It’s just after the start of the new year and everyone is writing articles that tell you this, that and whatever… “How to Get your Biggest This,” “How to be a Ninja,” “How To make more money than Donald Trump,” etc., in 2015. I’m going to tell you how to get your biggest squat.
Really 2015 has nothing to do with it, I just thought it sounded cool in the title. If you have happen to be New Years Resolutioning and happen to be new to any type of fitness, then you should know that squats are the cornerstone to any strength program and if you really want to have a great one, then you gotta get a big squat. Blasphemy above all strength blasphemies, no one is saying, “I want to squat less in 2015.” Although probably very few are staying I want to do the work required to have a really great squat. I’m going to give you 11 things you really need to do if you’re going to get your greatest squat. You might also keep in mind that many of these things apply to getting any big lift and the principle to many of them applies to getting any great physical skill or even success in life.
- Prioritize the squat and actually squatting. You don’t get your biggest squats by using programs that tell you, you’re going to get a huge squat without actually doing a fair amount of the exercise itself. There are a few exercises that you might actually do a substitute for and come out with a bigger PR on the other side. Squats are not one of them. If you’re a beginner, you might get away with just about any kind of leg work and have a better squat, but once you’re past the Kindergartner stage it doesn’t work that way. You must actually squat with a barbell in the style that is important enough to you that you want to improve it. Using an assistance exercise is fine when it’s done properly, but keep the main thing as the main thing. Also prioritize where you put the squat in your individual daily and weekly program. You may certainly do a basic mobility warm up, but unless you’re training very advanced combinations of strength and endurance, don’t do anything that wears you out before you squat. Arrange your program so that you’re fully recovered from any other activities or lifts when you go to squat. I’m all for randomization, but if you’re prioritizing this, you probably don’t want to run a 26 mile marathon or do 20 sets of deadlifts and power cleans the day before you squat.
- Experiment to find you best style of squats. Humans follow some basic bio-mechanical rules in movement, but as much as we’re all the same, we’re all different. Even identical twins have minor differences in things like limb length, structure, etc. The rest of us have very pronounced differences in physical structure. You’re physical structure will dictate your best way to squat, not the way the coolest, biggest people do it. If you look around the world of squats you see lots of different styles that end up with big heavy lifts and big muscular development. You have to put your observation cap on here, along with your big boy or girl courage panties. Meaning you have to notice what feels right for you. A good coach will be helpful, because he will be teaching you a style of squats, but molding the way you perform it to your individual frame. You have to notice things and experiment with things like different foot stances, set ups, sequencing, the way you hold you hands, head, feet, elbows, how you breath – all these things matter. You should also notice things like, “I’m stronger in this stance, but it leaves me feeling crippled for three weeks,” vs., “I lift five pounds less in this stance, but I feel like partying all night at Mardi Gras after I do them.” Don’t try to wedge yourself into something that’s terribly uncomfortable because someone else does it. A caveat here is that if you’re changing a squat style it will definitely feel weird for a while, but once you’re used to it, it should feel natural and you should have your strongest most efficient positions and lift.
- In number 2 I just told you to experiment. In number 3, I’m going to tell you the exact opposite and you’ll know what I mean. Once you’ve settled on a style – stop experimenting. You have to actually get good at the style you use. That takes repetitions of doing every detail exactly the same, all the time for an extended period of time. It’s also constantly reinforcing those habits after you built them. Big lifters are constantly examining their lifts during warm ups to make sure that absolutely every lift is done exactly the same way, no matter what weight it is, and that every detail is exactly the same every time. Don’t be haphazard. Build a routine. Approach the bar exactly the same way every time. Grab it with the same hand first, put it in exactly the same spot on your back. Every minute detail is building a habit, because here’s what you want – you want to build this habit to a place where you don’t have to think about it. When you can stop thinking and know that you’re body is going to follow the exact path that you built for it, you get to your biggest lifts and greatest strengths. Not only has your body built a groove, but your mind has rehearsed it so much, that you can unify your focus into only the effort that you’re putting out. Some magical stuff happens when you do this.
- Stop program hopping. I know there are a lot of people putting out some really cool programs right now and they look all new and shiny like Santa Claus’ sleigh after it’s been detailed at the Beverly Hills Bentley and Sleigh Emporium. I know everybody wants to try the next big thing as well as have variety in your program, but you will never get to your biggest lift if you don’t stay with a program long enough to let it work. That doesn’t mean three weeks. This isn’t seven minute abs. Strength is built over a course of time and that time is not measured in that time it takes you to drink your latte. A good program will address lots of variables. You have to give your body time to adapt to those strength variables. You have to give it time to get past the “new because you’re getting used to it,” gains and into the actual building of tissue and structural and muscular strength. You can have variety, I’m a huge believer in it, but not within the context of your main strength work. There are ways to satisfy your exercise ADD, without mucking up your major strength program. For me this even goes so far that my strength based set and rep schemes essentially never change or vary, very little and only within the context within that same set and rep scheme that makes you the strongest. Pick a smart program and stick with it for several months with no excuses and see what happens.
