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More Ways to Increase the Back Squat
This is my first of a five part series that I am going to release weekly. I am going to give you all some solid ideas to increase the big five lifts: Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Squat, Bench, and Deadlift. I am going to start with the Back Squat because it crosses the most boundaries in the strength world. Whether you are a powerlifter, weightlifter, strongman, or Grid athlete, you are going to need to squat.
This article is high bar v low bar neutral. Weightlifters should stick with high bar because the positions carry over better. Powerlifters are going to want to try the low bar to take advantages of a shortened lever. However, in this article we are talking about increasing either one.
I am not going to take on the wide stance v close stance. Everyone has slightly different hips, so you are going to want to find the stance that allows you to squat below parallel with as vertical a back as possible. Trying to make athletes fit into a one size fits all stance isn’t a good idea at all. Trying to make an athlete like me squat with a wide stance is like trying to hammer a square peg through a round hole.
Now that we have covered what we are not going to talk about, let’s get to the good stuff. Here are the principles that can help increase your squat:
• Squat often
• Be conjugate in nature
• Be aware of all contractions
• Proper breathing
• Down, down, down, dip
• Strengthen your weaknesses
• Proper ascent
• Post Activation Potentiation
Lately I have taken the principle of “Squat Often” very seriously. I have been squatting every day thanks to my friend Cory Gregory. The results have been fantastic. Squatting is like any other athletic movement. You will improve the more you perform the movement. Squatting in many ways is no different than basketball or baseball. Practice makes perfect. You don’t have to squat every day. I know that many of you work too much, but I definitely believe three times or more is optimal.
Over the last ten weeks, I have progressed my Front Squat 62lb to 517lb, and I have increased my high bar back squat to 616lb from 555lb to give me a 61lb increase. I have been able to continue to progress due to the variations that I use on a daily basis. Think of all the ways that you can vary the squat:
• Belt or no belt
• High bar or low bar
• Front squat or Back Squat
• Pauses 1-10 seconds
• Total volume
• Chains and Bands
Get creative! You could actually vary the squat variation for decades with just these aforementioned principles. Not only does the conjugate system get you strong, but also it makes training more fun and exciting. The more fun and exciting that you can make training will equate to immediate gains as well.
Talking about all things Conjugate brings me to my next point. We should all focus on all three of the possible contractions: eccentric, Isometric, and concentric. Weightlifters and many powerlifters often overlook eccentric training. The Box Squat with Bands is a great way to focus on a controlled yet fast eccentric contraction. Studies show that a faster descent equals a faster concentric contraction. More speed equals more power. The box will teach the athlete not to lose tightness during those last few inches.
If you have ever watched Shane Hamman’s perform a back squat, then you have watched the most explosive eccentric squat of all-time that led to one of the best back squats of all-time. He dunked his squats as if he had parachuted from a plane without a parachute. However the strength of his decelerators allowed him to squat like that without losing any tightness throughout his torso. It was amazing to witness in person.
A slower eccentric contraction shouldn’t be avoided either. The extra time under tension will strengthen the muscles by growing them larger. The easiest way to make a muscle stronger is to get it bigger. I suggest periods of adding in a slower eccentric contraction to go along with the paused in bottom squats. Strengthening the muscles used during deceleration will also decrease the risk of injury. I recommend eccentric contractions as long as 4-8 seconds.
Isometric contractions are almost always overlooked other than pauses in the bottom of a squat. I have a few new ones for you to try. Have you ever paused after ascending 4 inches out of the hole or maybe 10 inches out of the hole? If you have a sticking point, there is no better way to overcome that sticking point than with isometric contractions.
Another way to do this is to perform bottom up squat against pins. Start with the bar on the safety pins where you are starting in the very bottom of a back squat. Then you will place a second set at the point where you are the weakest. I recommend choosing a submaximal weight around 50-70%, and then squat the weight against the pins for 3-5 seconds. I like to use a 3-4 sets of 5 reps scheme to maximize the strength gained.
Breathing is often overlooked for increasing the Back Squat. All great powerlifters know to suck in as much air as possible, but there is more to the story. Suck the air in and push your belly out into your insanely tight belt. When this technique is performed properly, you can create an insane amount of inner abdominal pressure. This pressure will help stabilize the spine sending the body a signal to fire all cylinders. Using a belt properly is a 35-50lb increase for me in the back squat. Give it a try!
