by Bret Contreras January 30, 2014
“Friends don’t let friends skip leg day”
It’s become somewhat of a running joke in the fitness community to poke fun at guys with massive upper bodies supported by a pair of scrawny legs. Lifters tend to train the muscles they can see in the mirror, which results in weekly workouts consisting of nothing but bench press and curls. While this may result in a physique that looks decent to the untrained eye, especially when viewed from the front while wearing sweatpants, it will look imbalanced, asymmetrical, and weak to those more versed in bodybuilding. And when it comes to athletics, without a good set of wheels, you’ll be left in the dust. Being a great athlete has much to do with transferring forces, either from the ground into an implement, or from the ground into an opponent. The stronger your base of support (legs), the more force you can create and the more athletic you’ll become, assuming power and coordination remain unchanged (they’ll likely increase with strength training).
When it comes to lower body training, squats are king. A majority of lower body movements are actually squat patterns, with slight differences in where the load is being applied, the number of limbs utilized, and subtleties in foot placement. So when it comes to getting the legs stronger and more developed, it makes sense to first look to attack the squat pattern.
It’s a definite rarity that I walk into a commercial gym and see folks using good form while hitting proper depth in a squat; in fact it’s rare to see the squat racks being used for squats at all these days. This may be due to the fact that squats are a very complex movement, with most lifters not knowing where to start. And while relying on leg presses and leg curls may seem like an easier route toward lower body development, nothing will load the legs more functionally than a squat. In this post, I’m going to review good squat technique and introduce different set and rep schemes commonly used for increasing your 1RM, based on your experience level.
I’ll start off by reviewing form in the squat. This is a difficult task since lifters vary dramatically in anatomy and goals. There are many ways to squat correctly according to your anthropometry and desires.
First, you’ll have to decide on whether to use the high bar or low bar position. With the high bar position, the bar will rest directly on the upper traps (bar rests above the spine of the scapula) and you’ll stay more upright during the squat. Low bar squats will have the bar placed just between the upper traps and rear delts (bar rests below the spine of the scapula), with the torso leaning forward a bit more at the bottom of the movement. The majority of people will be stronger using low bar, which is more hip dominant (with the high bar being more knee dominant). You’ll need to experiment to find which style suits you best. Most lifters can find a version of both high bar and low bar that works for them, and it’s a good idea to rotate between the two periodically since they tend to feed off of each other and promote greater gains.
After you’ve chosen your bar position, you’ll want to setup evenly under the bar. Your feet should be directly under the bar, not behind it. This will allow you to squat the bar off the pins rather than good morning it out of the rack.
Once the weight is on your back and the bar is off the pins, you want to take as few steps backward as possible to get into position. It’ll take some practice to know exactly where your ideal stance width is, but for many lifters it ends up being somewhere just outside of hip width. Ideally you will take just two steps back after unracking the bar to get set up properly.
Stance and Foot Position
As previously mentioned, your stance will usually be somewhere just outside of hip width, but how wide you go will be dependent on both bar position (high or low bar) and your individual hip anatomy as discussed HERE. Typically, low bar squats will require a wider stance than high bar squats, and the wider you go, the more likely it is you’ll have to lean forward at the bottom. Never exaggerate this forward lean though – try to maintain a semblance of upright posture. In reality, you’ll probably lean forward at around a 45 degree angle relative to the horizontal when at the bottom of a squat. This too is highly influenced by anatomy/anthropometry.
Also dependent on personal preference and bony anatomy will be how much you angle your feet outward; I recommend starting somewhere around 20-30 degrees of foot flare but you can adjust from there to suit your body. Wider stances will usually require greater foot flares. Again, don’t limit yourself to one type of squat – experiment with different bar positions, stance widths, and degrees of foot flare.
Although the squat is considered a lower body lift, the entire torso is very active throughout the lift, which is one of the many reasons it is deemed superior to lower body isolation movements by the majority of strength coaches. You want to drive the elbows down with the lats and pull the bar into your traps. Your chest should be tall, and before you descend, take a big breath and hold the air tightly in your core. Staying tight in the upper body is one of the keys to a strong squat.