- Get rock solid. I see lots of people doing squats and they look like either a noodle that’s been cooked too long or a rubber band that’s been stretched and used to play the base line from a heavy metal song. Here’s what I mean – absolutely rock hard, high tension, economy of movement. if your torso is wobbling around when you set the bar up or as you come up from the bottom, you’re not tight enough. If you pick the bar up and you’re so jerky that the kinetic energy is throwing you back and forth, you’re wasting energy and strength like its being blown out of a fire hose instead of being pinpointed with a laser like it should be. This happens from one of the three things. Not learning how to create tension when you actually do a heavy lift or using too many extemporaneous movements in setting up to actually do the lift. Or often the big culprit is lack of torso strength. When this happens your legs are strong enough to make the lift, but your abs and back are either not set right or not strong enough to hold the bar with the proper amount of rigidity. When this happens you’re all over the place or your legs contract and the torso doesn’t have the power to transfer that strength. This is remedied by practicing, getting tight, being extremely economic in your movement (that means when you take the bar out, pick it up only a small amount, take one step back and one step to set up – don’t run around with the bar before you get ready to squat), and strengthening the torso. Heavy abdominal and back work combined with some overloading partials or lockouts generally solves this problem.
- Find your depth. The debate on depth and the close stance/wide stance debate are where the most blood is shed in the squat jihad around the world. Don’t make that big of a deal out of it. If you compete somewhere, then squat to the depth necessary under the rules you compete in. If you’re an Olympic lifter and you need to do deep squat cleans and snatches, then you need to squat very deep because it specifically serves your purpose in that range of motion. (For them it’s probably most important to do really deep front squats). For the rest of us, squat to the depth that fits your individual body and doesn’t cause problems. That being said, this needs to be at least parallel, unless you have a prohibiting knee injury or body proportion. (Body proportion is extreme. Most people can get to parallel if they want to. I mention that because I once trained a 6’6″ basketball player whose thighs were so incredibly long he literally couldn’t squat to parallel without having to bend over so far that his chest would touch his knees). Also modern anatomy has told us that there are some people who because of the bones in their hips will only squat to a certain depth with good form no matter how much mobility work they do. if you are not able to hit depth because of mobility then fix it. If it’s bone structure, stop worrying about it and just do what works. You’re going to hear that if your butt doesn’t touch the floor, you and your whole tribe will surely die. But when you look around the world of squats, the big monsters who squat heavy, super deep, slightly below parallel, right at parallel and high-ish parallel depending on their definition (there has to be an actual line here, you can’t just keep doing a shorter and shorter movement, but you get what I’m saying), all end up with big massive thighs and super strong. Find the depth that gets you the most development and causes you the least problem.
- Learn to work hard. And learn to work hard, before you learn to work long. Volume is big en vogue right now. It can be very helpful for building muscle mass. Certain types of lifters like bodybuilders certainly need to do it and certain levels of lifters and within certain training systems will need a particular amount of volume to maintain their lifts. However, before you get volume crazy, learn to squeeze every ounce of effort out of yourself under a heavy bar. Because volume is popular right now, it might be cool to say, “Well I did 12 sets of five at 71.3% while I was doing the Son of Smolov’s roommate’s cousin’s routine,” but I’m still a believer that nobody really cares how much volume you do if you don’t come out with a bigger lift on the other side. Also even if you’re in great shape it can be quite difficult even if you’re very very experienced to maintain technical discipline under huge volumes. The strain you put on your body with a truly heavy lift can only be trained for by truly heavy lifting. I’d rather see you do a couple truly concentrated hard sets and come out squatting 600, versus unending sets, but only 500 for a max. When I say I want you to learn to work hard I want you to do these two things: Learn simultaneously to be as fast possible with a heavy weight and learn to grind. You do that by practicing as much speed as possible in your warm up sets and using as much speed as possible on every set, even up to the heavy stuff that probably doesn’t move very fast. it’s call compensatory acceleration and it happens on every lift no matter how much speed it happens with. You need speed – it makes you stronger. You also need to learn to sustain effort and gut through when a heavy weight moves slowly. That’s how you get to the biggest lifts.
- Fixing your specific problems and adding assistance movements. Many people you see training assistance movements (lifts meant to make your major lift like the squat, go up), couldn’t tell you why they do what they do. Other than so and so does it, or this is what everybody else does. They end up with a shot gun approach of, “Well I’ll just do everything.” Instead of a pointed approach which is “I will add specific movements that are well thought out with specific reasons, because that movement fits me and addresses a particular technical weakness or muscular weakness or imbalance.” When you shot gun it you can’t exactly figure out what’s helping or not helping your lift go up. When you simplify and add things one at a time you can track exactly the effect you’re getting. You are also allowing for better recovery and muscular balance. When I started my lifting career I spent quite a bit of time around powerlifters who kind of trained like bodybuilders. Meaning they did heavy powerlifting squats and then they did leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses, hack squats and anything else they could get their hands on, but I found out later when I got to experimenting for myself that my squat didn’t go up any more or faster and my muscles didn’t grow any better doing that shotgun approach, than when I just did squats and maybe one or two specifically pointed assistance moves. There is nothing wrong with those movements if you enjoy them or feel like they help you, have at it! Make sure however that you’re recovering and that you’re program is thought out, not just because the biggest bro in the gym does it that way. When you really study the programs, even the guys who do a lot of assistance work have very specific reasons, not just the thought “I’m going to hit every angle possible and I’ll come out looking like Ronnie Coleman.” Assistance work can also be a crutch, meaning some people will sandbag the squats in favor of easier exercises or think that if I just do a lot of mediocre hard crap it’ll work. nothing replaces concentrated hard work on the basic movement and a well thought out program.