can. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for.
Form Before Weight (No Bad habits)
Check your ego at the door, there is no need to jump into a huge squat if you can’t get the basics correct. People make the mistake of jumping into a new exercise too heavy and developing bad habits to “move the weight” and I don’t want to see people have to go through the frustration of trying to fix bad habits. I’m just as guilty as others, and I’m still working to change bad habits.
Work on form and progress slowly and steadily up, the heavy weights will come.
Record Your Sessions
Recording your sessions is a great tool to see how you are coming along in regards to form and progression. Review your recordings and watch for form flaws; just because you think you’re keeping your upper back tight doesn’t mean you are.
Simply put, your grip width should be at a comfortable width. Usually the bigger the person is the wider they have to go so if you’re a big guy and you’re trying to put your hands just outside your shoulders and you can’t or you are hurting your shoulders, stop. I have my hands to the collars on regular Olympic bars and the bars they use at meets are close to the collars, about 2 inches in on each side (they are a bit longer).
My point here is to find where it is comfortable and still able to create pressure on your upper back and traps for the bar.
3 Step Out
I don’t know what other trainers call this but I like to call it the “3 step out” rule. Basically when you stand up with the bar out of the rack, take a 3 step maximum out to be ready. Usually this is one step directly back, then move one foot out and then the other out. Too much shuffling around and taking too many steps just wastes time and energy. If you can get this trick down you will be able to set up very quickly and not have to fidget around.
Feet placement is important because you need to find what works for you. Everyone is built differently, so telling someone they must squat narrow or wide squats are better is a terrible thing to do. Find what works best for you and stick with it. Generally a wider stance is used in powerlifting, but I’ve also seen many very strong athletes using a narrow stance squat as well. Find what feels natural to you and work from that.
Treat Every Rep the Same
If you can’t do your warm ups with correct form, how are you going to do your working sets correctly? Treat every rep the same, this is going to help you ingrain your form in your head and make movement patterns that much more natural for you. Think about it, when the weight gets “scary heavy” all you have to think about is your form.
Squeeze Bar Tight
Squeezing the bar tight inherently makes more muscles tighten up. When you squeeze the bar as hard as you can, I guarantee that your body will be more rigid and you will notice a difference in any of your exercises.
Full Body Tight
You need to have your whole body tight from your neck down to your toes. The more rigid your core and the more stimulated your nervous system is will help you push more weight and grow stronger.
Keep Your Head Up/Neutral
Your body follows your head so keep your head neutral or slightly up. Some people prefer to have their heads pointing as high up as they can, I prefer more neutral with a slight incline. The idea behind this is when you look down your body tends to curve down and “follow your head.” The last thing you want is to have your upper body round as you’re coming out of the hole, you will dump the weight forward and it’s not a pleasant feeling.
Push Upper Back Into Bar
Along with keeping your head neutral/up, pushing your upper back into the bar helps create a tighter upper back and reinforces a sturdy core to keep you from dumping forward. This cue is hard to explain but can make a big difference in how a squat feels.
Having your eyes fixed on something slightly above you will help you keep your head neutral/up. This is a small trick I learned that works for me and I thought I would share it. For me it helps me keep my head up and if I start to look down I feel my eyes straining to look at the same spot so I then push my head up more.
Keeping your knees out is a cue that keeps your knees from collapsing in towards each other. If you’re watching someone squat from the front and they have this problem, you will see their knees get closer together. Weak glutes, tight adductors, or being lazy with form causes this to occur.
Learning to breathe into your belly and keep that pressure in your belly will help create a more rigid core. A more rigid core means more weight moved. Practice at home and breathe deep into your belly, your chest shouldn’t rise much and you should feel pressure building in your stomach.
If you squat and you notice your toes come off of the ground and your knees track really far forward, the cue “sit back” is something you need to work on. Basically you need to hinge at your hips instead of your knees and this is going to create a squat where your hips will sit back more and allow you to go deeper. There are many videos out there on it, watch them all and make your own conclusions. This one is also hard for me to explain but once you feel it, you will know that you found the sweet spot.
Drive Through Heels
Driving through heels goes along with sitting back. I’ve usually seen guys who lean forward try to drive through heels and they dump the weight because their balance is too far forward. This will sound corny, but if you can imagine putting all of your strength into standing up and pushing the weight through your heels, you’re going to feel a huge difference in how the weight feels. I’ve been fighting bad form habits a while now and I still feel myself coming up on my toes and actually feeling pain in my calves.
When you record your sessions, check out your feet. There is a lot of information you can gather from seeing how your feet move. Watch for your heels or your toes to come up or watch to see if your foot rolls outward.
Half squats will wreck your knees. Go at least parallel with your squats so you put the pressure on your hamstrings and not on your knees. You don’t have to go ass to grass (below parallel) if it is hard for you because of mobility, but go as low as you can that feels comfortable but you better hit parallel damn it.
Ankle and Hip Mobility
A big reason why people have trouble squatting parallel is because of limited mobility in their ankles and hips. There are many videos out there on this topic, I’m not a professional with this subject yet so I do not have any specific tips other than try out everyone’s tips and be consistent with them.
If you’ve been squatting a while and you have good form so far, learning to use the elastic effect at the bottom of the squat is a great way to help you get out of the hole. Basically when you start your squat, you stay controlled and just before you hit parallel you drop a little faster and fire your hamstrings and it creates a stretch reflex that can help you out. When you first start this, your hamstrings will be really sore. USE WITH CAUTION.
Here’s an example of someone who has been squatting a long time and is VERY good at this.
Practice makes perfect. The more you make your setup and form a habit, the easier it is going to be to get better at it. You can’t go heavy and not have the same setup every time and expect the same results.
There are too many exercises to list that helps your squats, but some exercises I’ve found that help me are:
- Good mornings
- Stiff leg deadlifts
- Sumo deadlifts
- Side Bends
- Squatting more
Using a lifting belt is encouraged, although not mandatory. You can safely lift heavy without a belt, but you can also get injured if you rely on a belt too much. A good 10mm belt is more than enough for most people and learn to use intra-ab pressure and really make good use of your belt. I’ve seen lifters’ numbers go up a bit from adding a belt into their training.
Knee wraps are another great tool I would highly recommend to get. I usually use them on my heavy sets anything over 70 I’ll wrap for. They help tremendously and I really like the knee wraps I have. I will have a product review of them soon.
Some people use wrist wraps to prevent wrist strains. I don’t use them but if you are having problems with wrists you should try them out. If you are going to compete, check and make sure your federation allows wrist wraps on squats.
I squat 3 times a week with varying degrees of intensity. I usually have 1 heavy squat day, an accessory squat, and then a speed/light squat day. I think most people can benefit from 2 days of squatting if programmed correctly. Believe me when I tell you going heavy for 3 days a week squatting will burn you out and make you weak very quickly.
Strong Hips and Glutes
Exercises that make your hips and glutes stronger will help your squat. There are plenty out there. I prefer good mornings, reverse hypers and sumo deadlifts. Glute bridges are good to do to help recruit your glutes but I personally haven’t found much strength gained from them.
Strong Upper Back
Anything to work the upper back to keep it rigid under stress is good. Shrugs, bent over barbell rows, 1 arm dumbbell rows, any rowing motion or pull up, and deadlifts all help your upper back.
Squats are monsters and it takes a lot of mental strength to get under the bar and do them. Quit making excuses and squat, you will become stronger and more powerful if you do. Comments below.