Two Fast Ways to PR Your Squat

The back squat may be the most popular barbell movement on Earth. Since the inception of CrossFit and the new box gym/garage gym movement, the squat has made up lots of ground on the pec-pumping bench press. Articles are written and videos are made almost weekly giving all of us content about this amazing exercise.

We discuss things like:

  • Hypertrophy
  • Technique
  • Programming
  • Targeting specific joints
  • Post Activation Potentiation

Yet there are two even simpler concepts that can equate to massive personal records and more weight used for hypertrophy repetitions. These two concepts can yield results right away versus training for 12 weeks in hopes the program might work. We get so caught up in all of the scientific data and trying to invent a program that is revolutionary, we forget two very basic yet powerful concepts:

  • Big squat-specific warm-up
  • Bracing

Big Squat-Specific Warm-Up

Too many of us get in a hurry, climb under a bar, and start pumping out the repetitions. This leads to inefficiency of the movement, fewer fibers recruited, and less proximal core stiffness as it relates to the lumbar spine.

A solid warm-up is key. Here are a few main points:

  1. Bike, Row, or Treadmill (2-5 minutes) – The goal is simply to raise the body’s core temperature a couple of degrees. This will make the rest of this warm-up much easier and more tolerable for all of you veterans like me.
  2. SQUAT GAINZ

    THE SHORT & SWEET GUIDE TO INCREASING YOUR SQUAT

    SUPPLEMENTARY PROGRAMS TO BOOST YOUR SQUAT

    Coach Travis Mash shows you how to simply and scientifically diagnose and fix your squat weaknesses. Squat Gainz also contains six supplementary squat-focused programs you can add to your current strength work to drive your squat through the roof.

  3. Mobility – I front-squatted 250 kilograms / 550 pounds in 2017 at 44 years old. That’s the most weight I have front-squatted in my 40s. There was one big difference that day – I used Donnie Thompson’s body tempering. I made sure to hit the major joints used during big squats: back, hips, knees, and ankles. This allowed me to move in and out of necessary positions required for a massive squat, and I was able to move in and out of these positions without pain. If the body is experiencing pain, it’s not going to recruit the maximal fibers required for optimal performance. It’s perceiving a threat and is protecting you.

    Body tempering or foam rolling/lacrosse ball work will allow you to move into good positions without the aches and pains that come from aging and years of repetitions. In choosing a foam roller, density is key. A squishy foam roller isn’t going to produce much change in the tissue, so I recommend going with a firm/dense foam roller or even a PVC pipe. Lacrosse balls are great for targeting key points because they are dense with a small surface area.

    I am not a huge proponent of static stretching, but there are a couple of stretches which will go a long way regarding optimal movement in the squat. First the half-kneeling hip flexor stretch is a key for me – and if you are a powerlifter or weightlifter, it’s going to be key for you. As barbell athletes we stay in hip flexion. Over time this can cause our hip flexors to shorten, which causes an anterior pelvic tilt. This forward tilt of the pelvis makes squatting with good technique a lot harder than it has to be. Anterior pelvic tilt can also cause lower back issues – and trust me that’s one section of the body you want to be healthy. I love Squat University’s explanation of this stretch. Simply put, he recommends getting into a half-kneeling position and then performing the opposite of an anterior pelvic tilt. Here’s my explanation: with a vertical spine, flex the abdominals, flex the glute on the side of the kneeling knee causing a posterior pelvic tilt, hold the position for 10 seconds, and perform two repetitions of 10 seconds per side.

