PR: Personal Record
Detrained Lifter: A trainee who has taken an extended period of time (at least ~3 weeks) off lifting all together
Novice Lifter: Anyone who has been training for six months or less
When it comes to training and diet, many have come to realize that for the most part, shortcuts either do not exist or are not worth taking over the long term. When it comes to the squat, however, there are four science-based things you can start doing today that will have a near immediate impact on your strength, regardless of experience level.
I am going to skip the basic stuff you have likely already heard: you should squat more frequently (squatting two to three times per week is usually the sweet spot), you should squat earlier in the workout when you are fresher, and make sure you are eating enough calories and protein. Although these are all particularly important tips, in this article, I want to focus on four strategies you may not have considered before.
1. PRIME YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM TO SQUAT BIG!
Your first strategy is to “prime your nervous system” for a big squat by using acclimating drills such as walkouts and pin squats. Although for some, the phrase “prime your nervous system” may sound somewhat spooky or jargony, it simply means preparing your brain and nervous system to get used to firing under heavy loads. This process is like shooting a weighted training ball for a few minutes, switching to a normal basketball and noticing how much lighter the ball feels than if you had just jumped right in with the standard size ball.
Walkouts: Load up to 95 to 105 percent of your one rep max, walk the weight out, brace as you normally would, and then walk it back in without squatting it. If you are new to walk outs, start with weight you have actually squat first, before working your way up to supra-maximal loads slightly above your current squat max. To cover yourself in the unlikely event of a fail, it is wise to set the safeties higher than usual and still use a spotter, if you have one. If you hit these once or twice a month, before your planned squat work for the day, not only will it make those later sets feel even lighter, but it will also get you more confident and familiarize your upper back and stabilizers with what it feels like to support some heavy weight.
Pin Squat: Set the bar on the safety pins at the bottom and start with the concentric phase. This can be extremely helpful for lifters who get intimidated by the fact that the traditional squat starts with the lowering phase. You can contrast this with a deadlift, where, if you do not lift the weight, it just stays on the ground – no big deal. But, it is very common for even experienced lifters to worry that they will be able to unrack and lower the weight just fine, but then get buckled under a failed positive. By setting the bar up on the pins then, you start the movement with the positive, and finish with the negative. This will likely help eliminate that fear of lowering the bar and not being able to get back up.
A cool progression with this is to set the pins at about half squat depth, and then gradually lower the pin height over time until you get to parallel or just below. That steady progression should help you feel much more confident when it is time to go for a max; assuming, of course, you have still been doing regular squats in your program as well.
If you are new to pin squats and doing them to parallel, I would recommend starting with something around 65-75 percent of your one rep max for four-six reps. If you set the pins higher, you can load much closer to your max. As you get used to the movement, you can progressively lower the pins from there.
If your lack of confidence in your squat is holding you back, it will help to pick one of these priming drills and do it once every couple of weeks.
2. FINE-TUNE YOUR IDEAL SQUAT TECHNIQUE
Many of us get locked into one way of squatting simply because it is how we first learned to squat. Keeping with your favorite squat-type, you will be able to put up bigger numbers much faster with a simple fine-tuning of three aspects of your form: your bar position, your squat depth, and your stance width.
Bar Position: According to a poll of my YouTube audience with ~100,000 respondents, only 25 percent of my followers squat low bar. Ironically though, most people are capable of squatting 5 to 10 percent more with the low bar position. In fact, a 2017 study comparing the two variations found that “the LBBS is a more efficient way of squatting large loads, as demonstrated by comparable kinetic results to the HBBS, despite greater absolute loads being lifted…” There was, however, “an influence of expertise,” meaning that there may be an adjustment period for the low bar squat where you may need to get used to the technique before you see the strength boost.
To clarify, the MAIN difference between high bar and low bar is that you simply shift the bar a couple inches further down on your back. This shift will cause you to lean slightly more forward as you squat, but the bar should STILL travel in a perfectly straight line over the middle of your foot.
It is worth mentioning that my poll could be skewed a bit because in my Technique Tuesday squat video, I demonstrate the high bar squat, and I do tend to SLIGHTLY favor it for hypertrophy because it allows lifters to achieve a similar muscular stimulus with lighter loads. However, if your goal is to get your squat numbers up, it is a no-brainer to at least give low bar a try. Most people are indeed stronger with it.
