Alright folks…we’ve covered the safety, the technique, and the back squat itself. But I know what you really want. You want to know how to move that heavy weight; to squat deep and to squat big! Well, the road to squat glory does not start with simply moving large amounts of weight. There are other techniques, when properly used, which can aid in helping you push that weight and make some serious PRs!
I know many of you are familiar with pause squats, which are absolutely essential. But let me add to your squat pain and misery with a few more suggestions. Here are 5 not-so common (or better yet, seldom utilized) ways to build your squats to glorious new heights and depths!
1.) Pause Squats
Wait! Didn’t I just get through saying you’re all familiar with these? Now, let me ask you this: How many of you are actually doing them? Haha. I know, I know. These hurt, and we hate to do them. But let me tell you now, there is no better way to learn how to squat heavy than this brilliantly sadistic squat routine.
Pause squats teach us to get comfortable under the weight. We learn how to deal with the load on our back, all the while keeping our core tight. One thing that I know I struggle with is that initial fear of wanting to dump the bar rather than lift the bar. Pause squats get us comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Pause squats also are the first line of building core for a deeper and stronger squat. You will definitely work that core by tightening it up, maintaining that tightness (“Keep it tight!” should be ringing in your ears right about now) through the duration of the movement, and coming out of the bottom with a clenched midsection.
When you do squats, try warming up with a 5 second pause at the bottom of your squat. You can do 3 sets of 5 under minimal weight to really warm up the core and get it ready for some heavier loads. As the loads increase, you’ll want to maintain the 5 second hold, but lower the rep count. Or, another option is to do sets of 5 with the first rep including a 5 second pause squat, the remaining 4 a normal, fast squat with a focus on bursting out of the hole.
Pause squatting is essential to building a bigger, deeper squat. If you are not doing this regularly, then you really need to…it’s the quickest way to build depth and quality to your squat.
2.) OH Barbell Carry with Chains (or kettlebells)
Core, Core, Core! That’s what squatting is all about. Core is crucial when you are in the bottom position of that squat. So how do you develop it and push out of that bottom to PR greatness? One great way is to do OH barbell carries with chains or kettlebells on either side of the bar. Here’s what you do:
If you are using chains (and perhaps you have always wondered why there’s a set of chains hanging by that power lifting rack over there…well, this is one thing it’s for), grab a men’s or women’s bar (depending not just on gender, but overall strength as well) and attach the chains to either end of the bar. Some boxes will have the collar attachment for the chain which you can very easily slip on to either side of the bar. If you don’t have this, then simply loop the chain over each side of the bar, making sure that a substantial amount of it is hanging down from the bar once you pick it up (this is essential, and in fact, the whole point of this movement). Now, pick the bar up, get it up into the OH position (narrow grip for this…you want to concentrate on the core, not necessarily the shoulders), make sure you are locked out, and with your core tight, walk 30 meters. Concentrate on stabilizing the bar as the chains swing back and forth with your momentum. The chains are used to throw the balance off of any lift. Since the chains will sway back and forth as you lift, you will need to utilize more stabilizing muscle to keep the bar straight and steady. This will in turn work your core to the extreme and help you develop that necessary stabilizing muscle for your squats.
If you are working with kettlebells, hang them from either end of the bar with mobility straps. Trust me, these straps are crazy strong. And, you won’t need very heavy kettlebells for this… Go light to start! (lighter than you think think you need to, then adjust from there). Pick the bar up into the overhead position and go for your walk.
This OH walk will help build stability and strength, as well as teach you to consistently keep that core tight through the duration of a movement. And there is one final benefit of this exercise: you will look like a complete badass as you do it!
3.) Box Squats
Ever struggle with knowing just how far to go down in that squat? How about when the load begins to increase and your body subconsciously compensates by not going low enough? Box squats will definitely help with this. How do you box squat? Very simple: grab a box that is just low enough that when you sit on it you are just below parallel. If your Box has an adjustable flat bench, this may be the best tool for the job. That way you can adjust it to your exact height. Make sure you are just below parallel, load up the bar with a very manageable weight (this is key…do not go heavy with this movement; you are concentrating on the movement and depth, not the amount of weight you can move). You can start out first with an empty bar to get the feel and form down first. You will want to descend and literally sit on the box. What you are doing is building up a “memory” for your proper squat depth. Now, after you sit, you push up off the box back into the standing position. But please remember, this is not a “touch-and-go” type of movement. When you sit, pause for a second and then really concentrate on your hamstrings/glutes while you rise up off the box.