  4. Purposeful stability, coordination, and further mobilization – I like to use specific weighted movements to begin coordinating the required muscles for squatting that also encourage optimal movement and stability. I watch too many people spend countless hours focusing on mobility. My favorite warm-up weighted movements are:
    • Westside ATP aka belt squat- 20 seconds marching, 20 seconds squatting with kettlebell, and 20 seconds hinging. Three sets of all this.
    • Potato sack kettlebell squats with 3 deep breaths at the bottom for 2-3 sets of 8 repetitions
    • Lying supine on a bench with a band around your feet unilateral knee to chest. Obviously one leg remains neutral in isometric contraction, while knee flexion is performed on the other side. This is a great way to warm up the hip flexor and the glutes. Do 1-2 sets of 8-10 slow and controlled repetitions per side.
  5. Create proximal stiffness with the McGill Big 3 – I recommend all of my athletes perform Dr. Stuart McGill’s recommended side planks, bird dogs, and curl-ups before squatting, deadlifting, or performing any of the Olympic movements. Those three movements help to create stiffness around the spine – and in the words of McGill, “proximal stiffness equals distal movement.” Basically if the muscles around the spine are stiff and stable, the body will allow the limbs to move freely throughout required ranges of motion.

Brace for PRs

Most strength coaches would agree the key to a big squat is a strong back. We have countless debates and discussions on the best ways to strengthen the back. We talk about good mornings, front squat carries, and other exercises designed to improve the strength of spinal extensors. However there is something much more critical for ensuring spinal extension during a massive squat, and that is proper bracing.

You would be surprised at the number of athletes who don’t understand how to brace. I was working with an Olympic hopeful weightlifter at a camp in 2017 for USA Weightlifting. He wasn’t one of mine, but I was surprised to find out he had never heard about bracing. This same young man had lived at the Olympic Training Center, and yet had never even heard of this simple concept. The lesson learned here was never assume the level of an athlete equates to them knowing the basics. I recommend never assuming anyone understands basics. Just like all the great coaches from all of our favorite sport, as coaches we should ensure our athletes perfect the basics.

Here are a few easy ways to ensure tightness around the spine:

  1. Hands as close as mobility will allow – This will create maximal stiffness in the upper back around the thoracic spine, which is where most of us fail during a squat. Close hands along with the Valsalva maneuver (we will discuss more in just a bit) will ensure optimal stiffness.
  2. Tuck elbows under the bar – Too many people let their elbows flare out, which also allows the scapula to flare out. In my experience, the muscles related to the scapula are the gateway to the spinal extensors. When the scapula flares, then the back especially in the thoracic spine area starts to flex or round. Every great squatter on the planet knows this leads to the death of any big squat.
  3. Root your feet in the ground – I like to think about the big toe, pinky toe, and heel as roots growing into the ground. I literally dig them in, and then perform a cork screw (external rotation) in the ground to activate the external rotators. This might not have any direct relationship to the spine, but I have found weak feet equals weak back.
  4. Learn to use a belt – The Valsalva maneuver is a pretty amazing tool to use. Simply put, you will breathe in as much air as possible into the belly, pressing out against your belt in the front, sides, and even in the back – while keeping the mouth shut and not letting any air escape. This technique causes massive amounts of tension around the lumbar spine, and any great strength athlete will tell you a stable spine is a stronger one.

SQUAT GAINZ

THE SHORT & SWEET GUIDE TO INCREASING YOUR SQUAT

SUPPLEMENTARY PROGRAMS TO BOOST YOUR SQUAT

Coach Travis Mash shows you how to simply and scientifically diagnose and fix your squat weaknesses. Squat Gainz also contains six supplementary squat-focused programs you can add to your current strength work to drive your squat through the roof.

I hope this article helps all of you achieve the squat of your dreams. Let this be a lesson in the barbell continuum – and by that I mean most of us start out on our barbell journey’s seeking to maximize the basics. Then somewhere along the way, we try to get super scientific and fancy, causing us to forget the basics. Then we get older and wiser, shifting back to realizing the basics are what gets us strong quickly and keeps us safe. For all of you young coaches and athletes, I recommend none of you ever quit trying to perfect the basics. The basics will lead to the personal records you are dreaming about, and the basics will keep you safe and healthy along your journey.

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