Of course, this does not mean you should permanently switch to low bar exclusively: some powerlifters will use high bar in their offseason and then switch to low bar as their next meet gets closer. Or, like me, you can use low bar and high bar variations concurrently, squatting low bar for heavy top set work, and high bar for some of the paused, technique and hypertrophy work. These variations should help make you a more well-rounded lifter.
Depth: If you are going to use the squat as part of your training, it makes sense to optimize the depth of your squat. When it comes to the specific squat depth, because there are two schools of thought that can both work, it is important to try both and pick the one that works better for you.
The first school of thought is to intentionally reduce your depth to JUST what is needed for your goal. The thought here is that since less depth means less range of motion, with everything else equal, you should be able to move more weight if you limit depth within reason. If you are squatting for powerlifting then, you do need to get the hip crease below the knee joint, but there is no point in wasting energy going any deeper than this. If your goal is general strength and size, you only need to go to parallel or just below parallel, and again, going deeper is just wasted energy.
However, the second school of thought is that you should squat as deep as you comfortably can to maximize the bounce you get out of the hole (formally known as the stretch shortening cycle). As a lifter, I personally fall more in this latter camp. I have noticed that whenever I squat with the intention of limiting depth, I actually end up being weaker. But as a coach, I recognize that this is highly individual and therefore suggest that you experiment and find the ideal depth for you.
While there is no hard rule for this, usually people with good ankle mobility will squat more by going deeper (and getting that bounce) and people with less ankle mobility usually squat more by cutting depth to the minimum required amount.
Stance Width: The third and final technique aspect to fine tune is stance width. If you currently squat with a shoulder width or just-outside shoulder width stance, next time you squat, go about two inches wider on each side and flare your toes out slightly more.
According to a comprehensive article by Greg Nuckols, a wider stance allows you to hit the stretch reflex we just talked about without going unnecessarily deep, increases adductor involvement AND makes the lift easier on your back. Collectively, these things should allow most people to squat more weight with a slightly wider stance. Although since everyone’s anthropometry is different, it might not work for you, as a life-time narrow stance squatter myself, this is something I will experiment with myself over the coming months.
3. LEARN HOW TO BETTER USE YOUR TRAINING GEAR (or consider getting some if you do not have any)
Although you do not need any gym gear to put up impressive squat numbers, there are three items with solid empirical support that I recommend.
A Belt: If you currently use a belt, it is important to remember that it is not a passive tool. You are not using it to get lazy in your bracing. Instead, you wear it to enable your body to work harder and smarter. Once realizing this, you will get much more out of your belt if you actively brace against it by breathing down into the belt before you descend, as you push your midsection out in a 360-degree manner – rather than only inflating your gut in the front. This will create a more solid, rigid column of support, reducing energy leaks during the squat. To ease your worries, research repeatedly shows that belts do not actually reduce core activation, contrary to popular belief. If I had to guess, I would say most people will see about a 5-10 percent boost from wearing a belt, especially once you learn how to use it optimally. This means, if you currently squat 405 pounds, for example, a good belt should take you to 425-445 pounds rather quickly.
Knee Sleeves: Although more optional, knee sleeves seem to work by bunching up behind the knees, allowing for an extra bit of spring out of the bottom. They also add a feeling of “comfort” and stability which can reduce the perception of difficulty at the same loads, allowing you to tolerate more volume. In my coaching experience, they seem to give about a 2-5 percent absolute strength boost; a figure supported by a brand-new study covered in a recent issue of the MASS research review.
A Squat Shoe: Such a shoe will increase stability and force transfer much better than a running shoe with a squishy sole. If you are on a limited budget, I would recommend at least using a pair of Chuck Taylors or Vans. In addition, if you have limited ankle mobility and struggle reaching depth, it might be worth investing in a heeled squat shoe; although, this is more a matter of personal preference.
At the end of this article, I have listed some recommendations for all three pieces of training gear, including affiliate links to some Rise gym gear, if you want to take your squat game up a notch or two and, at the same time, support my work.
4. SET REASONABLY REGULAR WEIGHT PRs (OR REP PRs) IN YOUR TRAINING
Since how often you should be setting new personal records depends entirely on how advanced you are as a lifter, let’s consider this number four strategy through three levels of lifting experience.
A Novice or Detrained Lifter:
Whether new to lifting or you have not been lifting for a while, virtually every session you should be setting new PRs. In this case, you should pick a single rep target, like five reps, and simply aim to add five pounds to your squat every week. If you adhered to this every week, it would translate to over 100 pounds on your squat in less than six months.
This is called linear single progression, where you are keeping the sets and reps the same, and just hitting these minimum five-pound, weekly PRs in a linear fashion. Once you get to a point where the sets feel really grindy or you are not able to maintain good form while adding weight, it is most likely time to move on to a more advanced progression.
Novice: Linear Single Progression [5 reps]
Week 1: 3 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs
Week 2: 3 sets x 5 reps x 105 lbs [+5 lb PR!]
Week 3: 3 sets x 5 reps x 110 lbs [+5 lb PR!]
Week 4: 3 sets x 5 reps x 115 lbs [+5 lb PR!]
[Begin the next progression once you can no longer add weight and maintain good form]
Beginner – Intermediate Lifter:
Here, you can start using a linear double progression (this can also work if you are more advanced but have been less structured with your programming). At this stage of lifting, you will pick a narrow rep range, say four-five reps, and from week to week, alternate between adding one rep and adding some weight. For example, in Week 1 you do three sets of four reps with 200 pounds. In week 2, you would add one rep, still with 200 pounds. In Week 3, you add some weight, but go back to four reps. Then, in Week 4, you add a rep again. Now, you are doing five reps with 205 pounds. Note how you are still progressing linearly, but weight PRs are being set only every other week now.
Linear Double Progression [4-5 rep range]
Week 1: 3 sets x 4 reps x 200 lbs [starting weight]
Week 2: 3 sets x 5 reps x 200 lbs
Week 3: 3 sets x 4 reps x 205 lbs [+ 5 lb PR!]
Week 4: 3 sets x 5 reps x 205 lbs
[Deload every 4-8 weeks and repeat until you can no longer progress with good form]
Intermediate – Advanced Lifter:
At this level, PRs will be less frequent again and progress will be much less linear. However, you still need to set some kind of PR with some regularity for continued progress. This can be something as simple as hitting weight and reps you have done before, but with less exertion or with better technique.
In my intermediate to advanced powerbuilding program, for example, you work up to “near-PR weight” OR PR-weight for a top set every second week. Exactly how heavy you go is autoregulated, but these sets are meant to serve as signposts that you are moving in the right direction along the way. Then, at the end of the 10-week program, you perform a max text with the goal of setting a new PR. Depending on just how advanced you are, this could mean that you are hitting new PRs for a given rep count every other week, OR simply approaching PRs every other week and then hitting a new max at the end of the 10 week block.
Week 1 – 1×5 [Top Set: Near-PR or PR], 2×8 [Light Back-Off Sets]
Week 3 – 1×8 [Top Set: Near-PR or PR], 2×6 [Light Back-Off Sets]
Week 5 – 1×3 [Top Set: Near-PR or PR], 2×4 [Light Back-Off Sets]
Week 7 – 1×3 [Top Set: Near-PR or PR], 2×2 [Light Back-Off Sets]
Week 9 – 1×2 [Top Set: Near-PR or PR]
Week 10 – Max Testing [Aim to set new PRs]
[Deload every 4-8 weeks and repeat until you can no longer progress with good form]
Either way, the point is that as you get more advanced, you still need to have these regular, but necessary, less frequent signposts in your training, confirming that you are in fact still trending in the right direction.
If you are an experienced lifter with several years of training under your belt and you are looking to put all of this information together into an actionable routine, I recommend checking out my 10-week Powerbuilding System. If, however, you are still in your first year or two of training, I suggest my Fundamentals Program.
My 10 week powerbuilding system has been easily my most successful program to date and even though results, of course, will vary from person to person, I have never seen so many people add such ridiculous numbers to their lifts in just 10 weeks.
As always, thanks for your interest! Now, it is time to blow up that squat of yours.
Recommended Gym Gear:
Disclaimer: All Rise links are affiliate links.
▹ 10mm Lever Belt: http://rise.ca/jeff
▹ Sign up at http://rise.ca/jeff to be the first to get the NEW Rise 30cm Power Knee Sleeves when they drop! (Great comfort, spring and durability. I had a big hand in designing them for max strength output.)
▹ I personally like the Adidas Powerlift 3.1 shoes best: https://www.adidas.com/us/powerlift.3.1-shoes/CQ1773.html
▹ Sometimes I will wear the Adidas Weightlifting 2 shoe (which is the shoe I’m wearing in the video). It has a slightly higher heel, so might be the better pick if you really struggle with ankle mobility/depth: https://www.adidas.com/us/adipower-weightlifting-2-shoes/
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