“Down, down, down, dip” is a principle that I have instinctively used throughout my strength career. Basically, the first movement I make during the descent is sitting my butt down while flaring the knees out. This will engage my glutes, which will help control the eccentric phase. At about one inch above parallel, I will release my hips and perform a slight dip or bounce out of the bottom. The key is learning to just release the hips and not the rest of your body. The torso has to stay tight, or you are going to crash and burn.
The dip is going to earn two credits to your squat. First you are going to get a stretch reflex, or a rapid nerve response due to the rapid stretch. You are also going to use a slight bar oscillation. Most powerlifters don’t think about this one, but it happens even with a thick squat bar.
“Strengthening your weaknesses” should be obvious, but a lot of us, including me, get caught up in the mundane tasks of the day. Sometime we overlook the obvious, which is why we could all use a little coaching. Two areas that are notorious for holding people back in the back squat are a weak trunk and weak glutes. The biggest battle for advanced lifters is keeping the spine vertical and not caving in. Our legs are normally plenty strong enough, but our core isn’t capable of supporting the weight.
If you are missing the weight higher up the strength curve, then you probably have weak glutes. That final part of hip extension is performed primarily by the glutes. In today’s world of sitting behind a computer, I am seeing weak glutes more and more. Bret Contreras has a ton of information regarding strengthening the glutes. If this is you, look him up.
Last a proper ascent is very important to a successful lift. After the dip, the key is to push your back into the bar. This will automatically keep your spine vertical, and it will bring the hips under the bar. Position is everything in the squat battle. These are a few vertical cues that can work: “lift the chest”, “drive the back”, and “press into the bar”. A lot of lifters get bent over during the squat, and then they automatically think that they are weak in the torso or posterior chain. Sometimes it is the way that you perform the lift that is causing the miss. It is not always strength!
The second part of the ascent is accelerating all the way to the top. A lot of times athletes are pushing slowly by accident. My man, Chuck used to squat super slow. However, when I would verbally tell him “fast”, he would speed up. Compensatory acceleration is something that Fred Hatfield has talked about for years. Louie Simmons trains weekly to increase acceleration. A lot of times it is just a way of thinking. So think, “accelerate”!
Post Activation Potentiation (P.A.P.) is a fancy way of saying “ways of feeling heavier weights before actually maxing out. There are many cool ways of doing this, so I am going to name a few:
1. Walk Backs- This is my wife’s favorite. First warm up like normal all the way to 95% of your 1RM. Then instead of immediately going to 100+% for a personal record, put on 105-110%. Then I want you to set up like normal, pick the weight up, and walk back with it just like you were going to squat it. After that, just stand there with the weight on your back for 10-30 seconds, and then rack the weight. Take the weight back to a PR weight, and then within a minute perform the actual squat.
Basically the weight is going to feel super light on your back. We all know that if a weight feels light, we have a much better chance of squatting it. My wife will do this with 1RM, 3RM, and even 5RM’s, and it works like a charm.
2. Weight Releasers- this is my personal favorite. Weight releasers are apparatus’s that connect to the ends of a normal bar. You can actually load weight directly onto the weight releasers. The weight releasers are designed so that when they touch the ground, they come off the bar automatically. Basically you can lower 900lb and end up squatting 800lb. That is the exact way that I squatted my first raw 800lb. Here is a pic for you to get a better idea:
>>>>Insert Weight Releaser Pic<<<<<< 3. Bands and Chains- I am not a huge fan of the Westside Dynamic Squat Day, but I am a fan of using bands to warm up for a big squat. Normal Blue Bands are about 100lb extra at the top per side. In the bottom they are more like 30-40lb each. You could actually end up with 60-100lb more than your max on your back. Then take the bands or chains off, and max out. Once again, the weight is going to feel light on your back. A light barbell is one that is conquerable! Next week, I will try to tackle the Snatch. Until then, squat often, change it up, fast out of the bottom, and drive into the bar! Guys and gals, if you want a tool that will help you along your fitness path, I would be honored if you checked out the brand new “No Weaknesses” E-Book. For more information, click on the link below: