Bringing Up Squat Strength
by Todd Bumgardner T-Nation
I'm not an incredible squatter. On a spectrum of squatting proficiency, I'd fall somewhere at the far end of average, just before the transition into good.
However, lest you're wondering if there's even any point in reading this article, consider that I used to be a horrible squatter. For an extended portion of my training history, my squats looked more like good mornings bullied into knee flexion.
The problems never change – we all have variations of the same issues – but how we respond to a given solution is hugely variable. To practice variability and to solve training problems, we require an oversized tool box. I'm talking about one of those sumbitches that sits in the back of a jacked up diesel.
That's the goal for this article – building your squat assistance toolbox so it *****s the Sears and Roebuck special. To do that though, we have to know what problems we're dealing with, as well as objectively examine your deficiencies.
Before we go on, one more note: sometimes the best exercise to improve your squat is the squat, whichever variation you happen to fancy. While having a creative approach is at times necessary and certainly more fun, make sure that you're building tension in the right places and squatting well before you worry about fixing problems.
These solutions are to be used in concert with great, submaximal squatting. They won't fix anything unless you're training yourself to squat well.
Let's first identify the problems, though. After that, I'll introduce specific tools you can use to fix them.
Identifying the Problems
It's disconcerting how often eccentric strength is disregarded while squatting. Everyone seems to forget that we have to sit down with the weight before we stand up with it.
Unless you've become the ultimate master of reciprocal inhibition and turned yourself into super-elastic-bounce-man, some strength and tension during descent will serve you well. You need to learn to pull into the bottom position – it's a precursor to bottoms up strength.
Here's how to know if you're doing it well enough:
You feel tension across the front of your hips and in your abs as you descend.
Your spine stays neutral with a relatively upright torso. (I know powerlifters lean a bit.)
There's no butt tuck at parallel. (Sure, this could be the place where we suggest an amazing corrective exercise to fix your anterior core instability, but it can be much simpler than that.)
If you've mastered these three criteria, you're light years ahead of most. But if you've failed on any of the above, you're doing it wrong.
Bottoms up Strength
I know what you're thinking. "Bottoms up" strength sounds like beer muscles, but for our current purpose let's skip the barley and hops and talk about strength out of the squatting hole.
Bottoms-up strength has several prerequisites. Is there air in the belly? Tension in the feet and hands? Are the lats tight? Strength out of the hole has a lot more to do with stability than anything else, provided you've chosen an appropriate load.
If you're loose at the bottom – feet aren't screwed in, shoulders aren't torqued, and air is non-existent – then your strength out of the hole is piss poor. Like eccentric strength – which, by the way, prepares us for bottoms up strength – the fix is simple.
Irradiation, super stiffness, and co-contraction are analogous. The only difference is which coach's mouth, or pen, that those words came from. And it's important for all big lifts.
The first two problems I've mentioned cover irradiation for specific parts of the squatting task – the down and the bottom reversal. We'd be a yard short of a touchdown, though, if we didn't talk about full body tension throughout the squat.
The differential diagnosis is the same as in the first two examples – are you tight on the way down and tight at the bottom? Yes? Good for you, but we have to carry that tension through to the finish. We need to make sure you're tight in all phases.
Posterior Chain Involvement
Most lifters are inundated with developing their quads while squatting and forget how important the glutes and hamstrings are, but without good use of the posterior chain the hips are disproportionately loaded – quad development plays second fiddle to knee and low-back pain.
Every squat, be it front, box, side, or in the wilderness during a bowel-exiting endeavor, should begin with the hips travelling back in a hinge. If they don't, you're once again doing it wrong, and you may well end up with funky smelling feet.
For some folks this is a technique flaw, quickly remedied with instruction and coaching cues, but many times a forward jetting of the knees is indicative of lackluster posterior chain strength. In that case, it's time to load the glutes and hams while educating the hips on the finer points of posterior movement.
Eccentric Strength: Squat Pull-downs
This drill teaches you to access the eccentric squat strength you already have. That's right, Chill Rob G, you have the power. It's good, however, to pull against tension before learning to pull down with weight on your shoulders.
Sink the band deep into the armpits, stay tall, and use the abs and hip flexors to pull into the bottom position. Did you notice how during the first two reps I still display the blasphemous butt tuck, but by the third rep it's gone? It'll take a few reps and someone else's eyes to get you on the right track.
Also, keep in mind that I'm starting the tension by creating torque at my hips. I accomplished this task of major minutia by "screwing" my feet into the ground. Do this on every squat set and drill.
After you master the band in the armpits version of the squat pull down, use an unloaded bar with a reverse bands set up. To quote Coach Michael Ranfone, "It's easier to pull with the right patterning and sequence." This drill transitions nicely from the initial pull down lesson into the loaded bar pull down.
Josh, the guy in the video, moves seamlessly, but don't be fooled – this drill takes mammoth lat tension and a colossal pull from the hip flexors and abs.