A couple of things to keep in mind: Your feet do not move nor reset in the seated position. Remember, you are squatting. If you had the load on your shoulders without a box under you, you would not reset your feet. Also, as you push off and up from the box, make sure you are pushing up off of your heels. This is a great time to work on form. Really concentrate on that hip movement, as well, when you come off that box.
Here are some added benefits to box squatting: sitting down on a box will help you concentrate more on your glutes/hamstrings when you push up and out of the box. Also, you can really concentrate on leg develop with this movement. In addition, you will be building some solid muscle fibers in your legs for bigger and stronger legs in the future. And of course, let’s not forget that booty development! We can’t forget the whole reason why we squat in the first place!
4.) Banded Squats
Banded squats are crazy uncomfortable, but an absolutely great training technique. (Now, this type of routine should be set up on a rack that has a bottom horizontal bar parallel to the ground. That way you can insert pins on the bottom of the rack and position the band properly for your squat.) Grab a pair of mobility bands (one of the light ones, red or blue should suffice), and then run it through the lifting pins on the bottom of the rack and loop it around the barbell (you’ll need 2 bands, one for each side). I like to put the band in between the plate and the drum of the barbell. That way the band won’t cinch in as you lift and will stay in place. The band should be positioned on the bottom of the rack at such an angle that when you remove the bar from the rack and step back the band is vertical at a 90 degree angle. So in the rack position the band will stretch forward at an angle as the bar rests in the hooks.
As you unrack the bar, be very careful. The band will cause the bar to pull down (and usually, back) immediately. So hold on tight. Set your feet and squat. At the bottom of your squat hold your position for at least a 2 second count. And then, when you are ready to come up and out of the hole, you need to drive and burst upward with speed (while maintaining control).
Banded squats should be done at a light-to-moderate weight percentage. Do not go “heavy” while using the bands. The bands are working you in your bottom position as well as your upward drive speed. Make sure in the bottom you are not simply resting on your “haunches,” some you mobile experts know what I’m talking about. You’re able to go all the way down and essentially rest on your thighs in the bottom position. You don’t want this. When you do this you are releasing your core and nullifying the whole point of this exercise. Stay right above that position as you hold your squat. As always, when you drive up drive out of the heels.
Banded squats will help you get comfortable with driving weight up out of your squat. It will teach you how to develop that burst of speed which is necessary as you squat heavier and heavier.
5.) Speed Squats
Yup…it’s what it sounds like. Grab a bar with very, very light weight. I usually put anywhere from 25% to 30% of my 1 rep max on the bar. Yes. We are talking that light. Place the bar across your shoulders in the high bar position, drop into your squat and without pausing, explode up and out of the hole as quickly as possible.
Speed squats helps you work on the upward drive and burst of speed you need from the bottom of the squat as well as overall form. You are not working on the speed of consecutive reps, but rather on each individual rep. So reset every single time. This is important for your own safety, which is another reason why you go extremely light on these. So I encourage you, take it light and move fast.
And how about a bonus exercise for the road…
I know…running forward sucks, now I’m telling you to run backwards!?! Bear with me for a bit. Running backwards will cause you to concentrate on and build up the stabilizer muscles in your quadriceps. This muscle group is used to stabilize the squat movement, meaning that the stronger you get here the less likely your legs will buckle when you are under a heavy load. Yes, it is true that when you squat you want to push with the glutes, and working the good ‘ol GHD is perfect for this. But another aspect of squatting is being able to stabilize and control the movement, especially while under heavy load. Your quads are going to thank you every time you run backwards. You will build those stabilizers in a manner you never thought before. If balance is an issue, then simply walking backwards will have the same effect. You definitely want to work up to a point where you can run, but make sure you do it safely. Don’t forget to look over your shoulder so you don’t go crashing into anything (or one!). Running backwards should be done as part of your warm up routine. And one final benefit…as you run backwards everyone will be staring at your booty!
Well, there you have it…a few ways to help develop and take your squat to new heights…er, should we say, depths. Employing these routines on a regular basis will certainly set you up to ring that bell!