Head and Neck Position
Head and neck position is a widely debated topic within the strength and conditioning field. For the most part, you want to try to maintain a neutral head and neck position, as this will put the least amount of stress on the neck. However, I allow some wiggle room for the lifter to determine what they feel is most comfortable. Some argue that the neck should be packed (double chin) throughout the motion, but there is no evidence to support this as being superior to other neck positions, and if you look at the strongest lifters HERE, you will see that all different types of head/neck positions are used during the squat. Just avoid extreme ranges of head/neck extension or flexion and you’ll be okay, and base your posture on comfort and what feels right for you.
After you’ve walked the bar out and have tightened the upper body, you’re ready for the descent. With the full squat (also called the “ass to grass” squat), you sit down, in between the hips. But with the powerlifting style squat where you only reach a parallel depth, you’ll usually sit back a bit more. Think about sitting back onto the heels and allowing the hips and knees to break simultaneously. As mentioned above, if you go with the low bar position you’re going to sit back more so than with the high bar position, but there should be some backward motion of the hips when descending regardless. The majority of your weight should be kept on the heels and mid-foot. A common mistake is for lifter’s knees to collapse inwards at the bottom (knee valgus); think about forcing the knees outwards so that they stay in line with laces of your shoe.
Once you’ve reached depth (thighs parallel or just below), drive through the heel and midfoot to get back to the start position. On the way up, you want to drive the hips forward by squeezing the glutes until you’re locked out.
Maximum strength refers to the total poundage you can squat. It’s perfectly acceptable to just focus on your repetition strength too, for example, trying to increase your 5 rep max (5RM). Just like with any other lift, you can get to a certain level of strength by just going in and lifting heavy. But you will eventually stagnate unless you make use of more specialized set and rep schemes to break through your plateaus and build maximal strength. Here are some of my favorites.
Pause reps look like regular reps but you’re holding the bottom position for a three-second count rather than hitting depth and coming right out of the hole. This lessens the effect of the stretch reflex on the lift, making it a bit more difficult than a touch and go rep. You won’t be able to handle as much weight with pause reps, but it will force you to focus on form especially at the bottom and will allow you to build strength with loads lighter than what you’re accustomed to lifting.
Range of motion is the one aspect of a squat that most people skimp on, but practicing full ROM is probably the easiest way to build up strength and perfect form in the squat. Think about it…if you’re accustomed to full squatting a particular weight, you’ll easily be able to handle more than that when just going to parallel, but if you don’t practice full squatting at all, you’ll never get used to hitting that ROM. A very simple but often overlooked method for improving the squat involves using maximum range of motion (with one caveat – the lumbar spine and pelvis remain in neutral) with the goblet or front squat on alternate days to build full ROM strength (high bar back squats can be used in this manner as well).
Now I know I just preached the importance of practicing full ROM on the squat, but partials can be used to increase the squat when employed properly at the right time. Doing partials (half squats or quarter squats) will allow you to handle more weight than going to parallel. This can be a good confidence builder when attempting new weights for the first time, especially if you don’t have a spotter. Partials can be performed in the rack set to proper depth on the pins, which is often called “Anderson squats.” This requires lighter loads but is surprisingly brutal. Suspension straps are an even better idea for Anderson squats.
With straight sets, you’ll use the same weight for the same number of reps for 3 to 5 sets. Three to five sets is by no means set in stone as a minimum or maximum, but I’ve found this to be the optimal volume that provides the best training effect without creating excessive fatigue. You don’t want to negatively impact your recovery and training sessions later in the week, so choose a weight that approaches failure but leaves 1 or 2 reps left in the tank, which will ensure that you maintain good form throughout the set.
Ascending sets are performed by completing several sets with the same number of reps, but with an increase in weight on each set. These are great when you’re going for a personal record, as the build up in weight will cause less fatigue than straight sets, allowing you to hit a higher load on the last set.
Dynamic effort (DE) refers to performing reps with compensatory acceleration, meaning you’re trying to accelerate the bar faster and faster throughout the rep as the increase in mechanical advantage sets in. This increases neural drive and motor unit recruitment. DE is typically performed with loads <78% of your 1RM but >50% of 1RM, which allows you to demonstrate good bar speed. The rest periods are usually shorter (60s) with DE due to the lighter loading; this requires you to perform the lift in a fatigued state, which can help with in refining your technique.