Bottoms Up Strength: Squat with Chains
It's simple. Learning to stay tight in the bottom position requires a stimulus that forces you to stay tight. Send your appreciation to CaptainObvious.com.
Sometimes, however, it's the obvious that catches us off guard, like when you're looking for your hat and it's on your head. There's little difference between absent minded hat placement and what we need for bottom position squat tension. The obvious cues the light bulb.
Why the chains? Well, I dare you to squat loosely to the bottom position and stay there with minimal tension. You'll get rag dolled, brah. The real test, however, comes when owning the bottom position transitions into ascension. You best have your air low and strong, your feet must be torqued, and those elbows better be worked under the bar.
To start, take ten percent of your bar weight and replace it with chain weight. As an example, if your squat sets are planned at 275 pounds, cut the weight to 245 and add 30 pounds of chains.
You'll find that you'll quickly be able to up the percentage of chain and decrease bar weight, but if you've never squatted with chains before, it's best to be a tad conservative until you squash the learning curve.
Here's a quick tutorial on how to set up chains to squat:
Full-Body Tension: Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Squats
Sure, the chains are going to train you to keep tight under load, but we can fine tune that tension by adding another stimulus. Besides, just because the chains work for me doesn't mean they'll work for you. Remember the tool box.
One of the first things that novice and mediocre squatters dismiss is upper-body tension. It starts in the grip. I haven't found anything that challenges the grip while squatting more than holding a kettlebell upside down, as shown in the video below:
A strong grip on the kettlebell will transfer up the arms, into the shoulders, and end up in the torso. Combine that with a strong torque of the feet and properly placed air and you've built impressive full-body tension.
Posterior Chain Involvement: Good Mornings
To squat well your posterior chain must be strong. Deadlifts, glute-ham raises, and Romanian deadlifts must have seats reserved at your training table.
However, something magical happens when the hips have to move with a bar on the shoulders. I'll even humbly posit that the good morning has greater carry-over to the squat than it does the deadlift, mainly because it teaches bar placement and a tight upper-back with good posterior hip movement. This all takes place as the posterior chain adapts and becomes a monster – a pillar that a humungous squat rests upon.
A good morning, however, is not a quarter squat. The knees unlock and the hips travel back – that's it. There's no butt drop.
Here's a quick clue that you're doing it right – your hamstrings scream the whole time. As you sit back and your chest lowers, your hamstrings should continually build tension until you reach end range.
Great! Now When Do We Use Them?
A big toolbox with a lot of tools that we don't know how to use is, well, useless. Variation for variations sake is great for bored children and for info-marketers theorizing about neuromuscular confusion. Our tools, however, are applicable. Here's how to use the four stronger squat exercises.
Squat Pull-downs: These are great for pre-squat warm-up as a gentle reminder for intermediate and seasoned squatters. Contrast them with your warm-up sets, hitting 5-8 reps if you're using the single band variation and 3-5 reps if you've chosen the bar variation.
New squatters can implement these in a general prep circuit along with beginner squat variations such as goblet squats or dumbbell sumo squats. The same rep schemes apply, but new squatters beware the lat and back strength necessary for the bar pull-down.
Squat with Chains: It isn't rocket surgery – remove some bar weight and replace it with chain weight. Sure, there are specific training waves during which lifters use chains to prepare for competition and boost their acceleration, but we aren't worried about that.
If you've diagnosed yourself with poor bottom and transition squat tension, put some chains on the bar for a few weeks and then check yourself with straight bar weight. If you've done them right you'll have remedied your deficiency.
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Squats: The first prerequisite is a set of kettlebells. They don't have to be heavy as this exercise is humbling. (The athlete in the video is using two 35-pound bells.)
Liken it to the senior girl that "showed you the ropes" during your sophomore year. You learned, your toolbox grew, and you realized that studying internet videos was no trade for real-world experience.
Be sure to squeeze the kettlebell like crazy while gripping the handle at the proximal bend. Bottoms-up kettlebell squats are a great warm-up exercise and fit nicely into a de-load plan. Since they're high-tension low-load, they also keep the nervous system ramped up during off-day recovery work.
Good Mornings: If you've realized that a severe posterior chain deficit is killing your squats, back off using squats as a main exercise and replace them with good mornings. You'll keep the upper-back and lat tension specific while teaching the hips to travel posteriorly. All the while, you'll be building a monster.
At this point, you'll also want to keep your posterior chain assistance work heavy, but be sure to keep a squat variation in the mix. My favorite combo is a ton of posterior chain work with front squats as an assistance exercise. When you return to sitting down with a bar on your back the pendulum will balance nicely and you'll have built a solid, strong squat.
If you want size, strength, and improved athletic performance, you must be able to squat well. If you're like I was five years ago, you have work to do. Throw these tools in your tool box and get to the grind.