Clusters are heavy singles or doubles performed in bouts resting around 10 seconds or so and repeating this 3 to 4 times to form a cluster. The idea here is that you’re handling 80-90% of your 1RM, which you wouldn’t be able to lift for four reps consecutively, but with the ten seconds of rest you’ll be able to lift the load several times with the lifts spaced closely together.
Specialty work refers to using bands, chains and other means of accommodating resistance. These methods require additional equipment and are suggested for more advanced lifters, but this goes beyond the scope of this article. I just wanted to mention it so you know it’s an option down the line. If you want to read more about specialty work, look into the methods of Westside Barbell.
Support Work During the squat, the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core, and entire upper body are all working in unison. With such a complicated chain of action, there’s bound to be a weak point, and depending on your bony anatomy and body segment lengths, you may need to focus on strengthening some of these muscles more directly in order to improve your squat. This additional specific work is called support work.
If you are unable to maintain an upright torso, strengthening the quads can usually help. My go to exercises for quad strengthening are the front squat, hack squat, leg press, and leg extension. Single leg and sled work can and should be utilized as well.
As previously stated, performance is all about force transfer. In this case we are trying to transfer forces from the ground into the bar. Therefore, the stiffer the torso during heavy movement, the more efficiently we can achieve this task While it’s a good idea to train the entire core; the strength of the spinal erectors is our main concern here. My go to exercises for the lower erectors are the reverse hyper, plate squats, and the 45-degree hyperextension (or horizontal back extension) with either a dumbbell or band. Hypers are excellent hamstring exercises, but when done with some intentional and controlled spinal flexion and extension, and especially when you bend the knees a bit, you can stress the erectors very effectively.
Ab wheel rollouts, farmer’s walks, straight leg sit-ups, Pallof presses, and various planks can be used to strengthen the core as well, but their transfer to squat performance may be overrated.
Each of the methods listed above will work for any experience level and we recommend rotating them and seeing which work best for you. There are, however, certain methods that may be more or less optimal for you depending on how experienced you are with the squat and what your weaknesses are. The examples listed below are for a 200 lb lifter with a 300 lb 1RM squat to parallel depth.
Novice – The techniques suggested for novice lifters are those that allow the lifter to focus mainly on form and technique while still building strength.
Pause Reps – i.e. 225 lbs for 3 sets of 3 with a 3 second count at the bottom of each rep
Full ROM – i.e. 3 sets of 3 with 225 lbs, focusing on going as low as possible without allowing the low back to round or the knees to cave inwards
Ascending Sets – i.e. 135 x 5, 185 x 5, 205 x 5, 225 x 5, 245 x 5
Intermediate – Intermediate lifters will benefit from using techniques that allow the lifter to experiment with more total weight and work per session once form is solid.
Partials – i.e. 105% of 1RM (315lbs) x 2 for a half squat, repeated five times
Straight Sets – i.e. 245 x 5 reps for 3 sets
Advanced – Advanced techniques are those that require the lifter to work in a fatigued state. Good form must be second nature before using these techniques, as it is under fatigue when form is most likely to slip and for injuries to occur.
Clusters – i.e. 255 x 2 then ten seconds rest, repeat 4 times then rest 3 to 4 minutes
Dynamic Effort – i.e. 72% of 1RM (216 lbs) x 2 for 8 sets, with 60 seconds of rest between sets
Specialty Work – i.e. 225 plus 40 pounds of band or chain resistance done for 5 sets of 3 reps explosively
Nothing will build your legs like a strong squat, and strengthening the lower body is crucial in becoming a good athlete. Squatting will enable you to transfer more force from the ground up. This is beneficial whether you’re throwing a ball, throwing a punch, or tackling an opponent. And by using smaller loads and focusing on range of motion, form, and movement quality, you can get stronger by going lighter, which is especially true for novice and intermediate lifters. Once your form is solid, the specialized set and rep schemes shown above will be necessary to break through plateaus and build top level strength.
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